Americans must look through Iraqi eyes

On the videotape, the American hostage stands in front of a flag with Arabic writing on it. His appearance is of a man in shock. He speaks. “I hope to return home one day, and I want my family to know that these people are taking care of me, and provide me with food, water and a place to sleep.” The tape does not show the men who are undoubtedly pointing weapons at him. It does not indicate the compulsion he is under to say what his captors want him to say. The armed men who kidnapped him make their own announcement. If American forces in Iraq do not end their assault, their captive “will be treated worse than those who were killed and burned in Fallujah.”

Thomas Hamill, a Texan who was kidnapped last Friday in Iraq, is 43 and works for the Kellogg Brown Root subsidiary of Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. Hamill told the Houston Chronicle last month that he wasn’t making it as a small farmer. So, he signed a year-long contract to drive tanker trucks in Iraq. The Chronicle quoted him as being on an $80,000-a-year salary. “The money’s not good enough to die for, but it’s good.”

Iraqi resistance to the American occupation has led to kidnappings of Americans as well as of men from Italy, Canada, Japan, Britain, Germany and Arab east Jerusalem. Shia Muslims used kidnapping in Lebanon, and Iraq’s Muslims – who have adopted the Lebanese tactics of suicide bombings and hit and run ambushes – have learned the lesson. In Lebanon, kidnappings, suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks expelled the American and Israeli armies. In Iraq, the insurgents are better armed, better financed and much more numerous.

In Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982 – another attempt at Arab regime change – the US Marines were sent to police a ceasefire. The US trained a new Lebanese army and promised to support democracy. Some Lebanese leaders worked with the US. Most didn’t. They did not trust a power they saw as the main supporter of the Israeli army that was occupying their country.

The US, Israel’s main financial support, forced the Lebanese government to sign a humiliating deal with Israel’s occupying army. Israeli troops attacked the Shia in south Lebanon, detained thousands of villagers and practiced targeted assassinations. Somehow, the US did not understand why the Lebanese came to hate them so much that they fought them until, in February 1985, they left the country without consulting their allies in the multi-national force – the British-Italian-French contingent that was the forerunner of the “coalition” in Iraq.

In Iraq, the US itself is the occupier. Just as the Israeli occupation of Lebanon after 1982 created the fundamentalist Shia Hizbollah party, the American occupation of Iraq is creating insurgent groups such asMuqtada Sadr’s Army of Mehdi. The US promised Iraq democracy, then said there could be no elections. It guaranteed freedom of expression, then closed an opposition newspaper. It denounced its opponents as former regime loyalists, foreign forces and, now, anti-Iraqi forces. If the insurgents shooting at Americans are the anti-Iraqis, does that imply that the Americans are the Iraqis?

If Americans are ever to understand why Iraqis are shooting at them, they must take a look at themselves through Iraqi eyes. It is self-defeating to hide behind a wall of propaganda that their opponents are all former Baathists, terrorists or foreigners. To Iraqis, the Americans are foreigners.

The United States arrived in Iraq last year lugging a ton of history. All Iraqis know that the US supported Saddam Hussein for 30 years. They remember that the US gave Saddam the help he needed to sustain a disastrous eight-year war with Iran in which millions died. On the day the UN reported Saddam had used illegal chemicals against Iran, 24 March 1984, Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Foreign Minister was giving lunch to Donald Rumsfeld.

America’s Navy protected Saddam’s shipping in the Gulf. The US supplied the helicopters from which Saddam sprayed poison gases on Kurds in the north and army deserters in the marshes of the south. In 1991, despite that legacy, Iraqis heeded President George Bush’s call to overthrow their dictator. Their rebellion was on the verge of success, when the US changed tack. Bush allowed Saddam to deploy air power against them. Saddam then murdered Shia in the south and Kurds in the north.

For the next 12 years, while Iraqis were trying to recover from that shock, the US enforced an embargo against them. Sanctions enriched corrupt Iraqi and UN officials, punished Iraq’s people and left the regime in power. After all that, the US came back in 2003 promising to do good for the Iraqi people. Is it surprising they were and are suspicious?

Once in Iraq, the US forces suspended the country’s sovereignty and announced it would govern the county until Iraqis were ready to govern themselves on terms acceptable to the US. Meanwhile, the US would construct permanent bases on Iraqi soil without consulting a legitimately elected Iraqi government.

The American administrators, who protected the oil ministry while looters invaded the national museum, awarded contracts without tender to companies friendly to the Bush administration. Among the sub-contracting firms that came to Iraq, Ma’ariv an Israeli daily newspaper reported last week, were 30 to 40 Israeli companies.

The Bush administration allowed Christian missionaries to work among Iraq’s Muslim population. America’s troops detained thousands of young men, some of whom died without explanation in American custody. There were accusations of torture of detainees by both US and British troops that have not been refuted.

In far off Israel, Ariel Sharon assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the crippled and blind Hamas religious leader in the Gaza Strip. The Shia population of Basra demonstrated to protest his murder. The Shia of Iraq ignored the sectarian fact that Hamas is an all-Sunni Muslim organisation. They felt strong kinship with fellow Muslims under occupation. They demonstrated solidarity with Sunnis while the US was predicting a Shia-Sunni civil war in Iraq. British forces fired on the Basra demonstrators.

The US closed the newspaper of the Shia leader Muqtada Sadr, blaming it for “incitement” – the justification Arab regimes use when they punish newspapers. The US-appointed Iraqi judiciary issued a warrant for the arrest of Sadr. The rebellion was born.

Killing or capturing Sadr, a ruthless fundamentalist agitator who may well have killed some of his Shia rivals, will not end resistance to the US – anymore than it stopped with the capture of Saddam Hussein. In Lebanon, Israel killed successive leaders of Hizballah. Israel pulled out of Lebanon in 2001. Hizbollah is still there. Hizballah’s spiritual leader, Sayed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, told his Beirut mosque on Friday: “The bloody scene of savage Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people…is being replayed in the shame of savage American massacres against the Iraqi people.”

It is time to make the connections: the Shia of Iraq feel closer to the Sunnis of Iraq than they do to the Americans. The Shia of Lebanon and of Iraq have close family ties and have inspired each other for generations. And the Arabs of Iraq have not forgotten the Arabs of Palestine. Onr Iraqi group to claim the kidnapping of foreigners calls itself the Sheikh Ahmed Yassin Brigade, in honour of a blind and crippled Sunni cleric murdered by Ariel Sharon in Gaza.

Charles Glass covered the wars in Iraq in 1991 and 2003. He was a hostage of Lebanon’s Shia Hizballah in 1987.

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