The historical parallel that best illuminates the current disaster-in-the-making in Iraq is not the Vietnam War but, rather, Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 - which led to the creation of Hizbollah. Consider the following. As things stand, it appears that victory in Iraq will go to the side most in tune with the reality of the Iraqi society of today: the leaders of the anti-U.S. resistance. Iyad Allawi's government was recently installed by the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to counter a Baathist nationalism that ceased to exist nearly a decade ago.
In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's regime shifted toward an amalgam of Islamic fundamentalism, tribalism and nationalism that more accurately reflected the political reality of Iraq. Thanks to his meticulous planning and foresight, Saddam's lieutenants are now running the Iraqi resistance, including the Islamist groups.
Not only has the United States failed to put into place a viable government, but, more importantly, it also continues to misidentify the true nature of the Iraqi insurgency.
In August 1995, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, defected to Jordan. Much of the attention paid to this event has centred on Kamal's various debriefings with the CIA, British Intelligence, and UN weapons inspectors concerning (the lack of) Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
But more important than the WMD information is the reason Kamal gave for defecting: Saddam Hussein's order that all senior Baath party officials undertake mandatory Koranic studies. A staunch Baathist like Hussein Kamal, schooled in the doctrine of secular Arab nationalism, viewed the command as tantamount to heresy. But for Saddam Hussein, this radical shift in strategy was necessary.
Confronted with the postwar turmoil created by military defeat and economic devastation (prolonged by UN sanctions), Saddam had to re-engineer his domestic constituency. The traditional Baathist ideology, based on Iraq-centric Arab nationalism, was no longer the driving force. Creating a new base required not only bringing the Shiite majority (which had revolted against him in the spring of 1991) into the fold, but also accommodating the growing religious fundamentalism of traditional allies such as key Sunni tribes in western Iraq.
The most visible symbol of Saddam's decision to embrace Islam was his order to add the words "God is Great" to the Iraqi flag. The transformation of the political dynamics inside Iraq seems to have escaped the attention of the Bush administration.
For many in the administration, the indisputable success of the invasion of Iraq was ridding the world of a dangerous ideology, Baathism. Indeed, one of the first directives issued by Paul Bremer, the former head of the CPA, was a "de-Baathification" order effectively blacklisting all former members of that party. Senior Bush administration officials recognized their mistake, though a little too late. In April 2004, Bremer rescinded the de-Baathification order. The Pentagon today speaks of a "marriage of convenience" between Islamic fundamentalists and former members of Saddam's Baathist regime.
Once again, the Pentagon has it wrong. The Iraqi resistance is no "marriage of convenience," but, rather, the product of years of careful planning. Rather than being absorbed by a larger Islamist movement, Saddam's former lieutenants are calling the shots in Iraq, having co-opted the Islamic fundamentalists years ago, with or without their knowledge.
One look at the list of the 55 "most wanted" members of the Saddam regime who remain at large reveals the probable chain of command of the Iraqi resistance today. The security services of Saddam's Iraq were never disbanded; they simply melted away into the population.
The so-called Islamic resistance is led by none other than former vice-president Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, an ardent Iraqi nationalist, a Sunni Arab and a practising member of the Sufi brotherhood, a society of Islamic mystics. His deputy is Rafi Tilfah, who headed the directorate of general security (DGS), an organization that had thoroughly penetrated Iraqi society with collaborators and informants.
As a former UN weapons inspector, I have personally inspected the headquarters of the DGS in Baghdad, as well as the regional DGS headquarters in Tikrit. The rooms were full of files concerning those who were working with or on behalf of the DGS. There is not a person, family, tribe or Islamic movement in Iraq that the DGS does not know intimately.
I also interacted with the former director of the Special Security Organization, Hani abd al-Latif al-Tilfah, on numerous occasions during 1997-98, when he was in charge of riding roughshod over my inspections. He was responsible for purging the DGS of old Baathist nationalists and replacing them with officers loyal to Saddam's new Islamic-tribal vision of Iraq. Today he helps coordinate the Iraqi resistance using the very same officers.
Tahir Habbush headed the Iraqi intelligence service that perfected the art of improvised explosive devices. In the months prior to the U.S.-led invasion, he was ordered to blend his agents back into the Iraqi population to avoid detection. The intelligence service agents were also told to infiltrate organizations that had actively opposed Saddam Hussein and were thus most likely to play a leading role in any post-Saddam Iraqi government. These included both the Kurdish and Shiite opposition parties.
The recent anti-American attacks in Fallujah and Ramadi were carried out by well-disciplined men fighting in cohesive units, most likely drawn from the ranks of Saddam's Republican Guard. This level of sophistication should not have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with former chief of the Republican Guard Sayf al-Din Fulayyih al-Rawi's role in secretly demobilizing select Guard units for this very purpose prior to the U.S. invasion.
The truth is that there never was a significant people-based opposition movement inside Iraq for the Bush admin to call on. This is why the United States has been forced to rely on the services of individuals tainted by their association with foreign intelligence services or drawn from opposition parties heavily infiltrated by agents of Saddam's former security services.
Regardless of the number of troops the United States puts on the ground or how long they stay there, Allawi's government is doomed to fail. Back to the Lebanon parallel. Originally intended to rid Lebanon of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel's occupation led to the creation of Hizbollah, which was so effective that Israel was forced to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon in May, 2000.
The 18-year occupation not only failed to defeat the PLO, it also created an Islamic fundamentalist movement that today poses a serious threat to the security of Israel and the Middle East region. In Iraq, history may very well produce the same result.