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DAWN - Opinion; 17 April, 2004

April 17, 2004

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Critical turnaround in Iraq

By Afzaal Mahmood

The events of the last two weeks mark a critical turning point in the occupation of Iraq. The British took three years to turn both the Sunnis and Shias of Iraq into their enemies in 1920. The Americans have taken just less than a year to accomplish this feat.

Iraq has descended into a bloody chaos which looks like a nationwide uprising against the US-led occupation of the country. As if the coalition forces did not already have enough on their hands struggling to contain the insurgency by Iraq's Sunni minority, they are now faced with an upsurge in attacks and violent protests from the Shia majority, led by the firebrand anti-American Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

His supporters are fighting the coalition forces not only in Baghdad and Najaf but also in Basra, Nasiriya and Karbala.

Mr Sadr's revolt has ended the isolation of Sunni resistance in towns like Fallujah and Ramada. A series of missteps by the US-led forces in the past two weeks - like the closure of his newspaper and the issuing of a warrant against him on a murder charge - have brought about what was considered inconceivable after the fall of Saddam Hussein - Shia-Sunni solidarity against the occupation of Iraq.

The sight of Shias and Sunnis lining up on the streets of Baghdad to donate blood and food supplies to Fallujah, the centre of Sunni resistance against the Americans, must have been nightmarish for US administrator Paul Bremer.

The irony is that the Shias in the slums of Baghdad, loyal supporters of Mr Sadr, have hated Saddam Hussein with a passion. They have suffered not only from his repression but also from his calculated neglect - especially under the sanctions - when scarce resources went to more favoured areas.

They expected great improvement in their living conditions when the Americans took over but even after one year, things are no better than they were in Saddam's time - maybe even worse.

The emergence of Fallujah as a seat of Sunni resistance is no less paradoxical. Though heavily Sunni Arab, the place was not in the good books of Saddam Hussein. Many of its inhabitants, being followers of a Wahabi sect, were singled out for political persecution because the mosque imams had refused to eulogize Saddam in their sermons after prayers.

Resistance against US occupation started in Fallujah on April 28 last year when US troops opened fire on a group of 100 to 200 demonstrators killing 15 of them. Two days later, another three protesters were killed.

Frequent collective punishment measures following bouts of violence, have turned the town into a hotbed of resentment against US occupation. A week before the recent gruesome murder of four ex-American soldiers, the Marines had mounted heavy raids on Fallujah killing seven civilians, including a cameraman.

The real problem is that the American forces, being over-stretched, are over-reacting and using heavy armour in retaliation which is killing innocent people as well as insurgents.

Few analysts believe that the ill-equipped and rag-tag Sunni and Shia militias can take on US military might. Sooner or later, the US forces will succeed in their operations in Fallujah and other centres of resistance.

But by resorting to heavy-handed tactics like bombing people in mosques or smashing through their compounds with tanks or displaying arrogance and insensitivity like driving armoured cars on pavements, the coalition forces have radicalized Iraqi moderates and alienated the common people.

If the planned attack on Najaf, the holiest Shia city goes ahead, it will further weaken the hands of moderate Shia leaders like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. What must have come as a great surprise to the Bush administration is the absence of any public Iraqi support for its operations against the insurgency.

On the contrary, there have been some resignations from the US-appointed governing council as a protest against American policies. The refusal of the Iraqi army to fight against their own countrymen has further complicated the situation in Iraq as it reflects the anti-occupation feelings harboured by the vast majority of the Iraqi people.

The newly recruited Iraqi police have also been a disappointment. In Baghdad, the police abandoned their posts when attacked by Mr Sadr's supporters. Elsewhere, some policemen even switched sides.

All these developments have disrupted the American plan to reduce its military presence in Iraq from 135,000 to 110,000 by June 30. On the contrary, with a rapidly stiffening resistance in Iraq, the Bush administration has been forced to send two combat brigades to Iraq, comprising 10,000 troops, to bolster American forces that suddenly look vulnerable and beleaguered.

The decision to send more American troops to Iraq must have been a very difficult decision as it is bound to further lower Mr Bush's approval rating. A recent Pew Research Centre poll showed the president's job approval rating falling to 40 per cent, compared with 59 per cent in January and 75 per cent a year ago.

The poll said 44 per cent of Americans now want their troops home. And it is here that Mr Bush's opponents, such as Senator Edward Kennedy, say that Iraq has become his Vietnam.

Mr Bush's attempt to get more cooperation from Nato did not succeed as both France and Germany, which had opposed the invasion of Iraq, rejected any expansion of the Nato role in Iraq. The kidnapping of foreigners by Iraqi insurgents could succeed in undermining support for the American-led operations in Iraq. So far more than 40 foreigners, including seven US contractors and two soldiers, six Japanese and four Italians - one of whom has been killed - are known to have been abducted in Iraq.

