Iraqis Tell the Bush Administration: “Thanks. Goodbye. Don’t Forget the Lights.”

“Democracy,” Winston Churchill declared, “is the very worst form of government in the world–except for all the other forms.” By that he meant it is a frustrating, time-intensive, messy affair, with bickering a central element in the process. So when some country attempts to export and guide the creation of democracy in another country, it undertakes an almost impossible task. And if it is not careful, the task itself can, literally as well as figuratively, lead to the demise of the very form of governance it attempts to foster.

This is where Iraq stands today. After much hesitation, Iraqis in general now are convinced that Saddam Hussein, even if alive, will never return to power. For his would-be successors, there is a massive and potentially lucrative vacuum of power that someone–or a combination of someones–will have to fill. And of course, as in Afghanistan, in addition to the U.S. and Britain, regional countries are keenly interested in who takes (or is elected to) power and what the political system will entail.

Retired U.S. general Jay Garner has just entered Baghdad, where he will set up the U.S.-led post-Saddam reconstruction and rehabilitation headquarters that is to advise and guide the Iraqis in developing civil society, reestablishing a “clean” police and judicial system, preparing a constitution, and holding elections. Separately, the Pentagon is reportedly rearranging troop dispositions and preparing to bring in a “stabilization force” consisting of elements from the Germany-based 1st Armored Division and the U.S.-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. They will join the 4th Infantry (Mechanized) Division and 2nd Light Armored Cavalry Regiment already deploying to Iraq.

But the preponderance of the new troops are tank and armored infantry units, the wrong kind of forces when one is trying to make person-to-person contacts with a population. Light infantry using less-armored vehicles and military police units are better in this scenario, because they are less intimidating and convey the message of “liberation” rather than of “new conqueror.”

Moreover, in addition to the ground troops, the New York Times (April 20) reported that the Pentagon wants permanent “access” to four air bases in Iraq–something Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld vehemently denied. Nonetheless, such a contingency is not merely hypothetical but logically anticipatory; prior to the war’s start, Saudi Arabia indicated that it might ask the U.S. to remove the American forces that have been in that country to help protect it from Saddam’s Iraq. Just as Operation Northern Watch, based in Turkey, has ended, Operation Southern Watch–flown out of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait, as well as from U.S. carriers–is moot. (That the U.S. unilaterally ended both air operations raises anew the question of the basis for these operations.) If access or even some permanent stationing agreement is forthcoming, the U.S. position in the region will actually be enhanced. Combined with Afghanistan and U.S. carrier battlegroups in the Persian Gulf, facilities in Iraq would position U.S. power virtually all around Iran. But will a new Iraqi government permit such an arrangement? After all, the holiest shrines of the Shi’ites are in Iraq.

Locally, in the small towns, Iraqis seem to be taking charge of security, organizing to prevent looting and other crimes. Baghdad, however, remains a quagmire. Ahmad Chalabi, who heads the Iraqi National Congress and is a Pentagon favorite, is in the capital. While professing no ambition for office–perhaps “he protests too much”–he vociferously calls for a long-term, U.S. military presence. At the very least, Chalabi seems to see himself as a power-broker, a role evidenced by his opposition to any form of religious state even as he concedes that Shi’ites (60% of the population) will inevitably have a role in the new Iraq. Among the questions that will ultimately determine the balance of power in the new Iraqi central government–and possibly its form–are the extent of unity the Shi’ites can maintain and which factions and individuals the Americans will allow to participate in the civil and political process.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has turned to its allies, particularly NATO, for troop contributions to an ad hoc peacekeeping contingent that would allow U.S. forces to leave Iraq. But NATO is soon to assume responsibility for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and European troops predominate in the international stabilization forces in Bosnia and Kosovo. And aside from support for humanitarian efforts, it remains an open question as to whether or not Iraqis will “accept” the presence of any armed foreign military/peacekeeping force for any period of time.

As the U.S. goes about cleaning out the Ba’ath party hierarchy, it faces two other problems. Among the civilian population, the number of casualties (particularly among children) from unexploded cluster munitions is beginning to mount. During the war, the Pentagon concealed the employment of cluster munitions under the more general rubric, “precision guided munitions.” Only now, as reports are collated from outlying villages, is the extent of cluster bomb usage emerging. But like depleted uranium, the military says it is not in the business of cleaning up unexploded cluster bombs or other munitions.

The second problem is the continued inability to provide the extensive humanitarian relief and restoration of basic government services–water, electricity, public transport, telephones, schools, sewage treatment, law and order, and a functioning judiciary–repeatedly promised Baghdad’s 5 million people. Convoys of food aid from Jordan in the north and Kuwait in the south have reached the two largest cities, but the economy is in dire straits with no real timetable for getting it–and the country–moving again.

While Iraqis want U.S. help, they do not want U.S. influence, particularly in the formation of their democracy and its supporting civil structure. Most are grateful to be free of Saddam Hussein and his regime, but they are equally adamant that liberation does not bestow special privilege on the liberators. These conflicting sentiments are mirrored in the anti-U.S. demonstrations that have occurred in many Iraqi cities.

In short, their message to the Bush administration is: “Thank you. Goodbye. And please don’t forget to turn on the lights.”