Sat, 29 Mar 2003

Remnants of dictatorship expected to linger after war

Martin Woollacott, Guardian News Service, Washington

British soldiers called the little town of Wadi Halfa "Bloody Halfway" to express both the fact that it was indeed the midpoint between Cairo and Khartoum and their weariness at the grueling march to war. Garnet Wolseley, commanding the troops sent to relieve General Gordon in the Sudanese capital, sat down at night in his headquarters, far behind the front, and confessed: "This suspense, this longing for news, drives the blood from my heart; Oh God have mercy on me!"

In the event, the British won, at a place called Abu Klea, one of those costly victories which are a sort of defeat. They went on to take Khartoum, 100 miles south, but arrived there 48 hours too late to save Gordon. "My mind keeps thinking of how near a brilliant success I was, and how narrowly I missed achieving it," wrote an anguished Wolseley.

The differences between 1885 and 2003 are many. Today's senior commanders, including President George W. Bush, are also many miles from the conflict, but suffer no shortage of news. Their information advantage over the Iraqis is far greater than that which the British had over the Mahdi and his warriors.

Their superiority in weaponry is of at least the same order. But the similarity is that, while there is no doubt that the Americans and British will win in Iraq, just as there was no doubt back then in the Sudan, they need -- or would certainly infinitely prefer -- a certain kind of victory.

In 1885, the preferred victory had to save Gordon. In 2003, the preferred victory has to save the Iraqi people from the consequences of a savage final battle. Such a fight risks sullying the liberation which is the larger Anglo- American aim, altering Iraqi attitudes to the liberators, and buttressing hostile opinion in the Arab and Muslim world. "Every death and wounding -- of a child, a sister, a father, a neighbor -- no matter how unintentional, creates passionate new enemies whose anger eclipses politics," Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down (published by New American Library), the study of the U.S. military experience in Somalia, writes in a gloomy piece in the New York Times. The implication is that the peace could be lost even as the war is won.

The arguments going on in America reflect the importance of this time- and casualty-sensitive aim of liberation, rather than any chance that the war really could go badly in the purely military sense. That is why it is both true that the war is going very well, as the Pentagon keeps saying, and that it is not going as well as it might. Some suggest that not enough troops have been sent, some that American weaponry has not been used to maximum effect, and some that the capacity of the regime to inflict losses and delays on American and British forces was underestimated. Some even hint that the Iraqis are not as ready to be freed as we thought.

These last two arguments, which are really about the nature of Saddam's Iraq, go to the war's political heart. Yet in the simple form in which they are often stated, they also ignore the complexity of life under a dictatorship, the dangerous calculations inherent in everyday life, the shadings of collaboration which only the luckiest or strongest can wholly avoid, and the degradation of even some of the best under a tyranny.

Since it is such a bad regime, why have the Iraqis not yet risen to assist their liberators, and how can such a government command a suicidal loyalty from significant numbers of troops? The two questions are connected.

The French scholar Phillippe Burrin, explaining the vicious energy of the Milice and other Vichy armed organizations in the last months of the second world war, wrote that their "brutalities and exactions... were unimaginable: The sense of having their backs to the wall fostered a venomous desire to make others pay dearly for the anticipated defeat." This process is surely the one inhibiting the expected popular reaction to allied troops in the south of Iraq and will also do so in Baghdad.

Saddam has been a demonic social engineer, building a pervasive apparatus of surveillance and coercion and staffing it with men from the Sunni and Tikriti minorities, from the marginalised tribes, both Sunni and Shia, of the countryside, and from the urban lower middle class. He has never been content with mere loyalty, which must always be cemented by crime, so as to ensure there is no easy way back for his servants into the ordinary community.

The system encourages not only the crimes inherent in its operation -- arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture -- but also freelance crimes by its servants: Crimes of extortion and rape, for instance. And it implicates its men in crimes of both kinds if they fail to implicate themselves.

One Iraqi exile has described how the system works to compromise even the lowliest Ba'ath functionaries, men who may be quite decent or at least no more than ordinary opportunists. Soon after taking their positions, they find that some of their neighbors have been arrested, perhaps forced to pay "fines", then told that it was at their instigation. Or they might find themselves offered opportunities of extortion which it would be dangerous to refuse.

Thus does evil draw men in. Even outside these ranks, there is complicity of various degrees with the regime. How could there not be? It was necessary to survive, for an engineer to do his job or a doctor to run his clinic. Freeing themselves from dictatorship's net will not be a simple act but a process, even after U.S. and British forces have taken full control. In the limbo which prevails in most communities in southern Iraq, the situation is that Saddam's men are still around while the new forces are either outside the city or town or nothing more, so far, than traffic on the highway.

Using the still partially intact levers of coercion and bribery on both ordinary people and units of the regular army, they have been able to simulate a kind of resistance to the Americans and British, like electricity jerking the limbs of a cadaver.

Unfortunately, this life after regime death phenomenon may not be only a problem of the moment, which gives ordinary Iraqis another reason still for caution. The entrenched gang system and the network of corruption could go on after liberation, as a peculiarly dangerous form of organized crime. Serbia shows these perils.

Military rescuers are always resented to some degree, and there is an element of anti-American feeling in Iraq for a range of reasons. But could Iraqi gratitude for liberation be outweighed by resentment at their western rescuers if civilian casualties rise steeply in final battles?

Iraqis are not military innocents, but members of a society whose men are conscripted, which has experienced much war and which knows a lot about the effects of their own weapons, including the horrors of collateral damage and friendly fire. Are they nevertheless expecting miracles of the Americans? They may well be, if only because the Americans themselves still hope to perform them, and, of course, may yet do so.