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This is no way to run an occupation
(Filed: 18/05/2003)

US troops in Iraq are no longer being seen as liberators, but as occupiers - and incompetent ones at that. As Con Coughlin in Baghdad reports, goodwill gained from ousting Saddam has turned to resentment

The Iraqi businessman gives a conspiratorial chuckle and picks up the telephone. "Now, my friend, I will show you what is really going on with the family of Saddam Hussein." He consults a piece of paper handed to him by one of his aides, and dials a number in Damascus. After a few rings, a man's voice answers.

It is Fatiq al-Majid, one of Saddam's nephews who, until a few weeks ago, had been a commanding officer in Saddam's Special Security Organisation at the Republican Palace in Baghdad, the regime's Praetorian Guard. Majid, who is also the brother-in-law of Qusay, Saddam's younger son and heir apparent, had, it transpired, just arrived to seek refuge in the Syrian capital.

He had crossed the Iraqi border at the al-Rabie'a checkpoint last Monday under the noses of the American troops who are supposed to be engaged in a relentless hunt to track down members of Saddam's inner circle. Once across the border, the Syrian authorities had readily granted Majid a visa, and he had then made his way to Damascus to seek the protection of the Syrian government.

Unlike Ali Hassan al-Majid, his notorious uncle and the man known as "Chemical Ali" because of his predilection for using mustard gas against his own people, Fatiq al-Majid's name does not appear on the Pentagon's "pack of cards" list of Iraq's most wanted criminals. But as a leading member of the younger generation of Saddam's extended family, Majid is certainly someone whom ordinary Iraqis would like to see brought to account for the excesses of Saddam's regime.

He is also someone who might be able to shed some light on the question of what has become of Saddam himself. It was a question I urged the Iraqi businessman to put to his contact at the other end of the line.

"So, Fatiq, what can you tell me about your uncle? And where is your aunt?" he inquired.

Majid tried to play dumb. "Which uncle do you mean?" he asked.

"The Big One," said the businessman, with another chuckle.

"I am sorry, that is not something I can discuss over the phone," Majid replied. "I need to talk to you about getting me some money."

Although Majid had successfully completed the journey to Damascus, the trip had cost him dear in bribes, and he was now desperately short of funds. The businessman, who had himself made a sizeable fortune under Saddam's regime and who asked to remain anonymous in return for making the telephone call, promised that he would get funds to Majid to enable him to survive comfortably.

The revelation that senior members of Saddam's regime such as Majid have fled into exile in Damascus is deeply embarrassing for the Syrian government of President Bashir al-Assad, which has consistently denied allegations made in Washington that Damascus is providing sanctuary to former Iraqi officials.

The ease with which Majid made his way into exile also raises yet more questions in Baghdad about the competence of the American forces that have assumed responsibility for administering the country.

It is barely six weeks since US troops received a rapturous welcome from ordinary Iraqis when they made their triumphant entry into Baghdad, and in that time most of the goodwill that was initially shown towards the liberation forces has been eroded.

The victory bunting has now been replaced by ominous graffiti, some of it posted adjacent to US military positions. The more polite slogans state: "You have done your job US, now please go home". Others declare: "US army, you will die." The US troops are no longer being seen as liberators, but as occupiers, and incompetent ones at that.

At the end of the war not much was left of Saddam's palaces and those buildings directly associated with the Ba'ath Party's security apparatus, but, because of precision bombing, the rest of the capital's administrative infrastructure remained intact. No longer. Thanks to the activities of the gangs of looters that have been allowed to rampage through the city unimpeded, the entire infrastructure of Baghdad now lies in ruins.

While the looting of the capital's banks and the national museum captured the headlines, the more serious damage has been done by the wanton vandalism committed against more mundane institutions, such as schools and universities. It is no exaggeration to say that more damage has been inflicted on Baghdad by the looters than the bombs of the coalition.

Just last week, looters set fire to the main telephone exchange (twice) and the information ministry. Coalition commanders should feel particularly ashamed of the destruction of the communications centre. During the war it was hit by two cruise missiles. After hostilities ceased, the centre's director inspected the premises, and found that most of the equipment had survived, and that with some judicious repairs it could be made operational within months.

He duly reported this to the coalition, who did nothing, not even to the extent of putting the building under guard. Then last week it was burnt to the ground. As a result, the citizens of Baghdad have no hope of having a telephone system anytime soon.

