The day Baghdad fell

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

LAST week Baghdad fell. It signalled the end of the aerial attacks which devastated Iraqi cities in the three weeks of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. The day of the fall of the Iraqi capital was a sad day for the Arab world, the Third World and the activists of the global peace movement. Another form of war has now begun — the one that follows on the heels of a military victory. That is the battle the conquerors have to wage to win the hearts and minds of the vanquished.

The end was not unexpected. Given the tilted balance of military power between the two, the rout of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been a foregone conclusion even before the so-called coalition forces launched their massive assault on March 20.

Neither was the world exactly taken aback by the devastation wrought by the heavy and indiscriminate coalition bombing (supposedly precision-guided) — graphically televised by the electronic media networks. The civilian casualties did not come as a surprise either. The world had already braced itself for all this devastation, the United States being known to be a ruthless adversary — remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki which gave America the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to have used nuclear weapons in a war.

What has sent shock waves around the world is the pillage, arson and anarchy which broke out in Baghdad on Wednesday when the city fell. Robert Fisk of the Independent called it “the day of the looter”. Its graphic presentation on television left viewers aghast.

Some Iraqi elements appeared to have gone berserk and on a rampage once they realized that the oppressive controls of a tyrannical regime had broken down. They seem to have lost all restraint and control themselves, and found the sudden surge of a sense of freedom and power which they felt in the absence of an administrative authority too overpowering to cope with.

With the government machinery having collapsed, a power vacuum developed rapidly, leading to hordes of looters and plunderers pouncing on state property, foreign missions and the homes of the rich and the famous. Pillaging has taken place in all societies at a time of administrative paralysis or collapse. Dr Haroon Ahmed, a leading psychiatrist, explains it as a psychological condition which gives a ‘kick’ (a temporary feeling of excitement) to a person who suddenly finds himself released from the constraints of law or self-discipline. It is not so much the acquisition of material goods that the looter seeks, as the symbolism of being above the law or norms that satisfies his psychological urge.

With the gap between the empowered and the disadvantaged — not so much in terms of wealth as political privileges — having widened outrageously, the resentment many felt against the upper echelons was understandable. The looters in Baghdad therefore targeted the political elites who were closely identified with the Baathist rulers and were held responsible for the tyranny and deprivations on the masses in the last two decades. The pillage was in that sense an act of political vendetta — the common man’s version of settling scores. It was a case of hitting out at the symbols of power rather than trying to accumulate wealth while the going was good, though many must have benefited materially too.

But how does one explain the destruction of museums and the vandalizing of their national assets by a people suddenly freed of all controls — external as well an internal. Although said to be worth billions of dollars, the distinctive clay tablets at Baghdad’s National Museum of Antiquities, which recorded the world’s first written words, may not really fetch the petty thieves much of a price. Many of the artefacts were breakable and might not have even survived the rough and tumble that accompanied the plunder.

And what about the looters who entered hospitals where the wounded were being treated by an overworked medical staff which has to make do with appalling and limited facilities and an acute paucity of medical supplies?

Even if years of repression by a tyrannical regime, the ‘murderous’ sanctions system imposed by the UN since 1990 and the ravages of wars — the latest being the most horrendous — have reduced ordinary men, women and children to a nihilist state, it does not really answer the question why the looters were given a free rein.

After all, the forces of occupation — or liberation as they prefer to describe themselves — did not move a finger when some action on their part could have prevented a lot of it and helped maintain a modicum of order. And it was their duty to do so. Fisk points out that pillage merits a specific prevention clause in the Geneva Conventions, just as it did in the 1907 Hague Convention on which the Geneva delegates based their “rules of war”.

Why was the looting and lawlessness not anticipated? In fact, one wonders if it was a simple case of apathy on the part of the Americans as is being made out or a deliberate hands-off policy designed to encourage this collective act of loot and plunder. Or was this the invading army’s idea of punishing the Iraqis? Let them destroy their own cultural heritage. Thus the Americans will not be blamed. But they forgot that the torrent of avarice and greed sweeps all without distinction when the floodgates are opened. Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian was witness to US soldiers stealing ashtrays from Saddam Hussein’s palce on the west bank of the Tigris.

Al Hayat al Jadidah, which is published from Palestine, pointed out: “The liberation of Iraq US-style is a scene of death, killings, destruction and looting… No place was spared except the ministry of energy and petroleum, and this has been the US strategy.”

It is evident that the Americans were, as a matter of deliberate policy, slow in assuming control. They allowed a power vacuum to develop. Their calculation could have been that sooner than later the people would get weary of anarchy and disorder. They would then welcome the Americans and turn to them for relief. It is human nature to seek peace and stability in one’s environment. A perpetual state of turmoil is damaging for the human psyche. Not surprisingly, after three weeks of bombing and three days of breakdown of law and order, the Iraqis were ready for an American imposed peace and public order.

Since the oil resources are precious to the Americans, they have been particularly careful about protecting the ministry of energy in Baghdad and the oil wells in the north. In fact, it has been announced that within a matter of weeks the pumping of Iraqi oil will be resumed.

The Iraqis will now have to pay the price of their ‘liberation’. Their ‘liberators’ can hardly be expected to relinquish control over the administration of the country they have ‘liberated’ and let the initiative pass on to the United Nations. But it is also plain that the Americans will not succeed easily in achieving their war aims. The political, economic and social disintegration of the country, along with the damage done to its physical infrastructure, has made the task of the reconstruction of Iraq a daunting task. Recovery is not likely to come easily in the foreseeable future, the billions of dollars promised for reconstruction notwithstanding.

The crisis will be compounded by the fact that the delicate political balance which held this heterogeneous country together has been destroyed. In the absence of this balancing mechanism the multifarious ethnic, sectarian and economic make-up of Iraq will become a source of instability and turmoil. Will it be possible to exploit the Iraqi oil resources in a politically volatile ambience marked by tensions and antagonism between regional, ethnic and other conflicting interests.