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Jochen Hippler

Nation-Building by Occupation? –
The Case of Iraq



Iraq is one of the large number of multi-ethnic countries in the Third World whose borders were drawn by former colonial powers. After World War I, France and England shared a large part of the bankrupt estate of the Ottoman Empire and created the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq – with the latter awarded to England and officially administered as a trust territory of the League of Nations at that time. Its population was and remains heterogeneous, with over 70 % Arab and around one quarter Kurdish, plus smaller minorities, the largest of which is the Turkmen community. However, these groups are not homogeneous, either, with Sunni and Shiite Arabs opposing each other then as now, in addition to other Arab groups of lesser significance (e.g. the “Marsh Arabs” in the south-east, with urban-rural differences and tribal structures also playing a role).

The Kurds, too, are not a unified entity: in the northern autonomy zone (established after the 1991 Gulf War), a war broke out between the two most important parties in the mid-1990s, which led to the emergence of two small Kurdish quasi-states which were not officially recognised. Up to 800.000 Kurds living in Baghdad are mostly of the Shiite faith, whereas those living in the main Kurdish area are mainly Sunnis. The political structures of Iraq have been weak since the founding of the state and initially even  anachronistic: governed by Arab Sunnis whose power was supported by big landowners and other power elites. Even the Iraqi king once remarked that his country was actually ungovernable. Faisal I stated the following in a confidential memorandum in 1933:

“(T)here is still – and I say this with a heart full of sorrow – no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever.” (Batatu 1982, 25)

The years from 1958 to 1968 were a period of great instability, with the revolution followed by a decade of coups and counter-coups and the first wave of Kurdish rebellions. Iraq had not been a “nation” up to that time but, rather, a combination of heterogeneous social and ethno-religious subsystems held together in a makeshift manner by an inadequately established state apparatus.

Following an initial, bloody and swiftly unsuccessful coup in 1963, the Arab-nationalist Baath party seized power in 1968 and did not relinquish it again until the Iraq War in 2003. Its extremely brutal dictatorship – Saddam Hussein formally took power in 1979 – represented an equally unscrupulous and ambitious attempt at nation-building. The country’s previous instability was ended violently and through the greatly increased oil revenues of the 1970s and its multi-ethnic reality was to be compulsorily homogenised and Arabized. The infrastructure was modernised and partly developed in an exemplary manner with oil money, the previously weak state machinery was converted into an all-dominating power apparatus and the country was armed to an unprecedented level. Iraq laid claim to the role of leader in the Arab camp. A high-ranking representative of the regime told the author in 1991: “We are happy to sacrifice one or two generations of Iraqis to make Iraq a great and powerful country.”

The war against Iran (1980-88) and the conquest of Kuwait were part of this context: the rival Iran was to be quickly defeated and eliminated as a competitor at a time of weakness (following the Islamic revolution) and, if possible, the oil-rich province of Khuzistan (with its Arab minority) snatched away from it. The conquest of Kuwait would not only have provided Iraq with further, substantial oil fields, its war-related foreign debts would likewise have been drastically reduced, with the country also acquiring an efficient port on the Persian Gulf. In both cases, however, these calculations of power politics came to nothing: although the war against Iran was won after severe setbacks and great effort, the country had been extremely weakened by heavy losses of people and infrastructure and through its war-related debts. The Gulf War defeat (1991) at the hands of a broad-based coalition led by the USA, together with the subsequent international sanctions which lasted up to the Iraq War of 2003, ruined the country completely. A prosperous oil-producing country of the late 1970s had, before the turn of the millennium, been turned into a large slum with just a few small islands of affluence. The original recipe conceived by the Baath dictatorship of achieving stability through a combination of social, economic and infrastructure benefactions accompanied by brutal repression, of making Iraq a strong state and an international power player and of generally managing a successful Arab nation-building project had failed by the 1990s. From the combination of money and repression, only the latter was left to save the regime. One result of this development was that Iraq society (with the exception of the Kurdish autonomous region in the north dealt with below) suffocated politically: all political work outside the dictatorship died or was pushed into exile and the cohesion of Iraqi society was hugely weakened. The different elements of society were held together virtually by the dictatorship alone, while all other political mechanisms of integration and articulation were repressed or smashed.

