Way out

The occupation is turning Iraq into a weak, violent state, but we shouldn't just call for a handover

Iraq today is not at all as you see on television or read about in the newspapers. Yes, there is a great deal of violence and many Iraqis are losing their lives both as a result of attacks by the former regime and its allies and from American reprisals. But it is targeted violence. If you keep out of the protected zones where the occupying forces are based and out of the guarded hotels where journalists and foreign contractors stay, and if you don't travel in convoys or in special vehicles with bodyguards, you will find that many other things are going on. The curfew has been lifted and shops and restaurants are open in the evenings. The roads are crammed with cars and lorries. There are many initiatives, including literally hundreds of new newspapers and magazines, self-organised neighbourhood groups, as well as myriad political parties and associations, new and old. Internet cafes have sprung up everywhere.

That does not mean life is "normal", whatever that means in an Iraqi context. And the violence continues. There is no telephone system and there are periodic water and electricity stoppages. Many people are without jobs and there are skills shortages because of de-Ba'athification. There is still much crime, especially outside Baghdad, and there is a visible and noisy occupation presence.

What has not happened yet is "regime change". To be sure, that statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled and the remnants of the regime are underground. But because the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is stuck behind concrete walls and barbed wire, it has little contact with society. The Iraqi Governing Council and its ministries, established by the authority with UN help, are still very weak. So there is a political vacuum, which the former regime and its jihadist allies try to fill.

The influence of the regime was brought home to me while I was in Baghdad with a colleague, when rumours abounded that a letter had been received from al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein calling for a general strike, and threatening to attack schools and universities that used new de-Ba'athised books. (We were unable to discover anyone who had seen the letter.) No one from the Governing Council appeared in public to defuse the tension, with the result that most primary school children stayed home. Only 2 per cent of students turned up on campus at Baghdad University.

In political terms, the main new actors can be divided into two groupings. The first consists of rather weak secular parties, largely composed of exiles. The strongest of these is probably the Communist Party. Like the communist parties of eastern Europe, it is a reformed organisation supporting democracy and a mixed economy. But whereas the term "communist" was discredited in eastern Europe, in Iraq it is a label that is trusted and still signifies a left political perspective. The Communist Party has an honourable history of opposing the British, Saddam Hussein and, more recently, the war, the occupation and the "resistance". It survived underground and now has branches all over Iraq; its offices in Baghdad are teeming with young people.

The second group consists of a wide range of religious, tribal and ethnic parties, whose identities became much more important during Saddam Hussein's rule - partly because he made use of them as an instrument of rule and partly because they provided a form of solidarity in a situation where civic institutions had been destroyed. The secular parties are strongest at the national level. The sectarian parties (tribal, ethnic and religious) are strongest at the local level. Many have militias.

One of the many extraordinary individuals we met was Sheikh Abdel-Karim Mahoud al-Mohammedawi, whom we described among ourselves as Robin Houdini. He effected a miraculous escape from one of Saddam's jails and then survived as a rebel leader in the marshes to the south. Now he is a member of the Governing Council and dominates the politics of Maysan, a southern, British-occupied governorate. He had organised local militia to prevent looting in his area after the Americans took Baghdad and before the British arrived. These militia groups have been incorporated into the police force and given high-ranking positions, thus creating tensions within the police as well as mixed loyalties.

In addition, there is a burgeoning civil society, encompassing student activism, many women's groups (women comprise 60 per cent of the Iraqi population), human rights groups concerned about the victims of the former regime, and many democratic initiatives. Journalists, film-makers and artists are also involved in new projects and discussions. Many of these initiatives are small and tentative. Iraqis have a huge distrust of politics, a legacy of fear and disappointment, and have to overcome a lack of experience of self-organisation. The exceptions are groups that used to operate underground with tightly knit organisational structures. These were overly political in the past. Today, they are supplementing their repertoire with civic activism and voluntary-sector work in reaction to the new environment. They all represent the beginnings of a civic and inclusive society.

