Gaza or Grozny

AMMAN – There are two options for Washington to win this war: the Gaza option or the Grozny option.

The suicide bombing near Najaf is proof that the “Palestinization” of Iraq is in full swing. The repeated calls for jihad from Islamic scholars in al-Azhar in Cairo, the Grand Mufti of Syria and a powerful imam in Najaf show that the jihad in Mesopotamia is also in full swing. In mass protests from Rabat in Morocco to Peshawar in Pakistan, from Kolkata in India to Jakarta in Indonesia, the Arab – and Muslim – street continues to demonstrate its opposition to the events unfolding in Iraq.

And certainly the majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims – and seemingly most Iraqis themselves – don’t believe that the coalition has marched on Iraq to liberate its people. The message of the “Prince of Darkness” Richard Perle – “When we leave, the oil will be left behind to the people of Iraq” – rings hollow in many a Middle Eastern ear.

And with every day that the war drags on, with mounting casualties on both sides, and especially civilian deaths, the crucial question remains: What price victory? By choosing the Gaza option – a war of attrition – Washington falls into Saddam Hussein’s trap: it will serve him on a plate the explosive image he is seeking, that of an Israeli tank in the streets of Gaza juxtaposed with a US tank in the streets of Baghdad. By choosing the Grozny option – a scorched-earth policy – Washington will have to level Baghdad to win the war.

An Algerian intelligence agent recently arrived from Baghdad points to US exasperation over the propaganda war – the Pentagon has used bunker-buster missiles to hit telephone exchanges and the Ministry of Information. It’s now totally impossible to call, fax or e-mail Iraq from Jordan. The same point is made in one of the daily reports of the GRU, the Russian intelligence agency: “The coalition command has effectively acknowledged its defeat in the information war with the strikes against the television center in Baghdad, and now further strikes should be expected against television and ground satellite transmitters. The coalition is attempting to leave the Iraqis without information in order to demoralize them.”

The Algerian source confirms that the first ring of defense outside Baghdad is ready to duplicate the guerrilla war raging in the Shi’ite south: it’s a web of camouflaged tanks, sandbagged bunkers with heavy machine-guns and mobile anti-aircraft trucks near military checkpoints. Around them are a cluster of small villages and farms enveloped by date-palm groves. Baghdad seems ready for the siege, he says.

There’s now a general consensus in the Middle East that there will be resistance in every Iraqi city, and the Iraqi army is thinking purely in guerrilla-war terms. That’s why the civilian population is being forced to remain in the cities. This prevents three major developments from happening: the isolation of the military themselves; a massive exodus; and more devastating bombing. Analysts in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt agree that containing the population is at the heart of the Iraq military strategy. An immediate consequence is that the Iraqi military is morphing into the civilian population. It’s fair to say that Mesopotamia is now in full camouflage.

This camouflage technique has already created two very important facts on the ground. American and British soldiers are finding it increasingly difficult to do their jobs. They have to exercise extreme surveillance of the civilian population: the next civilian may be a soldier in disguise or, even worse, a suicide bomber. There are no “good guys and bad guys” anymore. The enemy is not visible. By doing this, Saddam’s regime has turned any illusions of a liberation army into the certainty of an occupying army. It will now be up to the Iraqi civilian population to swing from one extreme to another – but there are no signs yet of an overall change in hearts and minds. The winner may yet be the one side able to prevent a humanitarian disaster. Baghdad is actually competing with the British on which side will be the first to alleviate the plight of the besieged Shi’ite population of Basra.

The stealth guerrilla bomber is the new protagonist of this war. “Ali”, the Iraqi suicide bomber in Najaf, is being hailed by Baghdad as a martyr – echoing the exhortations of the Grand Mufti of Syria. The emergence of “Alis” is a graphic illustration of the Iraqi national resistance now configured as “Palestinization”. Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz qualifies “Ali” and future suicide bombers as “freedom fighters and heroes”.

Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier-General Hazem al-Rawi, meanwhile, says that “mujahideen are coming from all Arab countries, more than 4,000 so far”. Asia Times Online has been able to confirm the nationality mix. Afghan-Arabs came via Afghanistan and Iran. Lebanese, Palestinians and Algerians are crossing from Syria to Iraq. And “thousands of Jordanians also want to go”, says a source in Amman. They know they will be more helpful in Iraq than in Jordan, where their activities are curtailed. The same Jordanian source comments how King Abdullah imparted his message to the Islamist parties. “Whenever the king wants to send a stern message he puts on his military uniform. So he summoned the leaders to his palace to talk, surrounded by his feared Circassean guards. He said that if they so much as started making too much noise, they would be destroyed.”

At least in these initial stages of the war, Saddam’s regime has interplayed four larger themes: the internal cohesion of a police state; Arab nationalism; Shi’ite mistrust of Christians; and Sunni Islam and the imperative of defensive jihad when under attack by a foreign power.

The Iraqi resistance to date has had a powerful psychological impact among the Arab masses. Saddam and the ruling Ba’ath Party obviously want the resistance to go on as long as possible in the hope – perhaps misplaced – that they can draw in help from Iran. It’s important to consider that Shi’ites see themselves as Iraqis first, then Shi’ites: that’s why they did not support Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. But in the Shi’ite mind, the greater Satan now is not Saddam, but the American and British invaders.

In this sense, the war has helped lionize Saddam in the Arab world as he is being seen as the only Arab leader capable of resisting what many see as “American imperialism”. Saddam has managed to personify to Arabs the capacity to resist. And the regime has been quick to seize on this: Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan has called for an Arab popular revolt committed, in his words, to the “destruction” of the regimes that support the war. There’s a growing feeling in the Arab street that the Gulf petromonarchies – staunch US allies – one day will meet their fate, and even relatively moderate states such as Egypt and Jordan are already feeling the sting of popular anger.

In Iraq, though, the battle rages. Russian intelligence stresses that “near Basra, the British forces in essence are laying a Middle Ages- style siege of a city with the population of 2 million”. The British, though, appear confident “that the situation in the city can be destabilized and lack of food, electricity and water will prompt the local population to cause the surrender of the defending forces … the capture of Basra is viewed by the coalition command as being exceptionally important and as a model for the future ‘bloodless’ takeover of Baghdad”.

But a bloodless takeover is now out of the question because of the guerilla warfare adopted by the Fedayeen (all of whom come from Saddam’s clan, the Abu Ghaffar), the emergence of suicide commandos and the general Iraqi army and security services’ strategy of camouflage among civilians. Obvious targets have been vacated. Troops have moved into apartment blocks, schools, social clubs, private houses.

Already one year ago in Baghdad, Tarik Aziz was warning of “a thousand Vietnams”. Whatever the spin from the Pentagon and Central Command in Qatar, whatever the option to be chosen – Gaza or Grozny – the quick, decisive victory initially sketched in Washington is not going to happen, and the eruption of a Middle East volcano could yet cover Pax Americana in ash.

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