In 2003, after the “fall of Baghdad” or, as Iraqis refer to it, the “fall of the regime” “????? ??????” pronounced “As-sikoot al-nadaam” chaos reigned in the capital. At the time Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed questions of responsibility with the flippant, now infamous statement, “Stuff happens. Freedom is untidy.”
The speed with which the Iraqi Army, and the Iraqi State disappeared shocked the world, but perhaps not nearly as much as the violence, looting, and rioting that met the arrival of US troops. Unfortunately, rather than making attempts to understand why these things might happen, too often the international community has looked at events such as transpired with the disdainful eye that one uses to examine the Other.
In 2003 Iraqis rioted because of the utter destruction of the accepted social order. Within a matter of days the illusion of control with which Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq for more than 20 years was revealed for what it was.
Perhaps demonstrating the accuracy of Mr. Rumsfeld’s statements, Iraqis continued ro demonstrate the messiness of their freedom, and their unwillingness to return to the status quo, Iraqis were rioting days after the statements at a bank in Baghdad, and rioted to greet the new governor of Mosul, they rioted over poor infrastructure, and they were still rioting six months later demanding back pay.
Although the implication has been that these were the actions of desperate, ignorant, or savage people (even organized acts by the old regime!) there is another explanation.. What if these are simply understandable symptoms of the utter destruction of an accepted social order? What if these are evidence of citizens, humans, pushing the limits, attempting to discover the rules of the new social order?
In 2005 it appeared Iraq’s social order was reaching a manner of equilibrium, there was the occupation, and there was the resistance. The State may not have existed with a monopoly on coercion and violence, it could be said that there was something of a stalemate between the various competing interests. Some, myself included, might even suggest that the resistance elements were having such success with the establishment of a new social order that there was the risk they might succeed in supplanting the US Occupation as the accepted authority.
In the fall of 2005, just after the referendum on Iraq’s new constitution, preparations were being made for the December elections. Many of the resistance groups and Iraqis in general expected the United States would withdraw after these elections. There were rumors that the various elements of the resistance, from loose affiliations of Sunni insurgents, to the highly organized Al-Mahdi Army of Muqtada Al Sadr, were negotiating toward a collective agreement about administering Iraq in the aftermath of the withdrawal.
In 2006, with the bombing of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra, this fragile new social order was also destroyed. The more radical elements of the Mahdi Army, and Sunni groups in particular Tawhid & Jihad, among others, gained the perfect opportunity to push their agenda of ethnic warfare. 2006 and much of 2007 saw Iraq slipping ever closer to civil war. Ethnic cleansing appeared ever more likely, as did an all-out internecine conflict between Shi’a groups.
This was possible because of competing interests and the success of some at delegitimting the Iraqi state. Until recently a measure of calm had returned to Baghdad and much of Iraq. I would argue that this is due to several factors; the appeasement of Sunni groups via the establishment of the Awakening, providing military support to these groups to defeat more extreme groups, the appeasement of Muqtada al-Sadr, the confrontations last year with the extreme Shi’a elements, and lastly the hard line Prime Minister Maliki has appeared to take with the United States, in particulr regarding the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
Fortunately, the recent Iraqi experience provides many lessons for Iraqi, American, and international politicians alike. Demonstration of Iraqi sovereignty has done a great deal to build the confidence of Iraqi citizens in their nation. More needs to be done to demonstrate the control and reliability of Iraqi security forces to eliminate crime and gang activity.
However, no amount of sovereignty or security will succeed longterm without reconciliation amongst the citizenry of Iraq. Perhaps its time to examine more carefully the potential of an international reconciliation effort in Iraq?