Before the Iraq war, at a meeting of the Arab League, Secretary General Amr
Moussa famously said that a U.S. war on Iraq would "open the gates of hell."
In Iraq, those gates are yawning wider than they ever have before -- at
least for the United States.
"Sunni and Shi'a are now one hand, together against the Americans," a man
on the street in the mostly Shi'a slum of Shuala on the west side of
Baghdad told me, as we conversed in the shadow of a burnt-out American tank
transporter. Those sentiments were echoed at the local headquarters of
Moqtada al-Sadr's organization, which had one day previously come under
assault from U.S. forces.
And, indeed, everyone in the area agreed that when those forces were driven
from Shuala, it was done by Sunni and Shi'a fighting together -- and by
unorganized local inhabitants, not al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Whether or not the resistance here grows to a scale that the United States
cannot control -- and this is more in the hands of Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani than of Paul Bremer or George Bush -- it is already clear that
the events of the last ten days mark a critical turning point in the
occupation of Iraq.
We're being told a convenient and self-serving story about those events. In
that story, a few barbaric "isolated extremists" from the "Saddamist
stronghold" of Falluja killed four contractors who were guarding food
convoys in an act of unprovoked lawlessness. Moqtada al-Sadr is fighting
the U.S. forces right now because, in the words of George Bush, he decided
that "rather than allow democracy to flourish, he's going to exercise force."
The truth is rather different. Falluja, although heavily Sunni Arab, was
hardly in Saddam's pocket. Its imams got into trouble for refusing to obey
his orders to praise him personally during prayers. Many inhabitants were
Salafists (Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism), a group singled out for
political persecution by Saddam.
In fact, during the war, Falluja was not a hotbed of resistance. Its turn
to resistance started on April 28, when U.S. troops opened fire on a group
of 100 to 200 peaceful protesters, killing 15. They claimed they were
returning gunfire, but Human Rights Watch investigated and found that the
bullet holes in the area were inconsistent with that story -- and,
furthermore, every Iraqi witness maintained that the crowd was unarmed. Two
days later, another three protesters were killed.
These incidents caused many people in the area to join the resistance,
forming their own groups (see an interview with one in the San Francisco
Violence back and forth and frequent collective punishment measures levied
on the twon quickly turned it into a place seething with anger against the
occupation -- to an even greater degree than other places.
The most recent incident, in which four mercenaries from Blackwater
Security, a company formed by ex-Navy Seals (Blackwater people are
performing many of the same functions as soldiers in Iraq and do get
involved in combat), did not arise in a vacuum. In fact, just the week
before, U.S. Marines had mounted heavy raids on Fallujah, killing at least
seven civilians, including a cameraman. Residents spoke of this as the
reason for the attack on the Blackwater people and the gruesome spectacle
With the recent fighting in Falluja, cordoning off the city, in which 12
Marines, two other soldiers, and at least 66 Iraqis were killed, there is
no chance to get off this track in the foreseeable future.
But, not satisfied with this massive problem with the Sunni, the CPA chose
the same time to pick a fight with the Shi'a followers of Moqtada al-Sadr.
Whatever al-Sadr's views about democracy may be, Bush's claim that he
started this violence to derail democracy is ridiculous. First of all, for
all of al-Sadr's firebrand rhetoric, he and his followers had always
stopped short of overt violence against the occupying forces. Second, the
incident that precipitated this whole round of violence was the closing of
his newspaper, al-Hawza, a blatantly undemocratic act. In fact, the paper
was not closed for directly advocating violence, but simply for reporting
one eyewitness claim that a supposed car bombing that killed numerous
volunteers for the New Iraqi defense forces was actually done by plane (and
therefore by the United States).
In general, there is no quicker way to get an Iraqi to laugh than to talk
about how the United States is bringing freedom or democracy to the
country. It's standard when talking about the latest problem the Americans
cause, to say derisively, "This is the freedom." When I asked Rasool
Gurawi, a spokesman at the al-Sadr office in Thawra, the slum of two
million that is perhaps al-Sadr's strongest base of support, about Bush's
claims, he said, "This is democracy? Attacking peaceful demonstrations?
Killing people and destroying buildings?"
As the occupation simultaneously loses control in Basra, Najaf, Kerbala,
Nasiriyah, Kufa, Kut, Diwaniyah, and in Thawra, Shuala, and Kadhimiyah in
Baghdad, Bremer and Bush have backed off a little. Instead of wanting
al-Sadr for his political role, they now say he is wanted in connection
with the murder of Shi'a cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei last April. And,
indeed, one of the other precipitating factors in the recent violence was
the arrest of Mustafa Yacoubi, a top Sadr aide, for the same killing. They
even say it has nothing to do with them -- an Iraqi judge, acting
independently, issued the warrant.
This explanation isn't getting very far with anyone here. It's already been
revealed that the warrants were written long ago and have been sitting
unused until the right time. In fact, claimed Gurawi, the Iraqi Minister of
Justice proclaimed publicly that he had no information about Sadr's or
Yacoubi's involvement with al-Khoei and that they were not wanted by the
Whatever the case, the administration's militaristic response and hollow
rhetoric cut no ice with any Iraqis here, and are certain simply to
exacerbate a situation that has already spun out of control for the United
Although the situation with Fallujah seems to have been mostly happenstance
(of the kind that was inevitable with the constant skirmishing), the signs
seem to indicate that the move against al-Sadr's people was deliberately
timed. If so, it was presumably an attempt to squeeze him out of the
political sphere before the token "transfer of sovereignty" on June 30.
It has backfired in the way that anyone who reads the newspapers himself
instead of having them explained to him by aides could have predicted. When
three U.S. soldiers were killed in the Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad
yesterday, that was a clear sign. Although al-Sadr supporters are probably
a majority in Thawra and a very sizeable minority in Shuala, his influence
had always been negligible in Kadhimiyah.
Even though the violence that has broken out is major news right now, in a
sense it's not the real story. The killing of over 100 people in the last
ten days is a tragedy, but so is everyday life under the occupation.
The people in the Shi'a slums of Baghdad who are now furiously resisting
the Americans hate Saddam with a passion to this day. They suffered under
his repression and they also suffered from neglect, especially under the
sanctions -- scarce resources and repairs went to politically more favored
areas. They expected great improvements when the United States took over.
Shaykh Sadun al-Shemary, a former member of the Iraqi army who participated
in the 1991 uprising and now a spokesman for the al-Sadr organization in
Shuala, told me, "Things are exactly the same as in Saddam's time -- maybe
That is all you need to know about the occupation of Iraq.
Rahul Mahajan is the publisher of the weblog Empire Notes
and is currently writing and blogging from
Baghdad. His latest book is "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq
and Beyond." He can be reached at Rahul@empirenotes.org