â€œWhen are the Iraqis going to fight for their own country? â€¦ We want to know when the Iraqis are going to go out there and shed their blood, as American service men â€¦ are willing to shed theirsâ€, a plaintive Democrat Senator Edward Kennedy asked a US Senate armed services committee hearing on February 3. Kennedy missed the point: thousands of Iraqis are fighting for their country â€” but they are taking up arms against the US-led occupation, not in support of it.
Armed resistance to the occupation threatens to explode from within the region that has been horrendously punished by Washington for its fierce resistance. Labelled by the US the â€œSunni triangleâ€, this elastically defined area is enclosed by Baghdad, Ramadi and Samarra and has at times stretched up to Tikrit or even Mosul in the north. But the resistance is not confined there: there are frequent outbursts in other parts of Iraq.
The January 30 election did not significantly slow the number of attacks. The Brooking Institute’s Iraq Index cited 2100 attacks on occupation forces in February compared to 2300 in January. According to CNN, on March 7 there were bombings in Balad and Baquba; fighting between Iraqi police and armed rebels in Baquba’s al Muradiya district; the shooting of two police officials in Baghdad; and mortar attacks on US and Iraqi troops south-east of Baghdad.
The majority of Iraqis who participated in the January 30 ballot voted in the hope that the election would hasten the occupation’s end. The new governmentâ€™s popular support will be contingent on whether it can defuse these expectations, as there is no end to the occupation in sight. All the main factions dominating the new Iraqi assembly have indicated that they are willing to bow to Washingtonâ€™s dictates.
Baathists or terrorists? In public, the White House has generally either characterised the Iraqi resistance as remnants of the Baath Party of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein or as â€œal Qaeda-linkedâ€ terrorists under the command of Jordanian-born Islamic fundamentalist Abu Massab al Zarqawi.
In order to discredit Iraqis fighting the occupation, the Pentagon PR campaign associates the whole armed resistance with the indiscriminate attacks on Iraqis that Zarqawi and his followers frequently take responsibility for; just as it tries to portray all Sunni-based opposition to the occupation as an attempt to reinstitute a regime based on privileges for the Sunni Muslim minority. Adding to the confusion is the corporate mediaâ€™s tactic of lumping crime and resistance together in reports on Iraqâ€™s â€œsecurity situationâ€.
But acts linked to Zarqawi’s supporters, such as the bombing of Shia mosques and other targets that have caused substantial Iraqi casualties, have been denounced by figures associated with the armed resistance like Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr and Sunni group the Association of Muslim Scholars.
A March 5 Associated Press report quoted Abdul Ghafur, a member of the AMS: â€œThis is not the right way to drive the occupation out â€¦ killing Iraqis is not the way to liberation.â€ Ghafur told worshippers at a Sunni mosque in Baghdad that the â€œreal resistance should only target the occupiers, and no normal person should consider dozens of dead people to be some kind of collateral damage while you are trying to kill somebody elseâ€.
The only ones benefiting from these bombings are the occupiers, who have used them to discredit the whole resistance. The US-funded Al Iraqiya TV station, reported the Associated Press, â€œaired a series of reports showing men describing themselves as insurgents calmly talking about how they had beheaded dozens of people, kidnapped others for ransom, and raped women and girls before killing themâ€.
But as William Langewiesche wrote in the January-February Atlantic Monthly, resistance fighters are â€œacutely aware of their popular base, and are responsible for fewer unintentional â€˜collateral’ casualtiesâ€ than US forces. â€œRhetoric aside, this is not a war on terror but a running fight with a large part of the Iraqi people.â€
Time after time, Washington’s portrayal of the resistance as anti-Shiite and pro-Saddam and/or pro-bin Laden has proved more spin than substance. The same is true of Washingtonâ€™s claim the resistance is relatively small and isolated.
In January 2004, the US military estimated that they faced 3000-5000 Iraqi guerrillas. By February 3 this year, Republican Senator John McCain noted: â€œWe went from a few dead-enders to killing or capturing 15,000 in the period of a year. And that’s why there’s a certain credibility problem here as to what the size and nature of the enemy we face.â€
In January, General Mohamed Abd Allah Shahwani, the head of Iraq’s intelligence service, told journalists that he estimated that the resistance involves more than 200,000 people.
Prior his capture in December 2003, Washington argued that Hussein had been orchestrating a pre-planned guerrilla war. â€œCapturing Saddam was a major operational and psychological defeat for the enemyâ€, infantry commander Major General Raymond Odierno told journalists at a January 2004 briefing. Odierno told reporters that the resistance forces were â€œa fractured, sporadic threat with the leadership destabilised, finances interdicted and no hope of the Baathists’ return to powerâ€.
