by Jeremy Scahill
February 20, 2003
Iraq has become one bizarre series of contradictions. Construction of what the government boasts will be one of the world's largest mosques continues in Baghdad, as does work on a new presidential palace, described by one official as being "like our version of the White House." On Abu Nuwas Street, workers are putting the finishing touches on the base for a new sculpture by the much-revered Iraqi artist Mohammed Ghani. The work: a great flying carpet, inspired by one of the tales of Thousand and One Nights. In fact, it's difficult to go anywhere in central Baghdad without seeing workers building or repairing something.
But in homes throughout the country, there is a different sort of labor under way, and it is being carried out with much greater urgency. Families are digging wells for water and buying up canned goods, cooking gas and heating oil. Wealthier families are buying generators. Some Iraqis say they will leave the city and head for family farms or homes in more rural areas. Others say they will not leave, some of them fearing looting in the event of internal strife. Among ordinary Iraqis, the enthusiastic rhetoric of defending the country against a US invasion has now been replaced by the stark realization that the eleventh hour has arrived.
On the surface, the daily routine persists. The streets remain congested with cars in a country where twenty-five gallons of gas costs little more than $2. The markets are crowded. Old men slam dominoes on tables as they puff nargila pipes. Children have just finished their midterm recess and are returning to school; their parents go to work. But almost no one harbors illusions. "All of us are scared because we tasted it before," said Aqbal Fartus, a primary school teacher in the southern port city of Basra. Fartus lives in the heart of the so-called no-fly zones, where US and British warplanes--with no United Nations mandate--have regularly bombed Iraq since 1998. On the morning of January 25, 1999, her oldest son, 6-year-old Heider, was killed by a US missile as he played in front of his home. His brother, Mustafa, lost two fingers in the attack and lives with shrapnel in his back. Four years after Heider's death, Fartus learned that she was once again pregnant. "We want this baby to improve our situation," she said--but she lost her baby two days after the interview. "It's hard," she said. "It's very, very, very hard because you can't do much other than wait for the bombs to fall on our city."
Meanwhile, the UN is already preparing for its role during the war and in the administration of a post-Saddam Iraq, as made clear in internal documents obtained by The Nation. One document says that "planning figures" for war foresee up to 800,000 Iraqis crossing the border into neighboring countries to seek asylum, with 500,000 asylum seekers stranded at borders inside Iraq. The greatest number, according to the report, would seek to enter Iran. Another document indicates that the UN is anticipating what it calls a "medium impact" scenario: "The military campaign encounters significant resistance, but ends after a more protracted period of two to three months. As a result of a large-scale ground offensive supported by aerial bombardments, there would be considerable destruction of critical infrastructure and sizable internal and external population movements." The report says there is a "major risk" of civil unrest in areas around Iraq that is "likely to result in high levels of casualties." In what could be a telling indication of the kind of timeline US-led forces are working on, the UN predicts it will be able to regain access to southern Iraq approximately thirty days after the start of the conflict but does not foresee reaching Baghdad until three or more months after the war begins.
A Western humanitarian official says that many UN workers have already begun quietly leaving the country in anticipation of massive attacks, although officially they are taking "vacations." By the end of February, some UN agencies will be operating with only skeletal staffs. The quiet departure, says the source, is intended to avoid creating panic and the impression that war is imminent. The UN has four "phases" describing its security status in the country. Officially, it remains at Phase I, the lowest status, but "they all know what is coming," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "It's just not official policy yet." Several foreign embassies have already withdrawn their personnel or say they will do so soon.
Perhaps the most revealing UN document is a draft report of the UN's Executive Committee on Peace and Security, dated January 7, 2003, which discusses potential scenarios involving UN assistance to a successor government in Iraq. "In the short term, the external force waging the war will be in command and may administer the country or impose a certain authority," the document says. "Gradually, after four to eight months, the UN may be given more room for limited responsibility in terms of governance and the establishment of security and justice." It goes on to say, "It is unlikely that the UN will play a major role similar to that in Eastern Slavonia [the region of Croatia that borders Serbia] or East Timor. The UN role is likely to be determined according to the request of either the new authority or the foreign forces that will provoke a regime change through war." In other words, the UN will do only what the United States tells it to do, or allows it to do.
