Reinventing Iraq will require bureaucratic overhaul

The good news is that Iraq has robust governmental institutions. The bad news is that rebuilding the country after the war will require dismantling them.

A country called Iraq has existed only since 1919. But some cities in that land were already 16 centuries old when the nearby Egyptians built their pyramids.

Bureaucrats in Mesopotamia, as the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers was known, began keeping written records in 3400 B.C. And despite three decades of political repression, economic mismanagement, and military disaster under Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, Iraq today-unlike Afghanistan in 2001, Yugoslavia in 1995, and Germany in 1945-is not a "failed state." From food-distribution systems to local police forces, essential institutions and infrastructures have survived Saddam, albeit barely, and they will survive a war that successfully ousts him.

So the good news is that Iraq will not have to start over from scratch. Unfortunately, the bad news is also that Iraq will not be able to start over from scratch.

"This is not Afghanistan; this is a country that's functioning," said Phebe Marr, author of The Modern History of Iraq. "They can get the oil up, they can run the irrigation system, they can run the government," Marr said. "But that's very different from [running] a political system. The liberal strand you need ... tolerance, compromise ... it's just not there."

Force and fear have long held Iraq's disparate parts together: the clannish, pastoral, and agricultural Kurdish north; urban, urbane, multiethnic Baghdad; and the marshy, impoverished Shiite (also called Shia) south. The modern era is bloodily bracketed by the Iraqi army's 1933 massacre of Assyrians, a tiny ethnic group of mostly Christians-just 11 months after Iraq gained independence-and by the slaughter of Kurds and Shiite Muslims in the uprisings against Saddam after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The history of Iraq can be told as an intermittent war waged by the Sunni Arabs, who have dominated the government and the center of Iraq, against their ethnic rivals-the Sunni Kurds to the north and Shiite Arabs to the south. No wonder many international experts and officials, scarred by the peacekeeping failures of the 1990s, see Iraq as a new Yugoslavia waiting to explode.

But many of those who know Iraq best-exiles and, more objectively, historians-see more nuance, and more hope. The violence has been real, but it never was simply about ethnicity. Shiite mobs lynched Shiite collaborators in 1991, and were shot down by units that included Shiite conscripts. Kurdish paramilitaries aided Saddam's genocide of other Kurds in the 1980s. And yet, in 1991, Kurdish rebels showed remarkable restraint, even toward Saddam's non-Kurdish soldiers they had taken prisoner.

"We were quite afraid that the Kurdish people would take revenge," said Antonella Notari of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who was in northern Iraq in 1991. Instead, "Iraqi prisoners were treated with great respect by the Kurdish combatants, [who realized that the soldiers] didn't fight against the Kurds by choice."

Such an understanding represents Iraq's best hope. Unlike Yugoslavia with its ethnic paramilitaries, or Afghanistan with its tribal warlords, or even democratic India with its Hindu-versus-Muslim riots, Iraq has seldom seen the violence of people who willingly took arms against their neighbors. In 1991, mobs burned government buildings, not ethnic neighborhoods, and with good reason. Precisely because the flat, fertile floodplain of Iraq has been so civilized for so long-unlike the barely governable highlands of Afghanistan or the Balkans-the state has traditionally been the worst killer. And there is a difference between entire communities that commit violence and a government that commits violence: Governments can be overthrown.

But with so much blood on official hands, the robustness of Iraqi governmental institutions is a mixed blessing. "How do you reconcile a woman who has been raped, as a matter of state policy, by a civil servant?" asked Feisal Istrabadi, an Iraqi expatriate who has advised the State Department's "Future of Iraq" study.

The wounds inflicted by Saddam run deep. So does complicity. Istrabadi estimates that the regime's hard-core supporters number 100,000. And nearly 2 million people-one Iraqi in 12-belong to the Baath party, less out of conviction than convenience; they need party membership to get promoted, to stay safe, even to get into college. "I understand why they joined," Istrabadi said. "I might have joined myself." So while many leaders in exile want the Baathists out of the bureaucracy, the tainted rank-and-file functionaries may be so numerous that it's impossible to govern Iraq without them.

