Review by Bryan Sketchley of Quarterly Essay, issue 14 Mission Impossible - the sheikhs, the US and the future of Iraq by Paul McGeough.
McGeough has written extensively for the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on the build up to the Iraq invasion, and the subsequent events there. McGeough's reporting has been insightful, reflecting the considerable time spent in Iraq.
McGeough's essay provides some deeper understanding of the complex makeup and structure of Iraq, in particular the relationship between the sheiks, tribes and the governing powers in Iraq. The essay opens with a recounting of sheik Malik's untimely death at the hands of US forces. In the months preceding the invasion, Malik had made his vast resources available to the US military sources, providing information and assistance in preparation for the then imminent invasion. Malik undertook his activities at great personal risk. Yet in the early days of the invasion US forces launched five missiles in to Malik's sprawling property, where his extended family had gathered in what they thought was a safe area. Twenty-two civilians were killed, mostly women and children. The reason for the bombing? Misinformation fed to the US forces by tribal enemies of Malik.
McGeough outlines the long-standing tradition in Iraqi society to seek revenge for shame suffered by the family. Pride and shame, McGeough explains, are issues of great importance to the tribes. With the UN imposed sanctions biting hard on Iraqi society in the 1990's, a good number of Iraqis returned to the sanctuary of the tribes, where tribal sheiks take responsibility for dispensing justice and largesse, overseeing issues large and small. The sheiks were, according to McGeough, willing to assist the US in the early days of the occupation, for a price. They have, however, been entirely marginalised.
While paying no heed to the tribal leaders, and in the course of the occupation, the occupying forces have managed to 'shame and dishonor' a good many people, powerful sheiks included, that would, for the want of a little insight into Iraqi society, have been erstwhile allies.
McGeough makes a case for the power of the sheiks, and in particular their ability to play a role that would be favorable to the occupying forces. Wiser military heads advised in the preparatory days of the invasion that a conciliatory relationship should be struck with the powerful sheiks. US military powers ignored the advice. Only after the Fallujah uprising have the occupiers given to building relationships with some of the sheiks in any serious way. McGeough makes it clear that while the sheiks certainly have the power to wind back the insurgency, the preparedness to do so no longer exists.
In all, McGeough paints a picture of a bedrock feudalist society that despite or perhaps because of Saddam's lengthy and brutal rule, the sheiks power remains, and yields significant power in everyday life in Iraq.
McGeough's essay provides a good deal of insight into the underpinning structure of Iraqi society and exposes much of the arrogant brutality of the US administration reflected in the daily operations of its armed forces. His essay portents that there is a more efficient way to occupy Iraq, that US goals in Iraq could be met with an inclusive outlook. McGeough's critique reveals, between the lines, that there is already in existence an alternative ruling caste in Iraq, and one that may well be beyond the control of religious extremists.
Quarterly Essay makes no claim to being a socialist publication, and to be sure, McGeough provides only a journalists analysis, reporting on the structure of Iraq while passing no comment on the misogynist and brutal future that awaits Iraqi society generally, if an Islamic republic is founded.