Kurdish autonomy endeavours

The Baathist nation-building project in Iraq clashed increasingly with a second undertaking which took shape in the 1960s and was close to being realised in the 1990s, i.e. the attempt to form Iraq into an Arab nation-state, which could only meet with opposition from the non-Arab minorities and especially from the Kurds. Kurdish resistance was first aimed predominantly at repelling outside tutelage and dominance by the central state, while an independent Kurdish national consciousness started to spread slowly in the course of the disputes. The dialectic of oppression and – also violent – resistance has led increasingly to the strengthening of a national Kurdish identity over the past few decades and, in political terms, to demands for autonomy or an independent state. This trend has, however, been repeatedly undermined by contradictions in the Kurdish camp, especially between the KDP and PUK parties (Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union Kurdistan respectively) as well as by overwhelming influence from the neighbouring countries (particularly Turkey and Iran), who have successfully played the two parties off against each other on repeated occasions and threatened military intervention (for history of Iraqi Kurdistan see: Hippler 1990).

Kurdish sovereignty and nation-building have thus been thwarted by internal disunity, the government in Baghdad and the threats of neighbouring countries, while these factors have further strengthened the common identity and the population’s aspiration to independence. When, however, a protection zone for the Kurds against Saddam Hussein was established in northern Iraq (in which around 60 % of the Iraqi Kurds were living) after the 1991 Gulf War, action was taken to form one and then two Kurdish proto-states, which had their own governments, own military, own parliaments and their own currency up to 2003 and were, in reality, independent, even though not recognised under international law. This fact emphatically underlines the failure of the Baathist nation-building project, which was intended to make the entire country of Iraq a strong, Arab nation-state.

Necessity and difficulty of nation-building

When the 2003 Iraq War brought down the dictatorship, all the mechanisms of social integration and the state apparatus collapsed with it. Unexpectedly and contrary to the experience in the 1991 Kurdish and Shiite revolt, the state apparatus disintegrated almost completely in the last few days of the war and just after. The vast majority of the military as well as the police, ministries and other authorities disappeared overnight as it were, civil servants did not turn up for work any more and their offices were systematically looted and even burned down. At the end of the war, Iraq was a deeply traumatised and, outside the Kurdish autonomous zone, stateless society with an extensively devastated infrastructure and economy, balancing on the extreme edge of chaos. The absence of political institutions, social integration mechanisms, functioning security authorities plus the countless instances of attacks and looting indicated that the war against Iraq in that country had turned an all-powerful, repressive state into a failed state within an extremely short period of time.

Nation-Building was not put on the agenda because Washington wanted or planned for it. Control of Iraq and “regime change” were dominating political thinking in the US, not reshaping and integrating Iraqi society and rebuilding the state apparatus from scratch. Nation-Building became crucial be default, not by design: Controlling and ruling a society of 25 million people, rebuilding the country and providing security and the required infrastructure, plus preparing it for some kind of Iraqi self-rule could all not be achieved without functioning state structures and related political mechanisms. And it all required systematic and effective ways to stop social fragmentation.

The starting position for a new attempt at nation-building proved to be very difficult after the war. The group of Sunni Arabs that had dominated the country up to the war (or a section of that part of the population) could only fear that they would lose most of their influence. This group had been oppressed to a lesser degree by the dictatorship, with most of the cadres and supporters recruited from it, and it was its members that derived the most benefit from the rule of Saddam Hussein in political and economic terms. With such a privileged position ruled out for the future, dissatisfaction with the new order was greatest and most immediate among this group. At the same time, the Sunni Arabs (or Arab Sunnis, depending on their own definition of themselves) did not have a leadership capable of action or any political organisations to speak of. This group of the population was fragmented, without leadership and politically almost impotent, which intensified the feeling of helplessness even further.

The situation was different among “the” Shiites. Despite their majority among the population, they had remained extensively excluded from power under Saddam (and in the preceding decades) and had – like the Kurds – suffered particularly under the brutality of the dictatorship. Now they could reckon with occupying an overall dominant position by putting up a united front vis-à-vis the other groups. The initial position of the Shiite Arabs (or Arab Shiites; leaving the special role of the Shiite Kurds in the greater Baghdad region out of consideration here) was characterised by the fact that, although their political organisations had been hit heavily and severely repressed by the dictatorship, their religiously inspired parties still existed in exile (and underground to a lesser degree). This means that they had an important political edge after the fall of the dictatorship, with quick and easy access to efficient political structures, money and their own armed militias on their return from Iran.

In contrast, the secular wing of Shiite Arabs was (despite strong potential) extensively disorganised and virtually incapable of political action. The previously significant Communist Party, which had been brutally smashed by Saddam, attempted to reorganise but lacked the financial resources and foreign support that the religious Shiite parties had at their disposal. For this reason, the politics of the Shiite Arabs were structured in a distinctly religious way despite their considerable secular instincts. There was therefore huge rivalry in the religious sector between the parties and currents, as well as between the distinct Iranian influences and the existence of an “Iraqi” interpretation of the Shia.

For the Kurdish population, especially in the Kurdish autonomous zone, the situation was fundamentally different to that in the rest of the country. The Kurds still had functioning political structures (the two parties and their proto-state government authorities) and an extensively intact infrastructure, which had been developed over the period since 1991. Although a reorganisation of the political landscape in Iraqi Kurdistan can be expected in the medium term owing to the considerable and, since the fall of the Saddam dictatorship, constantly growing dissatisfaction of large sections of the population as a result of corruption, nepotism and the dictatorial behaviour of the two parties, it is not yet clear whether this will give rise to a “third force” of younger, more modern forces or to any fundamental reform of the KDP and PUK. However, the stability and capacity for political action of the Kurdish autonomous region have remained at a high level despite this factor of uncertainty, especially compared with the remainder of the country. Nonetheless, there is a huge leaning among the Kurdish population and its parties in favour of independence from Iraq, though this is not demanded publicly for pragmatic reasons.

Kurdish policy therefore presses strongly for the federalisation of Iraq and actual Kurdish autonomy as minimum conditions for remaining in Iraq, though this could then be extended to sovereignty should the course of events prove unsatisfactory. At the same time, there are strong tendencies towards integrating the Kurdish areas outside the old autonomous zone into the Kurdish sphere of control as well as making the important oil city of Kirkuk and the area around Mosul Kurdish (again), something which harbours considerable potential for conflict vis-à-vis the Arab and Turkmen sections of the population.

However, an inter-ethnic civil war is unlikely in the foreseeable future despite this constellation. Although occasional ethnic or inter-confessional acts of violence can hardly be prevented at the local level, e.g. in the regions in and around Mosul and Kirkuk, this is not expected to spread over a large area for the time being. In particular, a new Kurdish-Arab war is not on the agenda, in spite of the potential for conflict that exists locally - the Kurdish side has no interest, anyway, while the Sunni and Shiite Arabs would not be in a position to pursue this line in the foreseeable future; in addition, most Shiites would also find such an idea absurd. The relationship between the Arab Shiites and the Kurds is more one of reserve, not hostility, with an informal coalition of the secular Kurds and the religious Shiite parties against the Sunnis even forming after the fall of the dictatorship. This Kurdisch-Shiite link has been weakened considerably in 2004, first because of the negotiation process in regard to a provisional constitution, and because of the military escalation in both Arab Sunni and Shiite areas in the spring of 2004. Still, if any larger-scale violence were to occur in the future, this would presumably be most likely directed against the occupation or take place within the Shiite population in the course of a struggle for political supremacy.

