Unfinished Business

Sunday, Apr. 20, 2003
Unfinished Business
America’s war with Iraq won’t be complete until U.S. forces can resolve three key questions

Nothing but a battle lost, said Wellington of Waterloo, can be half so melancholy as a battle won. And so it is as the war in Iraq turns into a fight for peace and a nation’s soul. The conflict may be over, but the combat hasn’t stopped. Markets are open, but the lights are still out, and there are shortages of everything but flies. Iraqis are free to march through the streets demanding that U.S. troops pull out, and to walk up to Marines and ask why there aren’t more of them to help keep the peace. The oil wells have been kept safe, but many ancient treasures are lost. Bodies have piled up, and the gravediggers have disappeared, so it’s up to people to bury their own. Peace is painted in more subtle colors than the black, white and blood-red days of war.

The looting has subsided, partly because there is nothing left to take. U.S. troops who began last week as soldiers ended it as cops, trying to distinguish the bad from the worse. They did foil a bank robbery, recovering $3.68 million in American hundred-dollar bills from the thieves’ car. But the ransacking of Iraq’s national museum, home to some of the world’s most precious antiquities, left a wound in the country’s heart. General Tommy Franks took his victory lap through Baghdad, passing out cigars to his commanders and brushing off a legion of armchair generals who had cast doubt on his plan. Seven rescued prisoners of war were on their way home. Iraqis exchanged their dinars for dollars, 2,000 Saddams for one George Washington. For the first time in a generation, leaders from different regions and faiths and tribes met to imagine their future, and emerged with a 13-point platform.

The fact that both Saddam and his weapons were still missing made for some uncomfortable conversations in Washington—particularly when Saddam popped up again on TV. Virtually an entire air wing of Soviet-made MiG-25 fighters was found hidden in the desert, and more gold-plated AK-47s turned up in Saddam’s palaces. But there was no sign yet of the buried nerve gas or a proven biowarfare lab. Polls in America are reflecting relief that the worst is over, more than concern at what remains to be done. But failure to achieve all the ends for which the war was launched may exact a higher cost over time.

At every briefing for weeks, U.S. officials have been asked how we would know when the war was over. Now CNN has changed its running headline to the new iraq. A&E has a special called Saving Private Lynch. More than a dozen companies are looking to trademark the term shock and awe. “Victory in Iraq is certain,” President George W. Bush said last week in the Rose Garden, “but it is not complete.”

Leave it to Iraq’s tenacious ruler to taunt his enemies and torture his people when he’s supposed to be good and dead. Even after the second U.S. strike on a purported hiding place, even after his government had vanished and the statues had toppled, it required a leap of faith for the people of Iraq to believe he would never be able to touch them again. The streets of Baghdad itched with rumors. The Americans missed him by 10 minutes or 10 yards. He’s in Russia, in Syria, on an island off the coast of Spain. No, he’s right beneath our feet—he and a thousand guards hiding under the city in bunkers with a two-year stock of food and water, waiting to stage a coup when the U.S. withdraws. No, he left last fall and went to North Korea, which offered shelter in return for help with its nuclear program. No, Saddam and son Uday were shot by younger son Qusay, who fled to Syria and is secretly negotiating a swap with the U.S.: clemency in return for Dad’s dead body.

Among the vividest and most recurrent were rumors that on April 9, the day U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad, Saddam appeared outside the Adhamiya mosque in the northern part of the city, rising from the sunroof of his limo to greet an adoring crowd, with Qusay at his side. So it was uncanny when something like that very scene played on Abu Dhabi TV late last week. The network said its source insists the video was made on April 9, two days after Washington launched a bomb strike that many suspected had killed Saddam.

The White House can argue all it wants that Saddam’s fate does not matter strategically. But it matters psychologically. For Iraqis, the new sighting confirmed their belief that, as a Baghdad resident put it, “we must see Saddam’s body hanging from a lamppost before we can be truly at peace.” Every fire fight, every explosion, every low-flying jet supports the widespread conviction. “No one believes Saddam is gone,” says Ramzi, a Kirkuk oil worker. As cabdriver Faras Ahmad explains, “We have all been trying to forget him, but he’s telling us, ‘I am still here.’ If he is alive, then Iraq is not safe.”

