Conquest Exacts a Price

A British general talks about "the war for the liberation of Iraq," and Washington talks about progress "exactly according to plan." But an additional 120,000 soldiers are being dispatched to Iraq and there are more quotes from commanders saying they were surprised by the degree of opposition.

Fifty-eight Iraqi civilians were killed on Friday evening in a marketplace in the Su'ala district of Baghdad. Two days earlier, at least 14 civilians had lost their lives in another market in Baghdad. The British general who briefs reporters talks about "the war for the liberation of Iraq," while the BBC calls it "the war for the control of" and Washington talks about swift progress "exactly according to plan." But an additional 120,000 soldiers are being dispatched to Iraq and there are more quotes from anonymous commanders saying they were surprised by the degree of opposition put up by the Iraqis.

Only - or perhaps, already - 11 days into the war, the impression is that what one sees there is what is actually happening: a regular war with dust and mud and sand in the eyes, with tired soldiers and angry commanders, with accidents and "friendly fire," convoys of hundreds of POWs, thousands of hungry and thirsty refugees and dozens of wounded and dead civilians.

It is a war that is slowly starting to lose its original aim of destroying weapons of mass destruction, and which has a constantly growing price tag for its other aim, of liquidating Saddam Hussein.

The major problem of the war so far is that it is starting to be perceived as the conquest of Iraq rather than as the liquidation of the focus of evil in that country. Like other wars, this war does not have the problem of convincing people that there will be a political horizon in the end. It is clear that the liquidation of Saddam, when this actually happens, will merely be one stop in this war, and not the final stop. The U.S. is waging a strategic war in the name of the Iraqi people. It is not like the war in Afghanistan which changed the regime in one city, Kabul, and left the warring local chiefs in place in the rest of the country.

But this political horizon is imaginary. The Iraqi war is ambitious: it aims at changing the regime in the entire country; at establishing the first democracy in a Muslim country (Turkey is not counted since it defines itself as secular); at serving as a warning signal to all the countries of the Middle East and especially those who form part of "the axis of evil"; and at being the pretentious "mother of all wars" that will give birth to peace.

However, the tactical battles at Umm Qasr and Nassariya and even the siege of Basra have succeeded in tearing to pieces the strategic picture drawn by those who planned the war, and it may be worthwhile now to plan for the possibility that this war will have the same end as others of its kind: conquest rather than liberation. In other words - a military victory and a political defeat.

As Israel's meager experience in this sphere has shown, a conquering nation becomes enamoured with conquest. Iraq will provide ample reasons for this kind of enchantment. It will not be possible to leave Iraq after Saddam in the hands of a regime that will not be able to provide sufficient guarantees that a new Saddam will not rise to power; or to the Shi'ites who might join forces with Iran; or to the Kurds who could try to grab the oil centers; or to governments that would take the opportunity to profit from rehabilitation budgets.

The diplomatic wrangling in the United Nations, at the weekend, over the question of how to implement plans to sell Iraq's oil in return for food and medicines is not merely a symptom of what can be expected but rather what the future itself will hold. Those countries which oppose the war and which meanwhile have the biggest oil contracts with Iraq, are also those who contend that those who start the war must be those who pay for it. The U.S. and Britain, on the other hand, will want Iraq's resources to fund the war. To that end, they will have to appoint someone of their own to control Iraq, or do so themselves.

At the same time, the person in charge in Iraq will have to stop the bloodletting among the warring factions - those who suffered at Saddam's hands and those who benefited from him, the supporters and opponents of the U.S., the collaborators and the nationalists, the religious and the secular - because Iraqi society will behave like any other conquered society. There will be fighting on the inside and against the conqueror.

There is therefore no point in trying to guess when the war will end. It is not the type of war that can end in a few days or even perhaps weeks. The conquest of a country like Iraq is a long story. And even when the war "formally" ends - that is, if it is decided that liquidating Saddam is the end - it could turn from a war into a permanent conflict.

Any state, even if it is a superpower, that is in a constant state of conflict in the Middle East, will have great difficulty developing the regional peace for which this war is aiming.