When Anglo-American troops were hesitating on the outskirts of the Shiite holy city of Najaf during last year's invasion of Iraq, the revered cleric Ayatollah Syed Ali al-Sistani told fellow inhabitants not to resist. Up the road, Baghdad's sprawling Shiite slum was one of the few places where the invaders were greeted with flowers.
Yet today, an anti-occupation insurrection is roiling across Iraq's Shiite heartland.
Just as George W. Bush turned worldwide post-9/11 sympathy for America into anger, American troops have turned whatever goodwill they had engendered into outright hostility.
Just as Bush's main reasons for the war turned out to be bogus, the explanations proffered by the American troops for their mounting troubles in Iraq have been delusory.
In maintaining that the occupation was popular and resistance to it limited to "enemies of freedom," America has been blaming, variously, "Baathist bitter-enders," Iranian or Syrian "agent provocateurs," Islamists (homegrown and foreign), anti-Shiite Al Qaeda Sunni terrorists, and "Saddamists in the Sunni triangle."
The fallacy of such propaganda stands exposed today as Iraqi resistance is clearly coalescing into what looks like a burgeoning national war of liberation by both the Shiite majority and Sunni minority.
This past week — in which about three dozen foreigners and 250 Iraqis have been killed — shows how Americans have not learned a thing from their botched occupation.
Trouble was brewing in Falluja long before the world saw barbaric scenes of four murdered Americans being mutilated.
The Marines, who had taken over the city mid-March and vowed to pacify it, had been mounting day and night raids last week.
"Rockets from helicopter gunships had punctured bedroom walls. Patio floors and front gates were pockmarked by shrapnel. Car doors looked like sieves. In the mayhem, 18 Iraqis lay dead. It was the worst period of violence Falluja has seen during a year of occupation," reported Jonathan Steele, veteran correspondent for the British newspaper, The Guardian.
At about the same time, Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator, moved against Moqtada al-Sadr, the young firebrand Shiite cleric, who has a following among the poor and the unemployed.
Troops marched into the offices of Sadr's weekly paper in Baghdad and shut it down for carrying "false reports" and "provoking violence."
Separately, a Sadr aide was arrested and a warrant issued for Sadr himself, in connection with the murder a year ago of a rival cleric.
Six months ago, 25 people were quietly implicated in that killing, and a dozen arrested. Inexplicably, Sadr and associates were spared.
His supporters rose up in revolt, not just in Baghdad but also in the so far peaceful Shiite cities of Najaf, Kufa, Karbala, Basra and others.
Shutting down Sadr's paper made a mockery of declared American democratic intentions. If the intent in not arresting him earlier was to avoid a confrontation, doing so now made no sense.
A marginal figure, with no scholastic standing and a reputation for thuggery, he's now a hero. His militia has taken over Kufa and parts of Baghdad. Even calls for calm by Sistani, an advocate of peaceful protests, are having little impact.
Americans have put themselves in a no-win situation: They cannot not respond to him and the rebels elsewhere, nor can they win without using massive force, which is what they are doing and making a bad situation worse.
In Falluja, the Marines landed a rocket on a mosque yesterday, on the eve of a religious festival tomorrow. In Baghdad, troops raided a Sadr office and ripped out a picture of his father, a revered ayatollah killed by Saddam in 1999. Symbolically, these are the worst things to do.
Helicopter gunships are circling over cities. American, British, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish forces are getting drawn into combat. Mosques are broadcasting calls for jihad.
This is the classic nightmare scenario of the occupied and the occupier bringing out the worst in each other. How to proceed?
American political and media obsession with the June 30 handover of sovereignty is misplaced. It is a phony deadline. All that Bush wants out of it is an election campaign claim that he has done what he said he would.
There is no one to hand power to, beyond the discredited U.S.-appointed Governing Council. Bremer has already engineered a "status of forces" agreement to let the troops stay past July 1 — perhaps as many as 105,000.
Bush should fire Bremer, who has failed at everything he has tried, and even offended such staunch allies as Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the venerable British envoy to Baghdad.
America should hand Iraq over to the United Nations. Those carping about U.N. failings in Rwanda and Kosovo, or corruption under the Iraqi oil-for-food program, better listen up:
The U.N. has a whole lot more credibility than America. The U.N. is the only agency that can, credibly, clean up the mess made by the U.S.
The Security Council needs to mandate the U.N. to form an international peacekeeping force — led, perhaps, by the United States, but including forces from Arab and Muslim nations. The U.N. should supervise elections and the entire process toward democracy.
Canada should offer help. Instead of being silent, Prime Minister Paul Martin should be outlining the areas where Canada can lend its expertise, as Bob Rae outlined on this page yesterday, upon his return from Iraq, .
Failing to turn to the United Nations is to risk a descent into a Vietnam-like chaos.
Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited