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Old May 18th, 2003, 11:17 PM        Economist Op: Questions in the aftermath
Questions in the aftermath

May 16th 2003
From The Economist Global Agenda


Can Iraq’s American-led interim government restore order and guide the country towards democracy, and how will the UN be involved? How many more mass graves are waiting to be discovered? And what happened to those weapons of mass destruction?

THE war in Iraq may have gone as well as could be expected for America and her allies, but the aftermath has been messier than predicted. Some progress has been made, to be sure: public servants are receiving salaries again, albeit only a fraction of what they were getting before the war; efforts are being made to re-establish provincial governments and install town councils; and the interim administration has finally arranged for teams to start collecting the rubbish that has been piling up in cities and spreading disease. But more than a month after hostilities effectively ended, coalition forces have still not managed to restore order in some parts of Baghdad, and Iraqis are becoming increasingly frustrated by the slow restoration of essential services, such as water, electricity and health care. Lawlessness is hindering attempts to restart Iraq's oil industry, the main potential source of the money needed to rebuild the country. Moreover, the American-led government is struggling to hold down a resurgence in religious fundamentalism that threatens to turn Iraq into a theocracy rather than a democracy.

In a sign that all is not well with the transitional government, Paul Bremer, a former State Department counter-terrorism chief, has been appointed to replace Jay Garner, a retired general, as Iraq’s top civilian administrator. In his first news conference after taking office at the start of the week, Mr Bremer promised on Thursday May 15th that restoring law and order would be his priority. Thousands of American-trained Iraqi police had been put on the streets of Baghdad, he said, and had detained 300 suspects in the past 48 hours.

The US Defence Department publishes statements from the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. See also the White House, USAID and the State Department's information on Iraq. The UN gives news on Iraq and Security Council meetings and resolutions. Unmovic posts information on its weapons-inspection activities in Iraq. The Federation of American Scientists has resources on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Human Rights Watch publishes reports on human-rights abuses by the Iraqi regime.

Tensions remain high at the diplomatic level. On Thursday, America presented to the United Nations Security Council a new draft of its proposed resolution to lift sanctions against Iraq and to give America and Britain broad powers to run the country until an elected Iraqi government can take over. The new draft expands the role of a proposed UN envoy in Iraq but still leaves his duties vague. Thus it may not satisfy France, Russia and others who suspect that President George Bush may be backsliding on his promise of a “vital” role for the UN in rebuilding Iraq.

America wants sanctions against Iraq scrapped so the country can quickly resume trading with the rest of the world. But France and Russia have proposed only a temporary suspension, until UN inspectors have returned to Iraq and certified that it no longer has weapons of mass destruction. Colin Powell, America's secretary of state, said on Thursday that America might agree to this, but he and Mr Bush's spokesmen retracted this immediately afterwards, saying America was not ready to make such a big concession. Until now, Germany has lined up with France and Russia in the “anti-war” camp. On Friday, though, Mr Powell met Germany's chancellor, Gerhard Schröder and won his backing for a rapid end to sanctions: “We believe the sanctions no longer make any sense and that they should be removed as soon as possible,” Mr Schröder said afterwards.

Meanwhile, the debate about whether it was right to wage war on Saddam Hussein’s regime has not grown any quieter. The coalition countries cited two main justifications for the removal of Saddam: the threat his murderous regime posed to the Iraqi people, especially the Shia Muslims and Kurds; and the threat its development of weapons of mass destruction posed to international security.

On the first of these, plenty of evidence in support of the Americans’ claims has been unearthed—literally. This week, thousands of Iraqis have been searching for missing relatives in a mass grave discovered near the city of Hilla. The grave is not the first to be discovered since the fall of the old regime—officials in the southern city of Basra, for instance, have reported finding a pit containing around 1,000 bodies. But the Hilla find is certainly the largest so far. Local volunteers say the remains of up to 3,000 people have already been found at the site, where as many as 15,000 bodies may be buried. The corpses are thought to be those of political prisoners and their families, killed after a Shia uprising against Saddam’s Sunni Muslim regime in 1991. Human-rights groups estimate that up to 200,000 people could be buried in mass graves across Iraq.

The hunt for banned weapons has been less successful. In the run-up to war, Mr Bush insisted that Iraq had large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and that it had also been trying to develop nuclear weapons. Saddam, he said, might seek to put these in terrorists’ hands if left in power. The disarmament theme was one to which American politicians and diplomats returned again and again during the Security Council debates before the war.

But the weapons haul has so far been meagre. Investigators have found no chemical weapons. Nor have they found fresh evidence of a nuclear programme. (Intelligence reports before the war that Iraq was trying to buy nuclear materials from Niger have been discredited). On the biological front, there has been a bit more progress. American forces have seized two trailers that they say could have been used as mobile germ-weapons labs, and tests are being carried out on them. Two of Saddam’s most senior microbiologists have also been arrested. One of them, Rihab Rashid Taha al-Azzawi al-Tikriti, dubbed “Dr Germ”, admitted producing anthrax and botulinum, but claimed that they were only developed as a deterrent against threats from Israel and that all of Iraq’s bioweapons were destroyed long ago.

Ms Taha would say that, wouldn’t she? And yet, there is clearly a sense of disappointment among American officials that they still do not have a powerful “smoking gun”. When the war started, the American military drew up a list of 19 top weapons sites. By May 11th, all but two had been searched and found to contain no weapons of mass destruction. Officials in Washington, meanwhile, continue to insist that the search has barely begun. They were probably not best pleased when, on May 13th, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank that had helped set the pro-war agenda, accepted that banned weapons were unlikely to be found in large quantities. “The absence of chemical weapons was a big surprise,” said Gary Samore, an Iraq expert at the IISS.

With evidence of banned weapons proving elusive, the United States has changed tack. It is dismantling the military unit directing the search for weapons and replacing it with a larger team of civilian experts specialising in following paper trails and other clues that Saddam’s regime may have left behind. In an interview with Reuters, Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush’s national security adviser, said Iraq appeared to have had a virtually inspections-proof system of hiding noxious weapons by developing chemicals and biological agents that could be used for more than one purpose. “It was a sophisticated deception programme, and it will take some time to untangle that, but we will,” she asserted.

From the start, the Americans said it would take time to track down Saddam’s banned weapons. But as pressure has grown to explain why none has been found, the Bush administration has felt compelled to alter its explanation of the Iraqi threat. In the most recent briefings, officials have suggested that this threat did not take the form of an arsenal of stockpiled arms, as first thought, but was a “just in time” weapons-delivery system. In other words, instead of having tonnes of nasty weapons stored away, Iraq had disparate systems that could be brought together to produce them at short notice. Meanwhile, American officials have been trying to shift the focus away from the search for weapons by highlighting the benefits of political reconstruction. That, they argue, is justification enough for the military action. Most Americans agree with this view. Many Europeans do not.
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