The dilemma then, for any U.S. occupation force, is that immediate and future goals often conflict. Flooding Iraq with aid eases short-term suffering but deepens long-term dependency. (Indeed, U.N.-supervised Oil-for-Food rations are now killing off Iraqi agriculture.) Keeping Baathists in official positions reduces the risk of anarchy today but increases the danger to democracy tomorrow.

"What you do from day one sets the terms," said Ray Jennings, a veteran of Balkan reconstruction who is now at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "The traditional idea that you go in, provide relief, stabilize, and then you worry about rehabilitation and development ... has gotten us into trouble several times," he said. Most notably that was true, Jennings noted, in Bosnia and Kosovo, where gangster-politicians had time to entrench after NATO troops stopped the fighting and before U.N. civilian personnel could restore the rule of law.

The need to keep both short-term and long-term goals simultaneously in sight has gained real traction in the U.S. government. Contracts to rebuild everything from oil fields to schools are being put up for bid, even as emergency rations are being stockpiled. Agency for International Development chief Andrew Natsios pledges that long-term reconstruction projects will follow humanitarian relief efforts within days.

But many outside experts fear that the plan to win the peace is far less advanced than the plan to win the war. "The administration has given very little attention to this, the Congress has given essentially no attention to it, and the media has spent very little time on it," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a Foreign Relations subcommittee chairman fuming over administration officials' refusal to even guess at the costs of rebuilding Iraq. And until the president forces Congress and the public to confront those costs, said Hagel, the American people will not commit for the long haul.

And rebuilding may require a huge commitment: Unofficial estimates suggest tens of billions of dollars, and tens of thousands of troops, for years. The stakes are high, and time is short.


Dictators don't fall softly. The 1991 Gulf War drove Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait but only shook his hold on power. Yet the failed uprisings afterward still took an estimated 60,000 lives-20 times as many Iraq civilians as were killed by the U.S.-led coalition. Some experts blame Saddam's security forces for most of the post-Desert Storm bloodshed, and they fear that tens of thousands of Baathist thugs could again lash out in despair if Saddam seems doomed. Other experts, attributing the 1991 carnage to vengeful mobs, worry that tens of thousands of ethnic militiamen will again settle old scores as soon as they are free to do so. Yet others simply fear the natural escalation of fear and violence in a country without a trusted, neutral arbiter.

Who's right? Whether it's the old oppressors or the newly liberated who might run amuck is almost moot. The way to head off either kind of chaos is with several hundred thousand troops, as Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki has let slip. The administration quickly renounced his estimate, but it still plans to have 380,000 troops either in the Gulf or on call as potential reinforcements. Such numbers would be needed less to defeat the 400,000 demoralized and ill-equipped soldiers of the Iraqi army than to impose order on 23 million Iraqi civilians. And the Bush administration has explicitly given its regional commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, the task of administering what he liberates.

But once again the short-term and the long-term concerns are at war. U.S. troops can keep most Iraqis from killing each other, but some Iraqis will soon try to kill them. At the end of World War I, the British liberated the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul from the Turks and united them in one entity called Iraq; in 1920, Iraq rose in revolt when it became clear that the British weren't going to leave. In 1996, the mere presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia inspired a truck bombing in Dhahran that killed 19 Americans, and they were just sitting in barracks. The last time the United States tried to impose peace on an Arab city was in Beirut in 1983-and the response was one bomb that killed 241 Marines. Just imagine the reaction if a U.S. patrol in Baghdad were swarmed by rioters and had to open fire.

"Some dirty work needs to be done," said Mustafa Malik, a journalist, scholar, and former Pakistani official. "Somebody has to do some shooting initially [to keep order]. If the shooting has to be done by the American military, I cannot imagine, after that, that we can have control."

So although U.S. forces must be the final guarantor of order, on a day-to-day basis it will be best to have Iraqis policing-and if need be, killing-other Iraqis. And what happened in the Kurdish north in 1991 offers some hope. Kurdish rebel leaders forswore mass trials and mob violence against supporters of Saddam's regime; some were killed anyway, some fled, but most of the rank-and-file functionaries stayed-and most of the local cops kept walking their beats.

