The `historical struggle' in Iraq

Print edition : May 07, 2004

At a demonstration against the U.S.-led occupation forces in Ghazalia on April 8. - AKRAM SALEH/REUTERS

Even as the people's uprising against the occupying forces in Iraq intensifies, the moral justification for war offered by the U.S. and the U.K. crumbles.

"WE are locked in a historical struggle in Iraq. On its outcome hangs more than the fate of the Iraqi people. Were we to fail, and we will not... the hope of freedom and religious tolerance in Iraq would be snuffed out." These could well have been the words of Moktada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric who is leading the fierce resistance against the occupying forces led by the United States. They could have been the words of one of the leaders of the Sunni resistance groups. But they are not; they are the words of Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, contained in a letter he sent to The Observer. One can see how, if one left out the reference to the "power of America" the sentiments expressed by him are not very different from those of the leaders of the resistance to the occupying forces, because the Iraqi resistance is to oppression and foreign occupation, while Tony Blair has merely taken over their sentiments to justify the U.S.-led invasion.

Blair sees the resistance in Iraq as the work of "terrorists, an extremist who has created his own militia, and remnants of a brutal dictatorship that murdered hundreds of thousands of its own people and enslaved the rest". The American ruler of Iraq, Paul Bremer III, goes even further. He, who is the overlord of a force that has murdered over 10,000 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in less than a year, has the gall to denounce groups who "think power in Iraq should come out of the barrel of a gun... that is intolerable." And the spokesman for the U.S. President describes the resistance fighters as "thugs and terrorists". Is fighting foreign troops in their own country terrorism? And do those who do so deserve to be called thugs?

What we are seeing is a blurring of moral definitions; of the mixing of global political ambition with the rhetoric of a freedom movement. These Western leaders, including Blair repeatedly say that Moktada al-Sadr is leading a "small minority". How do they know that it is a small minority? If it is indeed a handful of disgruntled people, then why are the majority not crushing them? After all, the tremendous fire-power of the occupying forces will back the majority up. The truth seems to be, whatever Blair may say, that the resistance has the tacit support of many more than he says, of those who are not impressed by the figures he gives in his letter to The Observer. He says, for example, by June there "will be" 6000 MW of power, but admits that it will be less than the 7500 MW Iraq needs "because of the massive opening up of the economy, set to grow by 60 per cent this year and 25 per cent the next". He also says the Internet has started up in Iraq, that 30 per cent have satellite television, and so on. Does that really make them eager supporters of the occupying forces?

Consider what these forces, these "peacekeepers", have done. Some weeks ago, Ann Clwyd, an MP who has been Blair's "human rights envoy" to Iraq, found it difficult to admit that attacks by U.S. aircraft could well have caused not only injuries, but deaths. The day after, 16 children were reported to have been killed in Fallujah. Worse, after the resistance began, U.S. aircraft attacked a Shia mosque during afternoon prayers, killing a number of civilians. That would only have inflamed the resentment, not allayed it.

Writing in The New York Times, Thom Shanker reports that military officials in Baghdad and Washington said that military commanders "had been surprised by the fierceness of the Sadr militia, and by the discipline shown by a number of the Sunni fighting units that engaged marine forces in Falluja and Ramadi in the restive region west of Baghdad". He quotes a senior Pentagon official as saying that "attacking the Sadr militia was not an option anybody wanted".

That is precisely the point. The U.S. has been saying that the hostile elements are Sunnis, presumably because Saddam Hussein is a Sunni; now the majority community, Shias, are also up in arms. This, more than anything else, speaks eloquently of the fact that the Iraqi people as a whole are seething with anger at the occupying forces' continued presence and want them out. It is not a question of providing Internet facilities or opening a bank, as Blair seems to think. It is about the humiliation of a proud people by taking over their country by brute force and then keeping troops there only because the powers that sent them there have the military strength to do so.

Is it not apparent to policymakers in the U.S. and in Britain that the situation in Iraq is rapidly becoming no different from the situation in Palestine and the Gaza Strip, and that the occupying forces are doing to the Iraqis what the Israeli troops are doing to the Palestinians? And is it not also clear that this is not a situation that is likely to be resolved for a long time? Terrorism has to be fought, certainly. We are doing just that in Kashmir, and in the operations carried out by our security forces there have occasionally been, tragically, casualties among innocent civilians. It is nobody's case that in such operations that may happen but it is surely the exception; the emphasis is on peace, on reconciliation, on providing security.

Why has the apparent jubilation at the overthrow of the Saddam regime now given way to an anger that is more widespread than the occupying forces admit? And why have both Shias and Sunnis now taken to armed resistance? In a replay of history, this resistance is going to make occupation not only more expensive but more hazardous. The parallel to Vietnam cannot be avoided for too long. The media report that U.S. President George Bush's popularity has begun to slide even more, and John Kerry, who may well be the Democratic candidate in the next Presidential election, has lost no time in taking advantage of this. "This administration has been gridlocked by its own ideology and its own arrogance," he has been reported as saying.

Seamus Milne, writing in The Guardian, says: "Foreign troops in Iraq are not peacekeepers, but aggressors. The lessons of empire are having to be learned all over again." It is truly tragic that it has come to this, that the U.S. and Britain do not see the wisdom of stepping back and letting the United Nations come in and set this tormented nation back on the road to peace and return to it the sovereignty that is the right of all nations; and the longer they refuse to do this the longer there will be strife in Iraq, which will mean the loss of life on both sides, with Iraqis paying a far heavier price in terms of lives and misery. It is time that nations at the U.N. that are concerned at what is going on took the initiative to persuade the two countries to see reason, and work for a lasting peace.

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