Misunderstanding Iraq

Saddam’s people are winning the war

WASHINGTON The battle for Iraq’s sovereign future is a battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. As things stand, it appears that victory will go to the side most in tune with the reality of the Iraqi society of today: the leaders of the anti-U.S. resistance.

Iyad Allawi’s government was recently installed by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to counter a Baathist nationalism that ceased to exist nearly a decade ago.

In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s regime shifted toward an amalgam of Islamic fundamentalism, tribalism and nationalism that more accurately reflected the political reality of Iraq.

Thanks to his meticulous planning and foresight, Saddam’s lieutenants are now running the Iraqi resistance, including the Islamist groups.

In August 1995, Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, defected to Jordan. Fourteen months into the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Kamal’s testimony that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed in the summer of 1991 has taken on new relevance, given the fact that to date no WMD have been found.

More important is Kamal’s self-described reason for defecting: Saddam’s order that all senior Baath Party officials undergo mandatory Koranic studies. For Saddam, this radical shift in strategy was necessary to his survival, given the new realities of post-Gulf War Iraq.

The traditional Baathist ideology, based on Iraq-centric Arab nationalism, was no longer the driving force it had been a decade before. Creating a new power base required bringing into the fold not only the Shiite majority – which had revolted against him in the spring of 1991 – but also accommodating the growing religious fundamentalism of traditional allies such as key Sunni tribes in western Iraq.

The most visible symbol of Saddam’s decision to embrace Islam was his order to add the words “God Is Great” to the Iraqi flag.

The transformation of the political dynamics inside Iraq, however, went largely unnoticed in the West. It certainly seems to have escaped the attention of the Bush administration. And the recent “transfer of sovereignty” to Allawi’s government reflects this lack of understanding.

One of the first directives issued by Paul Bremer, the former head of the CPA, was to pass a “de-Baathification” law, effectively blacklisting all former members of that party from meaningful involvement in the day-to-day affairs of post-Saddam Iraq. The law underscored the mindset of those in charge of Iraq: Baathist holdouts loyal to Saddam were the primary threat to the U.S.-led occupation.

Senior Bush administration officials recognized their mistake – though a little too late. In April, 2004, Bremer rescinded his “de-Baathification” order. The Pentagon today speaks of a “marriage of convenience” between Islamic fundamentalists and former members of Saddam’s Baathist regime, even speculating that the Islamists are taking over Baathist cells weakened by American anti-insurgency efforts.

Once again, the Pentagon has it wrong. U.S. policy in Iraq is still unable or unwilling to face the reality of the enemy on the ground.

The Iraqi resistance is no emerging “marriage of convenience,” but rather a product of years of planning. Rather than being absorbed by a larger Islamist movement, Saddam’s former lieutenants are calling the shots in Iraq, having co-opted the Islamic fundamentalists years ago, with or without their knowledge.

One look at the list of the 55 “most wanted” members of the Saddam regime who remain at large reveals the probable chain of command of the Iraqi resistance today. It also underscores the success of Saddam’s strategic decision nearly a decade ago to disassociate himself from Baathist ideology.

Keep in mind that there was never a formal surrender ceremony after the U.S. took control of Baghdad. The security services of Saddam’s Iraq were never disbanded; they simply melted away into the population, to be called back into service when and where they were needed.

The so-called Islamic resistance is led by none other than former Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, an ardent Iraqi nationalist, a Sunni Arab and a practicing member of the Sufi brotherhood, a society of Islamic mystics. His deputy is Rafi Tilfah, who headed the Directorate of General Security (DGS), an organization that had thoroughly penetrated Iraqi society with collaborators and informants during Saddam’s regime.

As a former UN weapons inspector, I have personally inspected the headquarters of the DGS in Baghdad, as well as the regional DGS headquarters in Tikrit. The rooms were full of files concerning those who were working with or on behalf of the DGS. There is not a person, family, tribe or Islamic movement in Iraq that the DGS does not know intimately – information that is an invaluable asset when coordinating and facilitating a popular-based resistance movement.

I also interacted with the former director of the Special Security Organization, Hani al-Tilfah, on numerous occasions during 1997-98, when he was put in charge of riding roughshod over my inspections. Today he helps coordinate the operations of the Iraqi resistance using the very same officers.

Tahir Habbush headed the Iraqi Intelligence Service that perfected the art of improvising explosive devices and using them to carry out assassinations. In the months prior to the U.S.-led invasion, he was ordered to blend his agents back into the Iraqi population so as to avoid detection by any occupying force.

The recent anti-American attacks in Fallujah and Ramadi were carried out by well-disciplined men fighting in cohesive units, most likely drawn from the ranks of Saddam’s Republican Guard.

The level of sophistication should not have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the role of the former chief of the Republican Guard, Sayf al-Rawi, in secretly demobilizing select Guard units for this very purpose prior to the U.S. invasion.

The transfer of sovereignty to the new Iraqi government of Iyad Allawi is a charade that will play itself out over the next weeks and months, and with tragic consequences. Allawi’s government, hand-picked by the United States from the ranks of anti-Saddam expatriates, lacks not only a constituency inside Iraq but also legitimacy in the eyes of many ordinary Iraqi citizens.

The truth is that there never was a significant people-based opposition movement inside Iraq for the Bush administration to call on to form a government to replace Saddam. It is why the United States has instead been forced to rely on the services of individuals tainted by their association with foreign intelligence services or drawn from opposition parties heavily infiltrated by agents of Saddam’s former security services.

Regardless of the number of troops the United States puts on the ground or how long they stay there, Allawi’s government is doomed to fail. The more it fails, the more it will have to rely on the United States to prop it up. The more the United States props up Allawi, the more discredited he will become in the eyes of the Iraqi people – all of which creates yet more opportunities for the Iraqi resistance to exploit.

We will suffer a decade-long nightmare that will lead to the deaths of thousands more Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. We will witness the creation of a viable and dangerous anti-American movement in Iraq that will one day watch as American troops unilaterally withdraw from Iraq every bit as ignominiously as Israel did from Lebanon.

The calculus is quite simple: the sooner we bring our forces home, the weaker this movement will be. And, of course, the obverse is true: the longer we stay, the stronger and more enduring this by-product of Bush’s elective war on Iraq will be.

There is no elegant solution to our Iraqi debacle. It is no longer a question of winning but rather of mitigating defeat.

Scott Ritter, a UN weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, is the author of “Frontier Justice: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Bushwhacking of America.” This article was distributed by Global Viewpoint for Tribune Media Services International.