“‘We had to stop some operations until the [U.S.] elections were over,’ said a senior Iraqi Defense Ministry official who requested anonymity because he’s not an authorized spokesman. ‘The Iraqi government requested support from the American side in the past, but the Americans were reluctant to launch military operations because they were worried about American public opinion. Now, their hands are free.’” (Jonathan S. Landay and Hannah Allam, Bush expected to move quickly on Iraq, Knight Ridder)
“[Iraq is] a huge strategic disaster, and it will only get worse The idea of creating a constitutional state in a short amount of time is a joke. It will take ten to fifteen years, and that is if we want to kill ten percent of the population.” (Lt. Gen. William Odom, Director of the National Security Agency, 1985-88)
So let the madness begin.
In his first post-election press conference, our President said, “You asked, do I feel free. Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style and I’m going to spend it for what I told the people I’d spend it on, which is — you’ve heard the agenda: Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror.”
So brace yourself, because we are evidently on the eve of the spending of more than a little of that “capital” in Falluja. As I write, perhaps 10,000 American troops are at the edges of that recalcitrant city in the heartland of Sunni Iraq, supported by small numbers of recently trained, untrusted Iraqi troops who are meant, in that classic American phrase, to put an “Iraqi face” on the American battle to come. No news reports on these new Iraqi troops seem complete anymore without a quote from a skeptical American like “‘These people,’ says [Marine Sgt.] Scarfe, ‘will let us walk right to our death.'” And almost all reports out of Iraq indicate that these troops like the Iraqi police are thoroughly infiltrated by the insurgents. (“‘The infiltration is all over, from the top to the bottom, from decision making to the lower levels,’ says [a] senior Iraqi official.”) In fact, just this weekend reports have surfaced that a Kurdish officer in the Iraqi security forces, briefed on the American plans for taking Falluja, has deserted, evidently with his briefing notes but without his uniform.
On the American side, our troops have been used as pawns in a game of political chess that certainly will leave them more exposed in any battle for Falluja than might otherwise have been the case. Our ultimate threat, of course, is that those 10,000 soldiers backed by air power and artillery will make an example of Falluja, producing an American version of the Roman solution to Carthage. It would serve as a fierce example of what might lie in store for any incompliant Sunni or Shiite city. As the intelligence outfit Stratfor recently put it in a report, “The Politics of Storming Al Fallujah”: “[T]he fate of Al Fallujah will likely serve as an example to tribal leaders throughout the country who have remained undecided about their relationships with coalition forces and the IIG [Iraq Interim Government].” In other words, if you can’t “liberate” them, crush them.
With the power of that threat in mind, our offensive against Falluja has been one of the slowest developing and most publicly announced events of recent times. This, in turn, means we have left the Fallujan insurgents all the time in the world to plan for the defense of the city or to fade away as the fighting begins. (Some Americans are already suggesting that casualties in the coming battle will reach Vietnam-era levels.) The insurgents, in turn, have been offering their own set of threats, ranging from waves of car bombs to missiles “tipped with deadly chemicals including cyanide.”
Who knows what part of all this is bluff and bluster. What we do know is that, while we wait for the battle for Falluja to begin, it’s actually begun. Hala Jaber, a reporter of Lebanese background working for the British Times (which bills her as “the only western newspaper reporter inside Falluja”), reports that on his first night in the city the U.S. Air Force attacked in waves from just after midnight to just after 5 AM. “I began to count out loud,” she writes, “as the bombs tumbled to the ground with increasingly monotonous regularity. There were 38 in the first half-hour alone.” The perimeter of the town, she adds, is “already largely in ruins. The crumbling remains of houses and shell-pocked walls reminded me of my home town Beirut in the 1980s at the height of Lebanon’s civil war.”
In the meantime, as veteran reporter Dilip Hiro explains below, the insurgents were conducting their own “battle of Falluja” via concerted attacks this weekend in Samarra (only recently retaken by American troops), Baghdad, Ramadi, and around Falluja itself. Their point, brutally brought home via car bomb, is that it may be far easier to take than hold the Fallujas of Iraq; that to invest and seize Falluja is not the same thing as throttling the insurgency. In addition over the last months, the guerrillas have more generally clamped down on supply and troop transport by road and, as in Vietnam, helicopters have already become the preferred means of travel — and also of battle — for Americans. (“The ominous thumping sound of American helicopters roaring over Baghdad’s rooftops is becoming as emblematic of this war as it was of Vietnam,” writes Jim Krane of the Associated Press.)
Iyad Allawi’s interim government, despite its state-of-emergency declaration this weekend, has been incapable of extending its control over any significant parts of the country. As Rod Nordland, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Michael Hirsh of Newsweek report, “Even [a] Bush administration official who evinced confidence about the new Fallujah offensive admitted that the new Iraq under the interim government is ‘not jelling. How can [ordinary Iraqis] support a government that doesn’t really exist in many ways?'”
And here’s a sign of the times: Lindsey Hilsum of the British Observer reports that some American commanders, not exactly exuding optimism about the future of an occupied Falluja, “have been studying a book entitled Russia’s Chechnya Wars 1994-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat. In 1995 the Russians pounded [the Chechnyan capital] Grozny until the neighbourhoods harbouring Chechen fighters were reduced to rubble but, nine years on, rebels are still blowing up Russian soldiers with booby-trap bombs.”
