New proconsul in Baghdad tightens US grip over Iraq

Just days after his arrival in Baghdad last week, Washington’s new proconsul in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, has ushered in a series of measures which signal the US will brook no opposition to its neo-colonial rule and will not hesitate to use military force to deal with any challenge. While the crackdown is nominally directed against looters and Ba’ath Party officials, the US is using the opportunity to tighten its grip over the country.

According to the New York Times, Bremer held a staff meeting in Baghdad last Tuesday “during which he pushed the military to take tougher steps against looters, even to the point of shooting them.” US officials were at pains to deny the report but their statements left no doubt that US troops would be patrolling more extensively and more forcefully.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set the tone when he told a US Senate hearing last Wednesday that on security “we have a full-court press”—a basketball term for an aggressive defence. “The forces there will be using muscle to see that the people who are trying to disrupt what’s taking place in the city are stopped and either captured or killed,” he said.

At his first press conference on Thursday, Bremer pledged to address what he declared was “a serious law-and-order problem”. He announced that, over the previous 48 hours, US soldiers and Iraqi police had detained some 300 Iraqis suspected of looting. Overnight there had been some 300 patrols and 92 arrests. Bremer reassured the media that the country was not “in anarchy” and claimed that “people are going about their business”.

Major General Buford Blount III denied that there had been any change to the rules of engagement. “We are aggressively targeting looters, but we’re not going to go out and shoot children that are picking up a piece of wood out of a factory and carrying it away,” he said, adding: “If a looter is carrying a weapon and the soldier feels threatened, of course he is going to engage.”

The first accounts of US soldiers shooting at alleged looters came in the same day. US Central Command announced that troops in the northern city of Mosul had wounded one person in a firefight said to have been started by a group of looters.

Other media reports raised the possibility that the shootings could be more widespread. Reporting from Baghdad’s al-Kindi hospital last Wednesday night, the Independent provided the gruesome details of two men with serious gunshot wounds who were brought to the facility. “The exact circumstances of their shooting was impossible to clarify—their relatives alleged it was American soldiers, but this was not confirmed—yet such scenes have become the norm here,” the newspaper stated.

Major General Blount indicated that US forces were now holding some 600 people at a holding facility at Baghdad airport. Whereas previously those accused of looting had been released within a day or two, detainees would now be held for up to three weeks, and, in the case of those alleged to have used violence, indefinitely—until a functioning court system is established.

The real reasons for the widespread looting in Baghdad and other areas lie, firstly, with the failure of US forces to protect any government buildings and facilities—other than the Oil and Interior Ministries—immediately following the fall of the Hussein regime, and secondly, desperation.

For the majority of the population, life is a nightmare—they have no jobs or the prospect of any in the near future. Prior to the war, an estimated 60 percent of people relied on food rations provided under the UN’s oil-for-food program. Little humanitarian aid is flowing into the country and many people are relying on food stocks that are rapidly running out.

Rabba Hassan Ghani, 24, who was scavenging for gear to sell at the markets, apologetically told a reporter: “I wouldn’t normally do such a thing but I need the money. If I’m not going to loot the building then there will be another looter who takes everything. If there is no other looter, it will all go when the buildings are set on fire.”

Among US troops, there was unease about being asked to shoot looters. Lieutenant William Baird told the Christian Science Monitor that he would carry out orders, but added: “If I can accomplish the same objective by arresting them, I would do it that way. These people aren’t the enemies of the United States. They are just poor people trying to get something for themselves. I don’t think anyone should die just for trying to have a better life.”

Preempting political opposition

Bremer’s crackdown is aimed at instilling fear more broadly than just among looters. The social chaos in Baghdad and other cities generated by more than a decade of economic sanctions followed by the US-led invasion has led to growing hostility and anger towards the occupation forces. The measures being carried out in the name of stopping looting are also designed to preempt political opposition.

The US military has announced plans to confiscate weapons and to shut down so-called gun markets. The decision sets a course for confrontation with the armed bodyguards and militia that are retained not only by private individuals and businesses but every political party and organisation, including Washington’s own allies.

In another sign of a longterm US occupation, the Pentagon has reversed plans to withdraw some of the 20,000 troops of the 3rd Infantry Division stationed in Baghdad and announced the dispatch of a further 15,000 soldiers from the 1st Armoured Division. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Peter Pace told the Senate last week that there were currently 142,000 US soldiers in Iraq, including 49,000 in the capital.

The number of military police will also rise dramatically from 7,000 to 13,000 by the end of the month—doubling in Baghdad from 2,000 to 4,000. Under Bremer’s predecessor, retired general Jay Garner, some 7,000 Iraqi police have returned to work. However, armed with nothing more than pistols and lacking offices or equipment, these officers have functioned simply as US auxiliaries.

Bremer made two other moves over the last week which indicate that his installation is associated with a decision in Washington to assume full administrative control of Iraq for a protracted period, without relying on Iraqis—either from the former Ba’athist regime or from among allied groups.

At his first meeting with senior representatives from pro-US exile groups last Friday, Bremer effectively overturned a promise by Garner to have the “nucleus” of an interim Iraqi authority functioning by the end of the month. While Bremer denied that he had delayed anything, he will not meet with these leaders for at least two weeks. As one angry Iraqi representative told the media: “They retracted what they said before.”

According to US press reports, Bremer told the meeting that it would be more than a year before any interim Iraqi authority had the power to set policy and run ministries, particularly key ones such as defence, interior and foreign affairs. Any interim authority would only have limited consultative powers to oversee the drafting of a new constitution, the establishment of a judicial system and the running of parts of ministries such as health and education.

At the same time as keeping Iraqi exile groups at arm’s length, Bremer announced a sweeping measure to bring the state administration firmly under his grip by purging all Ba’ath Party members belonging to the top four tiers of the party leadership. The “de-Baathification” of Iraq will affect an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 members out of a total membership of about 1.5 million.

Bremer told the media last week: “Shortly I will issue an order on measures to extirpate Ba’athists and Ba’athism in Iraq forever. We have and will aggressively move to seek to identify these people and remove them from office.” While the removal of hated officials will undoubtedly receive a degree of popular support, the move will allow Bremer to install replacements throughout the upper sections of the state apparatus who owe their loyalty to the US military administration.

Bremer’s decisions make a mockery of the Bush administration’s claims to be bringing democracy to Iraq. Taken together, the moves point to the establishment of an open-ended US military administration in Baghdad that will make all major policy decisions and appointments, and will use its large military presence to deal with any signs of dissent or opposition.