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IRAQ: Looking Ahead

Paper No. 658                                               11.04.2003


by B. Raman

The US and the UK have reasons to be gratified and embarrassed by the rapidity and relative ease with which they have brought about the withering away of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. It has come about sooner and at a much lesser cost than expected.

2. They have reasons to be gratified because the dire warnings of many analysts of a long and bloody urban battle before they can enforce their will on the Iraqi regime have fortunately proved wrong. The fatal human casualties suffered by the allied forces (95 Americans and 35 British till April 8) since the beginning of the invasion  and the fatal civilian casualties suffered by the Iraqis (about 2,000 according to the Iraqis) have till now been less than the figures of  the 1991 war. According to one estimate, about 40 per cent of the allied casualties came from friendly fire and not due to the resistance put up by the Iraqis.

3. Many analysts had estimated that the  Americans would need at least 60,000 plus ground troops for a successful outcome of any attack on Baghdad. They seem to have achieved it with about 25,000, but there is now cause for concern that this number may be inadequate for restoring and maintaining law and order in Baghdad. The infrastructural damages suffered by the Iraqi society as a result of the allied ground and air operations have also been much less than initially feared. More than anyone else in Washington DC, the till now much-maligned Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, must be savouring his moments of self-vindication.

4. Another reason for gratification is the wild scenes of jubilation in the streets of Basra, Najaf and Baghdad, but this has to be moderated by the concern that the jubilation has been largely confined to the Shias, who constitute about 51 per cent of the total population of Iraq.  One could sense that the celebrating crowds were essentially Shias from their chest-beating One is yet to see similar scenes of jubilation by the Sunnis, who form about 46 per cent of the population. Amongst the Sunnis, only the Kurds have been naturally jubilant.  In the din of the anti-Saddam Hussein  slogans shouted by the Shia crowds, one could hear some hailing Ayatollah Khomeni too.  In this could possibly lay the seeds of an aggravation of the Shia-Sunni divide, not only in  Iraq of the future, but also in the rest of the Islamic world, particularly in Pakistan, where this divide has been behind many acts of domestic terrorism.

5. The US and the UK would also note with satisfaction that apart from the initial incidents of violence in Yemen, the anti-invasion demonstrations in the Islamic world have till now been free of violence and there have been no acts of terrorism.  Osama bin Laden, if still alive, has been strangely quiet.  A recorded call for suicide attacks attributed to him, which has been circulating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is yet to be proved to be genuine.  Nowhere have the demonstrations proved to be uncontrollable till now.

6.Why the embarrassment? Because the two principal reasons cited by the US and the UK---possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and Iraq's nexus with Al Qaeda--- for starting the military conflict to bring about a regime change have not proved to be correct so far.  The critics of the allied action, who had been saying that these were fabricated pretexts for the invasion unsupported by evidence, could claim some vindication too unless some evidence in support of the US and the UK emerges in the days to come.

7. When the Iraqi security forces in the  smaller towns down South with their predominantly Shia population  put up a fierce resistance for nearly two weeks, why did their colleagues  vanish without a serious and sustained fight in Baghdad? This is an intriguing question, which would be debated for days and weeks to come. Those, who had been regularly watching the telecast accounts of Raaghi Omar, the BBC correspondent in Baghdad, would have noticed that he had been repeatedly expressing his puzzlement over the seeming absence of any defensive measures in Baghdad as the US troops approached the capital.  As he pointed out repeatedly, there were no visible troop deployments inside the capital, no security barriers, no civil defence measures, no patrolling. Nothing.

8. Why this was so? Did the regime decide long before the US troops neared Baghdad not to put up a fight in Baghdad lest this historic city, to which the Iraqis are as emotionally attached as the French are to Paris, suffer irreparable destruction? One can only pose the question without being able to answer it.

9. Despite the ease with which the US troops have established themselves in sections of Baghdad and the disappearance of the regime from the capital, President George Bush, Vice-President Cheney and the US military commanders have been repeatedly cautioning of the difficulties that still lay ahead.  The US troops are yet to establish effective control over the Sunni sectors of Baghdad and win the acclaim of the Sunnis. The allied troops have not yet ventured into large parts of Central Iraq, which are the bastion of the pro-Saddam Sunni tribes.  The fact that there has not so far been any terrorist retaliation in other parts of the world does not mean that no terrorist strike is planned or that they are demoralised.  The terrorists strike at a time and place of their choosing. It would be unwise to let the scenes telecast from the Shia sectors of Baghdad on April 9 induce a mood of self-congratulation and self-complacency.

10. Would the fall of Baghdad mark the beginning of a new phase of unconventional war, not confined to Iraq alone, but spread across the world? After occupying Iraq, would the allied forces be able to pacify it in a manner which would strengthen regional peace and stability without creating revanchist feelings in the minds of the Iraqis and other Arabs? Could Iraq turn out to be the USA's Palestine or Lebanon? These are very valid questions which would preoccupy not only the US and the UK, but also the rest of the world for months to come.

