Originally titled The Incoherence of Power, Ali A. Allawi’s sweeping study of the invasion and occupation of Iraq chronicles the perils of a superpower launching a war upon a country whose culture, history and internecine power struggles it was largely ignorant of. The plan to invade Iraq, in Allawi’s opinion, was the magic thinking of a group of neo-cons who believed that dreaming a democratic Iraq would make it so. Reality crashed through on fantasy, and Plato’s Republic soon made way for a nightmare Hobbesian state.
Born in 1947 to a prominent Shi’a family, Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi left Iraq in November 1958 and eventually became a part of the Iraqi exile community in London. He was appointed Minister of Trade and Minister of Defense for the Iraqi Transitional Government between 2005 and 2006.
Allawi opposed the war at the outset, even though he himself was involved in numerous opposition conferences, seminars and meetings with the British and US governments in the days leading up to the war. Once it appeared that war was inevitable, Allawi described himself as going along with the war, but ‘with great ambivalence’.
The Occupation of Iraq is an insider’s story, a book written from an Iraqi’s point of view, watching with obvious angst as his country plunges into murder and mayhem. In it he describes the bewilderingly complex relationship between Iraq’s three major groups, the Shi’a, Sunnis and Kurds, and further, the factions within those groups.
Just as one example, he discusses the rising influence from Saudi Arabia of Wahhabism on Iraq’s Sunnis. Writes the author: ‘What used to be a slanging match between Wahhabism and Shi’ism – and in some ways containable – developed into one between an increasingly radicalized Sunni Islam and the Shia. The Shi’a resurrected the term nawasib (those with a particular hatred for the Prophet’s household) to attach to extreme insurgents.’
It was these kinds of subtleties that the coalition did not plan for when deciding for war, hence the book’s original title. The Occupation of Iraq gives a comprehensive, often staggering, picture of US cultural ignorance and insensitivity. Even the most basic tool for communication and relationship building– language – was paid scant attention.
The text of the draft for the Transition Administrative Law (TAL) that was supposed to guide the transitional process and the constitutional framework was written in a style alien to Arabic. According to Allawi, ‘Even its preamble was worded in stirring terms, reminiscent of permanent constitutions – and utterly alien in construction and phraseology from the Arabic language and Iraqi experience…..It talked about pluralism, gender rights, separation of powers and civilian control over the armed forces – none of which were even remotely familiar terms in Iraq. The TAL embodied western, specifically American notions, and was carefully supervised by the CPA. Each significant point had been pre-cleared with the NSC in Washington.’
To further illustrate the topsy-turvy thinking on Iraq, the American Christian Right was even pushing on turning Iraq into a proselytizing mission. Kyle Fisk, the executive administrator of the National Association of Evangelicals, said, ‘Iraq will become the centre for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to Iran, Libra, throughout the Middle East….A free Iraq also allows us to spread Jesus Christ’s teachings even in nations where laws keep us out.’ Allawi claims the CPA had a number of middle-level staff who were ‘fundamentalist Christians and who played a part in formulating the legal structures that were designed to thwart the creeping Islamisation of the state.’
The most amazing chapter of the book details the fraud that allowed some $1 billion to vanish out the Ministry of Defence, leaving the Iraqi army with second-rate weapons with which to confront the insurgency. Writes Allawi:
‘The optimistic assessments by General Petraeus concerning the equipping and training of Iraqi forces clashed with the huge squandering of the Ministry of Defence’s resources and the abysmal and inappropriate equipment purchases for its rapid deployment forces. The latter, supposed to be the vanguard of the Iraqi commitment to the counter-insurgency effort, found that their much-vaunted helicopters were either inoperable or unavailable for eighteen months. They were driving right-hand steering vehicles, firing knock-offs of American machine guns, with bullet proof vests that fell apart, and wearing toy helmets. Ministers who were chosen for their supposed technocratic prowess and competence ended up on the run from the law under serious indictment of fraud, embezzlement and theft. The military procurement budget was handed over to unscrupulous adventurers and former pizza parlour operators.’
There are some success stories amongst the ruins, despite the book’s over all bleakness. Paul Bremer’s order to establish a Public Integrity Commission is cited as a notable achievement which helped to tackle the country’s corruption. The CPA’s Financial Management Law is applauded as an important economic and financial reform, setting a framework for writing balanced budgets, with public accountability for government expenditure. Australian personnel working in Iraq get an honourable mention for their high professionalism and competence.
This is a book sure to be read avidly by both sides of the Iraq war debate. (The Australian’s Greg Sheridan has called it the ‘definitive’ account of the war.) It is written in a learned, cultured style, with every page steeped deep in irony.
Indeed, reading Allawi’s prose all I could think of was Dostoyevsky’s The Devils, a novel about a ‘gang of five’ who plot various disturbances which they hope will culminate in the toppling of the state. Four of the five murder one of their own who they fear will squeal on one of them. The unrelenting menace of Dostoyevsky’s novel, with the incoherent, contradictory, confusing behaviour of his characters, seemed to mirror the behaviour of the main Iraq players.
Allawi sees the situation in Iraq now as critical, with the Iraqis themselves at a ‘near terminal breaking point’. In January of this year he wrote a blueprint for peace (http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article2125419.ece) .
In it, he wrote, ‘The first step must be the recognition that the solution to the Iraq crisis must be generated first internally, and then, importantly, at the regional level.’
And, ‘No foreign power, no matter how benevolent, should be allowed to dictate the terms of a possible historic and stable settlement in the Middle East.’
The democratic framework set up by the coalition of the willing must be preserved.
‘The Iraqi government that has arisen as a result of the admittedly flawed political process must be accepted as a sovereign and responsible government. No settlement can possibly succeed if its starting point is the illegitimacy of the Iraqi government or one that considers it expendable.’
For those seeking an insider’s account of the occupation of Iraq, its triumphs and many tragedies, will find a patient and thorough going guide in Dr Allawi’s book.