Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

`Operation Iraqi Freedom', the U.S.-led war that marks the final act of over a decade of duplicity, coercion and insensitivity, gets under way. As the aggressors stumble through, their plans of conquest and subjugation elicit hostility and contempt among Iraqis.

GENERATIONS in India that have spent two score years or more on this planet know roughly what a war of liberation is like. Even if the Bangladesh operations in 1971 were not etched deeply in public perception by relentless media coverage, these generations know that the chemistry between a people and an army of liberation is characteristic and unmistakable. But it took little of this special historical memory to know, four days into the United States-led invasion of Iraq, that the most fundamental conceit of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" had been rudely punctured.

Metaphorically, the claim that invading forces would be welcomed as an army of liberation stood devastated as badly as the urban landscape of Baghdad. With a whole division of the British Army encamped on the outskirts of Basra, there was yet no signal from Iraq's second city that it would welcome the invading forces in. The entire array of propaganda devices had been unleashed, civic amenities had been destroyed with deliberate intent to foment mass disaffection in the city of over one million people. Yet Basra remained resistant to the overtures of its putative liberators. And this was, in the rather fanciful strategic plans drawn up prior to the war, regarded as relatively easy terrain for the invaders, since Basra was believed still to nurse bitter memories of its uprising in 1991 that was brutally put down by the Iraqi regime.

A Reuters correspondent south of Basra saw a vast convoy of battered trucks and cars streaming out of the city. Contrary to U.S. claims that it had not entered Basra, a 24-year-old engineer fleeing the city seemed to indicate that small detachments of special forces had in fact got through to foment an uprising. "There is fighting in the centre, on the streets," he said. "It is terrible. We don't want Americans here. This is Iraq." Other media personnel found Iraqi youth greeting incoming Western forces with smiles and sneering when they passed. From the evidence of the first three days of relatively unhindered advance by the Western forces, partisan media organisations had rushed to the inference that the Iraqi people were in a rather hospitable mood, preparing to welcome their liberators with open arms. Day 4 brought the rude awakening to reality and Day 5 rubbed in the harsh message.

"Operation Iraqi Freedom" had got off to a dramatic start with a furious volley of missiles and bombs on a narrowly focussed set of targets in Baghdad. The target allegedly was the Iraqi regime and the objective was a swift decapitation that would snuff out the central authority and reduce Iraq's fighting forces to rudderless confusion. Subsequent reports from Western military intelligence spoke of a high level of probability that President Saddam Hussein could have been injured or killed. Other assessments spoke of the likely elimination from the operational fray of three of Iraq's top five leaders, including Saddam's principal deputy Izzat Ibrahim, his Vice-Presient Taha Yassin Ramadan, and his son Qusay Hussein.

A few days of ambiguity ensued. Images of the Iraqi President kept appearing on local television without quite removing uncertainties about the dates of their origin. Day 5 then brought a decisive refutation of initial Western assessments. Just before noon in Baghdad, Saddam Hussein appeared on Iraqi television - displaying the almost preternatural and eerie calm that so deeply struck Dan Rather, the news anchor and chief editor of the U.S. television network CBS, in the course of an interview late in February. The message from the Iraqi President was clear. Although the Iraqi people had shown tremendous forbearance in subjecting themselves to prolonged and intrusive inspections for weapons of mass destruction, the aggressive instincts of the U.S. and the United Kingdom had not been appeased. Resistance to the invasion had stiffened, and it was the job of the Iraqi forces to draw things out for as long as possible. The military forces of the U.S. and the U.K. had entered a quagmire, and they were to be hit with "force and precision". All of Iraq needed to be mindful of the plight of Basra and the people of that city, in turn, needed to keep their patience. Patience and courage were the key to victory.

After delivering all this with his trademark rhetorical flourishes, Saddam explicitly took the names of all the military commanders who were tasked with beating back the invasion. Special mention was made of the divisional commanders in Umm Qasr, Nasiriyah, Najaf and several other cities then under attack and siege.

Baghdad had suffered three days of "shock and awe" bombing as Saddam Hussein spoke. The clearly stated strategic purpose of the U.S. is to target the will of the civilian population through a massive aerial bombardment. It was to be, as U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chillingly put it, unlike anything ever seen. In the basic document of the "shock and awe" doctrine, the will to resist was programmed to collapse within two days of massive aerial bombing, paving a rapid pathway to victory for invading ground forces. Drafted in 1996 by a group of former military officials - some of whom had held vital command positions in the 1991 Gulf War - "shock and awe" believes not so much in inflicting physical damage upon an adversary, as in undermining his will. The ironic outcome of its first trial in the laboratory of Iraq is that "shock and awe", while causing considerable physical damage, perhaps only bolsters the adversary's determination.

