Reading this engaging book is like watching a trapeze act.
The writer Ali A Allawi is an American-educated Iraqi politician who served as Defense and Finance minister in post-liberation governments in Baghdad. Excluded from the new Cabinet of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Allawi took time to write about the tumultuous experiences of the past four years.
Despite the subtitle of the book, Allawi does not argue a case for the claim that the US-led coalition and its allies, backed by the overwhelming majority of the people of Iraq, have already lost the peace.
Allawi shows that the war achieved all its stated objectives. What happened next was the start of a new war, waged by those who, for a range of reasons, wish to prevent the advent of democracy in the Middle East and are determined to challenge the US as the standard-bearer of a global system they regard as “satanic.”
Allawi’s book makes a compelling case for the removal of Saddam Hussein. It is impossible to read this book and not conclude that dismantling the Saddamite regime was an act of compassion.
Allawi also deserves praise for his detailed account of the nature of the enemies that new Iraq has attracted, and the methods they use to terrorize the civilian population. He shows that the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, has built a vast network of spies and “sleeper” agents backed by massive use of “soft power” to foment instability in Iraq. He even asserts that fear of Iranian domination has prompted some Sunnis into insurgency.
Tehran, Allawi says, has more agents and spies in Iraq than the entire US and allied military and civilian personnel in that country.
Allawi reveals that as defense minister he saw compelling evidence that several Arab states, notably Syria, were involved in fomenting violence in Iraq. He accuses the Arab League of acting as “an advocate of the insurgency”. At least some 70 per cent of the terrorists who committed the worst atrocities in Iraq were citizens other Arab countries.
One of the most interesting revelations in this book is Allawi’s account of the emergence of Arab Sunni radicalism in Iraq.
He shows that the first Jihadi groups were patronized by Saddam to counter-balance Shi’ite influence from Iran. Saddam may not have entered into a formal alliance with Al Qaeda. However, as Allawi shows, he was in league with Al Qaeda-style Jihadis, such as Jund al-Islam (Army of Islam) and Ansar al-Islam (Victors of Islam), for a decade before he was toppled.
Having justified the war, Allawi remembers that he is writing for an American audience that is now overwhelmingly agnostic, if not hostile, to project Iraq.
To take the current public mood into account, he embarks on the trapeze mentioned above.
This he does by reminding the reader that parts of Baghdad and neighboring provinces witness almost daily terrorist attacks that the US-led coalition is unwilling or unable to stop. He criticizes the selfishness, incompetence and corruption of some members of the new Iraqi leadership. He repeats the cliché about the failure of the US-led coalition to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and echoes claims made by such American intellectuals as Noam Chomsky, Jane Fonda, and Michael Moore that the US went to Iraq to steal that country’s oil.
He also comes out with the fashionable attacks on Richard Perle and David Frum as men who supposedly misled President George W Bush into invading Iraq. Surprisingly, however, Allawi has warm sentiments about Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon Number 2 at the time of the war, who is often cited as the architect of the Iraq plan.
Allawi’s most poignant criticism is reserved for L Paul Bremer, the US diplomat who headed the interim authority in Baghdad for 13 months.
I think Allawi’s assessment of Bremer’s performance is unfair, to say the least. It was not Bremer who transformed liberation into occupation, as Allawi implies. It was the United Nations Security Council that, through resolutions 1483 and 1511, that instructed the US and its coalition allies
to accept the status of occupiers.
Allawi lashes out at Bremer for having disbanded Saddam’s army, thus unleashing the insurgency. Later, however, Allawi he refutes that claim.
He writes: “The oft made claim that the disbanding of the army had released a flood of recruits for the insurgency was not the only, or even the main, underpinning of the insurgency.”
To be sure, Bremer was not the best choice as ruler of Iraq at the time. However, the truth is that he went to Baghdad without any strategic guidance from his masters in Washington, and managed to concoct a program that is being implemented to this day.
One problem with writing history while it is still in the making is that events may not work out the way the historian thinks while he is writing his narrative. Allawi’s book suffers from this simple fact. For example, he devotes much space to Muqtada Sadr, the firebrand cleric who was hitting the headlines about Iraq a few months ago.
Allawi wants us to believe that Sadr and his Jaish al-Mahdi (The Army of Mahdi) might hold the key to the future of Iraq. However, that was then, and this is now. Sadr is in hiding, presumably in Iran, and his Jaish al-Mahdi is evaporating like snow in summer. The firebrand may yet return to make more mischief. But whatever he does in the future would not concord with Allawi’s depiction in this book.
By the way, Allawi’s narrative of he Sadrist movement, whose emergence dates back to the 1970s, is one of the best available on the subject. Nevertheless, he is mistaken in asserting that ayatollahs Muhammad-Baqer al-Sadr and Muhammad-Sadiq al-Sadr advocated “Walayat al-faqih” (Custodianship of he Jurisprudent” and were thus, by implication, supporters of the Khomeinist system in Iran.
The concept of “walayat al-faqih” is accepted by all Shi’ite theologians, but not in the political sense given it by Khomeini. The two Sadrs acknowledged “walayat al-faqih” in the case of orphans, widows, the physically disabled and the mentally handicapped. Khomeini regards the whole of mankind as disabled and thus in need of being ruled by the “faqih”.
Allawi also misunderstand the teachings of Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of Shi’ite theologians. He uses the term “quiescent” to describe Sistani. But this does not mean anything, even in English. Sistani is a traditional Shi’ite theologian and, as such, acknowledges the existence of a distinct political space in the life of the community. This is why the Khomeinists are terrified of him.
The launching, by the Iraqi government, of a new plan to secure Baghdad with the help of 27,000 additional American troops, has also altered the political landscape as seen by Allawi when he was writing his book. The Baghdad plan may yet fail, no one writes history in advance. But it may also succeed, in which case Allawi’s gloom might seem misplaced.
Allawi is at his best when he takes us into the murky world of post-liberation politics in Iraq. As one of the principal participants in that unfolding drama, he was able to see things first hand. To portray the new Iraqi leadership elite, Allawi dips his brush in vitriol. He castigates his former colleagues, without leveling any precise charges. The only person to emerge with an almost heroic image is Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial politician once regarded as Pentagon’s favorite to lead post-Saddam Iraq.
Allawi also has words of praise for Adnan Pachachi, Iraq’s universally admired elder statesman.
When it comes to others, notably Iyad Allawi, del Abdul-Mahdi, and Ibrahim al-Jaffari, Allawi is less than fair. He is also rather dismissive of the current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Again, however, Allawi’s portrayal of al-Maliki was completed before the prime minister started to establish himself as a determined leader with a clear vision.
Allawi’s opponents might impute part of his disenchantment to sour grapes. The party with which he associated did not do as well as expected in the last Iraqi general election, shutting it out of key posts in the government. Nevertheless, I think Allawi has succeeded in rising above personal grudges. It is people like him that new Iraq must attract and keep. The fact that he is drifting away from a new Iraq is a bad point for all concerned.
Allawi shows that the US went to Iraq to topple a despot, not to build an empire. But then he criticizes the US for not having an empire-building strategy.
Translated into plain language, Allawi’s message is that the liberation of Iraq was a noble and necessary act, but its aftermath looks bad, to say the least.
He concludes his book thus: “The situation in Iraq is complex, dangerous and fraught with poor alternatives. But it is not hopeless.” Thank God!