The sudden collapse of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq is not surprising, although most Muslims would have liked to see the US given a bloodier nose in the process. It can be attributed to two main factors: first, the overwhelming military superiority of the US, along with their willingness to cause unlimited "collateral damage" in order to achieve their objective; second, the fact that Iraqis have no reason to fight for a regime that was brutal even by the standards of secular Arab dictatorships.
The popular resistance to the American/British invasion–which should not be forgotten because of the US’s inevitable victory–was largely in areas outside direct Ba’athist control, where Iraqis felt they were fighting against Western invaders rather than defending the regime; in Baghdad, by contrast, most people preferred to keep their heads down and let two hated enemies fight it out. This was also the approach recommended by Iraq’s largest Islamic movement, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), headed by Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. The jubilation that followed the realization that Saddam Hussain’s regime was gone was entirely understandable. Less visible were the many Iraqis whose relief was tempered by awareness that the alternative is likely to be just as bad, if not worse.
Having spent more than a decade starving Iraqis by economic sanctions, and depriving them of the essentials needed to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure–destroyed by US bombings in and since 1991–Americans now profess to come as beneficent liberators offering democracy and aid. The Iraqis are unlikely to be fooled. In the short term people’s lives may well improve, as the US strives to show a positive face to the world. In return for its seeming generosity (which will in fact be financed by Iraqi funds seized by the US, the sale of Iraqi oil via US companies, etc.), the US will demand total obedience. Once a ‘legitimate’ order has been established, those who resist will be liable to be called "terrorists", and subjected to fierce repression, including assassination, torture or incarceration in places like Guantanamo Bay.
The question of Iraq’s post-war governance has been widely debated. Washington has already appointed Jay Garner, a former US general, to head an ‘interim’ administration. Some Iraqi opposition leaders, such as Ahmad Chalabi, head of the US-created Iraqi National Congress, appear to have agreed to work in whatever framework the US puts in place; the unfortunate reality is that Western invaders have always found willing collaborators in Muslim countries. Others, including Ayatullah Baqir al-Hakim, have been careful not to legitimise the US invasion and its postwar plans. He urged Iraqis not to fight alongside either Saddam’s forces or American forces, and kept SCIRI’s military forces out of the war. His argument was that any post-war order would be easier to handle than Saddam’s rule, and he has confirmed that he intends to return to Iraq, where he has not been since 1980.
Iraq is now poised to join the dishonourable ranks of pro-Western American-supported Muslim states, alongside Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for instance. Its political structure and policies will be determined by its circumstances, but–provided the US is able to consolidate its position, and bring the opposition under control, politically or militarily–the new regime may be well positioned to become the US’s key tool in the region (not "ally", because that implies some degree of equality between the parties). If this consolidation is achieved, Iraq’s Islamic movement is likely to find itself in a similar position to the Islamic movements in Egypt and other countries, having to find an opposition strategy on a political battlefield defined and dominated by its enemies. The experiences of other Islamic movements in these conditions are not encouraging.
There may, however, be a brief window of opportunity, between the fall of the old regime and the establishment of the new one, for genuinely popular Iraqi political movements. However carefully the US has laid its plans, a period of political uncertainty is inevitable. This may well be the best time for Iraq’s people to assert their own aspirations. The challenges they face will be immense, in terms of both the position and organization of the Islamic movement in Iraq, and the opposition it will attract from those with their own plans for Iraq’s future. Whether they can seize this moment remains to be seen; the alternative may prove to be another period of darkness for Iraq’s people.