Talisman Gate

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Battle of Baghdad

August 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Battle of Baghdad


August 9, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/37573

For the past few weeks, Baghdad was astir with news of an imminent coup d'etat. Those in power were worried, and those near power were looking forward to a political reshuffle from which they would emerge ahead. The scene included ambitious officers who half-jokingly promised plush diplomatic posts to their civilian friends, and prominent politicians who assumed that the military conspirators would call upon them to lead the country through a government of national unity. Desperate times require desperate measures, and most of the Iraqi political class in the Green Zone reasoned that the Americans could see no way out in Iraq except through bringing in a man of steel to save the day. No more rowdy democracy, no more muddled constitutional interpretation; stability would be measured by boots marching in unison and military bands banging away in tune.

I was recently challenged to a bet by a prominent Iraqi officer: the Americans will give the go ahead to the Iraqi Army to seize power within six months. I was looking forward to meeting this officer, who had made a name for himself in the press as a can-do enforcer giving chase to the terrorists. He was relatively young, charismatic and confident. But he was also afflicted with every Middle Eastern officer's fantasy: the belief that he alone can bring about national order and glory. As the head of a security brigade, his men had recently been outfitted with armored troop transports and heavy guns, and he made the claim to me that he could occupy Baghdad in four hours. He believes that it was only a matter of time until the Americans come to him and ask him to take over. If he wins, I buy him lunch, and if I win, well, I get to vote again in three years for a new parliament.

Iraq has had a bad experience with coups; after all, the Saddam regime came about through one. There had been such a rash of coups in the 1950s and 1960s and in some of these coups, an American hand could be discerned, including the first time the Ba'athists came to power while riding a tank through the palace gates.

Baghdad is paralyzed with fear, the shops are closed and the streets are empty. It seems that entire middle class neighborhoods have moved to Amman, Damascus, and Cairo. It has never looked or felt so bad, never mind the numbers of innocents who are daily getting chewed up by sectarian strife. In despair, there are many who would trade away such messy luxuries as freedom, democracy and constitutional rights for khaki-tinged tidiness. Hence the whispers and now audible warnings of a coup in the making.

But barring a serious (not to mention disastrous) turn-around in American policy, such a jarring change in the political order will not come about. Most Iraqi army officers, when asked if they were planning something illegal, did not even feign a commitment to their limited role as guardians of Iraq's defenses under the command of a civilian leadership, but rather dismissed such speculation by saying that they can't do much with the American military in Iraq looking over their shoulders. But the desire for a coup is there, and that in itself is a dangerous flaw in how the new Iraqi military is being trained by the Americans — even though they are nominally the only level of oversight holding them back.

Iraq's new defense minister, General Abdel-Qader Al-‘Ubaidi, gets many accolades both from the officers under him as well as the politicians in the cabinet and parliament. He was a good choice for the job, but an unconstitutional one. The founding document of Iraq's democracy states that no one in uniform can take on a civilian governmental position after leaving the armed services, unless a specified period of time had elapsed. It was ordained so with Iraq's history of turbulent coups in mind, and as a reminder to the military brass that it was the civilians who now called the shots. This was not the case with General ‘Ubaidi, who left his command of Iraq's infantry and took on the defense portfolio without the constitutionally mandated grace period. What is more dangerous is that no one is talking about it. That encourages the younger officers to be contemptuous of the political leadership and await an opportunity to seize the controls for themselves.

Ayad Allawi's camp is fueling talk of a military take-over, with the caveat that the Americans want him back in charge of a national unity government. Some are also interpreting the charm campaign by the suave and gentlemanly deputy commander of Iraq's Joint Forces Command, General Nasier Abadi, who was making the rounds in Washington and New York last week, as an American Plan B to introduce a new Iraqi face for some future political exit strategy. The whole thinking is precipitated on the notion that liberal democracies cannot fight virulent insurgencies, and that only a military dictatorship can hold Iraq together. But officers are trained to kill and destroy, not to build and govern. All too often, this basic fact is forgotten in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The battle for Baghdad can be won by the Iraqi government and Coalition forces in three weeks. There is a one month opening until mid-September to convince Iraq's middle class — the people who run the country and keep it together — that the state is still salvageable. Otherwise, with the summer drawing to a close, they will have to decide whether their exile and hiding is going to be of a more permanent nature and will plan ahead accordingly. The good news is that Sunni insurgency is exhausted and there is plenty of internal chatter questioning just how long they can keep up the pace of the violence. Their equal numbers in mayhem, the Mahdi Army militias, have descended into a chaotic grab for money, rather than a concerted effort to wage a civil war. The latter are not Hezbollah, and they can be confronted and scattered relatively easily. Secure Baghdad, and those who stand against the state will be demoralized and broken, and the middle-class will be tempted to risk retaking their country back from the hooligans. Success hinges on how many people can be made to believe that victory is still tenable.

The nascent political process in Iraq is worth sacrificing for. In the grand scheme of things, the prognosis for Iraq looks much healthier than the stale regimes around it in the Middle East, each resting for now atop a nest of time bombs. Although the numbers of dead and dying speak otherwise, the storm has passed Iraq, and there are many positive achievements to take advantage of in order to cripple the militias and the insurgents further, and to begin the process of turning them back. One such advantage is the new and disciplined Iraqi army that clearly enjoys confidence and leadership. Such a tool should not be encouraged to spend its time contemplating idle fantasies of a coup, but rather should be wielded now in an all or nothing battle for the preservation of the state of Iraq.

Mr. Kazimi can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

August 9, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >