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A Government with No Military and No Territory: Iraq's Sovereignty Vacuum (Part 1)
Published on Friday, March 10, 2006 by TomDispatch.com
A Government with No Military and No Territory: Iraq's Sovereignty Vacuum (Part 1)
by Michael Schwartz
 

President Bush marked the Iraqi election of December 2005 as the beginning of a new era. A freely selected permanent government would begin asserting its sovereignty over the country, building an administrative infrastructure, and rising to the challenge of governing an unruly and often violent constituency.

Only three months later, this hopeful vision is in ruins. Various parliamentary leaders have occupied themselves with tortuous negotiations over who will be the next prime minister, while crises explode around their Green Zone sanctuary. Some of these crises flashed in and out of the headlines, including a controversy over illegal detention and torture sites reportedly run by Shia militias under the aegis of the Ministry of the Interior; a new wave of insurgent attacks in Baghdad; and, most dramatically, the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, triggering retaliatory attacks against Sunni mosques as well as nationwide demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of American forces. Other crises continue to build without benefit of the media spotlight: a multi-ethnic conflict over control of Kirkuk, the northern oil hub and projected capital of a future Kurdistan; the steady escalation of guerrilla attacks on American troops and of American air strikes against Sunni cities; a further degeneration in the delivery of electricity, potable water, fuel, and most of the other basics of modern life; a growing population of homeless refugees; an ongoing exodus of professionals; and unremitting unemployment levels, variously estimated at between 30% and 65% of the workforce.

In dealing with all these crises, the government was notable mainly for its absence -- neither a party to the controversies, nor a mediating force in any of them. It volunteered no leadership and was not invoked by any of the contesting groups.

This irrelevance is not temporary. It is the single enduring, probably irremediable feature of a government that has none of the resources needed to exercise sovereignty. As these multifaceted crises grow, intertwine, and overlap, the capacity for exercising sovereignty -- whether by this government, the occupation forces, or any other entity -- will only be further eroded.

American Army, Iraqi Soldiers

Iraqi government impotence flows from its lack of access to any systematic means of coercion. This may seem a strange assertion, given the increasing prominence of the Iraqi Army in various military campaigns since late last summer, and the slogan popularized by President Bush since about the same moment: "As the Iraqi military stands up, we will stand down."

Nonetheless, even if the Iraqi army, Special Forces, and local police were to become the formidable military machine that American officials envision, they would not add up to an effective instrument of Iraqi national policy for a simple reason: These units are being developed as part of the occupation military, not as a force loyal to or commanded by the elected government.

It is well known that the Americans are recruiting and training both the military and the police in Iraq. What is less well known is that, once their training is complete, the Bush administration does not relinquish control over these forces.

Let's begin with the Iraqi army. Its troops are directly integrated into the occupation structure commanded by the American military. This is not just a matter of who makes command decisions. The Iraqi military has no air support, no artillery, and almost no armored vehicles; nor does it have a logistics capacity that would allow it to resupply its fighting units. As a result, even if the Iraqi government could "take command" of its army, it could not fight battles on its own. This distinguishes the Iraqi Army from virtually every other military on the planet. None of its units can go into battle unless they are integrated into the American military.

In the major campaigns undertaken in October and November in western Anbar province, this was quite evident; the Iraqis were used in "partnership programs," involving "Iraqi and U.S. military units patrolling and fighting together." According to Lt. Col. Frederick Wellman, official spokesman for the U.S. effort to create an "effective" Iraqi army, this sort of close "control and cooperation" is crucial to the usefulness of Iraqi Army units in sweeps through western Anbar. When an Iraqi unit "is specifically tasked to operate side by side" with American units, he assured Washington Post reporter Ellen Knickmeyer, "The unit absolutely just blossoms."

