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Middle East

Messing up Iraq
Sir Percy Sykes: British spy in Iran

May 17, 2004

It is hard to have supported the American invasion of Iraq and still muster the courage to put pen to paper on the subject. The task becomes even harder when you are a middle easterner who has publicly called the American soldiers, “the good guys.” [See here] Indeed only a year on from the memorable toppling of the Saddam’s statue, it is almost impossible to paint the American occupiers as liberators.

Was I totally wrong? Are the Americans cold-blooded imperialists, devoid of all human values, as some claim? Of course to expect altruism from a super power/ invader is rather naïve, and only the Americans themselves have that kind of expectation from their government. But what is difficult to stomach is how the Americans and their supposedly more experienced and savvy partners-in-crime, the British, managed to utterly mock things up. I mean, with all those experienced diplomats and generals, think tanks and strategy experts with hefty research grants, how could these powers not have predicted and avoided this mess?

The image of a gleeful crowd bringing down the ugly, oversized, statue of their fallen dictator with the help of wholesome American soldiers underlined all that was positive about the war. It was an image of the old America, the America as liberator-- the America who saved the world from the Nazis. The Coalition’s military strategy worked. The swift use of their superiority was awe-inspiring. They were admired for the way in which they achieved their goal: in a short period of time and with relatively low loss of life. They seemed then, like the new hope for a long tormented nation and region. We, here in Iran, cheered them on hoping that an American victory so near our borders would put fear into the hated Islamic regime. But the optimism was short lived.

What they had as invaders they lack as occupiers. In order to succeed with an occupation you need, to use a pop-psychology term, more emotional intelligence. You need to have a deep understanding of the people you are ruling. You have to know their pulse.

You cannot bring democracy anywhere over night. A people used to the stick of a dictator like Saddam are not that easy to rule. Also, it is not easy to bring the American notions of liberty to a fanatically Muslim people. How do you reconcile the American “Bill of Rights” with the Sharia? What makes everything even more difficult for the occupiers is that they have to rule a foreign and deeply divided people under the watchful eye of the world’s cameras. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was watched by the world like a realty -T.V show. Television, the Internet and digital technology bring everything that happens into ordinary homes from Qom to Demoines.

Are they really surprising these pictures of the Americans and the British abusing and torturing Iraqi prisoners? Yes and no. If you had asked me, do the American’s engage in torture in Iraq, before I ever saw these horrid pictures, I would say, “of course.” Not that I believe it is right-- but to think that the world’s democracies do not use torture and humiliation is naïve. Systematic breaking of the ego is the stuff of any army.

What was shocking to see was the methods of abuse--you would think they would have come up with a more scientific way of getting people to talk than urinating on them and pulling their penises!

Those pictures looked like a more harrowing version of the kind of abuse that goes on in American frat- houses and British boarding schools. “Boys on too many Budweisers,” is what I thought. There is a culture that promotes this kind of collective humiliation of another human being. One that merits deeper study. If you read about what happened to women cadets in the Air force academy, or about the lynching of the African-American in the deep south of America a few years back, you would not have been surprised by the pictures form Iraq. What is surprising is that those in power allowed this kind of behavior to bloom, in such a delicate situation, where the coalition forces are under the microscope of world opinion. These pictures show not only a certain depravity inherent in military culture, but also an even more alarming incompetence in the leadership.

One image is particularly disturbing: an American service woman with boyish looks and short hair, a cigarette dangling from her smiling lips, a bottle of beer in one hand and with her other hand pointing to a prisoner’s penis. Why I ask myself has this image stuck in my mind more than the others? Is it because it is hard for me to see a woman engaged in this kind of thing? Or is it that it reveals a certain sexual perversity that makes me uncomfortable? Is it that she looks like she is enjoying it so much? It is, perhaps, all of these.

Just as the image of American soldiers helping the Iraqi citizens topple the statue of Saddam was a symbol of the success of the invasion, the pictures of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by coalition soldiers signify the depth of the quagmire that the forces of occupation are presently stuck in. It is now very difficult to support the Americans. In order to pull off such a globally unpopular invasion, they had to be much more savvy occupiers.

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By Shahla Azizi



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Against All Enemies
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