Postwar Iraq could be awesome shock, too

March 23, 2003|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

ONE CAN ONLY imagine what the shocked and awed people of Iraq may be thinking of their country's invaders as U.S. and British forces begin their occupation.

The full-impact bombing of targets around Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq that began at 1 p.m. Friday (9 p.m. in Baghdad) was indeed awesome and shocking.

The directors of this war may have been stamping their feet and slapping their thighs at the sheer magnificence of it all, not to mention the relative ease with which the U.S. and British forces were moving toward Baghdad. But anyone living in Baghdad and the other places being struck must have been scared to death. If no civilians were killed in that bombardment, it would have been a miracle.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld rejected comparisons to some of the heavier allied bombing campaigns of World War II - Dresden, Germany, for example. Those were dumb bombs in World War II, he said. These are smart bombs.

"The targeting capabilities and the care that goes into targeting to see that the precise targets are struck and that other targets are not struck is as impressive as anything anyone could see," he said.

For the people of Iraq, Rumsfeld acknowledged, the bombing "has to be a terribly unpleasant circumstance." But, he explained, they are repressed, and America is coming to liberate them.

Much has been said and written, including in this column, about whether it was necessary to go to war against Iraq to achieve American goals, which kept shifting from getting rid of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, to getting rid of Hussein and liberating the people of Iraq from his tyranny, to the Iraqi regime's ties to terrorism, or all of the above.

Now that the war is under way, and at the time of writing this column on Friday it looked as if it would be a military success, it's time to think about what comes afterward.

The official name of this adventure is "Operation Iraqi Freedom," which does not accurately reflect America's chief motivation in going to war against Iraq. But it will be remembered after the war is over, after Hussein is finished one way or another, after his stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons are unearthed and destroyed. (And as the father of a Marine fighting the Iraqis told Baltimore's WYPR talk-show host Marc Steiner last week: There better be some weapons of mass destruction there, or President Bush is going to have a lot of explaining to do.)

The war against Iraq will have demonstrated what everyone already knew: that the United States has the most powerful and sophisticated military machine in the history of the world, unsurprisingly capable of knocking off the ill-equipped, ill-trained and unmotivated military force of a country the size of California. But that will have been more appropriately named "Operation Iraqi Conquest."

For "Operation Iraqi Freedom" to fully succeed, the world's only superpower will have to employ creative thinking, sensitivity to the passions and rivalries of a population that is not naturally cohesive, caution and tact.

Rumsfeld decidedly does not possess these qualities. He's good at talking up war, but not at getting along with others; he is the embodiment of American arrogance.

In his earlier incarnation as a diplomat in the Reagan administration of the 1980s, his contribution - which included acting as a friendly emissary to Saddam Hussein - was negligible. The occupation of Iraq will be military. But success would be enhanced by a low, or no profile, from the military's civilian boss.

In some ways, Iraq is like Lebanon was in the 1980s when Israel invaded to get rid of its demon, Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization.

There was a poorer and deeply aggrieved majority Shi'ite population in the south and a ruling Sunni and Christian elite in Beirut. The mix was further complicated by the Palestinians, who had effectively taken over the country, and the Druze population dominating the Shouf mountain region overlooking Beirut.

Israel's war-making machine worked well enough in driving Arafat and the PLO out of Lebanon, but the attempt to restructure Lebanon's politics was a disaster for the Israelis. They stayed too long, radicalizing the Shi'ites. Two decades later, they finally pulled out, driven away by Shi'ite Hezbollah fighters financed by Iran. Hundreds of Israelis were killed during the occupation of south Lebanon.

Shi'ites are the majority population of Iraq. They hold fierce grudges against the ruling Sunni minority and the Hussein regime that has brutalized them. The also have good cause for an abiding grudge against the United States which encouraged them to rise up against Hussein after the last gulf war, but did nothing to help them when Hussein's forces brutally supressed the rebellion. And unlike Lebanon's Shi'ites, Iraq's live right on the border with Iran.

The Sunni minority will be struggling to hang on to power. The Kurds in the north may end up fighting the Turks and are distrustful of the Americans. They also were abandoned to brutal retaliation when they acted on U.S. encouragement to rise up against Hussein's regime. This is a complicated, deadly mix.

"Operation Iraqi Freedom" will take much longer than the war. It could easily turn out to be as dangerous for Americans and their allies. They could find themselves in a "terribly unpleasant circumstance," to borrow a phrase from Rumsfeld.

All the smart bombs in the world won't help to make it pleasant.

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