What little support the United States has from its "coalition partners" is gradually dwindling. Spain's socialist government intends to withdraw its 1,300 troops shortly. Even in Australia, a key and trusted ally, the leader of the Labour opposition, Mark Latham, has promised to bring the Australian troops home if he wins the election due later this year.

And the current polls suggest he is likely to win. Also, the Thai prime minister has hinted that he is reconsidering the deployment of his country's forces in Iraq. Some analysts argue that the basis of the current Shia insurgency was actually laid in January and February when the US-led coalition refused the demand of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and many Iraqis that a new Iraqi government should emerge through elections.

The critics of US policy argue that the real reason for the American refusal was that the elected government that would emerge after the elections would demand a real say in running the country which would not suit US interests.

Mr Bush insists that he will adhere to the self-imposed deadline of June 30 for the transfer of "sovereignty" from the American to the Iraqi authorities. But actually this transfer-business appears to be an excuse not to hold elections after June 30 so that the Americans continue to exercise control over Iraq.

Under Iraq's interim constitution, after the hand-over of power on June 30, the country's security forces will continue to be under the control of US-led multinational force, overseen by an American-appointed security adviser for five years. So the transfer of power will be largely cosmetic because the US will continue to exercise effective control over Iraq's security, oil, economic policy and major contracts for reconstruction purposes.

No one seriously questions the ability of the US-led coalition to overcome, sooner or later, Mr Sadr's supporters and other resistance groups. But the heavy-handed use of military might, what Mr Bush has described as "decisive force", and the large-scale killing that it will entail will radicalize Iraqi moderates and further alienate the common people.

This will make it even more difficult for the Bush administration to achieve the goal on which it is focused: to secure a relatively quiet and peaceful Iraq well before the presidential election in November. Some months ago, this objective appeared to be realistic and achievable. But in view of the bloody events of the past two weeks and the killing that is likely to follow, even this goal appears ambitious.

The writer is a former ambassador.

Bush legitimizes terror

By Robert Fisk

So President George Bush tears up the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan and that's okay. Israeli settlements for Jews and Jews only on the West Bank. That's okay. Taking land from Palestinians who have owned that land for generations, that's okay. UN Security Council Resolution 242 says that land cannot be acquired by war. Forget it. That's okay.

Does President George Bush actually work for Al Qaeda? What does this mean? That George Bush cares more about his re-election than he does about the Middle East? Or that George Bush is more frightened of the Israeli lobby than he is of his own electorate. Fear not, it is the latter.

His language, his narrative, his discourse on history, has been such these past three weeks that I wonder why we bother to listen to his boring press conferences. Ariel Sharon, the perpetrator of the Sabra and Chatila massacre (1,700 Palestinian civilians dead), is a "man of peace" - even though the official 1993 Israeli report on the massacre said he was "personally responsible" for it. Now Mr Bush is praising Mr Sharon's plan to steal yet more Palestinian land as a "historic and courageous act".

Heaven spare us all. Give up the puny illegal Jewish settlements in Gaza and everything's okay: the theft of land by colonial settlers, the denial of any right of return to Israel by those Palestinians who live there, that's okay. Mr Bush, who claimed he changed the Middle East by invading Iraq says he is now changing the world by invading Iraq! Okay! Is there no one to cry "Stop! Enough!"?

A few days ago, George Bush, talked about "freedom in Iraq". Not "democracy" in Iraq. No, "democracy" was no longer mentioned. "Democracy" was simply left out of the equation. Now it was just "freedom" - freedom from Saddam rather than freedom to have elections. And what is this "freedom" supposed to involve?

One group of American-appointed Iraqis will cede power to another group of American-appointed Iraqis. That will be the "historic hand-over" of Iraqi "sovereignty". Yes, I can well see why George Bush wants to witness a "hand-over" of sovereignty. "Our boys" must be out of the firing line - let the Iraqis be the sandbags.

Iraqi history is already being written. In revenge for the brutal killing of four American mercenaries - for that is what they were - US Marines carried out a massacre of hundreds of women and children and guerrillas in the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah.

The US military says that the vast majority of the dead were militants. Untrue, say the doctors. But the hundreds of dead, many of whom were indeed civilians, were a shameful reflection on the rabble of American soldiery who conducted these undisciplined attacks on Fallujah. Many Baghdadi Sunnis say that in the "New Iraq" - the Iraqi version, not the Paul Bremer version - Fallujah should be given the status of a new Iraqi capital.