Municipal police in Saddam's Iraq today are ill-trained, underpaid, and steeped in petty graft. But their very weakness has saved them from the worst corruption of all: The elite security forces shunted them aside to keep for themselves the work of repressing the regime's foes and the ample rewards from Saddam. Meticulous records captured by the Kurds on the torture and murder of dissidents show that the regular police were uninvolved.

So if the invasion is not too disruptive, the United States could copy the Kurdish model, pay civil-service salaries-as the Bush administration has already pledged to do for a time-and leave the local cops in place. Heavily armed U.S. patrols can provide backup and a visible reminder of who is in charge, but U.S. forces could steadily draw down, as they have in Bosnia and Kosovo. In most towns, most of the time, the only armed foreigners might be a few discreet observers from Army civil affairs, military police, or Special Forces, and, later on, civilian police from Brooklyn or Berlin to retrain the locals. Some villages might never see an American soldier at all.

Eventually, however, villagers will have to see an Iraqi one. Sharing the region with Al Qaeda and Iran, the new Iraq will need an army-which is one reason U.S. war planners don't want to blow up too much of Iraq's existing army. But once again, short- and long-term goals are in conflict. The Iraqi army staged its first coup in 1936, four years after independence, and then alternately dominated and ousted civilian governments for decades. After 1968, the Baathists weakened the army and built up new security forces loyal only to their party-but those thug elites will go out with the Baath, leaving the army once again the strongest player in Iraqi politics.

How can the Iraqi military be taught the rules of a more democratic game? The U.S. has reformed authoritarian armies before, notably in the Eastern European nations now welcomed into NATO. But it took years of aid and constant pressure. Even if current commanders are retained and their units are kept intact, it will take months to sort through personnel records (assuming files are not destroyed) to find the worst actors. And many experts doubt that such half-measures will purge the dictatorial taint fouling the army.

Kanan Makiya is considered the dean of Baghdad dissidents and is affiliated with the Iraqi National Congress. In an interview with National Journal, he said that U.S. occupiers should "completely restructure the army ... demobilize it and build it up again under new leadership, with new training." But in Afghanistan, it has taken foreign advisers more than a year to train just 3,000 troops for that war-torn country's new army. Protecting Iraq's borders and provinces might require a new army of 150,000 troops. And however retrained, those troops will have to be paid adequately to keep them anywhere near loyal, while demobilized soldiers will need jobs that keep them off the streets. All of that requires money. In the long run, Iraq itself must pay for sustainable reform-and that means using its oil.

Economic Reconstruction

America fought its most recent war in Afghanistan, a country already leveled by 20 years of fighting. Iraq starts off in far better shape and has never fallen as far. This makes the long-term task much easier-there is a base in Iraq on which to build. Iraq contains the apparatus of industrial society-water systems, electrical grids, food distribution. Now, the United States will wield the most precise weapons in history and follow a "humanitarian map" of what not to hit with its bombs. But human error, technical glitches, city fighting, and last-ditch malice by Saddam will take some toll on Iraq's infrastructure. And the fighting will inevitably result in fleeing refugees.

How many refugees? In 1991, 2 million, mostly Kurds and Shiites, fled Iraq. Now, some leaked U.N. scenarios estimate that fighting will force up to 2.5 million Iraqis to leave their homes. But if the war is short, they can return home fast, as Kosovar refugees did in 1991, said Jan de Wilde of the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration. And de Wilde doubts a U.S.-led war will displace as many people as the 1991 anti-Saddam uprisings did.

The critical variable in these calculations is water. People without food take weeks to starve; people without water die in days. And all of Iraq is hot. Much of it is desert. But more dangerous to more people are the great rivers that gave Mesopotamia its wealth in ancient times, but that are now badly contaminated with sewage.

