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When will we see some realistic moves to resolve the problems in Iraq?

By Gary Brown - posted Thursday, 18 September 2003

The Iraqi morass appears to be getting ever stickier. Months later, we in Australia still await satisfactory explanations for our involvement in the American-sponsored war. No evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has yet been found. I now beg leave to doubt that, short of fabrication, they ever will. Certainly, as I have pointed out here before, it is clear that Iraq could not have had massive operational WMD programs, because were there hundreds or thousands of deployed weapons, something would have come to light by now. The massive Iraqi WMD threat to world peace was an American fantasy. The principal justification for the war lies dead in the dust of devastated Iraq.

Developments in the UK, where the growing scandal over the government's blatant manipulation of intelligence reports threatens to destroy Tony Blair, can only intensify perceptions that the governments of the US, UK and Australia deceived their peoples and went to war on false pretences, for no better reason than to gratify the American lust for continued vengeance - on anybody handy - for the September 2001 atrocities.

Regardless, today we are confronted with the problem of US-occupied Iraq, where conditions continue to deteriorate. The Americans are now beginning to count the full political, dollar and human costs of their conquest. As a nominal one-third of the "coalition of the willing" along with Mr Blair's Britain, Australia too has a share in these costs.


Clearly there is a low-level guerrilla war going on in Iraq against the foreign occupation force, and significant internal conflict as well. Hardly a day goes by without an attack, hardly a week without casualties.

While it would be completely outrageous to liken American methods in Iraq to German methods in France during World War II, it is true that the US finds itself in a not dissimilar position. It is the foreign conqueror and occupier and so is the principal (but not sole) target of those Iraqis willing and able to offer continued armed resistance.

The Iraqi resistance is not as organised as the French maquis, and may never be. But like the French, the Iraqis have to contend with significant internal divisions (in France, between communist and non-communist resistance; in Iraq, between surviving Saddam loyalists, anti-Saddam Shi'as, ethnic groups and perhaps infiltrating al-Qaeda elements seeking to take advantage of America's difficulty). Nevertheless it is clear that military conquest has not made Iraq safe for Americans or, indeed, Westerners: though US control is not threatened, the resistance is having a real impact on the ground.

The tragic loss of Sergio Veieira de Melo, who had distinguished himself as UN Administrator of East Timor, of a number of civilian workers (notably journalists), of Iraqis working with the US occupiers and indeed the occurrence of "collateral" casualties among Iraqi civilians, shows that US forces are not the only targets. Indeed, the assassination of the prominent Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim (along with nearly 90 other Shi'a Muslims), shows that internal conflict is also a serious issue in Iraq. The Ayatollah is believed to be the victim of other Shi'as who disliked his relatively realist stance.

But when you conquer and occupy a country, like it or not the responsibility for its basic services and law and order then become yours. The increasingly fervent (or should that be fervid?) efforts of the US to enlist other states - and even the hitherto despised UN - in Iraq reveal two key American agenda items.

First, if possible, to attain some form of post-facto legitimacy for the invasion of Iraq. Its public position notwithstanding, the US knows it needs to legitimise the war if it is to regain much of the respect it lost by taking unsanctioned military action. This objective, however, is sinking down behind the second item, the need to get more force - and appropriate force - on the ground in Iraq before the security situation there gets entirely out of hand.


If one judges by outcomes, historically the US managed its postwar occupation roles in Germany and Japan reasonably well. One may have reservations, especially about lenience to some Nazi war criminals and Japan's continuing reluctance to admit its wartime excesses, but at least neither country is a security problem in its region.

However, somewhere in the half century since then the US military appears to have lost its skill in foreign civilian relations. In Japan, Korea, Puerto Rico, US forces are socially unwelcome. US "hearts and minds" efforts in Indochina were as inept as they were unsuccessful. And it appears to be failing in its efforts to get the ordinary Iraqi population onside. Probably at high levels in the Administration and the Pentagon there is covert recognition that the US lacks the cultural relations skills necessary to manage the challenge it has created for itself in Iraq.

This being so, the Americans desperately need better skilled personnel. Some states - Australia being one of them - possess excellent skills in this area, and we can expect pressure from Washington to put more people on the ground. But really large contributions must come from other competent states if the problems of order and infrastructure in Iraq are to be addressed.

Washington also recognises the growing urgency of the situation. The longer Iraqis go without the benefits of an ordered society, the more they will blame the Western occupiers. A point will come when any Western force will be tarred with the US brush in Iraqi perceptions. No amount of cultural relations skills will be useful then. Indeed, Australia should not put any more people into Iraq precisely because, as a member of the invasion force, we are already tainted.

It gratifies one's sense of justice, however, to observe the difficulties besetting Tony Blair, and to note the declining popularity of George W. Bush as casualties continue to mount in Iraq. But it is a powerful commentary on the state of politics in Australia that John Howard's government, which is as guilty as Bush's and Blair's, has thus far not been properly called to account.

In our system it is the task of Oppositions to call governments to account, but of course that presumes that the Opposition of the day has the focus, the capacity, the will and the personnel to do so effectively. Alas, our present Opposition, consumed by navel-gazing, timidity and internal bickering, currently appears to have few of these assets at its disposal. And so of all the leaders who embarked on this piece of unjustified military aggression, it appears that only John Howard will escape unscathed, courtesy of his incompetent domestic Opposition.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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