The looting which has taken place was not unexpected and is merely one sign of the general level of chaos apparent throughout the country. Now that the warm welcome of U.S. forces has worn off and the statues of Saddam have been toppled, there are daily demonstrations in Baghdad against the "occupation" of Iraq.
Earlier this week the Bush administration convened a meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders in the ancient city of Ur, taking the first formal and open step towards finding Iraqi opposition leaders who might one day take over from U.S. military and civilian administrators. All major ethnic groups were represented, several women attended as did Shi'a representatives. One Shi'a leader even spoke of a future which includes separation of mosque and state, clearly music to Washington's ears. But other Shi'a groups refused invitations to appear and Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon's favored candidate for political leadership, stayed away, though others from his Iraqi National Congress did attend. This was pretty much according to plan.
What is not according to plan, but also not a surprise, is the number of revenge killings and incidents which involve settling scores, the outcome of various ethnic, tribal and religious rivalries. Such was the case in Najaf, where a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Abdel Majid al-Khoei, was killed by religious rivals at a mosque last week.
In Washington, James Dobbins, a former State department official who has dealt with post war reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti, told an audience at the Brookings Institution that "it's worth remembering that we went into Kosovo to protect the Albanians from the Serbs and then spent the next three years protecting the Serbs from the Albanians. It's quite likely that we will be faced with similar tasks in Iraq."
It would be an interesting problem if U.S. forces had to protect Saddam Hussein from revenge-seeking Iraqis, but there's a small problem: neither American military or civilian officials know where he is, or even if he is alive. The closest thing to Saddam we've seen has been what might be called the ghost of Saddam, as shown on Abu Dhabi TV. Saddam walking the streets of Baghdad, surrounded by admiring and applauding Iraqis. Was it real or was it videotape?
Meanwhile, what is real is the general lack of electricity, clean running water, functioning hospitals and a general sense of law and order. The Pentagon is supposed to be installing Jay Garner, a retired Army general, to take charge and bring order out of chaos, but he and his team are not due in Baghdad before Sunday, at the earliest.
That leaves local politicians to step forward, appear in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel where most of the foreign press is staying, and stake their claims to one center of power or another. Chalabi and the INC are running their political operations from a couple of sport clubs where Saddam used to hang out.
Garner and other Bush administration officials plan to hold more regional meetings around Iraq, trying to find emerging leaders from enough factions to form a government. Eventually, plans call for an interim Iraqi leadership to emerge from a meeting to be held in Baghdad.
As the lights get turned on, and water and other services are restored there will be many setbacks and increasing pressures for the Americans to pull out before its stated task of democratizing Iraq is complete.
Jim Dobbins, the Rand Corporation analyst who's been through this before, says he's never seen a nation-building operation succeed in less than five years. "…the tension is between turning over Iraq to un-elected Iraqis which allows us to diminish our commitments and get out of it more quickly, or wait to turn Iraq over to elected Iraqis and ensuring that the democratic transformation is a genuinely enduring one," says Dobbins. "This is a tension that we're going to face as we go forward during the coming months."
Perhaps before American troops and civil administrators pull out we'll find out what happened to Saddam Hussein and whether he did have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
By Charlie Wolfson