It will be days or weeks before U.S. intelligence analysts can confidently judge when the latest tape was recorded and what it means. At a glance, some officials doubted that a man who kept his own Republican Guards out of Baghdad for fear of mutiny would do a walkabout on the day his capital was stormed by a foreign invader. They suggested that the tape must have been made weeks earlier. But there had been clues for days that perhaps Saddam had escaped again. The U.S. had not yet sent a team to dig for proof—for his body or at least his DNA—at the site of the April 7 bombing. (Despite denials from Washington, officials at U.S. Central Command stuck by their claim that they have his DNA. Franks won’t say how the sample was obtained, but sources point to a dental lab found at one of Saddam’s palaces.) Pentagon officials now think that Saddam may have been hiding in a white-stuccoed house adjacent to the building that was destroyed: neighbors note that the house boasted five telephone lines and a wooden desk like the one Saddam sat behind during his television appearances early in the war. As many as 10,000 U.S. special-operations troops in the region are exploring palaces, tunnels, bunkers and other places where Saddam may be hiding—or where evidence may be found to help track him.

In the meantime, the Americans can take some satisfaction from a few big catches: after passing out the 55 playing cards depicting their most wanted, they began to take some tricks—two half brothers, the Finance Minister, a senior party official. Top science adviser Amir al-Saadi had surrendered the week before, and Imad Hussayn al-Ani, who is supposed to have been in charge of Saddam’s VX nerve-gas program, turned himself in on Friday. For good measure, Abu Abbas, mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985, was captured in Baghdad.

Saddam was not the only thing missing. For months before the war began, everyone from Bush on down argued that Saddam’s arsenal of biological and chemical weapons was so dangerous that destroying it was worth a war. They laid claim to information so certain that Colin Powell was able to provide graphic details to a U.N. audience in February. Pentagon officials were confident that the quality of their intelligence would lead troops to the illicit stockpiles fairly quickly once U.S. boots were on Iraqi soil. Now they’re adjusting the picture: the Pentagon says its soldiers are no more likely to stumble over a weapons cache than top U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix was. “Things were mobile. Things were underground. Things were in tunnels. Things were hidden. Things were dispersed. Now, are we going to find that? No, it’s a big country,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week. “The inspectors didn’t find anything, and I doubt that we will—what we will do is find the people who will tell us.”

However sanguine officials sound in public, in private the pressure is rising. The Pentagon dispatched an entire brigade—3,000 troops—to the search and offered $200,000 bounties for any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) uncovered. Local officers were authorized to make payments of $2,500 on the spot. “The White House is screaming, ‘Find me some WMD,'” says a State Department official, adding that the task is one of many suddenly facing the department. Members of the Administration must feel a new bond with Blix, since they are now the ones arguing that these things take time.

Even the hard-liners concede that they have confirmed absolutely nothing so far. Soldiers rooting around with rifles and test kits stumble on something suspicious, and it’s an instant headline. But barrels of nerve agent have turned out to be pesticide; tip-offs about weapons sites have gone nowhere; the buried or mobile bioweapons labs have so far failed to surface. A senior Pentagon official says U.S. forces have been to several “promising” sites in southern Iraq and have come up empty. “It’s there, but it’s well hidden,” a second Defense official insists. “It will take time to discover and verify because they took time—and effort—to hide it.” Some officials now question whether huge stockpiles will ever be found: it’s easy to hide a liter of anthrax, but not the factory-size facility needed to produce it.

The failure to turn up anything to date raises two possibilities, neither one good, says Joseph Cirincione, chief of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It may be that there aren’t as many weapons as the President said, in which case we have a major intelligence failure, a huge embarrassment for the President and a huge blow to U.S. credibility—and that’s the good news,” he says. “The other option is that there are as many weapons as the President feared, and they’re no longer under anyone’s control.”

That second possibility underscores the urgency of the hunt. The prime rationale for the war was to prevent the proliferation of such weapons. Since every other government facility has been pillaged, there’s no reason to believe such marketable weapons are secure. “It’s not that no one knows where they are,” Cirincione says. “It’s that we don’t know where they are.” Iraqi detainees like al-Saadi and al-Ani are not likely to talk for fear of being prosecuted for war crimes. Both have been saying, as an intelligence official put it, “Weapons of mass destruction? What weapons of mass destruction? We have no stinking weapons for you.” But everyone else, down to the janitors, is expected to cooperate once fear of reprisal is removed. Then there is the political problem. The longer the hunt takes, the Pentagon concedes, the more likely it is that skeptics will charge that whatever is eventually found was planted by the U.S. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Blix said the information the U.S. provided to his teams before the war was “pathetic.” So it was not surprising when he said last week, “I think that at some stage they would like to have some credible international verification of what they find,” suggesting that if the U.S. ever does uncover something, it will have to call for inspections on itself.