Seen against this background, nation-building is an extremely complex and difficult undertaking. The main political problems are the tendency of the only stable part of the country (the Kurdish autonomous zone) to break away from the state, the political paralysis and fragmentation of the Sunni Arabs as the traditional political elite, as well as the conflictive and religiously distorted political structure among the Arab Shiites. Added to this are the serious weaknesses of social and political integration mechanisms and the disastrous situation in the economic, social, security and infrastructure domains, which are giving rise to understandable dissatisfaction and considerable potential for conflict.

Washington’s post-war planning

Post-war planning began in August 2002 when a member of the National Security Council was instructed to recruit the appropriate competent specialists (Washington Post 2003a). The US State Department played a key role in the planning. However, on 20 January 2003, i.e. only weeks before the start of the war, President Bush decided that the Defence Department should be responsible for post-war planning.

“The State Department and other agencies spent many months and millions of dollars drafting strategies on issues ranging from a postwar legal code to oil policy. But after President Bush granted authority over reconstruction to the Pentagon, the Defense Department all but ignored State and its working groups. And once Baghdad fell, the military held its postwar team out of Iraq for nearly two weeks for security reasons, and then did not provide such basics as telephones, vehicles and interpreters for the understaffed operation to run a traumatized country of 24 million.” (Washington Post 2003a).

The Pentagon’s planning was carried out using limited personnel resources and over a comparatively short period; it was conducted by an Office of Special Plans, which worked so discretely that even Jay Garner, who had been appointed in January 2003 as the future civil administrator, also with responsibility for post-war planning, only learnt of its existence some weeks later. All the same, it was this office that stipulated the guidelines.

“Garner worked closely with Rumsfeld and Feith and met about once a week with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Only seven weeks before the war began, Garner’s staff members could be counted on one hand, but he eventually assembled a staff that drew from a number of agencies. … By March, after Garner arrived at a staging site in Kuwait, members of his own team believed that the administration had poorly prepared both Iraqis and Americans for what was to come. One U.S. official recalled, “My uniformed friends kept telling me, ‘We’re not ready. We’re going into the beast’s mouth.’” (Washington Post 2003a).

The post-war planning was not only characterised by bureaucratic struggles, lack of personnel and improvisation; it was also based on misjudgements. It was assumed, for example, that the Iraqi population would enthusiastically welcome the US troops “with flowers”. This is also why Garner told his staff that they should make themselves superfluous in Iraq “within 90 days” (Washington Post 2003b). The passiveness and lack of preparation on the part of the occupying authorities contributed to many pressing tasks not being dealt with at all or only very unsatisfactorily. The rapid replacement of Jay Garner by Paul Bremer was evidence of this failure.

US occupation policy and nation-building

The US occupation policy was, especially in the first few months, characterised less by targeted planning than by improvisation and trial and error. The Pentagon had expected to be able to take over and use the effective Iraqi state apparatus (including its police force) more or less intact. Nation-building was not a declared objective of the occupying authorities and, for this reason, they were hardly prepared for it. The US authorities were geared up, in particular, to assume control, combat humanitarian crises (hunger, refugees) and hand over formal governmental authority (not necessary real power) to a new Iraqi government, the core of which was to be flown in from exile.

In this context, the Pentagon felt – in open conflict with the State Department and the CIA – that the prime choice for leader should be Ahmed Chalabi, who had close personal contacts with Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld and others. The idea of preserving the Iraqi state apparatus and simply providing it with a new, handpicked leadership quickly proved unrealistic, however: the authorities broke up virtually overnight, the police stayed at home, and Chalabi met with very strong disapproval from the Iraqi population. After the prompt handover of power to a group of acceptable exiles had failed and the state apparatus hardly existed any more, the task of state and nation-building arose of its own accord. A functioning state system was indispensable for tackling the practical problems of a society of 24 million inhabitants, not least of all in order to control the population and ensure security. In addition, the uncertain situation within and between the different groups of the population necessitated political integration mechanisms that first had to be created.

