CPA still trapped within walls of its own making

Gulf States Newsletter (GSN) Issue 722 - 14 November 2003

Washington has failed to shock and awe Iraqis with its peace-keeping tactics, the CPA’s record is mediocre and policing operations have alienated swathes of Iraqi opinion, but civilian administrators’ failures mean that most Iraqis still fear an early US military withdrawal.
When Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L Paul Bremer III was called in to replace Jay Garner in May, the White House sought to wipe away the impression that the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) was closeted in the Republican Palace and lacked “grip” of the situation in Iraq. Six months on, the same accusations can be fairly levelled against the CPA – and it is the US military, rather than the CPA or Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), that remains the recognisable face of the occupation to most Iraqis.

Compared to the shuffling scruffiness of Garner, Bremer’s personal style and heroic input of man-hours have given the CPA a sharper image outside Iraq; he was and remains President George W Bush’s chosen man for the job – and the prospect that he might leave when his initial one-year contract expires next May is sending jitters through the White House, where master tactician Karl Rove is gearing up for a potentially tougher-than-expected re-election campaign.

However, the US-led administration has little to show in terms of concrete achievements. Iraqis still lack a clear image of what the CPA is or does, and Bremer remains “that guy in the suit”. Bremer’s radical de-Baathification programme has added to his administration’s woes, and as the US leadership rethinks its Iraq strategy, senior officers in Saddam Hussein’s military are quietly returning to play their part in the new Iraq.

Most worrying for those willing the experiment in military-led regime change to succeed in Iraq, the above observations were among the overwhelming impressions that senior CPA members communicated to GSN on returning to Washington.

Some very impressive technocrats have been flown into Baghdad by the USA and its allies, but there persists a feeling that many CPA staffers are above all on a mission to bring neo-conservative values to the Middle East. GSN was party to a conversation where two CPA staffers explained to friendly Arab journalists that “the difference between us and the British guys [running the south] is that some of them don’t even support Tony Blair, while we’re all Republicans.”

Some roots of today’s security crisis are highlighted by analysis of the situation that prompted a change of management at ORHA and its re-badging as the CPA six months ago, because following the rapid conduct of the war, ORHA’s underwhelming entrance had a distinctly counterproductive effect on the security situation at a critical moment.

A senior US Central Command (Centcom) general told GSN that Operation Iraqi Freedom was originally conceived as a two-stage process. The first stage of combat operations aimed to isolate Baghdad from the north, west, and south, by placing US and British divisions on each of the four main routes leading to the capital. The second phase, lasting up to 125 days, would have effectively involved the siege of Baghdad, with a slow reduction of the city’s perimeter while psychological and covert operations sought to crumble the regime from within.

This concept of operations was used in Basra, foreshadowing what the eventual siege of Baghdad might have looked like. The extended timeline would have allowed the USA to flow forces to the region in sufficient numbers to flood Baghdad and the ‘Sunni triangle’ with a massive show of strength.

Some things that went wrong

In crumbling the entire Iraqi military in 26 days, the plan’s timeline was derailed and the USA entered the capital with light forces. In addition to the lack of forces still being shipped to the region, the USA also lacked the 4th Infantry Division thrust from Turkey, and had many troops tied up in securing the lines of supply to the south.

Despite this, Iraqi loyalty appears to have been ripe for the picking if Garner and ORHA had struck the right tone when they belatedly arrived from Kuwait. According to one Iraq returnee from the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD), the Iraqis expected Garner to “cut the head off the cat”– a phrase used to describe a violent opening move that a coup leader uses to impose his dominance.

As an unnamed Iraqi Ministry of Oil (MOO) official told Financial Times journalist Charles Clover: “We have a lot of experience with coups d’état and this one is the worst. Any colonel in the Iraqi army knows that when he does a coup, he goes to the broadcasting station with five announcements. The first is ‘long live this’, ‘down with that’. The second one is your new government is this and that. The third is a list of people that will go into retirement. The fourth one is that every other official is to report back to work tomorrow morning. The fifth is the curfew. This is usually done within one hour.”

ORHA broke all these rules. A meticulously planned coalition media effort, which aimed to quickly repair lightly damaged Iraqi broadcasting facilities and utilise airborne and ground-based coalition psychological operations transmitters, was never executed “due to organisational disputes and friction,” one Centcom planner told GSN.

Government ministries were looted to their bare walls and personal security concerns kept most government employees at home. By the time ORHA got to Baghdad and visited the ministries, instead of carrying out selective purges in key Baathist-dominated organisations like the Ministry of Planning and Foreign Ministry, Garner’s teams undertook lengthy investigations to try to trace the spiderweb of Baathist appointees in the government. As one OSD official told GSN, “with hindsight, we should have just looked at their salaries – the regime loyalists all received ten times what the other technocrats got.”

Out go the Baathists

The appointment of Bremer and CPA’s establishment began with an attempt to ‘cut the head from the cat’ in the shape of a blanket de-Baathification initiative that stripped known Baathists from all government ministries; the Hussein regime security forces and military were dissolved on 23 May. Moving from one extreme to the other, this step would have far-reaching and negative effects in the months to follow.