The oil boom of the 1970s bought Iraq a sophisticated water and sanitation system to serve its burgeoning cities. In 20 years of war and sanctions, the infrastructure has decayed while the population grew. Despite real improvement since Oil-for-Food funds started buying repair parts in 1996, aid groups estimate that 5 million Iraqis still lack safe water, many of them right in Baghdad, and that half the sewage treatment plants aren't working. The plants and pumps that do work draw power from an electrical grid whose output is still 30 percent below 1990 levels and which is highly vulnerable to stray bombs.

By contrast, the food supply in Iraq looks almost robust. Since Oil for Food began in 1996, the average Iraqi's caloric intake has doubled, though it is still below 1980 levels and the U.N.-recommended minimum. Malnutrition remains widespread, especially among children under 5, whose death rate is among the highest in the world-not from outright starvation so much as from weakened resistance to the bacteria in the water. Under Saddam's rule, 60 percent of Iraqis-some 14 million people-depend on a government rationing system that outside experts consider highly efficient, and which the United States has promised to get running again soon after the war. To bridge any gap, many families have stockpiled a six-week supply of food, thanks to extra rations Saddam has been issuing since July. And for those in need, aid agencies can deliver food far more easily than water; the U.N.-affiliated World Food Program alone has enough rations warehoused in the region to feed a million people for a month.

But foreigners cannot provide basic services such as food and water, or police, to all of Iraq indefinitely. That is why even the emergency supplies U.S. and international agencies are now stockpiling include not only rations but also electrical generators, water-purification systems, and other equipment to get Iraq's infrastructure back in service. In the midterm, the reconstruction of Iraq will depend on getting both halves of Oil for Food running again-not just imports of food, medicine, and spare parts, but also exports of oil to pay for it all.

The long-term paradox is that the Oil-for-Food program reinforces central planning, pervasive subsidies, and the kind of dependence on a single export-oil-that has doomed developing economies in the past. Said one U.S. government official, "Sooner or later, you'd want to wean people off of that."

But global capitalism may come calling before the new Iraq is ready. The immediate potential danger to Iraqi oil fields is that Saddam may set them afire out of spite. He has, however, already done a subtler kind of damage to his nation's economy-piling up debt. Even today, a quarter of Oil-for-Food revenues go not to Iraq, but to Kuwait and others as reparations for the 1991 Gulf War, amounting to nearly $16 billion in payments over the past six years, with another $172 billion in claims awaiting adjudication. And the commercial loans Saddam took out before 1991, on which Iraq has a decade of unpaid interest, are estimated to total between $60 billion and $140 billion-up to twice Iraq's entire annual gross domestic product.

No plausible aid program could outpace the annual interest payments. "All of our generosity will not match that number," said Rick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The only solution, Barton said, is an international conference to renegotiate this crushing debt, and soon.

If their creditors do not suck them dry, the Iraqis may prosper, because they have plenty of experience running a profitable, technically efficient oil industry on a daily basis. But strategically, Iraqi oil has been mismanaged for decades. The Baathists have spurned foreign investment, left oil fields unexplored, and squandered revenue. In areas Saddam controls, the gross domestic product is one-fifth of what it was before the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, literacy has dropped by a third since the mid-1980s, and the shriveled economy is less diversified and more dependent on oil than ever before. Since 1979 when Saddam became president, Iraq "hasn't been developing-it's been de-developing," said Paul Sullivan, a professor of economics at the National Defense University.

Before 1979, peace and high oil prices made the 1970s a boom time for Iraq, fondly remembered even today. But even then, the golden age was hollow, and the country suffered from what could be called "the oil disease." Easy money propped up inefficiency and repression, and it fed economic dysfunction without building lasting gains. Although Iraq shows this syndrome at its warmongering worst, the oil disease has undermined democracy and development in countries around the globe, from Saudi Arabia to Nigeria to Venezuela. If Saddam's replacements are even half as corrupt, Iraqi oil will go to waste again, and with it, American hopes.

Political repression is not completely incompatible with economic growth; look at the histories of South Korea and Taiwan. But openness gives young economies the chance to see and correct rising corruption before it chokes them. Even from a narrowly pragmatic point of view, the new Iraq will need some measure of democracy, if only to get it on its feet and off our back.