Is it possible, however, that the Iraqi military might eventually develop the capacity to command, support, and supply itself? While this could occur, of course, the Americans have no current plans to make it happen, and no resources are available to the Iraqi government to launch such an effort. Keep in mind, for instance, that all projections of future U.S. troop reductions explicitly call for the continued presence of American air power and support troops in Iraq. As a result, the integration of Iraqi units into the occupation military will continue into the foreseeable future, and -- with it -- the incapacity of the Iraqi government to craft and enforce a military policy independent of the occupation.

Who Controls the Police?

Things are somewhat different for the police and Special Forces, including SWAT squads, secret police, and other units designed to carry on covert and irregular military operations. Instead of being subject to American commanding officers, these forces are advised by counterinsurgency specialists -- either American military officers or American-employed private security contractors. Such units act semi-autonomously under the direction of Iraqi officers appointed by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior.

This looseness of command worked well as long as there was no policy friction between American officials and the Iraqi government. In January 2005, for example, Newsweek reported that U.S. advisers in the Interior Ministry were instituting a program of systematic assassination of leaders and supporters of the resistance -- including prominent Sunni clerics and political leaders. The program was dubbed the "Salvador option" because it was modeled after the right-wing assassination squads that committed thousands of murders in El Salvador and other Latin American countries two decades earlier.

There was no opposition to this policy within the Interior Ministry, since the new units were to be recruited largely from the Badr Brigade, the Shia militia associated with the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the political party already in charge of the Ministry. The recruits were apparently militant fighters anxious to avenge suicide-car bombings organized by Sunni jihadists against Shia civilians. Soon, reports on their activities became a staple of the news from Iraq, as dead bodies of Sunnis, often described as suspected resistance fighters, were found hours or days after being arrested by "men dressed in Iraq police uniforms."

Toward the end of 2005, problems began to develop between the Ministry-controlled police (and Special Forces) and their American sponsors. Soon after, American personnel twice raided detention centers operated by the Interior Ministry, replete with accusations of torture and mistreatment of prisoners. These incidents, and a host of lesser ones, seemed to suggest a lack of control by the United States over the police and Special Forces.

A senior U.S. military official commented to the Washington Post that U.S.-sponsored reforms of the police and Special Forces were "aimed specifically at former militia forces within the Interior Ministry, which is dominated by the current governing Shiite religious parties and those parties' factional fighters." He designated them as enemies whom the U.S. was committed to controlling: "We're going to try to wrap ourselves around them… By hugging the enemy, wrapping our arms around them, we hope to control them… like we did with the army."

What a closer look at this controversy reveals, however, is how much the U.S. already does dominate most such units. First of all, episodes of friction between occupation forces and local law enforcement are the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, the occupation military continues to determine much of both the strategy and tactics of the police and Special Forces. This was well demonstrated when SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz Hakim reacted to accusations of brutality in detention. He insisted to Washington Post reporter Ellen Knickmeyer that even more drastic measures were needed to defeat the insurgency and complained bitterly of the restraints imposed by the occupation: "The ministries of Interior and Defense want to carry out some operations to clean out some areas. There were plans that should have been implemented months ago, but American officials and forces rejected them."

His comment makes clear the limited nature of the autonomy even of the Ministry forces. In this context, programs the Bush administration opposes will probably remain low visibility and largely concealed from American advisers stationed with the units involved.

Secondly, the dramatic, almost draconian, responses to some of these controversies demonstrate the degree of ultimate control the occupation expects to retain. Take a spectacular one: In December 2005, a firefight erupted between the British Army and the police in the southern city of Basra who had arrested two English plainclothes operatives. After this confrontation, the British announced plans to disband the city's entire 25,000 man police force and "replace it with a new military-style unit capable of maintaining law and order." They expected so much resistance to this measure that "a detailed plan that could have seen UK forces withdrawn by May next year" was reportedly scrapped. "Instead," writes Brian Brady of the Scotsman, "it now seems certain Prime Minister Tony Blair will have to keep British troops in the country until 2007 at the earliest."

The response of the U.S. to the controversies over the detention centers, hardly less draconian, was caught in front-page headlines this way: "G.I.s to Increase Supervision of Iraqi Police," (New York Times), "U.S. to Restrict Iraqi Police," (LA Times) and "U.S. Troops to Mentor Iraqi Police" (Washington Post).

