Countering a Backlash in a Post-Saddam Iraq

March 19, 2003

Countering a Backlash in a Post-Saddam Iraq

The greatest challenge that military forces will face in occupying Iraq after Saddam's fall is the risk of a backlash from the Iraqi people.

The greatest challenge that military forces will face in occupying Iraq after Saddam's fall is the risk of a backlash from the Iraqi people.  The nightmare is that Baghdad would be a new Mogadishu, where a hostile population turns on intervening forces.   


Although anecdotal information suggests that Iraqis today would welcome American intervention--something reconfirmed by Prime Minister Barham Salih in his remarks to the weekly this past Friday (1), this welcome may wear thin over time.  Already, members of the anti-Saddam opposition, including respected intellectuals, have criticized the intended U.S. role in post-Saddam Iraqi politics.  Perhaps surprisingly, even Kurdish groups have criticized the idea of a U.S. occupation; Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, declared, "If we don't accept an Iraqi general, how are we going to accept an American general?" 

Even those Iraqi leaders who have no personal or ideological opposition to the United States may fear that intervening forces are threatening their power.  In Somalia, for example, UN efforts to ensure the distribution of humanitarian relief changed the balance of power among Somali warlords.  Supposedly "impartial" U.S. efforts to feed one group or encourage local elections may lead current leaders to stir up anti-U.S. sentiment to protect their power--something even Salih noted when he said that "there will be some effort to derail our venture of building a federal democracy in Iraq."  

The risk of a backlash in Iraq, however, is almost certainly overstated and can be further reduced by properly structuring the intervention.  Claims that citizens of the former Yugoslavia, and particularly those of Afghanistan, would never abide foreign military forces in their countries have so far proven false.  Senior Iraqi opposition leaders noted privately that anti-U.S. statements are simply posturing, as groups seek to avoid being portrayed as a U.S. puppet.  In addition, warlordism in Iraq is currently far less of a problem than it is in Afghanistan, Somalia or the Balkans. 

But because the risk remains real, intervening forces should take several steps to ensure that current fears do not become realities.    First, intervening forces should rectify the misery of the Iraqi people quickly by ensuring the provision of humanitarian relief - helping people get food, water and electricity will go a long way in dispelling suspicion of the intervening forces' intentions.  Cooperation with relief agencies is imperative, and coalition forces should try to ensure that Iraqis are aware of these efforts. 

Whenever possible, intervening forces should work through the United Nations to enhance the legitimacy of the occupation.  Although the UN is rightly viewed as at best cumbersome and at worst sclerotic, the legitimacy gained is worth the frustration.  This will help the United States and its allies counter charges of imperialism, which will be particularly loud in the Arab press.  Quiet steps have already been taken to involve the UN in reconstruction and relief efforts. (2) 

As quickly as possible, Iraqis should be invited to join the decision process to make it clear that foreign forces are working with and for Iraqis, not for their own interests.  Iraqi input would range from helping decide national questions such as the future use of Iraq's oil wealth to local ones such as policing and infrastructure repair.  Transparency is also essential.  Iraqis and other observers should know what the intervening forces plan to accomplish and the conditions under which they will leave.   

Finally, the military forces should at times be dispersed to reduce the sense of occupation.  When possible, small teams should be deployed to work with local officials, making sure that the local population supports the intervening forces' presence and is aware that the forces are there to assist the rebuilding of Iraq, not to rule. 

Inevitably, force protection will become a major concern for a dispersed force, particularly with regard to Al-Qaeda-linked terrorism.  In Saudi Arabia and other states in the region, military forces are deployed in well-guarded bases, separate from the population at large.  Such a fortress approach throughout Iraq would prevent troops from carrying out their mission and gaining the goodwill of the Iraqis.  But dispersing forces to remote parts of Iraq to ensure local security will make the force protection challenge even greater.  Dispersing forces virtually ensures that intervening forces will suffer some casualties - it is impossible to protect small teams in remote regions, no matter how well armed and trained they are.   

In obvious dangerous areas where local resentment may be high (e.g. Tikrit), civil affairs personnel and others responsible for liaising with the local population should be backed up by a visible and large outside force, including armor.  Such an intrusive deployment, however, would be infeasible in much of Iraq due to the size and because it might alienate an otherwise-sympathetic populace. 

In these areas, the best means of force protection is a supportive Iraqi people.  If intervening forces are welcomed, then the local population will act as their eyes and ears at best, and at least not support or carry out terrorist attacks.  

Liberation will produce a reservoir of good will.  It will be important not to squander it in the weeks and months "the day after." 


(1)               "The overwhelming majority of Iraqis have had enough and want to end this nightmare. … We see the U.S. mission as one of liberating the Iraqi people from this tyranny," Salih said.  Cf.  

(2)               "The White House will not shy away from using the human and political infrastructure of the United Nations," observed Nikolas Gvosdev, senior fellow at the Nixon Center.  See the reporting in Vedomosti, March 6, 2003, on the UN's readiness to work with the United States in postwar Iraq. 



Daniel Byman is an Assistant Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution.