Saturday, April 17, 2004

When Islam Breaks Down > Theodore Dalrymple 

This is a classic of its kind and echoes some of my previous comments

Friday, April 16, 2004

Its the way he tells 'em 

John Pilger always goes one stage further than is necessary to make a point, into the realms of a "perfect world" - the sort of yearning imagined paradise sold by Jehovah's Witnesses on unwilling door steps. The sort of utopias Pilger seems implicitly to yearn for in his essays are just that: a world that cannot exist; one in which people always "do the right thing".

There is certainly what amounts to collusion between the media and western governments to spin a yarn about reasons and causes, and almost certainly the mendacity that Pilger claims, but Blair (you Americans can argue for Bush) is not a criminal in any sense. He will have to live - and probably does as a Christian - with the decisions he made that have resulted in the incapacities and deaths of his troops and many Iraqis who certainly didn't need to die, until he himself dies. What he is responsible - both good and bad - for will be recorded and also remembered after he is forgotten.

Facts cannot be put away like empty suitcases after a holiday. We do have to ask whether Pilger is right in calling the occupation of Iraq colonisation. From Buzmachine, we see that even prospective president Kerry, had back-tracked on his original rosy views on Iraq's future democracy. He is now talking of stability. It is to be wondered what he would actually do differently to Bush if he takes over next year.

It might be more constructive to say the world has moved on, rather than talk of colonisation. People know more and are more able to communicate what they know and feel about their situation. The age of deference and subservience, which help to sustain and perpetuate empires, has passed. Even if certain groups of people around the world are as powerless as they were 80 years ago and before, at least they can express their views on their powerlessness, worldwide, at the click of a mouse. This is evident re Iraq - there has been a worldwide debate about its future which must effect how the decision-makers think.

I have been thinking more and more how the statistics for death and injury amongst Iraqis are not being reported by the conventional media. Of course individual tragedies are reported every day because, unlike statistics, they make a good stories, sell newspapers and keep people glued to TV. There are reliable sources for the number of dead and injured Iraqis. The media in general, however, do not do stories that start with these figures and question why they are so high. There are few stories about how Iraqi families are being compensated for the disasters that have befallen them.

It is instructive to look at the "Get out of Iraq" arguments from all sources, including the US libertarians. But there can be no real argument for the US to give up, despite the mess they have created. Like many I wanted the Iraqis liberated from tyranny, but, overall,don't like the story so far. Far too muddled and inefficient, despite the massive sums of American taxpayers money spent.

I do not think there is a calculus along the lines of "the greatest good of the greatest number", which can divide the cost of removing The Tyrant by the death and suffering deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqis created by the war and occupation. If I had been given a choice before this all started along the lines of: "What do you want? Remove this evil man + suffering + many deaths? Or: "Leave him there + torture + imprisonment + many deaths + WMD?" it would have been impossible to chose.

Choosing no war, I would have been left wondering about the torture and deaths the Tyrant would have continued to be responsible for and whether he did have WMD. But I was not emotionally engaged until it all blew up. I read the papers over the years because Iraq is "my" country, a place of my fondest childhood memories. I always longed for the West to be tougher with The Tyrant on human rights. I did not want them to stand on the sidelines, wringing their hands, while he locked up, tortured and killed his own countrymen and women. The sanctions did not make him suffer, or help many Iraqis.

Now I know hasn't got WMD, I am happier. A negative is still a result. But that is to miss the point. Leaders who decided for war, knew that many Iraqis would die for nothing. There is no degree or hierarchy of innocence, where some innocent deaths are more acceptable than others. Like uniqueness, there are no "quite" innocent. They had committed no crimes to merit being blown to bits or shot at road blocks. Political and diplomatic pressure could probably of removed The Tyrant , eventually.

SEE ALSO Johhann Hari's Was I wrong about Iraq? originally published in the Independent, 14 April, 2004.

Though grateful they decided to occupy Iraq, I don't like the way the US military operates there. I don't like the way the US decided they could deal with this "problem" or the stated reasons for the occupation. I don't like the way they failed to restore law and order in the first months. And yet the other day I found myself writing that the act of invasion was "a moral act", in and of itself, despite the bogus excuses for it and the mess that has ensued.

But that is not enough. It seems important to stand up to say the US military is acting immorally, in many cases, in occupation; that they have made a bad situation worse. An irate American Critic told me, in effect: "You weren't that Marine, so shut up" . I know, I know. But I still feel an obligation to say: "Do the right thing", even though I will not be put in harms way. We ought to praise the many commendable efforts that are being made. No one can deny there has been some progress in repairing the infrastructure and bringing normality back in some areas of life. But reading Abu Hadi's letters from Iraq in the last few weeks we see the reality: still no full electricity supply after 12 months.

