In Iraq we now have essentially a "coalition of losers." The protests in Iraq at the moment are primarily non-sectarian, and concern issues such as corruption, lack of effective public services, abuse of detainees in prisons, lack of amnesty for tortured prisoners, lack of aid for farmers, and demands for local officials to resign. In Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perception Index, Iraq ranked 175th out of 178 countries.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been able to form a new government even though his bloc did not win the largest number of seats in Parliament, a situation which has alienated many Sunnis.

The Sadrists are trying with difficulty to appropriate the protests. Sadr's movement is having a hard time balancing its attempts to portray itself as the voice of the people with its efforts to act as a legitimate political party. On February 15th, Sadr called on Iraqis to demonstrate against the poor quality of public services, but the Sadrists themselves control six of the ministries -- including the one known as "Planning and Public Works."

The slate system of voting had negative outcomes in both the 2005 and 2010 elections. In 2005, as most Sunnis boycotted the elections, the Shi'a blocs, like the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), and the Kurdish blocs were able to consolidate their power and entrench sectarian militias further in the ranks of the Iraqi security forces.

At least two recent assessments seem to have gotten what happened not quite right.

Donald Rumsfeld's recently published memoirs, in which he pins blame for the chaotic aftermath of the Iraq invasion primarily on the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for failing to grant Iraqis "the right to govern themselves," thereby "fanning the embers of what would become the Iraqi insurgency," are yet another example of how US officials seem more concerned with defending their reputations rather than confronting their mistakes and changing course. Rumsfeld has every right, naturally, to defend his decisions, but to deny that any U.S. failures stemmed from exceptionally poor post-war planning on the part of the Pentagon, or that Rumsfeld himself failed to provide enough troops for the aftermath of the fall of Saddam's regime, is appalling revisionism.

True, the Defence Department had little expertise and few qualified personnel to take on what the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has called the largest rebuilding project in American history. Nevertheless, fifty years of fighting the Cold War meant that the U.S. government had, over the years, devoted much more money to the military budget. As a result, it was primarily the Pentagon, and not the relatively underfunded State Department or USAID agency, that was put in charge of post-war planning.

The latter bodies had inadequate resources to take on the job even if they had wanted to. Rumsfeld's decision on troop numbers was not based on sinister intentions to unleash chaos on the country, but was rather rooted in a dogmatic belief that the Iraq invasion would turn out to be a best-case scenario where the Americans would be universally viewed as liberators by Iraqis and greeted with flowers on the streets.

This conviction partly stemmed from a meeting in the White House with three Iraqi exiles in January 2003. Unfortunately, Rumsfeld appears to be oblivious to the fact that insufficient troop levels meant that widespread looting, which caused far more damage to Iraq's infrastructure than Coalition bombing, could not be controlled by U.S. forces -- as well as sending a message that lawlessness was permissible. In addition, a combination of insufficient troop levels and the lack of a counter-insurgency strategy (hitherto abandoned by military theorists since the Vietnam War) meant that, even if the CPA had immediately been determined to rein in sectarian militias, most likely the CPA would not have been able to do so.

It is this subject in particular that both Rumsfeld and the two CPA officials who have responded to him in the Washington Post ignore, together with the problem of political reconciliation in the country after the fall of Saddam's regime.

Here, Dan Senor and Roman Martinez gloss over very important points.

Although the question of whether Iraqis were given "the right to govern themselves" in the period 2003-4 is not nearly as relevant as Rumsfeld thinks, Dan Senor and Roman Martinez are indeed right that "a sovereign Iraqi government established in the spring or summer of 2003 would have empowered the Shiite leaders of the Iraqi opposition movement in exile before the war." What these CPA officials neglect to mention, however, is that the CPA-appointed leaders were bent on "aggressive de-Baathification" with sectarian agendas to the Iraqi Governing Council in the summer of 2003, including politicians like Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim of the Shiite Islamist SCIRI party and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, neither of whom enjoyed popular support among Iraqis to begin with. With these figures, the CPA itself went about pursuing a de-Baathification process that essentially became de-Sunnification, instead of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which might have eased tensions between Iraq's various communities, as Kanan Makiya had hoped for.

