It was my first and brutally abrupt realization that Baghdad, the city of my childhood, is now occupied territory. It was also my first encounter with a potent symbol of Iraqi hostility to the occupation forces. Sitting in the front seat of the taxi that brought us from Amman, I suddenly realized that a heavy machine gun was pointing at us from only a few meters away. It was an American soldier aboard an armored vehicle in front of us, stuck in a traffic jam on the outskirts of Baghdad. He gestured disapprovingly towards our driver for approaching with some speed, then looked to his left and angrily stuck out a middle finger. I followed his gaze and there was a child of no more than eight or nine sitting in a chair in front of the open gates leading to the garden of his house. He was shouting angrily, with a clenched fist of defiance, cutting the air with swift and furious right hooks.
Two weeks later, and after talking to scores of people and touring much of Baghdad, it dawned on me that that child's rebellious, free spirit was a moving and powerful symbol of how most people in Baghdad felt towards the occupation forces. It is precisely this indomitable spirit which survived the decades of Saddam's brutal regime, the numerous wars and the murderous 13 years of sanctions. And it is precisely this spirit that Bush and Blair did not take on board when they decided to invade and occupy Iraq. They chose instead to listen to the echo of their own voices bouncing back at them from some of the Iraqi opposition groups, nurtured, financed and trained by the Pentagon and the CIA. Some of these Iraqi voices are now members of the US-appointed Iraqi governing council.
A recent report in the Washington Post backs up the rumors I heard in Baghdad that the Iraqi resistance to occupation is so strong that the authorities are now actively recruiting some of the brutal officers of the security and armed forces that Saddam himself used to suppress the people. If true, the US administration, in the name of fighting the so-called remnants of Saddam's regime, is now busy trying to rebuild the shattered edifice of Saddam's tyrannical state - a tyranny which they had backed and armed with WMD for many years. One of the popular sayings I repeatedly heard in Baghdad, describing the relations between the US and Saddam's regime, is "Rah el sani', ija el ussta" - "gone is the apprentice, in comes the master."
The governing council is not so much hated as ridiculed, and attacked for having its members chosen along sectarian lines. Most of the people I talked to think that it is a powerless body: it has no army, no police, and no national budget, but boasts nine rotating presidents. One of the jokes circulating in Baghdad was that no sooner had you brought down Saddam's picture than you were being asked to pin up nine new ones.
Support for the council is largely confined to some activists of the organizations that belong to it. Indeed, it could be argued that most supporters of the more credible organizations belonging to the council are opposed to membership of the US-appointed body. The leaders of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), for example, are finding it increasingly hard to convince these supporters that cooperation with the invaders is still a possible route to independence and democracy. The same goes for another smaller but equally credible party, the Islamic Da'wa, which experienced a split and serious hemorrhaging of membership following its decision to join the council.
The now small organization that enjoyed majority support in Iraq in the late 50s, the Iraqi Communist party (ICP), was opposed to the invasion and the council, but decided to join it at the eleventh hour. Most of its supporters opposed the move. One, a poor truck driver, described it as being even worse than the 1972 ICP leadership decision to join Saddam's government. That policy collapsed in a pool of blood when Saddam turned on the party's members, killing, jailing and forcing into exile thousands of them. The truck driver described the council as "the devil's lump of iron": a saying which refers to the superstitious practice of keeping a small piece of metal in the house to ward off the devil.
The gulf between popular sentiment and membership of the council was clear after the murder of the leader of Sciri, Ayatolla Mohammed Baqir Al Hakim. The slogans chanted by the hundreds of thousands who marched in the three-day funeral processions in Baghdad and Najaf - "Death to America, Death to Saddam" and "There is no god but Allah; America is the enemy of Allah; Saddam is the enemy of Allah" - were very much in tune with what I witnessed in Baghdad. They revealed the strength of anti-US feeling in Baghdad and the south.
The one area where America has had relative success is Iraqi Kurdistan. The political situation in this region is complex. Most Kurds believed that the no-fly zone during Saddam's reign protected them from his chemical weapons, and it is evident that the sanctions did not hurt Kurdistan as much as it did the rest of Iraq. In the lead-up to the war, most Kurds accepted the tactical notion of being protected against Saddam and the hated Turkish forces. But despite this, it is likely that American plans in Kurdistan will face popular opposition once the realities of US interests and the regional contradictions reassert themselves. Meanwhile, the historic political unity between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq is unlikely to be broken.
What of the armed resistance? And why is it much more evident in some parts of Iraq than others? There is no doubt that armed resistance directed against the US forces enjoys wide popular support and is mostly carried out by politically diverse, locally based organizations However, I also met many in Baghdad who, though supportive of the "patriots" who resist the "invaders", believe that such actions are "premature". One should, they argue, first exhaust all peaceful means, mobilizing the people in mass organizations before confronting the occupation forces in armed struggle. Popular sentiment can be gleaned from the conspiracy theories circulating in Baghdad. People routinely blame the US or Israel or Kuwait for attacks on civilian rather than military targets.
But you do not need to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that the main reason for the high intensity of armed conflict in areas of central Iraq and Mosul is that the US itself decided to make these areas the arena for a showdown that they thought they could win more easily, thereby establishing a bridgehead from which they could subdue Baghdad and the south. They provoked conflict by killing civilians in cold blood in Falluja, Mosul, Ramadi and elsewhere long before any armed resistance in those areas.
The occupying forces quickly discovered that the slightest provocation in the labyrinthine working-class districts of Baghdad, and most cities of the south, was being met by massive shows of popular strength on the streets. The US military command are surely aware that Iraqis in these areas are heavily armed, well-trained and better organized.
The US authority's nonsense about a "Sunni triangle" and "Shi'ite Baghdad and south" is a smokescreen which has so far failed to divide the Iraqi people or drive them into internecine conflict. The only people who now believe that the US will back a democratic path in Iraq are the few who have still not fully grasped America's role in Iraq's modern history, the strategic significance of Iraq, or the nature of US foreign policy today.
Leaving the city on the road back to Amman, when our car passed by the house of that precocious child, I realized why my love for Baghdad remained undiminished despite 34 years in exile.
· Sami Ramadani was a political refugee from Saddam's regime and is a senior lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan University
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003