The Magazine

Reinventing Iraq

The Trieste model.

Dec 9, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 13 • By AUSTIN BAY
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WHEN TAMERLANE retook Baghdad in 1401, delivering mail and feeding babies weren't post-conflict priorities. Ticked that the Baghdadis had the cheek to revolt, the warlord put the city to the sword. There was no Fox or CNN to report the massacre. Tamerlane's signal--a message all too often sent by Mesopotamian tyrants past and present--was received nonetheless: Resist and you will die.

Pity General Tommy Franks or, for that matter, any American military commander tasked with overseeing a post-Saddam Baghdad. For in that amorphous, dicey phase the Pentagon calls "war termination," they will be radically departing from the Tamerlane template. U.S. and allied forces liberating Iraq will attempt--more or less simultaneously--to end combat operations, cork public passions, disarm Iraqi battalions, bury the dead, generate electricity, pump potable water, bring law out of embittering lawlessness, empty jails of political prisoners, pack jails with criminals, turn armed partisans into peaceful citizens, re-arm local cops who were once enemy infantry, shoot terrorists, thwart chiselers, carpetbaggers, and black marketeers, fix sewers, feed refugees, patch potholes, get trash trucks rolling, and accomplish all this under the lidless gaze of Peter Jennings and Al Jazeera.

Of course, how Saddam falls, by internal coup, assassination, or invasion, will deeply affect the initial shape of post-Saddam Iraq. But under any circumstances, Washington must have governing policies, implementing procedures, and Iraqi political personalities in line before the regime's dispatch.

That's why the Bush White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, and a cost-plus shadow government of Beltway consultants have been hashing and rehashing options for governing a post-Saddam Iraq. Frankly, there is no perfect model for reinventing Iraq. Afghanistan is still an experiment, though the interplay of tribal and sectarian factions is instructive. The democratic reconstruction of Japan and Germany after World War II are the favorite analogies of most pundits. But the parallels are weak. Japan is a homogenous society, and MacArthur let the Japanese keep their emperor. With the emperor as puppet, the American Caesar pulled the strings. Iraq is fractious, a Baghdad satrapy with rebellious provinces, ruled by a despot who is more Al Capone than Hirohito. While Iraqi de-Baathification could be compared to German de-Nazification--they are both fascist doctrines that morally corrupted and destroyed generations--the postwar German occupation rapidly became a Cold War confrontation. And Iran is no USSR.

There is, however, an almost unmentioned model that some U.S. military planners are beginning to consider: the post-World War II Anglo-American Allied Military Government (AMG) in Trieste. The Trieste AMG's experience provides useful insights at what the military calls the operational and tactical levels.

Consider the strategic, cultural, and ethnic tectonics. Trieste, an odd Italian city that was once the Austro-Hungarian empire's main seaport (and a James Joyce hangout), lies on the fault line where the "Latin, Slav, and German worlds collide" (Dennison Rusinow's phrase in "What Ever Happened to the Trieste Question?"). In Mesopotamia the Iranian, Kurd, Arab, and Turk worlds collide.

In early May 1945, as allied troops assumed control of Trieste, they had to confront armed factions that short days before had been nominal allies. These armed factions had contradictory goals. Yugoslav (Slovene predominantly, with some Croat and Croat Serb) partisans occupied parts of Trieste. An Italian democratic resistance force, the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (CLN) also emerged. The Yugoslavs quickly began forming their own (Communist) military administration. On May 5, the Yugoslavs fired on a pro-Italian demonstration, killing at least five people.

In post-Saddam Iraq, Kurd and Shiite factions won't be the only armed contestants. Rebellious Iraqi Army units, led by officers with legitimate anti-Saddam credentials, will stake political claims.

The Trieste-region Allied Military Government responded with "show of force" actions that disarmed the partisan detachments, at least in the city. The AMG also established a special police force manned by locals that was run by Colonel Gerald Richardson, a former London cop. The AMG moved quickly on the judicial front with "proceedings of epuration" (purging) against former fascists. Security from thugs, protection from ethnic and political reprisal, and democratic judicial processes (in contrast to Mussolini's despotism) gave the public confidence. The people of the Trieste region also went to work on AMG-directed civil reconstruction projects.

Fear, loathing, and lack of money will be the enemies in a post-Saddam Iraq. There will probably be a "honeymoon" period, as Iraqis of all ethnic and religious groups rejoice in their liberation. An allied transition government must be ready to take full advantage of it. Again, the Trieste precedents are suggestive.

The Bush administration's plan to prepare 3,000 to 5,000 Iraqi troops to help maintain order after liberation is in line with the Trieste experience of putting local security forces on the ground. Rebuilding Iraq's damaged infrastructure, including oil facilities, should be seen as an opportunity to provide the Iraqi people with jobs and point them toward a better, more productive future. The Trieste AMG faced a monetary crisis with political undercurrents. Slovenes rejected the lira. To avoid such conflicts, we will probably want to dollarize the Iraqi economy. That's the currency already preferred by Kurds and Shiites, anyway.

RESOLVING "the Trieste question" in the context of the Cold War eventually led to the partitioning of the Istrian peninsula between Italy and Tito's Yugoslavia--an uncomfortable augur given Iraq's internal divisions. Turkey rejects a separate Kurd state. Bahrain and Kuwait are not interested in seeing a separate Shiite state solidify around Basra.

Identifying and airing issues like these argues for the establishment as soon as possible of a national council in exile--a broad coalition that affirms the territorial integrity of post-Saddam Iraq. The idea isn't to create a provisional Iraqi government, but to provide a forum for debating how to build a new one. Critics who say such advance planning gives certain exile groups a head start have a point. However, rebel Iraqi generals, with guns on the ground, will also have a "head start," much as Trieste's Slovene partisans did. A national council, a not-quite-government, becomes a platform for negotiating before rather than after power-grabs.

It will also help Tommy Franks prepare to deliver the mail. Post-Saddam Iraq is sure to be a tough route for any postman.

Austin Bay is an author and syndicated columnist. His novel "The Wrong Side of Brightness" will be published in the spring by Putnam/Berkley Books.