Prospects for Democracy

Who will rule Iraq after Saddam? The bitter debate usually focuses on who is to be on top-will it be a U.S. military administrator, a civilian, or an international figure linked to the United Nations? After years of feuding among themselves, the splinters of the Iraqi opposition came together in early March to name a six-member provisional council-and to denounce Washington's plans for an interim U.S. administration.

But whether a transitional government has an American governor with an Iraqi advisory council, or an Iraqi council dominated by an American adviser, the final arbiter will be U.S. troops-and the day-to-day administrators will be Iraqi functionaries. Parliaments are important; however, for most Iraqis, most of the time, their local bureaucrats and courts already matter more, and will continue to matter more. How can Iraq reform its economy, let alone its politics, if citizens cannot even take the government to court?

The Iraqi court system, of course, has also been corrupted by Saddam. Before the Baathists, "you could sue the state for breach of contract; you simply can't do that now," said the expatriate Istrabadi, a lawyer. Bribes and personal connections outweigh evidence, even in ordinary civil cases. And for dissidents, there is an entire body of secret laws known only to the security police, and a parallel system of secret courts-in which regular judges are often forced to serve, knowing in advance that the defendant has been tortured and that the verdict will be "guilty." Such forced complicity is as demoralizing as it is corrupting.

The pervasive dishonesty of Saddam's police state taints even schoolteachers, who are so underpaid that many give good grades in return for a bribe. With 50 percent of Iraq's population unemployed, 60 percent living off government rations (some of which get sold for spare cash), and many families selling off furniture and books to make ends meet, any idea of normal economic life is lost in Iraq. "This is a society in shambles," said Sullivan. "Behavior that would have been completely unacceptable in the 1970s is now the norm."

Some decency and honor do remain, however. "The corruption and all of those things are there; but it's much better than any [other] developing country in the world," said Rehan Mullick, a former staffer with the U.N. Oil-for-Food program who found Iraqi bureaucrats "definitely" superior to those in his native Pakistan. "Even my colleagues from Africa and other places really admired Iraqis for maintaining their integrity."

While never up to Western standards, Iraq has traditions and institutions many countries would envy. Before 1958, during the rule of the British-installed Hashemite monarchy, Iraq had not only functioning courts but also a parliament, political parties, a free press, and elections. The elections were frequently rigged, the press was often censored, and "the politicians tended to be large landlords," said Juan Cole, a historian at the University of Michigan. With all its flaws, said Cole, Hashemite Iraq was "kind of like 18th-century Britain."

Since 1958, when a military coup ended the monarchy, Iraq's proto-democratic institutions have been destroyed, and the landlord class that ran them has been exiled, killed, or simply dispossessed. Saddam has spent three decades eradicating any alternative leadership. But there are candidates, each with strengths and flaws.

The exiles are the best-known and most derided. The Bush administration has rejected proposals to form a government-in-exile, and outsiders doubt the dissident Iraqi National Congress's claim to strong underground support inside Iraq. Some leading dissidents left the country decades ago. But that very isolation-besides keeping them alive-has kept the expatriates free of the pervasive corruption of the Baathist regime. And for all the bickering among expatriate politicians, the huge number of Iraqis living abroad-an estimated 4 million-includes the country's best-educated professionals, many of whom have years of experience living in Western democracies. Said Abbas Mehdi, a professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and no fan of the INC, "If 20 percent of these people go back and act as an agent for change, Iraq will change."

Inside Iraq itself, however, the Kurds have long provided the strongest leadership. The two main Kurdish parties date back decades and are led by men with famous family names. "People like me knew who Talabani and Barzani were before the uprising" of 1991, said Tara Aziz, now with the Washington Kurdish Institute. Such recognized leaders could both direct and restrain the revolt. Former U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith recalled being at a town hall meeting with Jalal Talabani at the height of 1991's postwar uprisings: "They were talking about independence; Talabani was explaining-again-why it couldn't happen."