These tasks were made substantially more difficult by the fact that living conditions in most of the country (with the exception of the Kurdish autonomous zone) were deteriorating severely under the occupying regime: the security situation immediately became dramatically worse, as the wave of looting in many towns and cities clearly illustrated. The US troops were playing an extremely dubious role in this context: in many cases, they refused, despite emphatic requests, to protect even hospitals or the national museum from looters while, in other instances, eye-witnesses reported that they actually encouraged looting. The German Embassy in Baghdad, for example, was first looted after a US tank had flattened the gate and US soldiers encouraged the perpetrators.

One reason for the initially chaotic security situation was that the USA had practically no military police at its disposal when the war in Iraq ended, which had particularly dramatic consequences in view of the ensuing looting. After the war, the US authorities in Iraq were, in particular, to

  • ensure security for its own personnel and the Iraqi population;
  • restore normal living conditions through reconstructing the technical, social and economic infrastructure, especially electricity and water supplies plus medical and social facilities;
  • safeguard the social cohesion of Iraq and prevent tendencies towards disintegration; and
  • establish a new political system to which political power could be transferred in the medium term without harming their own interests.

The first two tasks, the fulfilment of which was necessary in order to stabilise the country in the short term, to legitimise the occupation and to create conditions for control and nation-building, were tackled with alarming cluelessness. The US authorities could only establish the security of their own troops to a very limited extent, with more US soldiers killed in attacks by the summer of 2003 than during the actual war, and the situation further deteriorating since the spring of 2004. More significant in political terms, however, was the fact that the Iraqi civil population was even far less secure than the occupiers, with spontaneous and organised violent crime, political intimidation and force, plus general lawlessness developing into a daily threat for the population at large. For this reason, the criticism was frequently levelled that: “The US troops are very interested in security – but only in their own, not ours.”

Re-establishment of the civil infrastructure also proceeded at an astonishingly sluggish pace and without success in the first few months, with the electricity supply in Baghdad functioning only 7-8 hours a day and just 2-4 hours a day in cities like Mosul, according to the complaints of local residents. Even still in March of 2004 Baghdad residents complained that power supply being cut four times a day for 2-3 hours each. Without electricity, other public services are also restricted, e.g. in many places, no electricity means no water supply because the pumps cannot work. In intense heat (up to 60°C in summer 2003), restrictions of this nature have an especially grave and direct impact on the health situation – especially under conditions of makeshift medical care services. One high-ranking US official commented on the problem as follows at the beginning of July:

“Power is the central issue,” a senior U.S. official here said. “Without it, you don’t have security. You don’t have an economy. You don’t have trust in what we’re doing. What you do have is more anger, more frustration, more violence. We’re not going to solve anything here until we first find a way to get more electricity to the people.” (Washington Post 2003c).

Criticism of the severe shortcomings in the areas of security and infrastructure was already widespread in the summer of 2003 and increasing well into in 2004 (outside the better organised Kurdish autonomous zone), with differences principally evident in terms of how they were assessed politically: one part of the population pleaded for patience, while others became increasingly louder in their demand for the withdrawal of the occupying troops and responsibility to be handed over to Iraqi bodies.

Serious problems also soon surfaced in relation to the introduction of new social and political integration mechanisms and state-building. For example, a further 15,000-30,000 civil servants were, contrary to the original plans, dismissed by the US civil administrator, Paul Bremer, on political grounds (because of actual or alleged links with the dictatorship) (Washington Post 2003c) while, at the same time, high-ranking officials of the Saddam regime were promoted to key positions, such as the new governor of Mosul, an incriminated army general. Local elections were prepared in numerous towns and cities but then stopped by Bremer at the last minute because an acceptable election outcome could not be guaranteed (New York Times 2003a, Washington Post 2003d).

