PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Iraq: Baathists and Other Tribes by peaceprobe
January 25, 2008, 12:09 pm
Filed under: Detainees, Iraq, Politics of Empire

The first order of the US led occupation government on May 16, 2003, disbanded the Saddam Hussain’s Baath Party and prohibited the top four ranking levels of members from all public sector jobs.  It decapitated Iraqi political leadership.  Disenfranchised Baathist party people eventually took flight to Syria and Jordan or disappeared to organize resistance work within Iraq.  Now Congress and President Bush, stung by reality of a war they thought they had won in 2003, are cheering because a new law in Iraq suggests opportunity and shelter for the same former top Baathist party members. 

I was in Iraq after the occupation to investigate conditions of people, particularly detainees, and to develop a role for peacemaker teams.  As part of that work I visited universities.   At one prominent faculty I was ushered into the dishevelled office of the dean.  The faculty facilities had been pillaged by mobs during the first confusing weeks of occupation.  The dean nervously listened to our brief introduction, fiddled with a stack of papers for some time then looked us.   “My son disappeared after being picked up by US Forces two weeks ago and I do not know where they have put him, if he is alive, or dead or in detention.  Can you help.”  We asked for relevant information and promised to do what we could.  

Several months later during  my next trip to Iraq we were able to locate his son’s name on a detainee list so we went to the university to make sure the dean was aware of this tiny piece of good news which at least suggested that his son was alive.  We discovered the dean had been replaced.  When I inquired further, I was told that he was terminated because of his previous membership in the Baathist party.  He could not be contacted.  The good news was that the dean’s son had been released and was on campus and would be pleased to meet with us. 

When the American army marched into Baghdad  it was backed up with democratic bravado and promises of transformation for the region.   In view of the religious convictions of some American policy makers of that time, their democratic chauvinism was influenced by Biblical teachings about doing good.  Some of the conviction may have come from scripture, like Mary’s Song of Praise which says in part.

He [God] has shown strength with his arm;

 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

 and lifted up the lowly;

He has filled the hungry with good things,

 and sent the rich away empty.  Luke 2 51-53

Since the days of the Puritans there has been a thread in American history that we the people have an historic and righteous role to play in this world.  Translating Mary’s Song of Praise into a foreign policy guideline, however, is a stretch.  If it was intended to be used that way, perhaps the Biblical writers would have adapted it into a memo for Caesar in Rome and his chief policy team as a suggestion of how to get the people of Palestine/Israel 2000 years ago to be more hospitable to their own occupation.  But occupiers then and now tend to be poor observers and leap blindly across tribes and customs with lightning speed.  

The first order of the occupation which brought down the powerful Baathists made sense except for the fact that regardless of the system often similar, if not the same people get to the top after the great change.  One time communists suddenly get saved and become convinced democratic leaders who embrace reform.   And, after elections, new and even old democrats get impatient with democracy and are prone to crisis measures and emergency legislation that leads to the rule of fear.  

By invoking that first order, American leaders expected to bypass the small problem of how leaders get to be leaders.   Three years after the banning of Baathists, the same Congress and the White House condemned and blamed the Iraqi parliament for failing to overturn that mistaken policy of the occupation which Washington now realized had led to insurgency, tragic conflict and  thousands of deaths.  Today presidential candidates of both parties hang their hats and bonnets on the slow action of the Iraqi parliament as a key element in the absence of a workable solution to a future Iraq.   Meantime in their own nation, health care for millions has hung in the balance for a generation due to an absence of consensus.    

Some of the problems of Iraq may have been averted if instead of having embedded journalists accompany the troops and their occupation managers there would have been embedded anthropologists who, to qualify, would have had to pass the highest test of academic integrity.   These embedded students of human behaviour might have helped occupiers understand how tribes, clans, and other associations ancient and modern protect themselves, build alliances, make decisions, negotiate and even listen to God.  The scientists would have suspected that intelligence – not to be confused with “being intelligent” – is not the most reliable when or if the informer has only one qualification, English fluency.  In fact, it might not be a bad idea if all of us including the nonviolent clans, development tribes or micro and macro economists, embed ourselves with the skills of reading the signs of human behaviour.

Lesson number one is that traditional and modern tribes don’t just go away.  In fact they get reborn or mutate in dangerous ways when pushed out of sight.  Now, after all the bombs, there is a that new tribe in Iraq called the US Forces.  Iraqi clan leaders may be heard saying something like, “For now we have decided to work with the American tribe because they have more of what we need.”  Ex-Baathists who were not put to death keep reappearing and may or may not trust the new Iraqi toleration bill, legislation which itself has received a mixed review.

Bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly is a sound goal, powerful and universally inspiring.  I believe it should be tried.  The Bible evokes this kind of thinking.  It also suggests that such profound change is initiated by God and gets worked out through people.  If Mary is any example it evidently starts from the weaker members.  It would be a good idea to start replacing the mighty with their million dollar pay outs right here at home, learn from our mistakes and grow from there.  Depending upon the response of the various tribes, clans, and associations we might make some progress here at home and create space for Iraqis too.

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