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What’s Gone Wrong in Iraq?

Remember those historical movies Hollywood cranked out in the ’30s and ’40s about the American colonies’ war to throw off the English yoke that created the United States? Inevitably, those flicks had a scene in which some luxuriously uniformed but dimwitted Brit officer complained of the guerrilla tactics employed by the scruffy colonial fighters — dressed in civilian clothes — and their Native American allies as they mowed down the neat ranks of better-equipped redcoats: “They don’t fight fair!”

The plaintive noises coming these days from Rummy and CENTCOM about the lethal anything-goes ruses and ambushes of the Ba’ath-led Iraqi resistance to invasion, which the U.S. war makers label “terrorist,” remind one increasingly of those movie Brits. These complaints are, of course, meant to distract attention from the Bush administration’s huge misreading of Iraqi society in planning this invasion. The expensively suited U.S. war chiefs who plotted this war are at a cultural remove from Iraqi reality as great as that which prevented King George’s coddled ministers from comprehending the spirit which motivated their rebelling colonies.

Well, what did they expect from a sadistic, dictatorial regime without scruples like Saddam Hussein’s? What, pray tell, did they expect from the country’s Shiite majority? When Dubya’s daddy called on them to rise up during Gulf War I, they did. But they were betrayed by the Americans, who left them to be slaughtered by Saddam — he massacred some 300,000 to 350,000 of them in a single week. There is hardly a Shiite in the country who didn’t have a relative or friend slaughtered by Saddam after a U.S. president named Bush left them to the sanguineous dictator’s tender mercies a decade ago. And the U.S.-enforced blockade of Iraq — the “sanctions” which the world’s only superpower got the U.N. to impose — inflicted more suffering by denying the civilian population medicine and food in the long years of desperation since the 1991 massacres.

The U.S. war makers apparently forgot this sorry history. But the country’s civilian population has not. Most Iraqis have had no role in the morbid fantasies of Saddam Hussein, and are ordinarily no more dangerous than the average resident of, say, Oxnard. They are hostages to the Ba’ath regime and its thugs — and they have not forgotten either that, as a former Iraqi oil minister, now in exile, put it on France2 television this past weekend, “The Ba’ath Party came to power in an American train.” The U.S. was in many ways the midwife for the birth of the murderous Iraqi regime we are trying to decapitate now, a gang whose control was sustained and nourished with American help — including military aid — right up until the invasion of Kuwait. All this is living history not just for ordinary Iraqis but for the entire Muslim world.

To this must be added the mushrooming roster of Iraqi civilian deaths, of which the two marketplace bombings in Baghdad last week were only the tip of the iceberg: We do not yet know how many more have died in the cities to which the invading forces are now laying siege. And how many more will die in the process of taking them? As the London Times’ excellent Simon Jenkins wrote on March 28:

“Every soldier knows that cities level the logistical playing field. Bombers are useless in house-to-house fighting. Helicopters become targets, not weapons. Every building is a fortress, every adult a suspect. The rule book says it needs ‘10-on-one’ to fight in cities.ä Districts are hell to win by day, and more hell to hold by night. Remember Beirut. Ask the Israelis. Baghdad is not Kuwait or the Falklands. The captive Iraqi boy who was asked why he fought so overwhelming a foe merely muttered: ‘It’s my country.’ The answer was worth a dozen Tomahawks.”

General Tommy Frank continued to insist in his March 30 morning CENTCOM briefing that the Iraqis “will welcome their liberation.” But will they welcome their “liberators”? Resentment at the number of civilians killed by the failed, brain-dead “shock and awe” strategy — with its promises of a quick collapse of the Ba’ath regime that proved entirely illusory — will only be magnified a thousandfold as the invaders take over the cities. If there is one secular commonality in the different Arab societies, it is the widespread culture of vengeance. That vengeance will be visited on the American occupier and his British counterpart (if one wants to convince the people of that region that one is not waging a colonial war of conquest, it’s genius to have as one’s sole ally the former proprietors of the British Empire, whose bloody tutelage of the region during its post–World War I occupations has not been forgotten either). And it will be visited as well on the deposed regime’s supporters, on ethnic rivals in a land of over 150 puissant, organized tribes (Human Rights Watch has already reported evidence of ethnic violence in Kirkuk), and on rivals for money and power. The result will be chaos and a series of simmering insurgencies — out of which will emerge not the “democracy” which Bush has promised but most likely a shari’a state of the type long proposed by the Shiite mullahs. The same kind of chaos and insurgencies as when the Taliban emerged from the chaos resulting from the U.S.-backed war to free Afghanistan from Soviet domination. And the Iraqis have only to look at how Bush’s promises to rebuild Afghanistan have proved largely empty to imagine a bleak future in his hands. (There’s not a single new dollar proposed for Afghani reconstruction in Bush’s new budget.)

And what of the rest of the region? It would be wrong to believe that a majority of the Arab world really loves and supports Saddam Hussein. But Americans, who live in a sports-addicted nation, should know the emotional pleasures of rooting for the underdog. This is all the more true because of the Bush administration’s two-year tilt toward the Likud extremists who currently run Israel, which has intensified its repressions of the Palestinians under cover of the war on Iraq, hoping the world would be too preoccupied to notice. (The BBC reported this past Sunday that Israeli Special Forces had infiltrated a Gaza village on a horse and cart dressed as farmers — and then summarily killed seven Palestinians. I did not hear Rummy & Co. denounce this murderous ruse as “terrorist.”)

The vital Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been another casualty of this war. And in this optic, the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who over the past weekend poured into the streets of the region’s capitals — including that of our Egyptian client state — to protest the war identify Bush with Ariel Sharon and the Iraqis with the Palestinians. (Colin Powell didn’t help when he chose a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the well-oiled pro-Israeli lobby, as the forum from which to thunder his threats against Iran and Syria on Sunday). Moreover, the distrust, disgust and fear with which the Arab masses now view the United States — when it’s not heated to outright hatred by TV’s portrayal of more Iraqi and Palestinian civilian deaths — promise a decade of living dangerously for all the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries.

Already Cairo’s grand mufti (appointed by Mubarak) and the chief Syrian mullah have called for jihad against the U.S./Brit invaders. In Jordan, where the mammoth numbers of exiled Palestinians have already rebelled once against the pro-Western monarchy, one of the leading mullahs who called for jihad was removed on Saturday by the security forces of the autocratic king, and replaced by a more pliant cleric who read an anodyne discourse written by the King’s propagandists (occasioning a demo by middle-class Jordanians). The war has also helped the never-truly-vanquished Taliban to recruit new (or simply temporarily retired) adherents and intensify their violent undermining of the American puppet Hamid Karzai. How long will the dictators and autarchs in the Muslim world, most of them propped up for years by the U.S., be able to keep the cork in the bottle?

The military victory against Saddam will, of course, be won. But the peace has already been lost — not just in Iraq but among its neighbors. And that’s but a partial catalog of the dangers resulting from this unnecessary, illegal war.


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