The impression thus emerged that, although the USA spoke of democracy, it did not want to permit it unless it had complete control of the process. Where Jay Garner had already promised at the beginning of May 2003 that there would be a new Iraqi government the same month (New York Times 2003b), this was no longer the case just a few weeks later. This situation was underlined by the formation and handling of the Provisional Governing Council and the subsequently appointed ministers: contrary to the original promises, the Council was not chosen by a large “National Assembly” of Iraqis; it was determined exclusively by the occupying power (New York Times 2003b). The Council was not given responsibility for government, rather only advisory functions. Despite the uncertain security situation, the US troops even declined to provide the Governing Council the 100 rifles requested for their bodyguards (four for each member), saying that these could be acquired elsewhere. (They were eventually obtained from the Kurdish military.) The “Governing Council” was not allowed any influence on practical policymaking, e.g. in the domains of security, infrastructure or the awarding of contracts to companies for reconstruction. It was predominantly a PR exercise designed to symbolise the hope for a subsequent takeover of power by the Iraqis. The reality was different. US civil administrator Bremer stated with gratifying clarity: “As long as we are here, we are the occupying power. It’s an ugly word, but it’s the truth.” (Washington Post 2003e).

The Iraqi population reacted to the situation of occupation in different ways. The vast majority of the Kurds had welcomed Washington’s war against Iraq because it was seen as the only way of bringing down the dictatorship. The US troops were and continue to be accepted and are being asked to stay permanently because only they can guarantee security against the threats coming from Turkey and Iran, who are both extremely suspicious of Kurdish autonomy or even independence in Iraq for internal political reasons. US presence is also seen as an insurance against attempts by subsequent governments in Baghdad to regain control of Kurdistan, even though there is widespread distrust of Washington. The Arab-Sunni regions have the least hopes of anything positive emerging from the US occupation, and have hardly anything to gain from it. It was no surprise that military resistance to the occupation started in Arab Sunni areas, with a broad-based insurgency in Falluja becoming a symbol of this resistance.  The heavy-handed tactics of the US-occupation forces greatly contributed to this resistance. Among the Shiite Arab population there has been a distinct ambivalence in regard to US-occupation. On the one hand, Shiites were relieved and thankful that Saddam Hussein has been toppled. At the same time, however, they are very suspicious of US policy, accusing it of striving for supremacy in the region and control of the Iraqi oil deposits. Many Shiites already felt cheated by the USA by summer and autumn 2003: promises were not kept and living conditions were difficult to endure. Among Arab Sunnis and Shiites, such growing antipathies sometimes gave rise to absurd conspiracy theories, e.g. speculation on whether the USA was possibly responsible for the bomb attacks on the UN Headquarters and the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf.

The political mood in Iraq has deteriorated for two reasons. First, the population’s patience diminished with the continuing situation of lawlessness and disastrous living conditions, thus lessening the political credit of the USA; second, the unresolved security problem (and the US response to it) had severe political consequences: the numerous attacks on US soldiers forced the occupying troops to distance themselves more from the population and be suspicious of Iraqi civilians, acting towards them in a security-centred manner. The desired image of liberators has increasingly turned into one of mere occupiers, at least in the Arab territories.

When violence and resistance to the occupation in the Sunni triangle became complemented by similar practices in the Shiite areas, Washington’s position became politically fragile. Arab Sunni violence was a nuisance, but could have been kept under control over time, if it would have been occurring in a context of a peaceful North and South, i.e. Kurdish and Shiite areas. But with parts of Iraqi Shiites joining military resistance to the occupation, it increasingly became questionable whether occupation was feasible in the long run.  Shiite insurgency was not a general uprising of Iraqi Shiites, but organized by one Shiite group which was in the danger of being politically marginalized, Muqtada Sadr’s “Mahdi Army”.  The majority of Shiites and of Shiite parties  still did not feel the need for violent resistance when the fighting began. For them, peaceful struggle still seemed the most attractive option, since power would necessarily fall to the Shiites in a framework of elections because of their constituting the majority of the population. But because of the increasing resentment of US occupation the Shiite clergy and parties like Dawa and SCIRI were put in an awkward situation: being hostile towards Muqtada Sadr’s movement and their tactics, but not being able to confront them out of fear to appear as collaborators to the occupation. As a result Muqtada’s support in the Shiite community increased.