THE first three days of operations had brought deceptive evidence of progress. But just when U.S. forces were claiming to have captured key locations in southern Iraq in a relentless sweep of armour and infantry, Day 4 brought them back to the realities of operation in a hostile terrain against a resentful people. Iraqi forces in the city of Nasiriyah, which had been declared a safe zone for the Western coalition on Day 3, struck back, inflicting severe casualties on a U.S. Marine Corps detachment that was advancing ahead on the road to Baghdad. And after hoisting the stars-and-stripes at the Umm Qasr port on Day 2 of the operations and hastily taking it down to underline their benign intent, the U.S. forces, in seeking to secure the adjoining town, ran into stiff resistance, suffering a number of casualties.

Day 4 was a disaster for the grossly misnamed "coalition" in various other ways. Terry Lloyd, the veteran war correspondent from the British ITN News, was killed as he approached the war zone in southern Iraq. The car in which he was travelling was mistaken for an Iraqi armoured vehicle and blown up by "coalition" firepower. His body was subsequently found in a Basra morgue along with several other victims of arbitrary military attack.

Day 4 also brought news of the bizarre downing of a British warplane, ostensibly by U.S. Patriot missile batteries. After having brought down three short-range Iraqi missiles launched into northern Kuwait, this was by far the most lethal strike of the hugely hyped Patriot system. It happened, unfortunately, to choose the wrong target.

The planned pincer movement on Baghdad, meanwhile, proved to be a spectacular non-starter. Once regarded as the most loyal U.S. ally in the region after Israel, Turkey strung the war clique in Washington along over a month-long bargain on the appropriate price for logistical and locational support. It then turned down the U.S. request for stationing ground troops in Turkey and using air bases within the country to mount sorties into Iraq.

After a few more weeks of equivocation, Turkey grudgingly conceded overflight rights to U.S. forces, while subtly launching its own feint and manoeuvre, threatening to push large columns of armour and infantry into northern Iraq. The U.S. was unamused since the Turkish incursion would have shattered its effort to bring Kurdish guerilla groups in northern Iraq into an anti-Saddam coalition. Under immense pressure, Turkey decided against opening a war within a war. But the U.S. has been unable to induct significant force levels into northern Iraq. It has stationed special forces in the region to operate in close association with Kurdish guerilla groups. But this leaves the balance of numerical advantage in the hands of the Iraqi Kurds, engendering deep reservations within Turkey. Should the Kurdish guerillas leverage U.S. patronage into a campaign to take the pivotal town of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, then Turkey's quiescence could no longer be taken for granted.

By Day 5, the U.S. had managed a manifestly imperfect job of unravelling all these complexities. Its initial operations in the Kurdish region were directed against Islamic militias, rather than the Saddam regime. To heighten its frustration, the U.S. found that its rearguard too was insecure. The 101st Airborne Division, a key military formation whose arrival in the Gulf theatre was supposed to mark the definitive intent to launch hostilities, suffered an embarrassing internal sabotage, when a soldier believed to be "disgruntled" and "weird" lobbed a grenade into the tent encampments of his unit's commanding officers. One officer was confirmed killed and 16 injured in the bizarre incident.

It was little wonder, then, that four days into the aggression against Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld was an angry man. Images of U.S. soldiers captured by Iraqi forces and detained as prisoners of war (PoW) had been telecast by the Arab Al-Jazeera channel. This was demeaning to the dignity of combatants, protested the hawkish U.S. Defence Secretary. Iraq should be warned, he added ominously, that its actions were in violation of the Geneva Convention on the protection of the victims of armed conflicts. The point was underlined later that day by U.S. President George Bush, as he flew back to Washington from a weekend at his hill retreat. As he spoke to the media corps at an impromptu interaction, the Texas oilman's priorities were clear. He spent relatively little time in sympathy for kinfolk of servicemen who had died in the operations, or in worrying about the status of the PoWs. What he found really worthy of celebration was the securing of the oil fields in southern Iraq by U.S. and U.K. forces.

Coming from individuals who have been insisting for over a year and a half that the U.S. had the authority to wage war to topple the Iraqi regime and redraw the map of the West Asian region, the new found commitment to the Geneva Convention was rather rich. Rumsfeld's attention could well be directed to the preamble to the Geneva Convention's first protocol, adopted by universal consent in 1977. Every contracting party is enjoined under the Convention, to conform to the Charter of the United Nations, and "refrain in its international relations from the threat or use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of any State".

