It is not surprising, and like everyone else we anticipated that some Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops and cheer their arrival. Many have already tempered their welcome with urging the U.S. not to stay in Iraq for long. Most Iraqis are almost certainly relieved and thrilled at the imminent end of a terribly repressive regime and an end to crippling sanctions. But if yesterday was the party — today the hangover begins. There are already reports of Iraqis saying the Ba’athist regime was bad, but that the current lack of authority and its resulting looting and chaos are worse — “at least before we had security,” one said.

The fact that many Iraqis are pleased with the destruction of the regime does not mean the U.S. war was legal, justified or appropriate. All of the violations of the UN Charter inherent in this war are still violations. All of the human costs paid by Iraqi civilians and unwilling conscripts alike — death, grievous injury, loss of family members, destruction of property — are still being paid. We don’t have any idea yet — and may never — of the human toll from this war.

U.S. officials have again shifted the political justification they are asserting for the war; now we are supposed to believe the war’s main objective was always the “liberation of the Iraqi people” — no one is mentioning Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, which was the official basis of the war. So far, of course, no such weapons have been found. Rumsfeld’s unsubstantiated accusations of phantom WMDs moving across Iraq’s border into Syria could provide both explanation for the embarrassing lack of WMDs found so far in Iraq, and potentially new justification for attacking Syria.

The most urgent needs are for water and electricity, especially in cities in the south, as well as medical supplies. Hospitals in Baghdad over the last several days were treating as many as 100 new casualties each hour, until they were overwhelmed and stopped trying to count. Surgical supplies, anesthetics and electricity were all in short supply even in Baghdad, presumably worse in smaller cities. The U.S. and UK, as the occupying powers, are obligated under the Geneva Conventions to immediately provide for those needs. UN agencies have said that the looting — even of hospitals — may prevent the resumption of humanitarian assistance.

The long-term legitimacy of any new government in Iraq will be measured by its authority and support at home, and by international recognition as determined by the UN General Assembly and individual governments. The key to any legitimacy will be determined by the process of how a new government, and even any interim authority are chosen. Any such process orchestrated by the Pentagon (such as the preemptive move to insert Ahmad Chalabi and dozens of his Iraqi National Congress cohorts into the fighting to jump-start his bid for a U.S.-sponsored ‘presidency’ of Iraq) stands in complete violation of international law or any democratic legitimacy. Chalabi-backer and vice-president Cheney announced a conference of Iraqi exiles and some from inside Iraq to discuss an interim authority; within hours his description of the meeting was challenged by the White House and State Department, indicating a heightened conflict within the administration over how to orchestrate governance in Iraq.

The United Nations is still the only legitimate authority to orchestrate a process to select an interim authority. If the U.S. were serious about democratization in Iraq it would move quickly to turn even preliminary authority over to the UN to identify an interim authority and move towards a more permanent indigenous process. The divisions within the administration between supporters of Chalabi and the INC (largely the neo-cons in the Pentagon and Cheney’s office) and those advocating broader participation are so far largely tactical. For example, the new proposal for sharing authority in post-war Iraq that came from former officials including Eagleburger, Haig, Perry, Woolsey, Gingrich, Kerrey and Thompson, does not recognize UN authority, but calls for “helping Iraqis build a new Iraq” only so the U.S. “will have moral authority to promote its other objectives in the region.”
The UN should have the central role — but only if it has real decision-making power from the beginning of the process. That means re-opening to the whole world the already closed bidding process that allowed only a few U.S. corporations to bid on construction contracts; insuring that the UN is at the center of all moves to create an interim administration, recruit Iraqis to participate, set the dates for conferences and elections, etc. If UN authority is compromised, or the UN is brought into the process only to provide legitimacy to continuing U.S. control, the UN should not take it on at all.

Oil remains a key consideration. The Israeli press reports negotiations are underway to reopen the British colonial-era oil pipeline from Mosul to Haifa. The pipeline was closed in 1948 with the creation of Israel; its reopening would dramatically increase Israel’s oil independence and lower its energy costs (oil now imported largely from Russia). This is particularly significant given Ahmad Chalabi’s longstanding support for Israel and interest, like that of his Pentagon backers, in normalizing Israeli ties with the Arab world and maintaining its military power. Further, U.S. special forces moved within one mile of the rich Kirkuk oil fields; some reporters in the region indicate it appears that may be their main objective in the area. The U.S. has also just agreed to allow Turkish military observers into Kirkuk “to verify that Iraqi forces have withdrawn” — something Washington promised the Kurds it would never allow.

So, what do we call for?

  • We call for an end to U.S. occupation of Iraq.
  • We call for the United Nations, not the U.S., to help Iraq create a new, representative and indigenous government. The UN’s central role must involve real decision-making power; it must not be a fig-leaf designed to provide political cover to unilateral U.S. action. General Jay Garner’s authority should be turned over to a United Nations special representative.
  • We call for the U.S. to immediately provide for the urgent needs of the Iraqi population, including water, electricity, medical supplies.
  • We will hold the U.S. accountable for its claims that this war is about democratization and not about empire, oil, and the expansion of U.S. power.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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