There are a slew of reports and images coming out of Iraq tonight, all of which point in one sense or another to the regime crumbling or just melting away. This is not the end of resistance but the end of anything you could credibly call a government in any but a nominal sense. There are some expressions of hostility, many of popular jubilation or simply relief. But some of the most visible images are of what can only be called indifference to our presence: namely, the looting. Looting was always to be expected. This is a country that’s been ruled by terror for at least two generations. And even if we had every person in the US military on the ground in Iraq we still wouldn’t be able to effectively police the place in the immediate chaos surrounding the fall of the government.
There do seem to be at least some instances of vengeance killings occurring. And there are sure to be many more. But what’s really striking is the fairly calm, unhurried looting. This is what happens in a society when everything has been held in check by terror and so many of the bonds which make up society have been slowly ground away.
Some time back I was talking to an Iraqi emigre based in the Washington. (My understanding is that he’s now in Kuwait readying to go back into the country.) This is not one of the name “oppositionists,” but someone who always struck me as the most authentically democratic of the Iraqis I talked to for my various reporting. He had a much less monochromatic sense of at least the original Baath party than we usually hear today, rightly or wrongly, in the US. And he spoke of the “excessive dictatorship” Saddam Hussein had imposed on the country and the way it had ground away all of what we usually call civil society. Ironically, sanctions had only tightened his grip and still furthered the process, giving the state — in its thuggish, smuggler, aid-administrator guise — even greater control over people’s lives.
Obviously, “excessive dictatorship” is a funny phrase to hear from someone I’m calling a democrat. But what he meant was this grinding down of institutions and allegiances and affiliations — everything but the autocratic state and the individual. One of the other distressing points was his description of how this breaking down of civil society had left only those sorts of leaders who could call on atavistic or sectarian loyalties. And this is what you see in most of the Iraqi opposition leaders, the Shi’a Islamists, the Kurdish parties, the various exile groups which have only a very uncertain command over any allegiance inside the country. Many of them, of course, the US essentially created.
The challenge is the lack of national institutions around which you’re going to be able or not going to be able to build some sort of unified state.