There is also an injunction in the Geneva Convention against attacking, destroying or rendering useless objects and facilities necessary for the survival of the civilian population, such as "crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works". In fact, as Rumsfeld blew a fuse over Iraqi violations of the Geneva Convention, Basra city was entering its third day without water supplies. Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross conceded that the situation was dire. But they were yet to gain any assurance of access to the city.

Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" has directly targeted essential civilian infrastructure. Declassified papers from the last 12 years of siege warfare against Iraq show that water supplies all over the country were considered fair game for military strikes by the U.S. Indeed, a briefing paper prepared by the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) showed greater concern about deflecting international attention from these evident war crimes, for fear that the Iraqi regime could derive what was described as propaganda advantage from them.

When he addressed his first press conference three days after operations began, General Tommy Franks, the overall force commander for the invasion of Iraq, had few such awkward questions to address. One of his responses, though, stood out for what it suggested about U.S. war strategies and objectives. The ostensible trigger for war being the Iraqi regime's failure to comply with its disarmament obligations, Franks was asked whether his forces had found any evidence that Iraq indeed possessed the proscribed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The answer was in the negative. What were the tactical options that the U.S. forces retained if Iraq were to attack them with chemical or biological weapons, Franks was asked. His response was curious: "If they use weapons of mass destruction against us, then we win."

This statement, of course, lent itself to a relatively benign interpretation: if Iraq were to use mass destruction munitions against invading forces, that would prove to the world that the basis of the war of destruction was not a lie. Facing a credibility problem of immense dimensions, the U.S. administration would be able to turn back and tell the U.N. weapons inspectors who had failed to find evidence of concealment and deception, that they had been too trusting of Iraqi intentions. Deluded by the pretence of cooperation, the U.N. inspectors failed to comprehend that the Iraqi regime in fact, had no intent to disarm and was only twisting the U.N. mandate to its own narrow purpose of survival.

But this was not quite the sense in which Franks spoke, as became evident immediately afterwards, when he referred to Rumsfeld's ominous warning to Iraq just prior to the start of hostilities. The man, who dismissed France and Germany as "old Europe" and waved aside Israel's oppression of the people in the "so-called occupied territories" as a trivial issue since the land had been won fairly in war, had little doubt about the appropriate response to Iraq's use of its putative WMD capability. His only advice to Iraq if it intended to use mass destruction munitions, he said, was "don't".

The blunt threat brought to mind an infamous statement from the Israeli defence spokesperson just prior to the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War.

What would be the Israeli response, asked a journalist, if Iraq were to lob something lethal into its territory? The answer was clear, unambiguous and brutal: "We will turn Baghdad into a sheet of glass."

There is little question that the invading forces are eager for sufficient pretext to use the most lethal weaponry in Iraq. Even as it unleashes cruise missiles in the thousands any given day and drops ordnance that runs into the kilotons in explosive power, the U.S. can rest content in the assurance that the U.N. weapons inspectors did their best over the preceding three months, to give them the assurance of minimal resistance.

Resolution 1441 of the U.N. Security Council obliged Iraq to sign away the small vestiges of national sovereignty it retained after 12 years of siege and starvation. Late in February, the U.N.'s Chief Weapons Inspector, Hans Blix, asked the country, effectively, to sign its own death warrant. From the 11,000-page documentation that Iraq submitted to the U.N. in December 2002, the weapons experts surmised, one missile system that had been inducted into service exceeded the prescribed range limit of 150 km. The deviation was minor - the Al Samoud missile had, in a few of its flight tests touched a range of just over 180 km. And the Iraqi explanation was simple: not all the tests had been conducted with the missile's full payload of explosive charge or with the appropriate guidance system. If these were factored in, the missile would be well within the prescribed range of 150 km. The weapons inspectors would have none of it. And the destruction of the deployed missiles, as also the serial production facilities that Iraq had built up, were well under way when the U.S. started its war of destruction.

The U.S. war against Iraq comes as the final act of over a decade of duplicity, coercion and utter insensitivity. It was a gigantic pretence for the U.S. to imagine that Iraqi citizens would have anything but outright hostility and contempt for its plans of conquest and subjugation. That pretence was decisively shattered in just four days. And whatever the military outcome of the war, the first four days were sufficient to establish that the U.S. has already lost the peace.

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