At sunset last Monday, jay garner climbed to the top of the 4,000-year-old ziggurat in Ur in southern Iraq and looked down over the remains of the city of Abraham’s birth. The former three-star general, assigned to invent a democracy from scratch, was preparing to preside the next morning over the first freely convened meeting of Iraqi leaders in memory. “There we were, at the birthplace of civilization, and we were about to create a democracy,” says Garner. “I had tears in my eyes.”

That’s about as moist and mystical as it gets from Garner. For all the lofty dreams of planting liberty in fresh soil, the Bush Administration dispatched a pragmatist with a low-key manner and rolled-up sleeves to get the job done. “Jay’s way,” as his subordinates call it, involves no waffling, full accountability, foot on the gas, getting results. He has a staff of 200, but they were still stuck in Kuwait last week waiting to be told it was safe to set up shop in Iraq. “There is the physical thing—roads and bridges—we can do that; I have enough money for that,” Garner told TIME last week. “And then there is the government—that is harder. We are remaking human lives here.”

Just getting started was harder than anyone expected. Many ministries were looted, and some workers were still afraid to go to work. As an incentive, Garner’s operation will give each returning worker an emergency one-time payment of $20, equivalent to a month’s pay. As for order, some police officers went back to work in Baghdad, but all was not quiet there or in other cities. Those police officers were all products of the old regime, and many Iraqis were reluctant to accept them as arbiters of the new. In Kirkuk, says Ahmad Shakir, an Arab teacher from the Qadissiya district, Kurdish children with rocket-propelled grenades were going from house to house in his neighborhood, telling Arabs to move out in two days or die. “I went to the Americans to ask for help,” he says. “They said it was not their responsibility; go to the civilian administration. I came to the local Kurdish authorities, and they tell me, ‘Go ask the American soldiers.'”

As for finding a new generation of leaders, “It is like walking in a dark room holding your hands out, feeling for the walls and trying not to touch the furniture,” says Garner. Discerning who is credible and who is corrupt requires trial and error. The night before the conclave, Garner met with exile leader Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress. He would not be attending in the morning—in many quarters there is deep opposition to him as a Pentagon puppet—but Garner wanted a chance to hear Chalabi’s take on the situation. Pressed and proper in a tie and herringbone jacket, despite more than a week of living in a crumbling warehouse, Chalabi told the American proconsul the looting must be stopped so that citizens would feel safe. “We do not want Iraqis turning to Americans to solve their problems,” Chalabi said. He wants Iraqis going to other Iraqis for help. But he didn’t talk of how an Iraqi Interim Authority would be run or of his own future role, if any.

The 80 leaders who met the next morning represented just a first round: about one-third were Iraqi exiles; the rest were drawn from inside the country. “At the beginning there was a sense of a standoff between the outsiders and the insiders, but as the day wore on, you saw them sitting down with each other at the tables. I thought that was a good thing,” says Garner. One Shi’ite cleric stood up and quoted Abraham Lincoln, much to Garner’s delight.

But outside the tent, people weren’t exactly celebrating. Thousands gathered to denounce the process or demand to know why they had been excluded. After Friday prayers, protesters swarmed the streets of Baghdad calling for Muslim unity. When a U.S. Marine patrol wandered around a corner into a Baghdad street filled with worshippers spilling out of a Sunni mosque, the flashes of anger and the wrestling for power captured in a second the challenge that American forces face. we reject foreign control, read the banners. The sheik’s sermon was a hymn to nationalism: Do not try to divide Sunni from Shi’ite, he said; we are all united in our desire to create an Islamic state free of both Saddam and America.

At the sight of the U.S. forces, worshippers rose and formed a wall to block them. The Marines did not understand Arabic, but they did not need to: the angry shouting made it clear that they were not welcome. A staff sergeant tried to calm the crowd, telling demonstrators, who did not speak English, that his troops meant no harm. He finally lost his temper when an Iraqi said, “You must go.” “I have the weapons,” the sergeant replied. “You back off.”

One stone tossed, one shot fired could have led to disaster. But the Marines retreated cautiously around the corner as the faithful were held back by their own men. Women peered at the soldiers from behind cracked-open doors, and children waved to them and gave them a thumbs-up as both sides edged back, for now. This is a new moment, a new mission, for the Iraqi people and for the soldiers in their midst, and the challenge for both is likely to grow as the future takes root.

—Reported by Brian Bennett, Aparisim Ghosh, Simon Robinson and Nir Rosen/Baghdad, Michael Weisskopf/Doha, Terry McCarthy/Kuwait City, Timothy J. Burger, Massimo Calabresi, John F. Dickerson and Mark Thompson/ Washington

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