Facing Resistance

Ten weeks after the first monument to Saddam Hussein fell in Fardous Square the dominant mood in Baghdad is fear. Talk to any Baghdadi and the conversation soon turns to the wave of car-jackings, theft, lootings and rape coursing through the city. The few Iraqi police on the streets gripe they are guarding the wrong places or are given unloaded pistols in neighbourhoods awash with guns. Jittery US soldiers frisk women at checkpoints, use tanks to protect retail stores and chase drunks from under bridges. Dusk empties the streets long before curfew. Women do not leave their homes after four in the afternoon; many won’t return to work. All are frightened; few feel free; no one is safe.

“This is not what I imagined liberation to be,” says Ali Talib Ali, general manger at one of Baghdad’s four electricity power stations. He has six guards with one gun to defend 280 employees. Everyday there is more looting of a plant already stripped of tools, money, spare parts and equipment. The US army left the site a month ago, yet to return. “Nobody believed things could become so out of control after being so controlled for so long,” he says.

Most Iraqis blame the US-led “coalition” administration for the mess. A few are adopting violent forms of protest, expressed in audacious form. On Baghdad’s Haifa Street on 1 July an Iraqi rolled down the sunroof of his car to fire a rocket propelled grenade at a US army convoy, leaving two soldiers wounded and an Iraqi civilian dead from a burst of useless, retaliatory US fire. A Humvee jeep was left ablaze for over an hour. People danced around the gutted carcass in celebration.

Iraq’s liberation is starting to feel, sound and look like what many feared it would become: a deadly attrition between an unaccountable military occupation and a resentful, occupied people. “I don’t know who is behind the resistance,” says Wameed Nathmi, a politics professor at Baghdad University.

“I only know that if the US continues its current policies, it will grow.” One week later a soldier was killed on his campus. A student helloed “hey Mister” in English and then shot him in the back of the head.

Since President Bush declared an end of war hostilities on 1 May, 28 US and six British soldiers have been killed from armed Iraqi attacks. This does not amount to “anything like a guerrilla war”, coos US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rather they are the work of a “terrorist network” consisting of “remnants” of Saddam Hussein’s regime, “criminals”, “looters”, “foreigners” and “people influenced by Iran”.

On the ground US army spokespersons are less categorical. They say many of the attacks are done by Iraqis angry over the loss of their country and “ignorant of the good things we do. Saddam’s regime has gone,” says a captain in Faluja, a torrid Iraqi city resting on the Euphrates west of Baghdad. “Faluja was de- Ba’thised long before we came.”

Gone or not, his soldiers response is the same: tidal arrests that sweep up former Ba’thist members and ordinary Iraqis alike with little deference to public relations and none to due process. Dozens of Iraqi civilians have been killed in the raids: unlike the American and British casualties, their numbers go uncounted.

Few Iraqis would refute that some of Saddam’s men are behind some of the attacks, particularly perhaps those targeting the Iraqi police and foreign journalists. But to claim that the former Iraqi dictator is the ghost behind all of the resistance is to deny a reality the occupation — every bit as much as his collapsed regime — has created.

Take Faluja. Its 250,000 inhabitants have been simmering ever since US soldiers killed 15 at a protest outside a school in April. Since then, attacks on US positions have been between four and eight a week with at least as many arrest sweeps in their wake, often with scant regard to the city’s conservative sensibilities. The result is mutual fear, loathing and recrimination.

On 1 May ten Iraqis were killed in a blast at a mosque. The US army said explosives were being manufactured there. Hundreds took to the streets, charging that a US missile had hit the mosque. It no longer matters who is right. “Faluja is a tribal town. When a member of your tribe is killed, you take revenge. It is a natural response. It has nothing to do with Saddam Hussein,” says Ahmed Janabi, a local imam.

The resistance strikes resonate among a people outraged by an administration that appears unable to find solutions to the most basic problems. Baghdad recently went four days without electricity, a deadly cut with daytime temperatures at 50 degrees. US soldiers say this is due to sabotage. “Look,” says a US captain, “if you disable a power cable, you lose power.” To Iraqis this is starting to sound like a rationale for collective punishment.

The hostility is compounded by decisions that seem long on the US security agenda and short on people’s needs. Last month chief US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer dissolved the Iraq Defence Ministry as part of the de- Ba’thisation campaign. At a stroke 400,000 military and police officers lost their jobs and perhaps two million Iraqis lost their main source of income.

“I am not calling for an amnesty,” says Nathmi. “Those Ba’thists who were part of Saddam’s inner security circle should be imprisoned. Those who participated in the massacres of our people should be hung. But I cannot see the logic of laying-off thousands of traffic wardens and ordinary police officers. These were Ba’thists only in the most nominal sense.”

The consequence is not only a law and order vacuum where once Iraqis felt secure. The greater danger is that a pool of disgruntled men and women is being created with a vested interest in wrecking the new Iraqi order. Some may be doing so already, says Hussein Ali, a former Iraqi air-force officer and Ba’thist now liaising with the US army in Faluja. “In any case, if the resistance grows and becomes more organised it will be the ousted military officers who lead it,” he predicts.

But not, for now, the 100 or so new political parties spawned in the detritus of the old order’s collapse. Iraqis dismiss most of these as “beauty parlors” for ambitious personalities eager for a slice of the new American pie. But the established political opposition parties are also in disarray, leaving Iraqis without any national voice.

Many Arab Iraqis accuse the two main Kurdish parties of Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani of facing both ways, now calling for the creation of an Iraqi security force to protect US soldiers and Iraqi citizens, now quietly negotiating a separate currency rate for northern Iraq and fuelling fears that their agenda is less integration in a new Iraq than separation in a new Kurdistan. The Sunni parties are either old Arab nationalists without a constituency or tribal and religious leaders that have a constituency but no political leadership.

The most organised forces remain Shi’te religious movements like the Daawa Party, the Sadr movement and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) led by Mohamed Baqr Al-Hakim. For now all three are in waiting mode, preferring “negotiations” with their new US masters rather than confrontation, and despite the “Iranian influenced” slur cast by US politicians like Rumsfeld.

But all know the waiting cannot go on indefinitely. Hakim has called for peaceful protests demanding that elected Iraqi representatives draft the new constitution rather than a Bremer appointed council. The Sadr group wants “a nationally elected democratic government” sooner rather than later. And should dialogue or civic protests fail, “we will await orders from our upper leadership,” says Ahmed Rashid, a commander in SCIRI’s Baqr Battalion. A Sadr spokesman says the same.

“Armed struggle is the last thing we need after 35 years of war, tyranny and sanctions,” says Zaid Safaa, a member of the recently formed Iraqi Democratic Constitution Party, a secularist Shi’ite Party based in Baghdad and Basra. ” It will cause fragmentation, with each party and tribe forming its militia. This would be a disaster for Iraqis. But it will also be a disaster for the Americans.”

Imprisoned under Saddam, Safaa accepted the Anglo-American invasion of his country as a “necessary evil” and agrees US and British soldiers have the right to defend themselves. But this cannot be done at the expense of ensuring decent services for the Iraqi people or by the US and Britain ignoring their duties as occupiers under international law. Above all, he says, the US must set a clear political horizon for Iraq so that an interim national government can be formed, elections can be held and the “liberators” can go home. Without this the anger will grow and what is now an ad hoc resistance will become mass. How does he know? “Because moderate parties like mine will be forced to join it”.