At the moment, most checks and balances have been wiped away, not only in the United States but globally. The Bush administration will now do more or less as it pleases. Within days, as former British Foreign Minister Robin Cook wrote, administration officials are likely to “celebrate their election victory by putting Falluja to the torch.”
But, as Dilip Hiro indicates, the one-legged American strategy that places military power above all else is likely to prove no less a disaster now than it has for the last year in Iraq. Falluja may be flattened while the Iraqi insurgency only spreads. And what then? In games like this, you can find yourself spending your “political capital” fast indeed. After all, this is now really George’s war.
Oh, and in the one-world category, Haber of the Times reports that when the Fallujans he’s bunking with grow bored of rerunning and critiquing scenes from resistance snuff videos the way you might “a controversial moment in a football match,” they play video games while the bombardment continues outside — just like, and probably from the same global selection of games as, the young Marines camped outside their city. It’s a small world and welcome to it. We’re all going to be here for a while. Tom
No Carrots, All Stick
Blinkered Bush Set to Blunder Again in Iraq — and Iran
By Dilip Hiro
With Vice-President Dick Cheney describing the presidential election result as “a broad, nationwide victory,” secured on the platform of an unapologetically hard-line foreign policy, the world should expect more of the same from President George W. Bush and his administration in the “war on terror” he declared on September 12, 2001.
Specifically, this means Bush, Cheney, and their coterie of neoconservative ideologues will continue to visualize the ill-defined war on terrorism in purely military terms, and deploy the Pentagon as their primary instrument to win it. What that undoubtedly translates into is: an immediate assault on Falluja in Iraq to destroy a bastion of insurgents resisting the occupation of their country, and ratcheting up pressure on Iran under the rubric of “countering Tehran’s nuclear arms ambitions.”
This will take place in a context in which anti-American feeling, already rife in the Muslim world, is rising yet again in the wake of a recent report from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. It concluded that some 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died between March 2003 (when the Bush administration with its British allies invaded Iraq) and September 2004; that the largest number of these deaths were caused by the unleashed air power of the invading and then occupying armies; and that women and children had suffered most.
In other words, the invaders may have managed to kill up to a third as many Iraqis in a year-and-a-half as President Saddam Hussein did in his 24-year dictatorial rule. This comparison led the Riyadh-based, pro-government Saudi Gazette to ask rhetorically, “If this is a war on terror, then who are the terrorists and who are the terrorized?”
The net result of Washington’s escalating confrontation with Muslim countries and peoples under various guises will only be to widen further the gulf that already exists between the United States and Muslims in general, paving the way for a much-dreaded “clash of civilizations” that never need have happened.
Attacking the Fly on the Horse
The Bush administration is clearly intent on attacking Falluja despite warnings from Ghazi al Yawar, Interim President of Iraq, Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Shaikh Muhammad Bashar al Faidhi of the Association of Muslim Scholars, which represents 3,000 mosques — and a string of bombs that killed at least 34 in Samarra on Saturday, a northern city recently “retaken” from the insurgents and now plagued by fighting between the local police and the American-trained Iraqi National Guard.
“I completely disagree with people who see a need to decide [Falluja] through military action,” Interim President Yawar said. “The coalition’s handling of this crisis is wrong. It is like someone firing bullets at his horse’s head because a fly landed on it; the horse died and the fly went away.”
In his letter to the American, British, and Iraqi governments on October 31, Kofi Annan insisted that the escalation in violence that the taking of Falluja represented would be “very disruptive for Iraq’s political transition” and would also put civilian lives at risk. He added that he wanted the UN to help prepare for elections in Iraq in January, but feared that a further rise in violence could disrupt the process. “I have in mind not only the risk of increased insurgent violence, but also reports of major military offensives being planned by the multinational force in key localities such as Falluja,” he wrote.
Shaikh al Faidhi, on the other hand, was not so diplomatic. “If the US invades Falluja or any other city in Iraq, all the clerics in Iraq will call for a boycott of the election,” he stated. Even if the phrase “all the clerics” were to be qualified with “Sunni Arab,” that would still mean one-fifth of the Iraqi population concentrated in the country’s crucial areas.
A majority of the residents of Baghdad, which accounts for one quarter of the national population of 25 million, are Sunni. So too are the inhabitants of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, not to mention the resistance cities of Falluja and Ramadi.
It is worth recalling what happened last April when the Pentagon mounted an offensive against Falluja in retaliation for the murder of four Americans working for a Pentagon security contractor. A four-week long running battle with the Iraqi insurgents ensued in which the application of overwhelming force by the U.S. Marines led to nearly 600 Iraqi deaths, mostly civilian, and 65 American military fatalities. And yet during that period the Pentagon kept reducing its demands in stages until rebel demands that only Iraqis should police Falluja and that the Marines should withdraw to their bases were essentially accepted.