A fact of human life is the tendency to objectification of the other. Another fact is the inevitable tendency to feel safe in the group joined or in which you are born. These facts as sure as the sun rising and setting. But there is objectification and there is objectification. A slight, lazy, ignorant, prejudice or indifference is not the same as viewing the "other" as a lesser human than you, just because you happen to have the gun in your hand; or, because you are annoyed at being sent somewhere you don't like, where you might get killed.

Unlike Pilger, I don't feel that moral queasiness means "Get Out". It means remedy your mistakes; say sorry for the things you have done wrong; put more time, more money, more brains and more effort in getting this blighted country back to a semblance of normality; put more troops in, but don't let them shoot people willy-nilly; get the electricity and water up; clean and police the streets; treat those sick as a result of the used of depleted uranium shells and decontaminate the country of uranium; provide sensible work; quickly compensate those in need of compensation. Don't hide behind excuses and obfuscation. Don't retreat into a fantasy world. Tell the truth. Don't play politics in an undemocratic arena.

Bad acts are like cigarette smoking : the damage to you and others is accumulative. You have been told these tobacco sticks are bad for your health: the science cannot be refuted. You can give up acting wrongly or badly, but the "moral damage" has been done. The bad things you are doing, or the good things you fail to do, will damage your "moral body" and infect your mind forever. Don't believe in that ridiculous religious idea that you will be forgiven. You know of things in your personal life that shame you from time to time when they flash into your brain. There will be nowhere to hide. Don't turn your face away from reality. Look it straight in the eye and say: I will do the right thing. If it means telling the world the truth about bad or wrong things that are happening in Iraq - to your detriment - then do it. If it means running away from the US army in Iraq rather than shoot Iraqis, then do it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

TEL's letter 

T E Lawrence's famous letter has a 10/04/2004, Telegraph article by the British historian Niall Ferguson linked to it:

This Vietnam generation of Americans has not learnt the lessons of history


The side link to Islam Today explains clearly how Sunni differ from Shia. I think it helpful the way the Sunni are compared to the Protestant churches. For those like me who know only the basics of Islam, this piece is a good primer. To see the Ayatollah is elected like the Pope and is considered to be infallible in the same way, and have it explained that there are no clerics in the Sunni branches of the faith, makes things a lot clearer.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Dangerous restraint 

John O'Sullivan thinks the US has been too restrained in its approach and that a Provisional Iraqi Government could do the job better.

He notes, astutely that :

"Our dilemma is made worse by the political truth, known since Machiavelli, that it is much harder to reestablish authority that has been lost than to establish it in the first place. Shooting a handful of criminal looters would have been enough to make us sensibly feared a year ago. Today that would hardly make the evening news."


(1) What if the so empowered Provisional Iraqi Govt. cannot or will not do this restraining? What resources has it currently got for this purpose? The re-constituted Iraqi Army recently refused to help the US Marines quell the riots in Fallujah. Would it go in by itself under the orders of the PIG? Are the newly trained Police to be trusted to obey orders?

(2) What role will the US forces play while the PIG is restoring order? Would it act against the interests of the PIG in any circumstances, e.g. by moving against A,B, or C, without the authority of the PIG? Are there any circumstances where they might feel they had to countermand edicts of IG? Would there be no circumstances, if US forces are continually attacked, where the US would not act independently of the PIG to defend US own interests?

It seem obvious the PIG would have to use the Occupying Power to do its work for it for at least another 18 months. But this will still create more hatred of the occupiers. What O'Sullivan wants - letting the Iraqis put their own house in order - will not be possible till they have their own reliable armed forces and security services. Supposing the occupying forces did stand back to see if the Iraqis could do it by themselves.
How long would they wait if the PIG could not do the job?

If I was the Prime Minister of Iraq on July 1 2004, my big worry would be having my authority completely undermined by (a) being unable to carry the job myself (b) then having the Occupying power coming in to try to clear up the mess. I would be totally discredited and have to resign.

There is an argument that this is a good strategy. Failure will show that the Iraqis need more time to organise themselves. Iraqi public opinion might come back behind the Occupying Power. But the diminished authority of both the PIG and the OP, created by failure to stabilise the country, will further play into the hands of the agitators, making them think it worth continuing to destabilise the country. And more to the point, there will be more unnecessary chaos and suffering.
Sunday, April 11, 2004

In reply to one of my irrate American readers 

I deliberately put at the top of my website I would not try to re-invent the wheel, in that if I found an article that expressed my feelings and ideas better than I could express them, I would post it as a side link rather than make a less good attempt to say the same thing. Though many of the side links I have put up are merely part of the story and are not necessarily things I agree with.