The fragile situation of the occupation put the question of transfer of power to an Iraqi government at the top of the agenda. The need for transfer increased with the worsening of the security situation, with the loss of acceptance and of prestige of the US-occupation, while the chances of a peaceful, orderly and well designed transfer weakened. Instability, insecurity, together with the weakening of Washington’s political strength in Iraq and its lack of planning made the handover of power more and more difficult, while delaying it would have fanned resistance to the occupation even more. Nation-building and state-building became more urgent then ever, but the US-capacity to control and shape it had diminished. US tactics now rediscovered the United Nations as an actor in Iraq. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-representative to Iraq was declared to have a free hand in drawing up a plan for the transition of power and selecting suitable personnel. In the meantime it became more obvious that internal dynamics had started a realignment of political forces in Iraq: even US-appointed and pro-US politicians and parties had to distance themselves more and more from Washington in order not to appear as mere US-puppets and lose any credibility inside Iraq. As a result, neither the UN nor the US could force their candidates for the jobs of Prime Minister and President of the future Iraqi government. The US-appointed Governing Council prevailed selecting the key positions, thereby demonstrating a weakening foreign influence and its intention to secure jobs for most of its members despite their lack of public support. The selection process of the new government constituted a double mini-coup of artificially selected politicians with a limited public base against their foreign masters and the aspirations of their own population. In the context of both Iraqi nation-building and stabilization, the transfer of power from the US occupation authorities to an Iraqi government on June 30, 2004 is an ambiguous affair: on the one hand it is the only way forward, since further occupation would become increasingly untenable. On the other hand, it is still less than clear, whether the US designs for a power transfer can work: Washington started from the assumption that the new, “sovereign” government should neither have command over its own military forces (much less a say in regard to continuing US military operations), nor the right to change or pass any laws. This would have installed a government without the ability to actually govern. Such a design would easily have turned the Iraqi population against such a government, since it would have been perceived merely as an US-inspired PR exercise to shift the blame for its policies to Iraqis, without giving them actual power. In the process of negotiating a new UN-resolution to legitimise the new setup in Iraq, Washington had to compromise and the role of the new government got strengthened. But it sill is too early to judge whether the new design has a chance to succeed.

Nation-building through war and occupation?

The USA’s nation-building experiment in Iraq was in a state of crisis after six months, and bordering failure after a year. Too little and very slow headway was being made with the reconstruction and re-establishment of the most necessary infrastructure, the security situation remained strained and was deteriorating even further. The handover of power to an Iraqi government was a complex and poorly planned affair with uncertain outcome. The newly created bodies of Iraqi politics – especially the Provisional Governing Council and the ministers appointed by it – had few any administrative functions and were being kept away from real power by the US occupation. The US troops on the ground principally focused their concentration, for obvious reasons, on the military security of their own units, which, however, repeatedly lead to unintended victims among the civil population or even Iraqi policemen and increases the scepticism shown towards the occupiers. The scandal over torture of Iraqi prisoners in US-run prisons did not make things better. To ensure a successful policy, the USA urgently needed an “Iraqization” of the security system which did not work satisfactory. However, it also wanted to keep a firm grip on this “Iraqization”, which gave the new institutions a colonial flavour and lead to allegations of collaboration by their staff. This will undermine the legitimacy of the occupation over the long term.

