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While Our Troops Remain on Iraq's Streets There is no Hope
Published on Monday, April 12, 2004 by the Guardian/UK
While Our Troops Remain on Iraq's Streets There is no Hope
by Jonathan Steele
 

One thing is even clearer at the end of the heaviest week of American casualties in Iraq since the invasion was launched. The current combat is nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. His hollow regime did not have the muscle or the loyalty to summon up the urban guerrilla resistance that we have seen over the past seven days. His conscript army split and ran.

In its place a year later thousands of volunteers, Shia and Sunni, are fighting to regain the honor they feel they lost when their ancient capital and the rest of the country fell to foreign invaders with relatively few successful shots fired against them.

Where does that leave the occupation forces, or the coalition as it prefers to be called? The opposite ends of the spectrum are stark enough: cut and run, or go in even harder with more guns blazing and more bloodshed. But is there a middle way? Can the coalition find a path back to stability and acceptance?

Regaining national and individual pride is not the only motive for the sudden explosion of discontent. There are other causes, and they vary from person to person, including the millions who were happy to see the end of Saddam Hussein. But unless the coalition's leaders understand that almost every Iraqi resents the presence of foreign troops, they will never be able to recoup.

Colin Powell was still talking last week of "remnants of the old regime". Sitting in Bermuda, Tony Blair penned cliches about "extremists" whose "thirst will not be slaked" if the troops are brought home. "Dictators would rejoice, fanatics and terrorists would be triumphant. We are locked in an historic struggle in Iraq," he thundered.

Actually, it is much less global, and for Iraqis very local. I wish the prime minister had sat with the congregation of 200,000 ordinary Sunnis and Shias at Baghdad's Umm al-Qura mosque last Friday, which pulsated with anger over the agony of Falluja. If only the middle-aged man who politely said "welcome" when he learned I was English and handed me a piece of paper could have given it to Tony Blair. Its short message, written in English, was: "No dignity with occupation."

Paul Bremer, the top US administrator, has met enough Iraqis to know this. But he brushes it off as "underlying resentment". As a teenager, he went to school in France. "The French have never forgiven us for liberating them," he is known to have told visitors, as though it is no more than a psychological irritant.

If all else is going well, perhaps it can be massaged away. But Iraq is not France. It is a country of mass unemployment and poverty (in spite of potential oil wealth). This is the second lesson the coalition must learn. In Basra and Amara, where there have been several marches for jobs, the British routinely comment: "They are not political. These protests are not about the occupation." But if little is done about the economy month after month, frustration becomes political. Moqtada al-Sadr's following comes mainly from jobless young men.

The third issue is the coalition's excessive use of force. Falluja captured the world's headlines, but all over the Sunni areas there have been mini-Fallujas for months. US troops respond to attacks with artillery fire and air strikes, clumsy house-to-house searches, and mass arrests. In the process they create more enemies and provoke a desire for revenge.

"We have even lost our right to get undressed for bed," a businessman in the town of Muqdadiya told me. Startled, I asked what he meant. He recounted how American troops had burst into his home after dark, handcuffed him in his night clothes in front of his terrified wife and children, and taken him away. Head of the local branch of the Iraqi Islamic party, he is a member of the town's US-approved council. His colleagues protested and got him released the next day.

His ordeal was short compared with the torture he suffered during five detentions under Saddam when his party had to work underground. But he said it left a deeper wound. "Under Saddam they summoned you to the security police headquarters, and that was where the torture began. They didn't humiliate you in sight of your family," he explained.

His experience illustrates the fourth key problem of the occupation - the dilemma it poses for every Iraqi leader. How does one work with the coalition without losing one's fellow citizens' respect? Is there a bridge between collaboration and resistance, or only a wall?

The Muqdadiya businessman was detained by the Americans on suspicion of links with the people who attack US convoys. He denied it, though he is clearly well-known in the local villages and he sent a party member to escort us through the countryside to meet victims of US counter-insurgency operations.

Many of the coalition's political officers know the difficult role that Iraqi politicians and tribal leaders have to play. The town councils it appointed around Iraq kept the peace until last week's explosion by representing a broad range of different local interests. When necessary, the coalition turned a blind eye to their ideologies and affiliations. The difficulty comes with the US military, and its Bushian philosophy of "You're either with us or against", which forces Iraqi leaders into a corner.

How can the position be salvaged? The most hopeful recent event was the outspoken criticism of the Falluja overkill by members of the governing council, and their threat to resign. Iraqis say they are beginning to respect them at last. If the council can get the US marines to leave Falluja, they will have done a great deal.

Secondly, coalition money must be spent fast to generate jobs. Offering foreign corporations long-term reconstruction contracts is less urgent than simple public works. Rebuilding looted offices, fixing the traffic lights, removing the mounds of rubbish, regular cleaning of schools and hospitals would spread income quickly, but when, for example, the city of Nassiriya and its province has a budget of 1m, how can the governor even begin?

The key task is to make the occupation invisible. The transfer of sovereignty on June 30 will mean nothing if coalition troops remain on city streets. "They behave as though it is their country and we are all terrorists," said one Falluja resident, angry that US troops almost invariably point their guns at people. Put foreign forces under an unambiguous UN mandate, name an early date for their full withdrawal that Iraqis can believe, and immediately reduce the US contingent, which has shown it lacks the training and enough commanders who are able to conduct intelligent peace-keeping. If Falluja has not made that obvious, nothing will.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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