Very few of us are on the front line. There are no rules to say you must be a combatant to be entitled to comment on Iraq. I was a boy in Iraq and I feel particularly for the Iraqis.

It is hardly necessary to criticise Iraq and the Iraqis all the time. They didn't do the invading. Though I have said many times I was happy to see it done.

Though the reasons for invading Iraq are many, and dubious, the act itself has become a moral one because the act has saved the Iraqis from a murdering, psychopathic tyrant. But the act of invasion is not the end of the story.

No country is perfect or has a monopoly of virtue. The first twelve months of occupation have seen both great progress and a catalogue of simply avoided errors which have made the situation worse. If western policemen had been sent in to walk the streets of Baghdad starting April 9 2003, the anarchy that the Coalition Provisional Authoirity was so roundly condemned for would have been contained. A very big question hangs over the total disbanding of the Iraqi Army, which left tens of thousands of penniless, jobless, well-armed and trained soldiers lounging around on their back-verandas sipping tea and thinking up ways to occupy their time. While, it is reputed, elements of the hated Mukharabat - and members of other repressive organs - who did all the tyrannising - are being re-employed !

A government is not a people. What a government does or fails to do (e.g. protect the Iraqi museums and keep civil order) ought not to reflect on the people (American) it serves.

George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld (and in my casy Tony B-liar) are only men. Men are fallible.


Baghdadskies 2 is a continuation of Baghdadskies. All the side links have been transferred.


TO DEFINE the political system of Iraq would have baffled Aristotle. In name, it is a constitutional democratic monarchy: "sovereignty belongs to the people," says the Organic Law of the State, " and it is a trust confided by them to King Feisal, son of Hussein, and to his heirs after him." The word which begs the question in this social contract is "people"; for the political system in fact is a rich cake, containing ingredients of many different forms of government and systems of rule; and these varied ingredients reflect the varied elements of the "people." The least important group may be disposed of first: the nomads, or Bedouin, who number rather more than ten per cent of the population. Plans are afoot to provide mobile schools in vans and so on, but the nomadic life is the best suited to the empty spaces of the desert. Such people want to be left alone; there seems little advantage in teaching them the curriculum of a primary school. Their interest in Iraqi politics is nil. The second group is the country people, who depend on agriculture and are tribally attached. The third is the population of the cities. It is a commonplace that such groups exist in every nation: with more or less tension between them. In Iraq the gulf is far wider than any conceivable in Europe. Thus, a town like Baghdad is in every way comparable to a European city: with better amenities, perhaps, than many. The people of Baghdad are as alive to, political issues as the people of Aberdeen, or Salonika. The country people, however, cannot be compared, either in standard of living or standard of education with the country people in any European land. (The only exception: the Kurds, who enjoy a more individualistic way of life than the fellahin, and are less dominated by their sheikhs; they resemble Balkan peasants.)

These three groups are reflected in aspects of the Iraqi system. The Bedouin, who gave so much to Islam (though the Bedouin ideals were spiritualised by the genius of Muhammad) have little influence on modern Iraq. But the fellahin, under their sheikhs, are a majority of the population. They as naturally elect their sheikhs to Parliament as Scottish clans would have elected their chiefs in the seventeenth century. These sheikhs are a constant barrier to progress, particularly on questions of taxation. So that while government servants have income tax deducted at source, the richest people in the country pay no tax at all. Many of them are literally unable to read or write. The third group, the townspeople, are thus torn between fury at the preponderant influence of the landlords, and the democratic assumption that they do not exist. The only solution would be to suspend democracy in theory, as well as fact, and restrict the vote to those with an acceptable standard of education. This would place power solidly in the hands of the educated city dwellers. They might with some justice claim that this suspension of democracy would benefit those deprived of the vote: that they, the town-dwellers, would thus be able to express the "real will" of the people, and reform the system of land tenure.

With this stratification of the country (and we have passed over further complications, the schism between Sunni and Shia Moslems, the position of such minorities as Christians, Jews and Yezidis) the day-to-day working of the Iraqi state exhibits: characteristics of democracy (in the frequent gerrymandered elections), of plutocracy (in the power of money to over-ride the law), of dictatorship (in the whimsical closing of parties when they become too troublesome), of anarchy (when the parties get going again after a brief suppression), of monarchy sometimes constitutional and sometimes factitive. In the thirties a number of would-be Ataturks flashed and fizzled out. Since the war, a non-military oligarchy has ruled the country: a succession of rich friends, known vulgarly as the pack of cards. A change of government comes about for no apparent reason; and is only a shuffling of the well-worn pack. The members of the pack comprise an elite, with seats in the Senate, rotten boroughs to elect them to the lower house, and American commercial agencies to pay their bills. It is an ill-assorted pack, with no kings, few queens, but many knaves.

