Published on Monday, March 22, 2004 by the Toronto Star
Iraqis United in Their Fury Toward US
by Haroon Siddiqui
Set aside the arguments over how George W. Bush invaded Iraq under false pretences. Forget the mirage of the weapons of mass destruction and the missing link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Ignore the inconsistency of toppling one dictator but sparing others.
On the first anniversary of the American occupation, concentrate instead on what is happening in Iraq — the resistance, the spreading terrorism and the presumed imminence of a civil war between religious, ethnic and tribal factions.
What does the future hold for Iraq's 25 million people and, by extension, all Arabs and indeed the larger Muslim world of 1.3 billion, especially their toxic relationship with America?
The answers lie partly in the response to another question, the one American soldiers in Iraq often ask, when not sitting in armored vehicles with machine guns pointing outward: "Why do they hate us?"
Didn't America free the Iraqis from a gulag, giving them religious freedom and promising self-rule by July 1? Aren't living conditions improving, albeit slowly, and new schools and clinics and roads opening?
What more do the natives want? And why do they want their liberators to leave?
Bewildered occupiers always ask that of the occupied. The question comes with the turf.
But beyond that, Iraqis are furious at America, first, for the same reasons that Canadians, Europeans, Asians and, increasingly, Americans are, and the Spaniards ousted their government for backing Bush and the Germans re-elected theirs last year for standing up to him.
Further — and this is often forgotten in this age of media amnesia — Iraqis have not only been the principal victims of Bush's war but also American indifference or hostile actions stretching back two decades.
In the 1980s when Saddam was at the height of his cruelty, including gassing the Kurds, Ronald Reagan was happily doing business with him.
In 1991, George H.W. Bush abandoned Kurds and Shiites to Saddam's killing squads after both rebelled, on Washington's urging, after the Persian Gulf War.
Bill Clinton backed the post-war economic sanctions, which in 12 years killed 1 million Iraqis, half of them children, and wiped out the middle class.
Given all that, the goodwill generated by the toppling of Saddam was bound to be pyrrhic. It dissipated the moment law and order was allowed to break down, and chaos reigned.
A series of military and political mistakes since, all too familiar by now, turned Iraqi skepticism into anger, into outright hostility.
The shooting and arrest of civilians on the merest of suspicion; the invasion of women's privacy in night-time raids and other culturally insensitive actions; the casual approach to Iraqi casualties (for which Washington does not even keep count); the failure to anticipate and control terrorism of a kind never before seen in Iraq; and the transparent attempts at creating a client state — all these have produced predictably disastrous results.
So, while Iraqis remain divided on such key issues as the balance between Islam and the state, or the rights of women or Sunni and Kurdish minorities, or the type of federal state Iraq ought to be, they are more or less united against America.
"Iraqis are nationalists first, Shia and Sunni second," says Dilip Hiro, London-based author of several books on the Middle East, the latest being Secrets and Lies, about the Iraq war.
"So long as there is a foreign occupier, they will remain united," he said over the phone, adding that he does not see a Sunni-Shiite war on the horizon.
Hamid Algar, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees:
"I don't think a sectarian war is coming," he said in an interview.
Two factors augment their argument.
Terrorists have been killing Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. (The American view that it is all Al Qaeda's doing is, at best, informed speculation).
Shiites have not blamed the Sunnis for the bombings of their shrines. Sunni leaders, in turn, have called for unity. So have the Kurds, curbing their desire for greater autonomy.
However, Algar does see anti-Shiite elements at work in Iraq. But, he noted, they are active in Pakistan as well, just as they were in Taliban Afghanistan.
Geopolitical interests may be making matters worse, he said. The U.S. and its oil-rich Sunni Persian Gulf state allies fear the rise of a Shiite majority government in Iraq next to Shiite Iran.
Mahmoud Ayoub, professor of religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, agrees:
"Once you change the situation in Iraq, the entire dynamic of the region might change."
However, Algar added that if Bush's "slogan of democracy is to mean anything, Shiites must be given their electoral due" denied them since 1921 when Britain, the then-occupying power, installed a Sunni king.
The counter-argument to the emergence of a powerful Iraq-Iran bloc is that Iraqis are Arabs and Iranians Persian; that not all Iraqi Shiites are enamored of Iran, especially its failed Islamic revolution; and that the senior-most Iraqi ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, does not believe in clerics ruling the country.
But if Bush is bent on sidelining the Shiites, they are determined to outmaneuver him.
They are aware of his need in an election year to stick to his July 1 timetable of handing over sovereignty to the Iraqis. They want to ensure the transfer is for real — under United Nations supervision. Hence their insistence on quick elections and the deferring of key decisions to an elected assembly.
The American move in this political chess game has been to try and have the U.S.-appointed Governing Council approve the stay of U.S. troops beyond June 30. Should the council agree to such a binding commitment, says Hiro, Iraqis could turn against its pro-American members and their followers. That would be the civil war: between pro- and anti-American Iraqis.
None of this precludes a power struggle among Iraqis. But for now, the infighting takes a back seat to outfoxing the Americans.
The only Iraqis keen on keeping the U.S.-dominated status quo are those with the least public support. The ones closest to the Americans won't get elected dogcatcher.
Meanwhile, Arabs across the Middle East — who were prescient in warning of post-war chaos — are estranged even more from Washington than a year ago.
So are most Muslims.
Their view is the same as that of most of the world, namely, that beyond toppling Saddam, the war has been an unmitigated disaster, providing new recruits for terrorist groups.
Arabs and Muslims are particularly dismayed at the worsening plight of Palestinians.
"The belief of the administration that a decisive defeat of Saddam Hussein would benefit American diplomacy in the Middle East, including giving it leverage to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" has not panned out, write Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay in America Unbound (winner of Lionel Gelber Prize to be awarded in Toronto on Wednesday).
Arabs are also reacting strongly to inconsistencies in Bush's words and deeds.
While advocating freedom of thought for Arabs, his troops have been harassing and hitting journalists from Al-Jazeera and other Arab TV stations. And his administration is spending hundreds of millions setting up TV stations and print services for American propaganda.
While championing democracy for Arabs, his administration has been violating the rule of law: holding prisoners without charge, selectively prosecuting Muslim residents of America, and assassinating suspected terrorists abroad, acting as "judge, jury and executioner," as Cornell University professor Matthew Evangelista says.
The final word goes to Margaret MacMillan, University of Toronto historian and author of Paris 1919, an account of the Paris peace talks after World War I. Asked what should America have learned but didn't from the 1920 Iraqi rebellion against the British occupation, she said:
"You can do a lot with great military power but you can't get people to behave the way you want them to. For that, you need persuasion."
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