Finally, the Ba'ath Party remains influential. Many people find it hard to admit that they were wrong all these years and some are nostalgic for the Saddam period. An ex-Ba'athist artist who hosted a gallery and cafe where his colleagues could meet and chat freely even under Saddam spoke fondly of how he used to earn enough money to last him a year from painting one portrait of the Iraqi leader and how this gave him the liberty to pursue real work. He left the party only after the invasion of Kuwait and insists that he felt safer under Saddam than now. Military officers also remember Saddam's annual gifts of houses and cars. Anecdotal evidence suggests a continuing and strong Ba'athist presence on campuses. Elections to the Iraqi Bar Association, which took place during our stay, were allegedly almost won by a Ba'athist.

As well as bribes, Saddam's regime used fear as a tool of power and this also continues today. The remnants of the regime are credited with most of the attacks taking place, although the actual suicide attackers are likely to be foreigners. While most Iraqis condemn the violence in private, many stop short of acting against it in public. Saddam's reign of terror, it seems, is lingering where it counts most - in the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis. The former regime is presumably trying to feed into this fear and perpetuate it, hence the attacks on new state institutions, especially the police, the judiciary and schools. These are also rightly perceived by the former regime as a challenge to its power, one more serious than the peripheral CPA.

The Americans have agreed there should be a rapid transfer of sovereignty. This is crucial if the political and security vacuum is to be filled. But to whom do they hand sovereignty? And how?

At present, there are two dominant approaches within the CPA. One is the "idealist" approach of the former Republican staffers, who can be found in the corridors of the CPA discussing how to spin what they are doing back home. They want to build a democracy from scratch. They favour small government, a market economy, decentralisation, and elections as soon as possible. They argue that de-Nazification in Germany after the Second World War offers a model of occupation.

This approach is effective at destroying existing structures, but much worse at building anything new. One of Paul Bremer's biggest mistakes was dismantling the army, the least Ba'athised of the former security institutions. The decision added to the sense of humiliation felt by Iraqis, and left the military frustrated and angry. Because of the elaborate vetting process, it is taking a long time to establish the new army. The retraining of police is faster and the increasingly humane force is one of the more hopeful signs. My Iraqi companions expressed amazement when they heard policemen apologise for the time it took to search our car. Likewise, Bremer's decree on de-Ba'athification removed most of the top professional people. Membership of the party was a precondition for senior employment, but not all were criminals. It would have been better to dismiss only those who had committed crimes.

The other approach is "realist" or pragmatic, and tends to be the approach of the British and of the US State Department. This involves the handover of power to tribal and religious leaders and is reminiscent of colonial "indirect rule". Both approaches could work together to produce a weak state. The first weakens existing state institutions, while the second strengthens sectarian groups. The risk is not renewed dictatorship; the model of closed authoritarian society is increasingly difficult to sustain in an era of global communications. The real risk is the weak state, characterised by weak rule of law, low-level but pervasive violence, and entrenched local, sectarian political fiefdoms. The former regime and the Islamic fighters would then become just another element in a mosaic of tribal, religious and ethnic sectarianism. The only way to prevent such an outcome is for Iraqis to establish their own democratic institutions.

Those of us who opposed the war should not just call for a handover of sovereignty, but should actively support a third approach - bottom-up democratic legitimacy. This means helping to create a framework for democracy by strengthening Iraqi institutions, especially the police and the judiciary, and helping to empower Iraqi democratic initiatives. For example, Iraqis need to discuss the process of constitution-building widely if they are to feel ownership of whatever constitution is designed. Likewise, a gender commission should be established, as proposed by several women's groups; the committee would make sure that at least 30 per cent of positions in all state organs are filled by women.

What is striking to those familiar with conflict zones is the absence of international institutions such as the UN or European Union, or even Oxfam. The Iraqis have had to undertake humanitarian work themselves, but the emerging democratic initiatives among students and women do need international support.

Above all, we need to support those in civil society or in democratic parties who are ready to mobilise against violence, both the violence of the regime and the casual killing of the occupying forces. Only then will it be possible to have regime change.

Mary Kaldor is professor of global governance at the London School of Economics. This article is based on a report written jointly with Yahia Said. Visit www.lse.ac.uk/depts/global or call the Centre for the Study of Global Governance (020 7955 7583)