Winning the war was easy. Winning the peace will be a nightmare. The war on Iraq was “officially” over on May 1. But almost two months later, British Premier Tony Blair has been forced to admit that the security situation in Iraq is “serious”. He missed the point though: there’s no “security” (for Westerners) because of the widespread hostility of the Iraqi population towards the Anglo-American occupiers. And for most Iraqis, the occupiers are indistinguishable.
According to news reports, popular anger in Majar al-Kabir, in Shi’ite southern Iraq, was responsible for the death of six British military policemen on Tuesday (four Iraqis were killed and 17 wounded). The locals were reacting against British methods employed in the search for weapons – invading homes with dogs, disrespecting women and pointing guns towards children.
The British still don’t get the point. Minister of Defense Geoff Hoon stressed that his priority was “the security of British forces” – so more reinforcements ultimately will be sent to Iraq. But since the “official” end of the war, security for Westerners has only been translated into insecurity for the locals. An expert from the Royal United Forces Institute, quoted by Agence France Presse, admitted that the “honeymoon” between the British and the Shi’ite population in the south was over: among other reasons because their aspirations have not been met and there has been no improvement in their lives.
The Americans – with 19 soldiers killed in armed attacks since May 1 – are facing daily acts of sabotage: on Wednesday, a pipeline 250 kilometers northwest of Baghdad was hit by an explosion, the fifth in two weeks. Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Baghdad, said on Wednesday that areas of the city had been plunged into darkness since Monday because of “a sabotage act perpetrated by elements from the Ba’ath Party”.
It’s never enough to stress that the Iraqi resistance simply does not distinguish between Americans and British: the British at best have been regarded as lackeys of the American occupiers. As the Americans became entrenched in a bunker mentality and adopted tougher tactics in the face of attacks on their troops, the “softer” British were bound to become a target of Iraqi anger.
Former Iraqi army officers – who are trying to play a clever balancing act, since their leadership was bought out by American cash and green cards before the fall of Baghdad – say that the resistance will go on as long as important members of the former regime are still on the loose. This would mean that Saddam Hussein and his sons (who were not killed in a raid on a convoy near the Syrian border last week), and “Chemical Ali” (who survived an April bombing in Basra) must be found. General Ali Hassan al-Majeed, a cousin of Saddam and former commander of Iraqi forces in southern Iraq, is widely known as “Chemical Ali” for ordering Iraqi forces to use chemical weapons on Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988.
The former Iraqi officers also confirm the widespread influence of fliers bearing the signature of the Iraqi Liberation Army, the Army of Mohammed, according to which Saddam is still alive and he will be back. Virtually all Arab media agree that Saddam’s recently-broadcast letters are authentic. He’s been issuing repeated calls for unity and resistance, minimizing any splits between Sunnis and Shi’ites and between his partisans and opponents. In one of his letters, Saddam asks Iraqis to “use mosques, marriages and burials as occasions to oppose the American occupation”.
The Americans simply don’t have enough surveillance teams to monitor the whole desert boogie of the resistance. And even if they did, guns will be pointed at them. Iraqis remain armed to the teeth – justifying it because of the climate of insecurity. According to the official American military count, only 123 pistols, 76 semi-automatic rifles, 435 automatic rifles, 46 machine guns, 11 surface-to-air missiles and 381 grenades have been collected in an appeal for the citizens of the country to hand over their weapons. Compare with the fact that 6 million weapons were distributed by the Ba’ath Party among the population before the war, and a made-in-Romania Kalashnikov can be bought on the Baghdad black market, any time, anywhere, for less than US$20.
Iraq is a perfect replay of Afghanistan. In both cases there was no mass capitulation, but a sort of strategic retreat. The Taliban did not surrender: they retreated from Kandahar with most of their weapons intact. Saddam’s Ba’athist regime also did not surrender: it retreated from Baghdad with many of its best weapons intact.
To understand what is happening in Iraq, it is instructive to listen to Mohammed Hasan, an Afro-Arab specialist on the Middle East based in Belgium. Hasan correctly assesses that today “there are two governments in Iraq. One of them controls the country by day, by the occupation and the military and psychological terror it seeks to impose. But it does not know what is really happening. This occupation government does not really have a police. It tried to build it, based on the previous one, but in vain: the police is infiltrated by elements from the Ba’ath Party, loyal to Saddam Hussein – the communal base of the administration has disappeared. And this government also has no Iraqi army, which has disappeared. The Iraqi army was composed by officers recruited among the brightest students in Iraqi universities. But they are not collaborating with the reconstruction of the army.”
So as in many a rap song, the “man” (the American forces) may control the day, but “we” (the Iraqi people) control the night. The Saudi-owned al-Quds al-Arabi daily has reported how the Americans spend their days cleaning anti-occupation graffiti and being forced to destroy Saddam portraits over and over.
For the past two months there have been many indications that the Ba’ath Party leadership did indeed opt for a strategic retreat when Baghdad “fell” (or was handed over by army commanders: see The Baghdad deal of April 25), and is now fully reorganizing its structure. Observers of Iraqi society are adamant: there’s no way the Americans will achieve any progress by outlawing the Ba’ath Party, which is part of the fabric of society. Hasan adds that “even the closest Iraqi allies to the US, like [Ahmed] Chalabi [leader of the Iraqi National Congress], are denouncing the Americans as following a purely colonial policy. Probably these Washington valets understand better than anyone that a new tactical approach is necessary. But the Americans are blinded by their chauvinism. Their military have even violated and killed Iraqi women.”
Asia Times Online has reported on how the Iraqi national resistance is diversified – but with a single objective: the end of the occupation. Anything else is secondary. The insistent absence of weapons of mass destruction – the “bureaucratic” (copyright Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz) reason for the invasion – has led to the Bush administration being questioned from Europe to the Middle East, while the American corporate media so far have not demonstrated much interest in investigating what has already been dubbed “weaponsgate”. Hasan, like most Arab commentators, sustains that the US has already lost the peace in Iraq. “They tried to incite tensions between Shi’tes and Sunnis to provoke a civil war, and this has failed. Iraqi national sentiment has prevailed.” Hasan also mentions the crucial class division of the US Army: for officers in the air-conditioned comfort of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, everything may be under control. But for the young and poor sons of the working class hailing from Kansas, Texas or North Carolina, frying their brains under 45 degrees in the shade and harassed by angry and determined Iraqis, this is hell: “In South Vietnam, the Americans had a supporter army of 1 million Vietnamese, a network of Vietnamese agents and policemen and a certain social base, limited but existant. In Iraq, there is no such base.”
For many Americans it may be hard to understand that for the average Iraqi the key preoccupation now is daily survival. Most of the population regards the fall of Saddam’s regime from the point of view of material difficulties and insecurity. It’s impossible to require from this population to be convinced of a noble and principled American intervention when they see absolutely no tangible benefits. The general sentiment is that the Americans are doing nothing – except obsessing about their own security. So American inertia, in the popular mind, inevitably is coming to be associated with Saddam’s regime: both were and are illegitimate, living in a bunker, exclusively dedicated to their own selfish interests and when faced with dissidence, react with brute force.
Iraqis nowadays are nearly unanimous. For them, the Bush administration wants to perpetuate the military occupation by maintaining chaos, exacerbating violence and instrumentalizing divisions among Iraqis. The facts seem to confirm their interpretation. Less than two months after the “official” end of the war, at least one American achievement is undeniable: for much of the “liberated” Iraqi population, George W Bush is viewed in as bad a light as Saddam Hussein.