Iraq: April 15, 2003


Tikrit, the city north of Baghdad that Saddam Hussein and most of his closest associates came from, was occupied by American troops. Senior Saddam officials had come through, cleaned out their safe deposit boxes and safes, and left in the previous week. The "war" phase of the Iraq war is over. 

Maintaining law and order in Iraq is complicated by the gun culture. While the urban population has long been disarmed, out in the countryside you have about twenty percent of the population that still follows tribal leaders. The tribes ultimately depends on their armed men to defend themselves. The tribes have never been completely disarmed, and as Saddam's soldiers fled, tribesmen came along and picked up more weapons.

Then there are the religious militias. Saddam disarmed the southern Shia religious leaders in the 1990s, but in recent weeks, the mullahs men have rearmed and organized themselves into several factions. Not all of these factions are willing to work with each other.

While the Shia religious militias dominate the southern religious cities of Najaf and Karbala, there are over two million Shias in Baghdad who also have suddenly appeared as several armed factions. Further north, there are Sunni Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian (Christians) and Kurd militias. There are also some large criminal gangs, although some of these also shift back and forth from "local defense groups" to illegal activities as needed. 

One thing the several million armed militiamen have in common is a visit by a team of American Special Forces at one time or another. The Special Forces has been active throughout Iraq before the invasion began. These American troops speak Arabic (some speak Kurdish and Turkish as well) and are familiar with the local culture and customs. What the Special Forces are trying to establish are relationships that make it possible to negotiate with the various militias when it comes time to settle some dispute that has reached the shooting stage. 

Many of the militia leaders are demanding that coalition troops withdraw from their vicinity, and that the militia will maintain order. In many cases, the coalition troops are going along with this. And the militias are now fighting the foreign volunteers who have come to Baghdad to kill Americans. But it is uncertain whether the militias will always obey orders from coalition commanders. The militia leaders have no doubts who would win a battle, the coalition troops would. But the militia leaders believe in bluster and threat as well as firepower. What they don't believe in is votes.

Iraq may not have a democratic tradition, but they do have a long tradition of the "strong man" backed by burly and heavily armed followers. The oldest written records of government found in this "cradle of civilization" speak of such a "strong man" taking over. Overcoming this ancient tradition, and using ballots rather than bullets to make decisions, will be a major undertaking. It won't be easy, as can be seen from what is going on in Afghanistan, where the warlords out in the hills still maintain their independence from the central government.

Special Forces and commandos are scouring northern Iraq and along the Syrian border for fleeing members of Saddam's government.

Syria has apparently decided to make a few billion bucks by offering some sanctuary for senior Saddam followers. Unlike the Persian Gulf nations, Syria has not got a lot of oil. With a population of 17 million, oil revenue is only about $3-4 billion a year. With a socialist dictatorship like Iraq's, the economy is a mess and only a ruthless police state keeps a lid on rebellion. Syria earns additional money by tolerating the drug trade in Lebanon, and the radical Shia groups (like Hezbollah) that operate in Lebanon against Israel. The Baath party that has run Syria for four decades is dominated by Alawite Moslems, a sect that comprises only 14 percent of the population. The Alawites make common cause with the ten percent Christian minority and the Druze (3-4 percent). But by adroitly handing out money and brutal treatment as needed, the Assad family has managed to stay in power. Syria has made deals with the United States as well, to provide information on al Qaeda. The Baath gangsters in Syria don't think the United States would invade, and that they can bargain and buy their way out of any problems.

Reconstruction begins with a meeting of political groups, arranged by the provisional American government, in southern Iraq. Some groups did not attend for one reason or another. But more such meetings will be held. These meetings will be used to work out a new constitution and find people who can be appointed temporary officials to run the country. Once the new constitution is written, it will be voted on in a referendum. If it passes, elections will be held for local and national officials, those elected will take over and the occupation forces will leave. The plan is for this to take place in two years, but more time will be used if needed.




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