A new American program to bring the police and Special Forces into line reportedly involved a control structure "modeled on an existing program that has Iraqi and U.S. military units patrolling and fighting together." It was announced in December that the number of U.S. troops assigned to Iraqi police and Special Forces units, would increase by a factor of 10, with as many as 500 Americans working with a Special Forces brigade of 2,500 or so Iraqis. The Americans -- and by extension the Iraqis -- would, of course, "be under the command of American officers." With such controls in place, the Americans hoped to eradicate future controversies.

In other words, an already desperately weak Iraqi central government will have no enforcement apparatus at its command for its policy decisions, if these diverge from occupation desires. Strangely, however, such policies, while denying the power of sovereignty to Iraqis, have not conferred sovereignty on the Americans. A necessary ingredient is lacking: the capacity to administer at the regional or local level. All over Iraq, local communities are now governed by ethno-religious political groupings whose actions have been, time after time, antithetical to occupation policy. To understand what might be called a stalemate of sovereignty lodged at the very center of Iraqi politics for the past three years, each region of the country must be considered separately.

Shia Fundamentalism Dominates the South

In the southern cities of Iraq, where the population is overwhelmingly Shia, the occupation has generally had a light touch. After the invading forces disbanded Saddam Hussein's military and police -- and with American and allied militaries protecting oil facilities and searching for the remnants of the defeated army -- the various communities in the region were left largely unpoliced. When a crime wave swept through cities and towns, citizens began to look to home-grown forces to reestablish order.

The vacuum was filled by organizations affiliated with local mosques, which had always been the center of Shia civil society. These groups generally emerged with a minimal array of poorly funded social services and a far better developed Shari'a (religious) court system that could adjudicate personal issues. To this traditional mix were added newly created armed militias in charge of police functions, guided by religious leaders and populated mainly by unemployed young men, many of whom had once been conscripts in the Baathist army.

These ad hoc local governments had no resources to address the huge economic and infrastructural problems facing them. Only an infusion of oil revenues could have begun to repair the damage from the Saddam Hussein years, the decade of brutal sanctions, and the devastation of war and its aftermath. They nevertheless became de facto governments, and local elections in January 2005 tended to make their leadership official. Early that year, British Telegraph reporters Jack Fairweather and Haider Samad assessed the results this way: "A silent and largely undocumented social revolution has transformed the Shia-dominated south of Iraq into a virtual Islamic state in the two years since the US army invaded."

This process extended to Sadr City, the vast Shia slum in Baghdad which reputedly holds about 10% of the country's population. It was dominated by the Sadrist movement led by young "firebrand" cleric Muqtada al Sadr, and effectively policed by the movement's militia, the Mahdi Army. New York Times reporter Edward Wong nicely caught the embeddedness of the Mahdi militiamen in Sadr City culture (and, by extension, the role of similar militias throughout the Shia south) in the following description:

"For many poor Shiites, and even some in middle-class enclaves… the Mahdi Army is a defender of the faith and a populist force. Its members have permeated every aspect of Iraqi life, from the uniformed police forces to student groups at Baghdad's campuses, where they enforce strict Islamist codes, like head scarves for women."

What Happened in Basra?

Basra, a cosmopolitan oil hub and the second largest city in Iraq, provides an example of this locally based power and what it means. British troops placed in control of Basra adopted a laissez-faire approach, remaining in bases outside the city and leaving local problems to be solved by local residents. In the absence of any officially recognized local government, various Shia factions sought dominance, combining political organizing (replete with patronage and social-welfare programs), the imposition of law and order (at a time when the city was swept by lawlessness), and the liberal application of violent repression. By mid-2004, SCIRI, the same group that would later control the Interior Ministry, established an uneasy hegemony over the city, alternately aided and opposed by the Fadhila, a local Sadrist group not affiliated with Muqtada al Sadr. Both groups sent their militia members into the reconstituted police force, and by fall 2005, an Iraqi official estimated that 90% of the force was primarily loyal to one of the two groups. As a result, neither the national government, nor the occupation had an administrative or law-enforcement presence in the city.

