US occupation of Iraq: early woes, hard lessons
WASHINGTON: Occupying another country is usually a messy affair, but it didn’t take long for the United States to find out that it had gotten more than it bargained for when it invaded Iraq.
Five years after US forces rolled into Baghdad on April 9, 2003, the Americans are still looking for an exit strategy. But the problems that would bedevil them for half a decade and still counting were evident from the start. For if the operation to oust Saddam Hussein was a model of military efficiency, reporters tracking US tanks found an occupation soon bogged down in violence, looting, political chaos and bureaucratic missteps.
US forces expected to be welcomed as liberators and, by all accounts, the Iraqi throngs that lined their dash through the desert were generally hospitable and relieved if not overly ecstatic. An American reporter whose car broke down outside the southern city of Nasariyah found himself surrounded by hundreds of Iraqis with no troops or police in sight. There was no danger: they were giving the thumbs up sign while chanting “Bush, Bush!”
But the honeymoon didn’t even last a week. Baghdad was put under the control of the US Marines, not known for their people skills. They set up a civil-military operations centre in downtown Palestine Hotel and spent their days huddled behind close doors.
Outside the hotel, ringed with barbed wire and troops, were swelling crowds of Iraqis seeking jobs, missing relatives, justice, and getting nothing but frustrated. One man made the pilgrimage every day, crying and screaming at the guards who showed no pity - even when he waved a crumpled employment card showing he had been the Palestine’s general manager.
News was just as scarce as access. No press conferences, no briefings. The only source of information was John Hoellwarth, a tall, lanky, 20-something corporal hastily and fleetingly designated occupation spokesman.
Each day Hoellwarth would amble out into the hotel lobby in his baggy fatigues and cap, armed with a hand-scribbled cheat sheet to brief reporters on how much electricity had been restored, how many hospitals opened and so on. But wander off his talking points and Corporal Hoellwarth was lost, like the time a reporter asked him when local Iraqi media would start up and he responded that Al-Jazeera was already operating there.
Gently told that Al-Jazeera was Qatari, Hoellwarth shrugged, “I didn’t know that.” Out on the streets all hell was breaking loose, with looters ravaging shops, offices, hotels, hospitals and museums. Anger mounted as most of Baghdad remained without electricity and other basic services.
Yet while the Americans were struggling to tame their new charges, the Iraqis were having just as much trouble figuring out precisely who was in charge of them. After 10 days of trying to do business with the Marines, Baghdad residents awoke one morning to discover that the forces had pulled out literally overnight without a word, to be replaced by the US Army.
Two days later, retired general Jay Garner finally arrived in the capital to take up his post as US proconsul of Iraq. He landed amid great fanfare and proclaimed “a great day, and a great day for me personally”. He was out of a job in three weeks, replaced by an eager and ambitious career diplomat, Paul Bremer.
Sensing a political vacuum, would-be Iraqi leaders started to come out of the woodwork, claiming a mandate to rule the war-weary people. An exile named Mohammad Mohsen Zubeidi proclaimed himself “governor of Baghdad”. He said he had been elected by tribal and religious leaders and would set up 22 committees to manage the capital.
So starved of visible leadership was Baghdad that Zubeidi’s news conference drew a packed house of reporters. When he made a walking tour of the devastated city, Iraqis literally reached for the hem of his garment.
Zubeidi’s “administration” lasted barely a week, and he was arrested by US forces who said he had “exercised authority he did not have”. In the months and years that have followed, the United States has been able to point to some successes in Iraq: an interim and then a full-term government, a new constitution and the country’s first free elections in half a century.
But at the same time, a stubborn insurgency was taking root, sectarian tensions were coming to a boil and prisoners and abuses were starting to pile up at a prison west of Baghdad called Abu Ghraib. And, as the US casualties have piled up, the occupation has been increasingly haunted by the pre-war warning reportedly delivered by secretary of state Colin Powell to President George W Bush: “You break it, you own it.”
Five years later, the Americans are still picking up the pieces. afp
Daily Times - Leading News Resource of Pakistan