The fact that Washington never developed any recognisable concept for Iraqi nation-building and was instead intent on resolutely muddling its way through is another significant problem. This exists for two reasons: first, because any role by the military in nation-building continues to be rejected (although this stance is being eased in view of the actual requirements) and, second, because there is an almost irresolvable conflict of objectives between the requirements of military occupation and imperial control on the one hand and those of a transfer of power to civilian protagonists and medium-term nation-building on the other hand.

But the main stumbling block for an orderly transfer of power was the problem that the occupation forces had very few attractive options to whom to transfer power to. Many of the pro-US actors were hardly more than artificial creations of the US itself, and thereby tainted as tools of the occupation with little backing inside Iraq. The Kurdish parties did have political support in the Kurdish areas, but none further South, and they were only tactically supporting Iraqi nation-building because their main interest was building their own state, outside or only loosely connected to Iraq. And the religiously inspired Shiite parties were deeply distrusted by Washington and were difficult to instrumentalize by the United States because of their own agendas.

If we apply the three main criteria for successful nation-building, that is state-building, integrating society, and an integrative ideology (see chapter XXX of this volume), the results of US led policies in Iraq in 2004/5 are less than impressive. One, Washington was mostly responsible for turning an all-powerful and oppressive into a failed state. Two, it was neither conceptionally nor materially prepared to deal with this situation it had created. Three, the slow speed and incompetence in rebuilding Iraqi infrastructure and the heavy-handed military occupation taxed the patience of the population with foreign troops and policies and dramatically reduced US credibility. The result was deep mistrust against the occupation in the Arab areas and its nation-building attempts. Four, internal conditions for nation-building in Iraq are highly complex, since it requires a careful re-balancing of ethnic and religious parts of the population, without “ethnicising” the political process. The Arab Shiite groups are expecting the lion’s share of power, which will be difficult for many Sunni Arabs, given their tradition of dominance. And the Kurdish parties can only be bribed to remain inside Iraq with a highly disproportial share of power in Baghdad, which will trigger resentment among Arabs.

The US occupation experiment may have legally ended in July 2004, but for most practical purposes it will continue as long as US troops military dominate Iraq. It has not yet failed, but it is in dangerous waters. Success or failure cannot be reliably predicted as yet, but both are possible scenarios. However, in 2004 US dominated nation-building for Iraq is on its way down. The Kurdish parties are discreetly pushing for their on version of nation-building, as are the Shiite parties, with the US forces increasingly less able to unilaterally shape Iraqi politics.




Batatu, Hanna, 1982: The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, Princeton.

Hippler, Jochen, 1990: Kurdistan - Ein ungelöstes Problem im Mittleren Osten, in: Vereinte Nationen (Bonn), December 1990, p. 202-205.

New York Times, 2003a: Iraqis were set to vote, but U.S. wielded a Veto, in: New York Times, Internet edition of 19 June.

New York Times, 2003b: In reversal, Plan for Iraq Self-Rule has been put off, in: New York Times, Internet edition of 17 May.

New York Times, 2003c: Iraqis’ bitterness is called a bigger threat than Terror, in: New York Times, Internet edition of 17 September.

Washington Post, 2003a: Washington Post: Wolfowitz concedes Iraq Errors, in: Washington Post, 24 July, p. A01.

Washington Post, 2003b: Reconstruction Planners worry, wait and re-evaluate, in: Washington Post, 2 April, p. A01.

Washington Post, 2003c: Blackout Return, Deepening Iraq’s Dark Days, in: Washington Post, 3 July, S. A01.

Washington Post, 2003d: Plan to secure Postwar Iraq faulted, in: Washington Post, 19 May, p. A01.

Washington Post, 2003e: Occupation Forces halt Elections throughout Iraq, in: Washington Post, 28 June, p. A20.

Washington Post, 2003f: The Final Word on Iraq’s Future – Bremer consults and cajoles, but in the end, he’s the Boss, in: Washington Post, 18 June, p. A01.



Jochen Hippler (Ed.);
Nation-Building - A Key Concept of Peaceful Conflict Transformation,
London (Pluto Press) 2005, p. 81-97


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