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Steve Weissman: Embracing Saddam-Lite

Embracing Saddam-Lite

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 01 July 2004

Poor Mr. Bush. Like bad sex, his hurried consummation of Iraq's mini-sovereignty left everything to be desired. Only a handful of people celebrated the occasion, while his Baghdad stand-in Jerry Bremer could hardly wait to jet away from the chaos he had conjured.

No wonder the ex-Viceroy ran. Over 150,000 American soldiers and mercenaries remain, with talk in Washington of many more to come. Halliburton, Bechtel, and other GOP corporate donors rapidly construct American military bases throughout Iraq, slowly rebuild the country's utilities, and effectively run both the oil fields and local media. Hand-picked Iraqis only front the show, their power tightly curbed by decrees, contracts, and secret understandings that Bremer put in place before he fled. Sovereignty is bliss, Sweetheart, but is that all there is?

How clever Washington was, the official spin-masters tell us. By holding the formal transition two days early, Team Bush wrong-footed an expected terrorist attack, Perhaps they did. But only willing fools - like ABC's Peter Jennings, who graced the event - played along with the overweening pretense. Iraqis who still oppose the suddenly "non-occupying" American troops will easily find their targets, chief among them Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and other interim leaders, who appear to many as collaborators selling out their country to the Yanks.

Utterly shameless, Dr. Allawi loudly condemns those who resist as "outlaws" and "terrorists," exactly as Bremer did the week before, and as the imperial British did when they held sway. But Iraqis and their Moslem neighbors increasingly see the resistance as patriotic, anti-colonial, and - the longer America stays - a defense of Islam against Western Crusaders. Osama bin Laden could not have devised a better bear-trap, into which Team Bush continues to rush with their eyes wide shut.

Beyond security concerns, the modest celebration on Monday showed good taste. The bride - or was Allawi the bridegroom? - is hardly the kind to wear white or invite the world to check out the bed sheets. He has what my mother called "a past." Once a loyal henchman who helped bring Saddam to power, Allawi headed European operations for the Baath Party and its intelligence arm during the early 1970s, when he lived in London ostensibly to pursue his medical studies. He reportedly ran a hit team that hunted down several of Saddam's critics in Western Europe. He then turned against his former comrades for whatever reasons, working first for Britain's MI6 and then for the CIA. The Agency had him and his Iraqi National Accord stage terrorist attacks inside Iraq. They called him a freedom fighter.

Apparently a cousin of Ahmed Chalabi, whom America's neo-conservatives yearned to see in his place, Allawi has long been the other Manchurian candidate. His qualifications stretch back to the Clinton era, when on White House orders the CIA turned away from Chalabi's dream of a popular uprising against Saddam and threw their support to Allawi, who tried to provoke Saddam's generals into staging a palace coup. Neither scheme worked, except to build momentum in Washington for the current horror show.

That's how it goes from one administration to another. Even after 9/11, wiser heads than Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld might well have lied less blatantly and shunned an all-out invasion without solid international backing, which - paradoxically - they would have been more likely to win. But, however original Mr. Bush may be, his Iraqi disaster builds on earlier covert misadventures, which seemed at the time so cunning and risk-free.

Within the new "free and sovereign Iraq," the game gets even more bizarre. No one should expect Punch and Judy. Though Allawi might look like a puppet to his compatriots, Washington will find him far tougher to control than the CIA's man in Kabul, the soft-spoken Hamid Karzai. Dr. Allawi remains at heart a Baathist nasty.

"He likes to think of himself as a man of ideas," a former CIA case officer told New Yorker's Sy Hersh. But. "his strongest virtue is that he's a thug."

Juan Cole, a historian of the Middle East at the University of Michigan, smells the same beast. "He is infatuated with reviving the Baath secret police or mukhabarat, and bringing back Saddam's domestic spies," writes Cole. "Unlike the regular army, which had dirty and clean elements, all of the secret police are dirty, and if they are restored, civil liberties are a dead letter."

While Allawi is Shiite, bringing back Saddam's spies increases Sunni power, which will not go down well with either the Kurds, Shiite majority, or Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who waits in the wings.

Without many options left to play, Team Bush will now bet on Allawi's strongest virtue, that he will prove thuggish enough to hold down the fort as Saddam-Lite. He has already talked of curfews and other tight security measures, and hinted that he might have to put off January elections, though only for a month or two, he said. In the meantime, the Americans are racing to build an Iraqi Army and police force that will fight the rebels rather than join them. It's not an easy job as long as American troops remain on Iraqi soil, but if they leave, who will keep Allawi in office?

Like his rival Chalabi, Allawi has little popular support, and the only way he can build it is to bite the hand that feeds him, or at least make a show of baring his fangs. How far will Washington let him go? Only as far as they have to, and that's always a dicey call, both for him and those who try to pull his strings.

Still a player despite losing American support, Ahmed Chalabi will continually outflank Allawi as a patriotic nationalist, and could even become a well-to-do Shiite counter to the populist Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric that Bremer foolishly tried to arrest and turned into a resistance hero. Though CIA sources repeatedly accuse Chalabi of working for Iran, the Americans have brought no charges against him personally, but only against several of his aides. Perhaps Washington doesn't believe its whisper campaign, or lacks the evidence to back up its claims, or fears what Chalabi might reveal in court. Whatever the reason, don't count Chalabi out, especially since his close nephew Salem Chalabi heads the Iraqi tribunal that is bringing Saddam Hussein to trial. What secrets the bloody tyrant could spill about all the American support he received in the past! If only the Chalabi tribunal permits him to do it ...

But far larger issues seem destined to make Dr. Allawi's tenure tense. With Israel now backing the Kurds, as Hersh reported, they will prove less inclined to go along with anything that weakens their control of Northern Iraq. Fears of an independent Kurdistan will invite the neighboring Turks to intervene one way or another, while Iran - Israel's prime target -will similarly look to strengthen its fellow Shiites in the south. These are conflicts beyond Allawi's pay grade, and the American troops who support him might well find themselves caught in the crossfire, damned if they stay like colonialists, and damned if they cut and run.

Empire, like politics, ain't beanbag, a lesson that poor Mr. Bush and his neo-con chorus forgot to remember.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t .

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