Figures such as Paul Bremer compared Baathist Iraq to the Greater German Reich, consequently feeling a need to go along with the new Iraqi leadership to punish all those who had been involved with the regime in any meaningful way, in the same way as the de-Nazification process after World War II. What seems to be forgotten is that de-Nazification, as it was first implemented, was recognized to be a failure. The de-Nazification process was formally abandoned by US authorities in 1951, although It was not the banning of the National Socialist German Workers' Party in itself that was the problem, so much as the idea of imposing collective guilt on the German people; denying Waffen-SS veterans (even those not found guilty of any war crimes) the right to a pension, and barring 1,900,000 former members of the party from any form of work except manual labour. By the end of WWII, the National Socialist German Workers' Party had millions of members, and not all of them had membership because they were ideological supporters of Nazism. Rather, as with Baathist Iraq, membership of the ruling party was a key way to advance a professional career.

Also, the US allowed for the declaration of Islam as the official religion of the country in the new constitution -- another mistake, and one which differed from the US policy during the occupation of Japan, where thorough reforms were undertaken in the education system to stress that Shintoism should be a private, de-politicized, de-militarized religion. In contrast, Iraqi government-approved school textbooks, concurrent with Islam as the state religion of Iraq, still teach values such as jihad as warfare against infidels.

The most infamous decision as part of this process, however, was undoubtedly the disbanding of the army and all other regular security forces by Bremer. These men were offered no pension or other jobs. Not only did this blunder put thousands of Sunnis out of work, both collectively punishing them and fuelling the Sunni insurgency, it also paved the way for sectarian militias, whom Bremer viewed as protection for Iraq's recently-returned exile groups to fill the ranks of the new Iraqi army and police. Bremer, in failing to deal with the militias, allowed Sadr to form his Mahdi Army and Shiite militias to create their own de facto sovereign areas.

Bremer also scrapped Jay Garner's plan for a $70 million project to demobilize the militias by integrating some into the security forces, while offering a pension and providing civil vocational training for others. When the CPA was finally forced to pay attention to the militias in 2004, it was already too late to reverse the situation. With the creation of the new Iraqi interim government in the summer of 2004, for instance, former Badr Brigade commander Bryan Jabr Solagl became Interior Minister, firing hundreds of Sunnis, encouraging his militiamen to entrench themselves in the ranks of the police and to carry out sectarian attacks on Sunnis in retaliation for Sunni insurgent operations.

Further, the U.S. continued to go along with the disbanded CPA's policy of hindering the possibility of political reconciliation. Together with SCIRI, for example, U.S. officials put sufficient pressure on Nouri Al-Maliki to scrap a plan to grant amnesty to insurgents, and to reform the de-Baathification process, in June, 2006. It was only in 2007, with the advent of the surge, that a policy of reconciliation was finally adopted. Yet even then, it was only in Anbar province that the Iraqi government was directly involved in political reconciliation efforts, when reintegration plans should really be conducted by the government and not a third country.

A final point worth mentioning is that the CPA also implemented a free trade and privatization program that was unsuitable for an almost totally centralized command economy -- a structure still largely in place in Iraq today. These policies only flooded the country with cheap imports from countries such as China, putting many Iraqi enterprises out of business and aggravating the problem of unemployment. However, this was a relatively minor error compared to (i) Rumsfeld's failure to provide adequate troop levels and have ready any detailed post-war planning in light of the ethnic and sectarian tensions Saddam had exploited in Iraq, (ii) the CPA and new Iraqi leadership's mishandling of the de-Baathification process, and (iii) the failure of all three actors to rein in the sectarian militias soon after the fall of the Baathist regime.

Nonetheless, Rumsfeld, the CPA officials and Iraqi politicians like Ahmad Chalabi (who is, incidentally, the first cousin of the man who married my eldest maternal aunt) have yet to come to terms with their own mistakes.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.

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