The document discusses establishing a "transitional administration," saying UN agencies "might be asked to assist in nation and institution building." It envisions two major components of operations: "1) the first 100 days, and 2) Road Map for Reform (2 to 3 years of operations)." The document asserts that "even under a new type of government, it is likely that the country may slip back into its old ways" and that the UN "would also expect" that the new regime would make "political overtures to important neighbors and major powers at the same time as disciplinary measures against their agents in Iraq--the arrest and execution of Israeli, Iranian and US/UK agents." It continues, "In this mentality it would be quite consistent, indeed positively advisable, to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights into Iraq to denounce the excesses of the previous regime while reminding all concerned of the where the [sic] new 'red lines' were placed."
The Iraqi government is well into war mode. Television is rife with videos of members of the Fedayou Saddam (Saddam Militia), marching in Hezbollah-type garb. Military parades are being staged for journalists. The Baath Party is giving weapons to anyone who signs up for the party, and gunshop owners report significant increases in purchases. While the official line is that there will be fierce resistance across Iraq, privately officials seem resigned to the idea that the ground battle against a US-led invading force will ultimately be fought in Baghdad. While the government may quite possibly consolidate its resistance in the capital and offer fierce resistance, it is unlikely it could do so elsewhere in the country.
The tension and fears in Basra and elsewhere in the south, with its overwhelming Shiite population, are clearer than in Baghdad. Already the region suffers like no other in Iraq. People are caught between government repression and a deadly US-led policy of sanctions and regular bombing. The area will be a major focal point of any war, as it borders Kuwait, a certain entry point for invading US forces. "We have learned a great lesson since the Gulf War," said a Basra resident who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. "America told us to rise up and then watched the people get massacred in the streets. You can't imagine what happened here. This time, no one will leave their homes."
The hatred of the government in the south is clear, and there is little question that a change of government would be welcomed. But "we don't want the change to come through America's bombs," said another individual who requested anonymity. "Some people see it as enduring bombing, hoping to survive and then starting over without him [Saddam]. But most of us want a peaceful change brought about from within. We don't want anymore misery here."
There are rumors that Iraqi generals in the south are waiting for the right moment to rise up; the ordinary army there is staffed largely by unenthusiastic, poor, hungry soldiers who residents say will not defend the regime. But the government also has loyalists in the area, including an extensive network of secret police, as well as Baath Party and other militias. "All of them will fight for the regime, but the rest of us will stay in our homes and watch and wait," said a southern Shiite.
Hundreds of Iraqi imams, including those at the holy shrines at Najaf and Karbala, have signed on to a fatwa (a religious decree) calling for jihad against any invading forces. "This is not a war against Iraq, this is a war against Islam," says Abdul Rihad, the imam at the biggest Shiite mosque in Basra. He adds, "We don't like to fight. But if war is imposed on the Iraqi people, they should fight for their land, their blood, their family. But we do not want that, because this war will be a loser for both sides." Even those Iraqis in the south who said they would welcome a change of government also said they would fight US forces if they attempted to occupy their area. And perhaps that is what Saddam Hussein is banking on.
As the UN and the Iraqi populations wait, it is worth considering that the most striking fact about the UN documents is their acknowledgment that a new regime in Baghdad brought about by war would probably be much like the old one, sans Saddam Hussein. Such a conclusion reinforces the sense that there has thus far been no satisfactory answer to the question that millions of people around the world have been asking through protest for months: Why?
Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He and filmmaker Jacquie Soohen are coordinating Iraqjournal.org, the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in Baghdad. This article first appeared in The Nation.