It had to be reduced in scope almost from its outset: the CPA began processing waivers for MOO and other key ministries almost as soon as the CPA de-Baathification directive was announced. But in some cases, this was too little, too late.

One CPA oil specialist told GSN that Northern Oil Company – which lost 300 employees to de-Baathification – had discovered that some of the released employees sold information to resistance elements that pinpointed the key nodes to be targeted to cause the most damage to the pipeline infrastructure.

The dissolution of the military and security establishment placed 440,000 armed men on the streets, only 320,000 of whom have thus far received partial compensation for their loss of employment

Donald Rumsfeld’s imperfect world

Since 23 May, the impact of Bremer’s action has been gradually eroded, as the CPA has accelerated its recruitment of former security personnel.

First, the CPA rebuilt a new range of parallel security structures to replace the 17 it abolished, claiming that at least the new bodies were carefully vetted and trained by the USA. But, increasingly, the CPA has rearmed Iraqi forces with minimal training:

    * numbers of Iraqi security personnel will jump from the current 58,000 to 118,000 by the start of December;

    * the Facilities Protection Service jumped from 18,700 troops to 36,000 between 27 October and 7 November;

    * the border guard jumped from 6,500 to 11,600 during the same period.

As Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld was forced to note: “In a perfect world these forces would be carefully vetted, but this is not a perfect world, so we will vet the best we can.”

CPA sources told GSN that the CPA had even begun to release Baathist colonels and generals from detention to resume command positions in the new security apparatus.

The massive expansion of Iraqi security services – which are planned to number 220,000 by late 2004 – is a necessary step, but marks a humiliating climb-down for the CPA that will further undermine its authority in Iraq.

Nor has the CPA fostered a firmer grip on the Iraqi media or political process. To a large extent, this is because the CPA has become swamped in bureaucracy.
GSN was told that in Iraq US agencies each replicated their bureaucratic fiefdoms, first as ORHA in Kuwait before the war – where the Marriott headquarters of ORHA was referred to as ‘Washington on the beach’ – and then as the CPA in post-war Baghdad, where it became ‘Washington on the Tigris’.

Still entirely closeted in the hotels and walled compounds of Baghdad’s ‘green zone’, the CPA is an inconsequential and invisible construct that Iraqis are largely unaware of. Most CPA members never leave the green zone, and Iraqi labourers are kept out of the CPA headquarters where possible, being replaced with third country nationals, largely from Asia. The Al-Rasheed Hotel rocket attack – targeted at the floor habitually used by high-profile visitors during a stay by US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz – indicated that security concerns about Iraqi workers remained valid. A recent OSD returnee stated that the Rasheed was “crawling with Mukhabarat”– as it always was.

Losing the media war

The Iraqi Media Network (IMN) has fared no better under the CPA than it did under ORHA in the immediate post-war period – and the CPA is now looking to private management to sharpen its approach (see box). IMN is structured from the 18 TV stations, state radio and Al-Sabah newspaper inherited from Saddam Hussein.

Most CPA media people rarely come into contact with Iraqis and display little curiosity about the motivations and interests of their audience. Insiders complain that just as military psychological operations (psyops) personnel gain an insight and interest in Iraq and Iraqis, they are routinely rotated out of their positions.

These factors have led IMN programming to remain dull, uncompetitive, and often intensely patronising; one CPA member told GSN that when asked about the programming, Iraqi partners chided the USA for “treating Iraqis like Liberians”. Like so many other areas of CPA business, the media effort has been hindered by what CPA figures call “the baggage of good intentions” – the need to meet Western standards and hone initiatives to perfection at egregious cost in man-hours.

Washington on the Tigris

The CPA’s other main preoccupation, the establishment of a representative government, has been similarly blighted by the Byzantine complexities of ‘Washington on the Tigris’.

In investing so much political capital in building the IGC, a CPA official said, “we are reifying a political construct that most Iraqis think of as fictive.”
The IGC is very active, with some ministers making a very positive impression in their first weeks (GSN 720/8, 717/10). However, that activity is not necessarily in the field of representative government for which it was devised.

According to CPA sources speaking on strict condition of anonymity, certain IGC members have approached US officials involved with the privatisation of the Iraqi economy to indicate their willingness to open certain industries to foreign capital for a price – proposing what one CPA official referred to as “a hand-over-fist grab for public assets.”

In other ways, the CPA policy of creating an IGC which is representative of all Iraq’s communities has exacerbated political tensions. The imposition of ethnic quotas in ministries and the IGC has given further cause for alarm to Sunnis, giving tangible proof of their fears of dispossession following Saddam’s fall. Iraqis joke that the CPA phone number is 13-5-5-1-1, referring to the 13 Shia, five Sunni, five Kurds, one Turcoman and one Christian sitting on the IGC.
CPA officials state that the initial attempts to found the IGC resembled a “Jeffersonian democracy seminar”, but over time the reality of trying to transform a country like Iraq into a Western democracy has dispirited many US ideologues.

Such shifts in sentiment may help explain why some policy-makers are now muttering about the need for a more populist “loya jerga” style grouping to supersede the IGC.

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