The two Kurdish groups fought bitterly in 1996, one even allying briefly with Saddam. But despite that internal divide, the 4 million Kurds under the groups' rule in northern Iraq have three times as many schools as in 1991; their income and nutrition levels are well above those in Saddam's part of Iraq; and they enjoy a fledgling civil society. And common fear of Turkish intervention, if nothing else, has forced the Kurdish factions to work together-and they function so much better than the rest of the opposition, said Galbraith, that "the Kurds basically ran the show" at a recent Iraqi opposition conference, where they got the other groups to agree in principle to a more decentralized Iraq.

The Kurds' key partner at that meeting, Galbraith said, was the leading Shiite group, the ominously named Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. SCIRI has strong ties to Iran, where a half-million Iraqi Shiite refugees from the 1991 war still live, and from where an estimated 10,000 "Badr Brigade" guerrillas are infiltrating into Iraq. But "they have their own tensions with Iran," said Yitzhak Nakash of Brandeis University, the author of The Shi'is of Iraq. Historically, Iraqi Shiites fought loyally alongside the Sunni against the non-Arab (Persian) Shiites of Iran; Iraqi and Iranian clerics have been rivals for influence in the Shiite world as often as allies; and, anyway, most Iraqi Shiites pay far less heed to their clerics than do Iranians. The real problem in Iraq, Nakash argued, is not the strength of Shiite leaders but their weakness: "After 83 years of Sunni minority rule, the power of the Shiite religious establishment in Iraq has largely been broken."

This power vacuum will slow recovery throughout the part of Iraq now under Saddam's control. "It will take a long time for that interior to be able to express itself politically," said Makiya, the Iraqi dissident. "The inside will take years to create leadership."

The INC's short-term solution is governance by exiles like themselves. But in the long term, civil society must be grown, and must be grown from the grassroots up. "Most of the national-level talent has either been co-opted [by Saddam], or they've been killed or chased out of the country," Barton said. That means, Barton continued, that leadership will have to be built from the ground up in Iraq. "You want to work at the municipal level," he said. Reconstruction veterans advise that the moment a town is liberated, foreign troops and aid workers need to consult the community, not dictate to it, in order to give new leaders the chance to step forward, test themselves in manageable projects, and learn to work with their traditional rivals on obvious common interests such as irrigation.

The downside of such a bottom-up approach is that it cedes control. In the short term, it is always easier to impose compliance from the center. From peace with Israel to war on Iraq, said University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, the United States asks "governments in the region to be allies of policies that are not popular; and they can only be allies of policies that are not popular by being less responsive to the public, which means more repressive." A genuinely democratic government would sometimes voice its people's wish that the Yankees go to hell-as the Turkish parliament did in early March when it voted against allowing U.S. ground troops to use Turkish bases to attack Iraq.

The majority in the Ankara parliament belong to an Islamic party. Religious fervor has risen for a generation in the Middle East, even in famously secular Iraq. So removing Saddam may take the lid off some vehement Islamic-and anti-American-sentiments. But trying to clamp the lid back down has proved to be worse. When an Islamic party won the 1991 elections in Algeria, the government annulled them-and sparked a civil war that by some estimates has so far killed 150,000 civilians. In Turkey, when the military finally let Islamic politicians take power, the realities of running a country moderated the views of the Islamists. Indeed, it was the Turkish Islamic party's own leaders who pressed a pro-U.S. vote this year. So when Islamic politicians speak out in the new Iraq, the interim regime might do better to co-opt them, rather than to crack down on them. The best way to guarantee that Iraq will remain America's enemy is to try to force it to be America's friend.

In the long run, if everything goes right-if security, prosperity, and democracy all take root in Iraq despite the odds-the result may still be a country that the U.S. does not particularly like, and that does not like us. Americans died to free France in World War II, and spent years afterward rebuilding Germany. Today, both countries oppose U.S. policy toward Iraq. In the end, the true measure of success will not be the creation of a compliant, repressive puppet, but the fostering of a defiant democracy: an Iraq that can say no.