“They’re Too Lazy.” “We Can’t Trust Them.”
Army Capt. Alexander Shaw commands the 372nd Military Police Battalion, which oversees the training of all Iraqi police in western Baghdad. It seems to be a frustrating job. “How can we expect ordinary Iraqis to trust the police when we don’t even trust them not to kill our own men?” he asked after officers from the Soleh police station ambushed and killed Army Cpl. Kenny F. Stanton Jr. this month. “To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure we’re ever going to have police here that are free of the militia influence.”
Probably not as long as the Interior Ministry is controlled by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which has an armed wing, the Badr Brigade, of between four and ten thousand men. SCIRI is one of the largest and most popular political parties in Iraq, and its leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of the most powerful Iraqi politicians. Founded in 1982 as a pro-Iranian party, committed to the Iranian model of government by Shiite Islamic scholars, it has cooperated with the US occupation, winning a measure of power through the “democratic elections” organized under foreign guns. So has its historical rival and current ally, the Islamic Dawa (“Call”) Party, which rejects the Khomeini model and promotes government by the laity, rather than clerics. The former “transitional prime minister” Ibrahim al-Jaafari heads this party, which has its own militia. While in the service of these quisling politicians, the militiamen resent the occupiers’ presence and at times indeed, as Shaw notes, kill some of them.
Meanwhile Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the most popular men in Iraq -- a Shiite and Iraqi nationalist who lends crucial support to the US-backed regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki while loudly denouncing the “Coalition” presence -- has his own militia. Known as the Mahdi Army (Jaish al Mahdi), it engaged US forces in combat from April to June 2004 and recently declared victory over the latter when they, under pressure from a tentatively assertive Maliki, withdrew checkpoints around Sadr City in Baghdad.
US officials constantly repeat that they want to disband these militias, whose existence challenges the legitimacy of the security apparatus Washington is striving to install in Iraq. But they also want and need to find partners, leaders who will publicly thank them for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and pronounce themselves “friends of America.” The SCIRI and Dawa leaders have so far been willing to do that. But they’re not willing to rein in the militias; if they did, they’d lose credibility with their followers. The Shiite militias argue that Sunni attacks and the general breakdown in social order impel them to take matters into their own hands, to patrol the streets, to enforce the law. They can argue that the new constitution, authored under US occupation and endorsed by the Bush administration, proclaims Islam “the official religion of the state.” (This is a big break from the secularism favored by the Baathists under Saddam and previous Iraqi rulers over the last half-century.) So by enforcing Islamic law, however they understand it -- and this might mean targeting Sunnis or Christians, shutting down liquor and video stores, attacking immodestly attired women, gays, or secular intellectuals -- they’re not opposing the new government but just helping it better operate.
From the militiamen’s point of view, it might make sense to join the police or even the army, submitting to US training with an eye towards ultimately driving the invaders out. (Even so, a recent poll showed that 90% of Arab Iraqi youth would refuse to serve in the “security forces,” which they identify with foreign occupation) But inevitably, conflict erupts, and so we read about Coalition forces purging or dissolving Iraqi police or army units. We read about the latter’s unreliability, setbacks in the training programs, the gap between the number of Iraqi forces on paper and the substance of truly deployable troops. Mutual mistrust reigns, and how could it not? Capt. Shaw needs to realize that the US invaded a proud sovereign nation, and there are consequences of that.
A short video recently made for BBC and the London Guardian by Sean Smith, an award-winning photographer who has had tours of duty in Iraq before, during, and after the 2003 invasion, starkly illustrates the occupiers’ dilemma. Entitled “Iraq: The Real Story,” it follows recent actions of the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq around Tikrit. It indicates the U.S. troops’ distrust and contempt for the Iraqi forces they’re training. “I don’t think this country will ever be ready for US forces to leave it,” drawls one young soldier from Tennessee. “They’re too lazy.” Smith notes that for the U.S. forces, “For the most part Iraqis, all Iraqis, are deeply suspect. The tension between the Americans and their Iraqi colleagues is never far away.” US troops are shown castigating and humiliating local Iraqi officials and Iraqi Police (IPs), whom they suspect of complicity in attacks upon themselves. In one scene an Iraqi army recruit matter-of-factly tells an American counterpart that life was much better under Saddam, evoking the GI’s incredulity that he would find security, fuel and water more important than “freedom.”
Obviously such people can’t be trusted to work with the invaders. Obviously they’re going to have divided loyalties, and connections to the militias and insurgents. And obviously, as things continue to fall apart in Iraq, the military, political leaders and pundits in this country will blame the Iraqi people in general (in their laziness, hatred for the west, strange religious preoccupations or inscrutable orientalness) for the mess. By all means, let those prosecuting this fundamentally racist war reason that way, and ultimately throw up their hands in frustration, conclude that the Iraqis just don’t deserve the “freedom” they’ve been offered by occupation, and hightail it out of there leaving the Iraqis to determine their own fate.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Gary Leupp
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of the Holocaust”: More Disinformation on Iran
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Hatred”? What Does Condi Mean?