11. What were the American end-objectives in Iraq? Those, who had been reading my past articles, would have noticed that I never subscribed to the view widely prevalent in the community of strategic analysts that the Iraqi oil was the main motivating factor. The Americans can easily do without the Iraqi oil and without the extra billions of dollars which it could bring to their companies if they manage to control them.

12. In my perception, the principal US objectives are four. Firstly, an anxiety to liberate their Iraqi policy out of the rut into which it has got post-1991 which, in their belief, they cannot do without a regime change. Large sections of the American public and administration were concerned and embarrassed by evidence of the sufferings inflicted on the Iraqi people by the sanctions. Their pride would not let them agree to a lifting of the sanctions so long as the Saddam Hussein regime remained in power.

13. Secondly, in their view, Iraq and Iran stood in the way of an enduring peace in Palestine, which would not be detrimental to Israeli interests.  Thirdly, they are hoping that the overthrow of what they consider to be a rogue regime would send a strong signal to what they look upon as other rogue States such as Iran and North Korea and moderate their future behaviour.  And, fourthly, the US is feeling increasingly uncomfortable over the prospects of its continued presence in Saudi Arabia and over the dangers of pro-bin Laden fundamentalist elements one day capturing power in Saudi Arabia and getting hold of its oil wealth. To prepare themselves for such an eventuality, they want to create in Iraq a political  atmosphere and a regime, which would be conducive to the USA's long-term interests and which would be favourable to their one day shifting their military presence from Saudi Arabia to Iraq.

14. These reasons should explain their determination to remain in Iraq for as long as they consider it necessary in their national interests and not to allow the UN to mess up matters. In Somalia and Kosovo, considerations of US national interests and national security were not involved.  But, in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are, in their eyes.

15.9/11 brought home to US policy-makers the vulnerability of their homeland to the threats posed by irrational non-State actors operating from far away and enjoying the protection of State-sponsors of terrorism. They are now determined to neutralise these threats effectively wherever they come from and whatever be the human casualties and material costs they entail.  Fears of the negative impact of body bags on American minds, of their being perceived as anti-Islam by the Islamic world, being condemned as unilateralist and hegemonistic by the rest of the international community etc are no longer inhibiting factors on their determination and action.

16. How to protect American lives and interests and how to prevent another 9/11? That is the question uppermost in their minds today and which would be uppermost in their minds at least so long as the present administration remains in office.  Today, they assess the Pervez Musharraf regime in Pakistan to be conducive to the protection of their lives and interests and they will support it however much India may beat its breasts about the threat posed by the regime to Indian lives and interests.

17. Musharraf knows this and has consequently been co-operative in action against Al Qaeda elements threatening American lives and interests. He is not worried about India's anger over his continued support to cross-border terrorism.  At the same time, a careful reading not only of his recent statements, but also those of the political and Islamic fundamentalist leaders of Pakistan would indicate that they are increasingly concerned over the dangers of the US one day looking upon Pakistan's nuclear weapons and its collusion with China and North Korea in this matter as detrimental to American interests and national security.  This is also evident from the way they have reacted to the US imposing sanctions on the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) for its collusion with North Korea.  The KRL had been the target of similar sanctions in the past--in 1993 for its collusion with the Chinese and in 1998 for its dealings with North Korea. The Pakistanis laughed off the previous sanctions, but this time, the US action has sent a shiver down their spines.

18.The Government of India has handled the Iraq issue in an unwise manner.  We were right initially in taking an ambivalent stance of neither supporting nor disapproving the US action.  But the subsequent volley of rhetoric after the Pakistani terrorists massacred over 20  Hindus in Jammu & Kashmir --- comparing Pakistan to Iraq and talking of our right of pre-emptive action against Pakistan --- does not speak well of our maturity.  The sudden volte-face of the Government, due to pressure not only from the opposition, but also from the cadres of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in agreeing to the passage of a resolution in the Parliament deploring the US action and calling for the withdrawal of US troops is unlikely to serve our national interests.

19. It is a fact that the US has been adopting double standards in the fight against terrorism and in its attitude on the question of Pakistan's nexus with North Korea.  This is largely because of the considerable sympathy which Pakistan still enjoys in the US State Department and with Gen.Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State.  The evidence till now is that Rumsfeld and his advisers in the Pentagon such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz do not look upon Pakistan with the same blinkers as Powell and his advisers in the State Department do.

20. The Pentagon presently has a group of people, some close to Israel, who are determined to put an end to jihadi terrorists, without worrying about the diplomatic niceties and about the likely damage to the US image in the eyes of the international community. This group is likely to emerge stronger after the Iraq operation. The reported nomination of Daniel Pipes, one of the strongest campaigners in the US against Islamic terrorism and States supporting it, to the Governing Board of the Congressionally-funded US Institute of Peace shows the strong influence of these anti-jihadi elements in US policy-making.  It is in India's national interest to work for a convergence of views with them, even if such a convergence immediately does not benefit us  in dealing with Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in our territory.

21. A modern, democratic and  secular State in Iraq, opposed to the pan-Islamic terrorists, would be as much in India's national interest as it would be in the USA's. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Convenor, Advisory Committee, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai chapter. E-Mail: )