Though an absence of resources prevented any ambitious economic activities, SCIRI and Fadhila were able to enact a cultural agenda, applying fundamentalist Shari'a law to the Basra community. As the Telegraph reported, "In Basra's courthouses, Shari'a law is now routinely used in place of civil codes. Politicians work with the tacit approval of the Shia clergy and refer many important decisions to religious leaders."

What had once been a center of secular and cosmopolitan Iraqi culture was thus transformed into a showcase for traditional Shia cultural values. Alcohol disappeared from stores; women only appeared in public wearing scarves and with escorts; and the nightlife of the city disappeared. A deadly incident in which picnicking male and female students were attacked by Fadhila activists gave international publicity to the transformation.

Ultimately the British sought to reverse these and other changes by a series of interventions leading to that headline-making clash. It, in turn, triggered the attempted disbanding of Basra's police force, an action that only set off a further cascading series of confrontations, including a resolution by the Basra Provincial Council to stop cooperating with the British.

In none of this did the Iraqi government in Baghdad play a role.

However different in the details, similar processes have been underway throughout the Shia cities and towns of the south, with the same monotonous result from the point of view of the national government -- irrelevance. In Maysan Province, home of the Marsh Arabs, a 25 year-old rebellion led by the Sadrists against the Saddamist regime continued unabated after the British took over. In this and other situations, the national government made no attempt to influence local events or had its meager efforts forcibly rebuffed. It has no presence in the south (beyond an occasional politically isolated governor or police chief). It has no legitimacy. (People do not even think to protest to the government when they are aggrieved.) Police and military forces that should be under its command -- were its sovereignty real -- are controlled either by the Americans or by local factions.

Friction between occupation authorities and Shia fundamentalists, leading to occasional violent confrontations, reflects possibly irreconcilable differences. The most visible, but likely most tractable, of these has been the Islamist commitment to Shari'a law, which flatly contradicts the occupation's commitment to a secular state. Only slightly less visible has been the affinity of the Shia parties for Iran, expressed in their unwavering desire to establish political, cultural, and economic relations with their Shiite neighbor. This has led to public disputes between the Shia parties and the American leadership, which sees Iran as its principle enemy in the Middle East.

Finally, the commitment of the Iraqis to state-organized solutions to economic problems fits poorly with the neo-liberal stance of the occupation. The Americans have, for instance, been unwilling to allocate any reconstruction monies to impoverished, struggling state-owned enterprises and have pursued International Monetary Fund polices to drastically reduce, if not eliminate, Hussein-era subsidies for food and supplies (including gasoline), a course that would instantly generate popular distrust in any Iraqi governing body.

Not surprisingly, the occupation authorities have generally been hostile to these local governments and disturbed that local policing powers have somehow escaped their grasp. While it is not clear how the confrontation between the occupation and forces in the Shia south will play out, it is clear that the Iraqi national government will have virtually no impact on the outcome, whatever it may be.

The Situation in Kurdistan

The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime represented for Iraqi Kurds the culmination of a decades-long drive for regional autonomy. Since the Kurds were American allies even before the invasion, the U.S. established only a token military presence in their regions north of Baghdad. Law and order was maintained by members of the Pesh Merga, the militia/army that, over a three-decade period, had fought for Kurdish independence. While its units were technically under the command of coalition military officers and the new Iraqi government, they were, in fact, loyal only to the Kurdish leadership; and they continued to be commanded by the officers who had led them before the invasion. As Washington Post reporters Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru put it, these forces are only "nominally under the authority of the U.S.-backed Iraqi army."