This almost systematic destruction of the city's infrastructure has led many in Baghdad to conclude that this is a deliberate policy by Washington to deprive them of the means of running their own affairs, thereby necessitating the creation of an occupation administration. Those who expound this conspiracy theory are quick to point out that the only establishment in Baghdad that has escaped the attentions of the mob is the gleaming headquarters of the Ministry of Oil.

Nor is it just the looting that has caused consternation among the well-educated and proud Iraqi middle class who supported Saddam's overthrow. The looters have been supplemented by well-armed criminal gangs and street militia who have effectively taken the law into their own hands. Every evening, the sky is lit up with tracer rounds as rival gangs battle for control of the city suburbs.

Women are kidnapped walking home, drivers are shot dead by car thieves. On Friday night a diner was murdered outside my hotel when he was confronted by a gang who wanted the keys to his car. At lunchtime yesterday, the body still lay unattended on the pavement.

Security is just one of the many concerns with which Baghdadis now has to contend. With midday temperatures hitting 40C, most of the city is without electricity for most of the day so that none of the air conditioners or fans are functioning. The country with the world's second largest oil reserves is facing an acute petrol shortage, which means that the city is paralysed by mile-long queues of cars. The value of the dollar against the Iraqi dinar has halved in the past week, while the price of many household staples, such as cooking gas, has risen tenfold.

Any government in any other part of the world that presided over such a disastrous administration would have been dumped out of office long before now. While the Iraqi people have little hope of ridding themselves of their erstwhile liberators, there does appear to be some recognition among the coalition leaders that the post-liberation administration of the country could have been handled better.

In this respect the appointment of Paul Bremer, one of the US State Department's leading experts on counter-terrorism, to head Iraq's interim administration is a belated acknowledgement that the coalition needs to raise its game if it is to achieve its goal of establishing a pro-Western regime in Baghdad.

Even though Jay Garner, a retired general and Bremer's predecessor, is well-liked by the Iraqi politicians, he has been criticised for not getting sufficient co-operation from the US military, and for making a number of foolhardy commitments to the Iraqis, and in particular the Kurds, about what they could expect from the new government. Garner's short-lived tenure - he is due to return to the US next week - was also hindered by a number of sharp policy disagreements with Barbara Bodine, the US administrator responsible for Baghdad, who was recalled to Washington last week.

The disdain Bremer feels for Garner's somewhat laid-back approach was evident on Friday at a briefing that he gave to outline his plans for the administration of Iraq. Bremer, making a reference that Garner, who is normally seen in an open-neck shirt, was attired in a suit for the occasion, commented drily: "At last, I've got him to look like a proper diplomat."

The question now is whether there is sufficient goodwill left among those Iraqi political leaders who backed the military campaign to enable Bremer's plan for a gradual transition of power to succeed.

Most of the Iraqi leaders I spoke to last week made it clear that they never wanted an occupation administration in the first place, an administration many believe would not have been necessary if the Americans had not been so negligent in allowing the looters to run riot.

They also resent the tone of the resolution being presented to the UN Security Council by the US and British governments which would give Washington and London control of Iraq's oil revenues for a year, while allowing the Iraqis to participate in an "interim authority".

"We did not get rid of Saddam to take control of a district council," said one Iraqi politician who has returned to Baghdad from exile in London. Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader who fought alongside American forces on the northern front, added that the resolution bore no relation to the undertakings he had received from Tony Blair before the war. "The understanding I reached with Tony Blair is that we would be a liberating force and not an occupying force. If they have now decided that they want to be an occupying force, then I want nothing to do with it."

While there are those, particularly in Washington, who believe that they can ride roughshod over Iraqi political sensibilities, they should take note that there are many people, inside and outside Iraq, who want Washington's somewhat ham-fisted attempts at nation-building to end in ignominy.

One needed only to hear the fanatical pro-Iranian sentiments expressed during the return from exile of Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, the Iraqi Shi'ite leader, to Najaf, the holiest shrine in Shia Islam, last week to understand what the consequences of that failure might be.

15 May 2003: Looters 'to be shot on sight by US troops'
12 May 2003: US recalls Baghdad governor after three weeks
10 May 2003: US seeks absolute power to rule Iraq for year
3 May 2003: Former diplomat to be Iraq 'ruler'

Related reports

External links
Transition to an empire - Le Monde Diplomatique