And the result? Vast areas of the Palestinian West Bank will now become Israel, courtesy of President Bush. Land which belongs to people other than Israelis must now be stolen by Israelis because it is "unrealistic" to accept otherwise. Is Mr Bush a thief? Is he a criminal? Can he be charged with abetting a criminal act? Can Iraq now claim to Kuwait that it is "unrealistic" that the Ottoman borders can be changed? Palestinian land once included all of what is now Israel. It is not, apparently, "realistic" to change this, even to two per cent?

Everything the US government has done to preserve its name as a "middle-man" in the Middle East has now been thrown away by this gutless US president, George W Bush. That it will place his soldiers at greater risk doesn't worry him - anyway, he doesn't do funerals. That it goes against natural justice doesn't worry him. That his statements are against international law is of no consequence.

And still we have to kowtow to this man. If we are struck by Al Qaeda it is our fault. And if 90 per cent of the population of Spain point out that they opposed the war, then they are pro-terrorists to complain that 200 of their civilians were killed by Al Qaeda.

First the Spanish complain about the war, then they are made to suffer for it - and then they are condemned as "appeasers" by the Bush regime and its cowardly journalists when they complain that their husbands and wives and sons did not deserve to die.

If this is to be their fate, excuse me, but I would like to have a Spanish passport so that I can share the Spanish people's "cowardice"! If Mr Sharon is "historic" and "courageous", then the murderers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be able to claim the same. Mr Bush legitimized "terrorism" this week - and everyone who loses a limb or a life can thank him for his yellow streak. And, I fear, they can thank Mr Blair for his cowardice too.

During the past ten days, at least 80 foreign mercenaries - security guards recruited from the United States, Europe and South Africa and working for American companies - have been killed in Iraq. But the occupation authorities have kept the figures secret.

Lieutenant General Mark Kimmet admitted on Monday that "about 70" American and other Western troops had died during the Iraqi insurgency since April 1 but he made no mention of the mercenaries, apparently fearful that the full total of Western dead would have serious political effect.

He also did not give a figure for Iraqi dead, which across the country may be as high as 900. At least 18,000 mercenaries, many of them tasked to protect US troops and personnel, are now believed to be in Iraq, some of them earning $1,000 a day.

But their companies rarely acknowledge their losses unless - like the four American murdered and mutilated in Fallujah three weeks ago - their deaths are already public knowledge.

The presence of such large numbers of mercenaries, first publicised in The Independent two weeks ago, was bound to lead to further causalities. But although many of the heavily armed western security men are working for the US Department of Defence - and most are former Special Forces soldiers - they are not catalogued as serving military personnel. Their losses can therefore be hidden from public view.

The United States authorities in Iraq, however, are well aware that more western mercenaries lost their lives in the past week than occupation soldiers over the past 14 days. The coalition has sought to rely on foreign contract workers to reduce the number of soldiers it uses as drivers, guards and in other jobs normally carried out by uniformed soldiers.

Often the foreign contract workers are highly paid ex-soldiers armed with automatic weapons leading to Iraqis viewing all foreign workers as possible mercenaries or spies. The coalition forces were maintaining two shaky truces with its two main Iraqi opponents yesterday, in the battered city of Fallujah and in the cities in the south held by Muktada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric, and his army of the Mahdi.

Sadr's black clad militiamen began pulling out of police stations in the holy city of Najaf in a sign that he does not want to fight to a finish. The coalition is also nervous of sending forces to fight their way into Najaf, a place revered by the world's 130 million Shia Muslims.

Nevertheless, Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of US ground forces in Iraq, said the coalition's mission is to kill or capture al-Sadr." The truce in Fallujah was renewed after some overnight clashes to allow time for talks between local leaders and mediators from the Iraqi Governing Council.

Mohammed Qubaisi of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is taking part in the negotiations, says they will continue today. The Governing Council, desperate to show it has some influence with the US, is also in talks with Sadr's movement.

The US offensive against Fallujah has helped spread rebellion to other areas of Iraq, leading to damaging attacks on American supply lines. A convoy of flatbed trucks carrying M113 armoured personnel carriers was ambushed and burned on a road to Latafiya 20 miles south of Baghdad. Another US supply truck was set ablaze near Baghdad airport and its contents looted as Iraqi police stood by.

Iraqi insurgents, often spontaneously organised in towns and villages, are now kidnapping foreigners almost regardless of their nationality. Lt Gen Sanchez said that two US soldiers and seven employees of the US contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root were missing. In the last week 30 foreigners from 11 countries have been kidnapped, often in confused circumstances.

The road west from Baghdad to the Jordanian border is peculiarly dangerous because local people from towns like Abu Ghraib say they are angered by casualties inflicted by US troops. It was in this central Euphrates region that two German embassy security men were killed and many other foreigners, including nine Chinese, were taken prisoner. - (c) The Independent