Kurdish independence (or a level of autonomy that hardly differs from independence) has now become a key issue in Iraqi politics -- with the city of Kirkuk at the epicenter of the controversy. While most Iraqis accepted the idea that Kurdistan would retain the autonomy it had achieved under the "no-fly zone" protection of the American Air Force during Saddam's last years, there has been considerable controversy over the Kurdish demand that Kirkuk be incorporated into (and made the capital of) their realm. Historically, Kirkuk had been a polyglot city made up of Turkmen (about 40% of its population), Kurds ( 30%), Assyrians and Christians (20%), and a smattering of Sunni and Shia Arabs. Because of its importance as an oil hub, Saddam Hussein had driven out many Turkmen and Kurds, sending in colonizing Sunni Arabs to take their place (and property).

In Kirkuk itself after the invasion, the main friction at first was between Kurds and Arabs. The Kurds sought the repatriation of all Kurdish exiles and the expulsion of Arab colonists, even those born in the city. Turkmen and Assyrians soon allied with the Arabs, however, because they saw that the Kurdish efforts might be but the beginning of an ethnic cleansing program under which they, too, would in the end be expelled.

Formally, the national government in Baghdad adjudicated this complex situation by scheduling a 2007 election in which the city would choose its own fate. But subsequent events have revealed the near-irrelevance of the government's action. The Kurds made it clear that they would leave little to chance in such an election and, since early 2005, have exploited their power on the ground to create a fait accompli within the city. In part, they did so by consolidating their control over the local police, a campaign as successful in Kirkuk as it had been for Shia factions in southern cities. Echoing his counterpart in Basra, General Tuhan Yusuf Abdel-Rahman, the Baghdad-appointed chief of the Kirkuk police, told Washington Post reporters Fainaru and Shadid, "The main problem is that the loyalty of the police is to the [Kurdish political] parties and not the police force... They'll obey the parties' orders and disobey us."

In the meantime, once they gained control of the local government, the Kurds mounted major repatriation efforts, bringing back exiled Kurds in massive numbers. By late 2004, as many as 100,000 Kurds had already arrived in a city of one million that had no ability to absorb them. The resulting housing crisis led the local government to accelerate its campaign to expel Arabs. Reports of violence leveled against Arabs mixed with tales of misery among newly arrived Kurds, relegated to shanty towns "just as wretched as those they left in the Kurdish-controlled north."

By the end of 2005. Kirkuk seemed on the verge of a mini-civil war. Resistance centered in the city's Turkmen population (without the means to back a recolonization effort like that of the Kurds). They found allies among threatened Sunni Arabs who had numerous contacts with the Sunni resistance in nearby cities. They also enlisted the support of the Turkish government which claimed ethnic solidarity with Turkmen Iraqis and threatened to intervene if serious human rights violations developed. By mid-2005, this opposition constituted a serious threat to Kurdish plans and persistent reports began to emerge that a form of state terrorism had developed to suppress it.

In June 2005, the Washington Post reported on a "confidential State Department cable" detailing a pattern of "extra-judicial detentions… part of a ‘concerted and widespread initiative' by Kurdish political parties ‘to exercise authority in Kirkuk in an increasingly provocative manner.'" According to the Post, "Police and security units, forces led by Kurdish political parties… have abducted hundreds of minority Arabs and Turkmens in this intensely volatile city and spirited them to prisons in Kurdish-held northern Iraq."

The Iraqi government had no resources or authority with which to stop the Kurdish campaign. It had no functioning military or police in Kirkuk. It had no administrative apparatus; the local government, insofar as it functioned, had been constructed by the Kurds. And it had no national institutions that could intervene in any of the various disputes. The legal structure that was supposed to adjudicate the claims of Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds when it came to housing never functioned; eligibility to vote was to be decided by local officials (appointed by the Kurds); and the "extra-judicial detentions" were in Kurdistan, where the government had no presence.

The Americans certainly had a greater ability to intervene in the conflict. After all, the occupation could always threaten to bring its overwhelming military strength to bear on the situation. But in reality its ability to redeploy already overstretched military forces to Kirkuk is probably limited. Moreover, military action by the U.S. in support of the Kurds could further provoke the Turkish government.