Typical of the knaves is a politician whose grandfather was a peasant in the south under Ottoman rule. His behaviour gives ammunition to the communists and makes the honest man despair. How, people ask, did he become so rich? Even as a Prime Minister his salary was less than £2,000 a year, in a country where the cost of living is not low. Yet he has a palace in the city, and huge lands in the country. In the summer when the river is low he has the water diverted on to his own land, while that of the poor farmers is left dry. He is accused by a newspaper under the name of “ahadahum" (one of them) of having received seventy thousand pounds from a foreign firm for awarding them a certain contract. He is accused of having also built up his fortune by forcing rich sheikhs to play poker with him, and lose, when he was in power. Such stories may not be true; an exact attention to truth is not a characteristic of Iraqi journalists. But no smoke without fire apart, no Cadillac without money is a truism.

In the pack of cards there is one ace, perhaps of Spades, Senator Nuri Said. He is not popular, and among the extremists he is spoken of with loathing. But he is respected. And with so volatile and undocile a people as the Iraqis, respect is perhaps the best a ruler can hope for. Strong, uncorrupt, quite untroubled by popular opposition, he is now an old man. (He was one of King Feisal the First's supporters in the First World War, when he deserted from the Turkish Army to join the Arab Revolt.) He has always worked with the British, from the time of the Mandate; though in the summer of 1954 he was called a false friend to Britain in an English Sunday newspaper, being accused of wanting England to evacuate its two bases in Iraq. For his friendship with Britain he is, of course, attacked: particularly by those politicians whose only quarrel with the British is that the British have not tried to use them. He is a refreshing figure, because of his frankness, and for Iraq, one who will surely be honoured after his death. He negotiated the new oil agreement: he was responsible for the firm stand on the Jewish question-insisting that all Iraqi Jews must decide for or against Israel; and those for, must leave.

Nuri Said is sometimes referred to as a " dictator" by his enemies; he is rather the strong man who comes in and goes out of power like the little man with an umbrella in old-fashioned weather-houses. A great ruler, a great practical psychologist, he lacks the creative imagination of a great statesman. He can keep order, but had shown no signs of having any particular goal to which the order was to be kept. Until recently. The schemes of the Development Board require a period of order before their benefits can be appreciated by the people. He seems the man most likely to ensure that order, and to allow its economic betterment to carry Iraq a stage further. Meanwhile, he cannot expect to be popular with the young and the enthusiastic, who because they would like Iraq to be an "enlightened democracy like Switzerland or Denmark assume that it already is so-except for the wicked oligarchy now in power. Such people forget that the oligarchy, with its faults, only reflects the present state of Iraqi society, with its limitations. No magic wand, even waved by a genius or a man of impeccable honesty, can undo the results of centuries of bad administration in a fortnight. The road up is always sterner than the road down, and less exciting. Only the destination is better.

Meanwhile, as for the last few years, riots break out occasionally, the pot boils over, martial law is imposed.
" The whole predicament became more serious when the mob turned its attention to the rescue of the few men who had been apprehended, or to the punishment of those constables, justices and military officers who had sought to check the outrages; while it was difficult to secure evidence that the men who had been arrested had not been innocent bystanders. Very soon outrages were so numerous that the government could not find the troops to dispatch to places which were known in advance to be threatened. The point was to be reached at which the city authorities would actually release the prisoners in their charge, in order to save the prisons from being set on fire. The situation was rendered more difficult by the long-standing anti-government spirit in those sections of the public that made most noise. At this time comparatively small risings of the mob, processions that ran amok and almost incidental riots could overthrow a government."

The above passage, from H. Butterfield's account of the Gordon Riots in eighteenth-century London, could fairly describe the average commotion in Baghdad: nearly always taking place when Nuri Said is out of office, nearly always leading to his return to power. In many ways Iraq is like eighteenth-century England: the same vitality, the same spontaneity, the same abuses, the same stirring of the working classes, the same realisation by the intelligent that society is in transition from an old to a new form of life. Modern techniques accelerate the pace of development, and Iraq can also learn from observation of what happened in other countries that moved into the industrial age. Some of the mistakes can be avoided, some, of the intervening stages can be passed over. But however prompted by technique or example, the passage from feudalism and despotism to responsible self-government is a process that has to be lived through, not something that can be achieved by a pen's sweep, or a sword's. Time, as well as strife, is the mother of all things.

from "The New Babylon" by Desmond Stewart & John Haycock Collins 1956

memories of a childhood in Iraq in the 1950s * thoughts on events in the Middle East

Location: United Kingdom

expatriot in Middle East as child, retired teacher.

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