In the glow of his electoral victory, George Bush is unlikely to grasp the significance of this statement of Annan’s in his letter: “The threat or actual use of force not only risks deepening the sense of alienation of certain communities, but would also reinforce perceptions among the Iraqi population of a continued military occupation.”
Long used to blocking unwelcome reality, the President and his advisors are no more likely to take note of what is happening on the ground in Samarra, a city the U.S. military reconquered from the insurgents — for the third time — in early October, and handed over to the interim Iraqi government. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi now holds Samarra up as a model for the fate of other rebellious cities still to be retaken, and yet it is an omen of what a military approach to the Iraqi situation is likely to yield.
Forced underground but not out of town, insurgents in Samarra, a predominantly Sunni settlement, are now so well organized that on November 6 they were able to set off four car-bomb explosives within minutes of one another. On the government’s side, fighting has already broken out between the interim government’s National Guard, whose troops have been recruited from Baghdad and predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq, and the local police, a Sunni force, which is heavily infiltrated by the insurgents or their associates.
Since their arrival in the city, the National Guardsmen have been breaking into home without warrants, arresting people arbitrarily, and firing into the air at random. As for the local police, they extract bribes from the Samarrans and cooperate with criminal gangs. “We are now caught between an arbitrary authority [the National Guard] and a corrupt authority [the police],” was the way Hisham Nouri al Samarrai, a tribal leader on the local council, summed up the situation.
An attack on Falluja, say most analysts, will act as a catalyst, uniting disparate resistance groups throughout Iraq. It is also expected to increase resentment among Iraqis and swell insurgent ranks. It’s worth remembering that the siege of Falluja in April was the tipping point when insurgents — hitherto seen by most Sunni Arabs as imbued with Islamic fundamentalism — gained popularity. Fellow Sunnis, witnessing the carnage the Americans had caused in the besieged city, shed their fear of religious fanaticism and embraced the resistance fighters and their cause. It also gained the Sunni insurgents sympathy in a section of the Shiite community which put nationalism above sectarian affiliations. This time radical Shia cleric Hojatalislam Muqtada al Sadr has already expressed solidarity with the insurgents in Falluja with whom he shares the aim of establishing an Islamic republic in Iraq.
Following tactics they had already developed in Samarra in late September, most Iraqi and foreign insurgents have already left Falluja for other destinations in the Sunni heartland. Those who have stayed behind will undoubtedly fight to the death, and the resulting heart-rending carnage — shown on numerous Arab satellite channels — is sure to intensify anti-American feelings not only among Iraqis but also among the inhabitants of the surrounding Sunni-majority countries of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey.
Finally, a pacified and half-razed Falluja, handed over to the Allawi’s interim government, will most likely only replicate the recent history of Samarra.
No Carrots, All Stick
In speeches last week in Europe, Iyad Allawi singled out Iran among Iraq’s neighbors for being uncooperative. This was not accidental. He was echoing his master’s voice, that of the man who installed him as the Interim Executive Prime Minister — George W. Bush. Nor is it accidental that the Bush administration has refused point blank to endorse the package that the European Union trio — France, Germany, and the United Kingdom — has offered Iran as a way to begin to settle the nuclear issue, even though the offer was backed by the European Union summit in Brussels on Friday.
“A full and sustained suspension of all [uranium] enrichment and reprocessing activities, on a voluntary basis, would open the door for talks on long-term cooperation offering mutual benefits,” said the EU communiqué. It further pledged resumption of suspended negotiations on a Trade and Cooperation Agreement between Iran and the EU.
Earlier, when shown the EU trio package, John Bolton, the neoconservative American undersecretary for arms control and international security at the State Department, said, “I don’t do carrots.”
In contrast, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, delivering his weekly sermon on Friday in Tehran, repeated his opposition to “the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons,” which, he asserted, are forbidden under Islam. “They [the Americans and Israelis] accuse us of pursuing nuclear weapons program,” he added. “I am telling them as I have said before that we are not even thinking about nuclear weapons.”
Yet Washington is pressing its allies to start drafting a UN Security Council resolution of condemnation as a preamble to imposing sanctions against Iran. There can be little doubt that, even before its second term begins, a re-energized Bush administration is thinking once more of assembling “a coalition of the willing” — this time to wield against Iran, which is still firmly ensconced in its “Axis of Evil” along with North Korea. “They [the Americans] wanted an international coalition against Iraq,” mused Jaswant Singh, former foreign minister of India, whose country refused to join the Iraqi version of the coalition. “But they ended up getting virtually an international alliance against America.”
Unfortunately for the world at large, there is no sign yet that the Bush administration’s disastrously flat learning curve has risen even by a fraction of an inch. The disjunction between the perceptions of policy-makers in Washington and Muslims abroad is so total that our planet is certain to become ever less safe as the new four-year term of the Bush White House unfolds.
Dilip Hiro’s latest book is Secrets and Lies: Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After, a sequel to Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm (Nation Books, New York). He is based in London, writes regularly for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Observer, the Guardian, and the Nation magazine, and is a frequent commentator on NBC, CNN, BBC, and Sky TV.
Copyright C2004 Dilip Hiro
A version of this piece will appear in print in issue #738 of Middle East International