Robert Fisk – The Independent April 6, 2004
Not content with surrounding the largest Sunni city west of Baghdad with tanks and armoured personnel carriers, US forces used Apache helicopters to attack Shia Muslim slums of Shoula yesterday, sent dozens of their main battle tanks into the hovels of Sadr City and then slapped an arrest warrant on the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr – who must dearly have wanted the United States to do just that.
Gun battles in Sadr City overnight had cost the lives of up to 40 Iraqis and at least eight Americans, but in the sewage-damp streets yesterday, they were handing out letters, allegedly written by the Sunni townspeople of Fallujah, newly surrounded by 1,200 marines. “We support you, our brothers, in your struggle,” the letter said. If they are authentic, it should be enough to make US proconsul, Paul Bremmer, wonder if he can ever extricate Washington from Iraq. The British took three years to turn both the Sunnis and the Shias into their enemies in 1920. The Americans are achieving it in just under a year.
Anarchy has been a condition of our occupation from the very first days when we let looters and arsonists destroy Iraq’s infrastructure and history. But that lawlessness is now coming back to haunt us. Anarchy is what we
are now being plunged into in Iraq, among a people with whom we share no common language, no common religion and no common culture.
Officially, Mr Bremmer and his president are standing tall, claiming that they will not “tolerate” violence and those who oppose democracy, but occupation officials – in anticipation of a far more violent insurrection – have privately been discussing the legalities of martial law. And although Mr Bremmer and President George Bush are publicly insisting that the notional “handover” of Iraq’s “sovereignty” will still take place on June 30, legal experts attached to the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council have also been considering a delay of further months. Many Iraqis are asking if the Americans want a disaster in Iraq. Surely not, but yesterday’s violence told its own story of blundering military operations and political provocations that will undoubtedly add to support for the charmless and provocative Shia cleric whom Mr Bremmer now wants to lock up – allegedly for plotting the murder of a pro-Western Shai cleric, Abdul-Majid el-Khoi. Sadr was surrounded by his militiamen yesterday, in a mosque in Kufa from where he issues regular denunciations of the occupation.
Dan Senor, a spokesman for the occupying power; would not tell anyone exactly what the evidence against Sadr was – even though it has supposedly existed since an Iraqi judge issued the warrant some months ago.
The US military response to the atrocities committed against four American mercenaries in Fallujah last week has been to surround the entire city and announce the cutting off of the national highway link between Baghdad, Amman and Damascus – thus bringing to a halt almost all economic trade between Iraq and its two western neighbours.
What good this will do “new” Iraq is anyone’s guess. Vast concrete walls have now been lowered across the road and military vehicles have been used to chase away civilians trying to bypass them. A prolonged series of Israeli-style house raids are now planned for the people of Fallujah to seek out the gunmen who first attacked the four Americans. The corpses were stripped, mutilated and hanged.
The helicopter attacks in Shoula – by ghastly coincidence the very same Shoula suburb in which civilians were slaughtered by an American aircraft during last years invasion – looked like a copy of every Israeli raid on the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, Iraqis are well aware that the US military asked for – and received – Israel’s “rules of engagement” from Ariel Sharon’s government.
America’s losses over the past 48 hours – at least 12 soldiers killed and many wounded - come nowhere the number of Iraqi victims over the same period.
US forces in Sadr City believe they were fighting up to 500 militiamen from Sadr’s black-uniformed Army of Mehdi early yesterday. Even so, using Apache helicopters in a heavily populated district to hunt for gunmen raises new questions about the rules to which occupation forces are supposed to adhere.
The British faired less badly in Basra, Iraq’s second city, where they avoided violence with militiamen who had taken over the town hall and wounded no one in a brief gun battle. Spanish troops were again involved in shooting with militiamen in Najaf. The grim truth, however, is that the occupying powers are now facing insurrection of various strengths in almost every major city in Iraq.
Yet they are still not confronting that truth. For the past nine months, for example, the main US base close to Baghdad airport – and the area around the terminals – has come under mortar fire.
But the occupying powers have kept this secret. “Things are getting very bad and they are going to get worse,” a special forces officer said close to the airport yesterday. “But no one is saying that – either because they don’t know or because they don’t want you to know.”
As for Sadr, he will, no doubt, try to surround himself with squads of gunmen and supporters in the hope that the Americans will dare not shoot their way in to him.
Or he will go underground and we’ll have another “enemy of democracy” to bestialise in the approach to the American elections. Or – much more serious perhaps – his capture may unleash far more violence from his supporters.
And all this because Mr Bremmer decided to ban Sadr’s trashy 10,000-circulation weekly newspaper for “inciting violence.”
Last updated 09/04/2004