At that time, the occupying troops had just 532 fatalities; by now there have been 1700. On March 8, the US forces head in Iraq, General George Casey, told reporters: â€œthe average counterinsurgency in the 20th century was about nine years, so it takes time to snuff out the insurgencyâ€.
Diverse resistance While there have been some attempts to draw it together, the armed resistance is composed of a disparate collection of groups, which include Islamic radicals, former members of the Baath Party, and left-wing and right-wing nationalists. Many of these groups are small and composed of ordinary Iraqis who take up arms in an effort to drive the US forces out of their neighbourhood.
â€œThey can have an occupation by day and implant an IED [improvised explosive devise] at night and they can attack the coalitionâ€, General Richard Myers, chairperson of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate armed services committee on February 3.
A February 6 Washington Post report explained that the US military is â€œstill trying to understand the various Iraqi insurgency groupsâ€. A CIA report issued in January, a copy of which the Post obtained, reported that the CIA has â€œupdated its analysis of the breadth of the Iraqi insurgency, including Iraqis that are not only former Baathists, â€˜dead enders’, but also newly radicalized Sunni Iraqis, nationalists offended by the occupying force and others disenchanted by the economic turmoil and destruction caused by the fightingâ€.
Foreign fighters associated with Zarqawi and al Qaeda â€œwho once were seen as the prime opponents along with tens of thousands of criminals freed by Saddam Hussein before the war began in 2003, are now described as lesser elements but still a source of dangerâ€.
In an interview published on the ZNet website on February 23, Herbert Docena, from the Bangkok-based NGO Focus on the Global South, asked Sheik Jawad Khalisi to what extent the resistance is dominated by supporters of Hussein and â€œIslamic hardlinersâ€. Khalisi, a member of the Iraqi National Foundation Conference, a united front that draws together a number of nationalist and Islamic currents, both Shia and Sunni, around a four-step program for Iraqi sovereignty, explained: â€œI think that they represent only 5% to 10% of the resistance. Of this fraction, the â€˜Islamic hardliners’ are the majority. Partisans of Saddam have a very weak participation.
â€œHowever, some Baathists participating in the resistance and in the political opposition to the occupation are not Saddam loyalists â€¦ Now, the main focus in Iraq is to fight the occupation. This is the fundamental question now â€” transcending ideological and political differences.â€
All Washingtonâ€™s spin â€” which has even fooled some who oppose the war but now believe it is necessary for the occupiers to stay to â€œprotect Iraqisâ€™â€˜ â€” is designed to hide the most fundamental truth about the resistance, that it is a product of the brutality of the occupation forces and the continuing denial of real Iraqi sovereignty.
For example, the origins of Fallujah as a â€œhotbedâ€ of Iraqi resistance can be traced to the April 27, 2003, attack on unarmed protesters in the city, in which 13 people were killed, three of them younger than 11. The protest had demanded that US troops end their occupation of local school buildings. Two more protesters were killed two days later when US forces opened fire on another demonstration.
During a November 24 interview with US radio station WNYC, Michael Ware, Time magazine’s Baghdad bureau chief, was asked by host Leonard Lopate whether the US was losing the battle for Iraqis’ â€œhearts and mindsâ€. Ware replied that it â€œwould be glib to say that the hearts of minds of the people that we haven’t yet killed â€¦ but there is an element of truth to that. I mean, honestly, I see day by day as we add to the ranks of the insurgencyâ€¦ I’ve watched civilians atomised before my eyes by withering US fire.â€
In such a situation, those Western liberals who lecture the Iraqi resistance on tactics that are â€œacceptableâ€ and â€œcivilisedâ€ not only give political cover to the continuing occupation of Iraq, they help obscure the much greater brutality of the US troops and their allies.
At stake isn’t just the future of Iraq’s 25 million people â€” it’s whether Washington’s neoconservatives can succeed in creating a â€œnew American centuryâ€ of unfettered US dominance. At the moment, Iraqis’ resistance, and the consequent political damage inflicted on the Bush regime, is the only major barrier to new wars by Washington in Iran, Syria or any other country that resists US dictates.
As British leftist Tariq Ali noted in July: â€œIt is the Iraqi resistance that will determine the future of the country. It is their actions targeting both foreign soldiers and corporate mercenaries that has made the occupation untenable. It is their presence that has prevented Iraq from being relegated to the inside pages of the print media and forgotten by TV. It is the courage of the poor of Baghdad, Basra and Fallujah that has exposed the political leaders of the West who supported this enterprise.â€