The fate of Kirkuk will undoubtedly be determined on the ground -- and not by the government in Baghdad. The situation is fraught with violence between already polarized partisans. The Kurdish viewpoint was stated bluntly to Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter by Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Hamid Afandi: "Kirkuk is Kurdistan; it does not belong to the Arabs... If we can resolve this by talking, fine, but if not, then we will resolve it by fighting."

Lasseter, one of most informed reporters in Iraq, summarized the military situation this way:

"Kurdish leaders have inserted more than 10,000 of their militia members into Iraqi army divisions in northern Iraq to lay the groundwork to swarm south, seize the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and possibly half of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, and secure the borders of an independent Kurdistan."
The perspective of the loosely organized Turkman/Sunni resistance was expressed to Post reporters Fainaru and Shadid by Aissa Ramadan, a Kirkuk Arab whose 87 year-old father had been taken along with his three brothers and two sons in an "extra-judicial detention" action.

"If you could see our house on any day, you'd see that we're having funerals without the corpses… Children are looking for their fathers, wives don't know the fate of their husbands, and mothers are dying 40 times a day."
Ramadan then uttered a call to arms: "Tomorrow, I could recruit the entire tribe….I could block the street in Kirkuk and kidnap 40 Kurds. When you lose patience, you can do anything."

Already the armed struggle these two men are describing has been joined. Kirkuk, which had been largely quiet after the fall of Saddam, has now become an ongoing battlefront, replete with car bombs, attacks on police stations, a full complement of IEDs (roadside explosives) and, in mid-February 2006, the assassination of the city's Kurdish-appointed police chief.

The battle in Kirkuk will be resolved by the contending forces within the city. If the American military chooses to intervene, it will become an additional vector in an already complex equation. But the Iraqi government has neither the resources nor the credibility to play a role in this matter, which may not only determine the place of Kurdistan in Iraq but the future of Iraq as a unitary country.

Who's Sovereign in the North and the South?

Outbreaks of violence in Basra, Kirkuk, and other locations are ominous signs, but still exceptions to the sometimes brutal but generally peaceful domination of the Shia south and the Kurdish north by the local branches of various parties and factions. Nevertheless, in neither the south nor the north is sovereignty in sight. The American-led occupation, though it controls the military bases in which its troops are encamped and parts of the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, and can go anywhere via large military operations, can no longer aspire even to behind-the-scenes sovereignty. From the beginning of the occupation, any claims the occupying power had to legitimacy were sacrificed when most cities were left to govern themselves. In June 2004, when the Bush administration officially handed "sovereignty" (which it already didn't possess) to the Iyad Allawi government which it had put in power, it withdrew any claims it might have had to such authority; and yet it also failed to deliver any of the ingredients of sovereignty to its supposed successor.

Local forces, south and north -- despite their ability to maintain order -- cannot fully consolidate their legitimacy either, even at the level of individual cities. Aside from the credibility gap created (even in Kurdish areas) by the indisputable ability of occupation forces to disrupt life via military incursions, there is a striking administrative incapacity that derives from a basic lack of resources -- in the better off regions of Kurdistan as well as in the south. To have access to such resources would involve controlling parts of the country's oil industry which will undoubtedly remain badly crippled as long as the insurgency in Sunni areas continues at its present levels. Nor can any local government begin to implement economic recovery programs without the partnership (or the departure) of the Americans, a partnership that -- even in Kurdistan -- is held captive to profound disagreements over policy.

As a result, what exists is a sovereignty stalemate. The longer it continues, the more it eats away at the resources and the legitimacy of the contending parties. Meanwhile in Baghdad, even after a government of some sort is finally formed by the various clashing factions, what exactly will it be able to do? After all, it possesses far less power and legitimacy than even local governments, north or south.

Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on the internet at numerous sites, including TomDispatch, Asia Times, MotherJones, Antiwar.com, and ZNet; and in print at Contexts, Against the Current, and Z Magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). Email to: Ms42@optonline.net.

© 2006 Tom Engelhardt

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