April 8, 2003 — With Baghdad falling and Basra now in British hands, responsibility is passing from Saddam Hussein’s regime to the allies not only for keeping order, but also for ensuring that water flows, that hospitals have medical supplies, that electricity is restored and that average Iraqis are able to taste the long promised wine of “freedom” without being shot by anxious American troops. In many ways, all of this poses as much of a challenge as actually taking the city, and it is a job the U.S. military is not particularly well suited to perform.
The images of Baghdad residents tearing a Saddam statue off its pedestal and cheering the apparent collapse of his authority are tempered by similar scenes of looting and broader concerns that retribution attacks — both against regime officials and their families and against U.S. forces — could follow.
The cheering throngs destroying Saddam icons “is something everyone has been waiting for,” says Rick Francona, who was a U.S. defense attaché in Baghdad during the 1980s. But he warned that Baghdad’s collapse into American hands poses new challenges.
“We’re up there with an armored force... but what we’re going to have to do is get foot soldiers out there and actually take the place of the Iraqi police forces.”
The Army does have units trained to deal with these crises. Army Special Operations Command, for instance, has a branch called “Civil Affairs” which specializes in organizing local professionals and maintaining basic services as the defeated regime collapses. In addition, the 3rd Special Forces group has spent several years training African armies as peacekeepers.
The two Army American airborne divisions also receive training for these circumstances. The 82nd Airborne Division, for example, is specifically trained to maintain order in the face of looting and anarchy. While most of that division is currently in southern Iraq, elements of that unit, known as Task Force 250, remain in the U.S. available, whenever necessary, to preserve order at home in the event of catastrophic events.
But these units are not naturally suited to long-term peacekeeping or police duties. Unlike British commandos, who have patrolled tense ethnic conflicts for decades in Northern Ireland and in Cyprus, American commanders prefer to pull out and turn over such duties to multilateral forces following the actual conflict.
“I expect the U.S. and the Brits to attempt to rejuvenate local police forces fairly quickly,’ says Andrea Lopez, a professor at Susquehanna (Pa.) University who has studied post-conflict occupations. “You want Iraqis policing themselves, not the U.S. or U.K. imposing its will on the common people. That threatens any goodwill that may exist.”
A welcome challenge
All of this should be kept in perspective. Compared to the speculation of what could have greeted American troops in Baghdad, including that of a protracted, Stalingrad-like urban battle, controlling looting and disorder in Baghdad is a challenge the war’s commanders may happily take on.
Beyond maintaining order following the first flush of Saddam’s demise, the larger and more critical challenge for the military will be what role to play during the transition to civilian rule. The Bush administration has spoken of a six-month transition period that would yield some form of Iraqi-led civilian authority in Iraq, suggesting that the military will bear much of the responsibility in the interim. Once the fighting ends, this will raise a whole raft of issues, including how to expedite immediate, large scale humanitarian relief for the Iraqi population.
“The responsibility of U.S. and coalition forces doesn’t end when they defeat opposing troops,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Occupying forces are responsible for protecting civilians, not just during combat but in the aftermath of fighting.”
With United Nations and non-governmental aid agencies not yet present in Iraq in appreciable numbers, the British and American military commanders have been looking to form local alliances with opponents of Saddam’s regime to guarantee at least some basic services.
British commanders holding Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, struck a deal with a local Shiite tribal leader to have his loyalists help bring order to the city, which erupted in both celebration and outright rioting after Saddam Fedayeen and other regime loyalists finally were routed. In Najaf last week, 101st Airborne commanders reached out to a local religious leader to win his support for administering the city and maintaining electrical, water and sewage services.
In Baghdad, however, the challenge is on a wholly different scale. Firstly, it bears mentioning that Saddam’s fedayeen continue to occupy pockets of the capital as some of the regime’s most committed loyalists fight on.
Even after they are subdued, problems abound. The city’s electricity, sewage and water systems are said to be severely limited, raising fears that dysentery and cholera could run rampant if steps are not taken soon.
Baghdad also saw the most intensive bombing of the war, and International Red Cross officials say many hundreds of civilian casualties are crammed into its overwhelmed hospitals and clinics. Regardless of the political stance of these families, American officials realize that the violence that inadvertently affected them will lead to a lasting bitterness and even outright violent retribution.
Retired U.S. Gen. Jay Garner has been named head of the post-war “Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs,” but sources close to the general say that details of how and when this agency’s authority will be exercised remain undetermined.
“He is very concerned about the infighting back in Washington between the CIA and the Pentagon over which Iraqis will emerge as allies, and over how his agency is supposed to distinguish between ‘good’ Iraqis and those too tainted by their service to the regime to be rehabilitated,” a source who has met with Garner in the past week told MSNBC.com.
That will come as no surprise to the U.S. military, which has been concerned for months about how to pacify and police a nation whose population might not universally view American troops as “liberators.” Initial signs from Basra, now held by British forces, and from the eastern neighborhoods of Baghdad, suggest that many Iraqis may well view the American defeat of the Saddam regime as a blessing. But these positive reactions may be coming out of areas inhabited primarily by Iraq’s Shiite Muslims who are a majority in the country but woefully underrepresented in the ranks of the bureaucracy, the police or educational institutions.
“How will U.S. administrators determine which Iraqi civil servants may continue to serve and which are too tainted to stay? This is key to the Pentagon’s reconstruction and humanitarian assistance plan and the timely departure of U.S. forces,” Gen. Wayne Downing, retired former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, wrote for MSNBC.com on Friday. “Unfortunately, there exists no clear answer, even at this late date.”
Copyright 2003 MSNBC