Barbarians at the gates

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

A memorial service for a fallen comrade, by the C2-7 Infantry soldiers on April 6 at the Baghdad International Airport. - BAHRAM MARK SOBHANI/AP

A memorial service for a fallen comrade, by the C2-7 Infantry soldiers on April 6 at the Baghdad International Airport. - BAHRAM MARK SOBHANI/AP

The Anglo-American axis launched its war of occupation with a variety of delusions. But the combination of political fantasy and military miscalculation seems to be unravelling. Imperial dreams do have a way of turning into nightmares.

THE sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols is vivid in Arab memory as the point of time at which the decline of their splendid medieval civilisation began, paving the way for eventual domination and colonisation by the Western powers after the Ottoman interlude. That is the memory, combined with the more recent memory of the occupation of Iraq by the British in the first half of the 20th century, which is now being re-lived across the Arab world. For, the Arabs are passing through a remarkable moment in their modern history. For the first time since the creation of Israel more than half a century ago, an Arab country, with that same Baghdad as its capital, faces the threat of actual occupation and, in effect, colonisation by a non-Arab power. Those who watched with horror the televised destruction of Beirut by Israel in 1982 have now had to watch the much more spectacular and savage bombings of Baghdad since the very first night of this war of occupation. With Baghdad facing the prospect of a prolonged siege by the invading forces and its impending defence by a poorly armed but determined population, some people have already taken to referring to the city as a likely `Stalingrad of the desert'. In the end, Baghdad may well come to resemble not so much Beirut or Stalingrad but Algiers during the war of liberation against French colonial occupation. In the process, the Anglo-American invasion has ironically served to turn Saddam Hussein, a man widely abhorred until now through much of the Arab world, into a hero and a symbol of national resistance.

Intoxicated by myths of their own making, the Anglo-American axis launched this war with a variety of delusions. They had made themselves believe, for example, that the Shia majority would rise up to greet them as liberators from the Sunni autocracy. Instead, Ayatollah al-Husainy al-Sistani, the most revered among the Shia clergy in Iraq, has declared from his seat at the holy city of Najaf that resistance against this foreign invasion is a "religious duty" for all Shias of the world. He was quickly followed by the religious scholars and ayatollahs of Qom, the main seat of Shia Islam in Iran, who issued a joint proclamation to the same effect. The invading axis certainly has its Iraqi clients, ranging from Ahmed Chalabi, the convicted criminal who is their favourite for succeeding Saddam, to such comprador intellectuals as Kenan Mekiya of Harvard University, who has declared that the sound of the bombs falling on Baghdad is "music to my ears".

But they had also deluded themselves that their invasion would provoke a series of uprisings, in town after town, against Baathist rule. In reality, no Arab group has come forward to be "liberated" into colonisation and none is fighting on their side, while thousands are said to have streamed into Iraq - from Jordan, Syria and Iran - to join in the defence of Baghdad. Far from setting off any rebellion in the predominantly Shi'ite southern Iraq, the U.S.-U.K. alliance has so far failed to capture any town of any significant size in the whole region.

Similarly, the invasion has served to bring together the two factions of the Baath Party that have been bitter rivals for some 40 years as they have ruled Iraq and Syria respectively. U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused Syria of supplying military equipment to Iraq, including night-vision goggles of Japanese and U.S. make, and Ariel Sharon, the criminal Prime Minister of Israel, has threatened an invasion of Syria. Indeed, as long ago as December 2002, as the U.S. advanced its invasion plans, Sharon took to charging that Iraq had transferred its so-called `weapons of mass destruction' to Syrian territory - a charge that the U.S.-U.K. alliance may yet utilise in order to justify an invasion of Syria in the foreseeable future. Those charges are as fictitious as the charges that Iraq still had such weapons in the first place. What we do know is that Syria has allowed an indeterminate number of Arab fighters to cross into Iraq from its own territories, risking U.S. and Israeli retaliation.

More significantly, reports are now emerging of new levels of cooperation among Syria, Iran and Turkey on the question of northern Iraq and the American designs to reward its Kurdish clients there with an autonomous, perhaps even semi-sovereign, region or statelet of their own. This is significant, considering that Turkey and Syria were on the verge of fighting a military duel in that region in 1998, thanks to policy differences on the Kurdish question, and that Turkey and Iran have had very tense relations since the Islamic revolution in the latter country a quarter century ago. There is now mounting evidence of increased policy coordination and sharing of intelligence reports among these hitherto mutually hostile countries. Iran is of course being accused by the U.S.-U.K. invaders of introducing into northern Iraq elements of Iraqi nationality who are loyal to the Iranian regime but wish now to fight on the side of the Iraqi Army against the Kurdish clients of the invaders. Meanwhile, Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and heretofore a reliable U.S. ally in the region, has allowed the U.S. the use of its territories to supply troops in northern Iraq while also preparing to defend the Turkish (the so-called Turkoman) population of northern Iraq against likely violence by the Kurdish separatists.

FROM the battlefront itself, real information is virtually impossible to obtain. Americans never tire of preaching about the freedom of the press but they have not allowed any independent journalists to cover their actions or verify their claims. Instead, as the virtually sexual phrase they have coined suggests, journalists are "embedded" inside their own units, having signed contracts agreeing to say nothing without the prior approval of the axis commanders. So, we have the remarkable display of round-the-clock coverage on television, led by CNN and the BBC, which is comprised of either the lies of these "embedded" journalists or commentaries by the not-so-embedded journalists far from the scenes of actual fighting, so that the viewer is reduced to culling little pieces of information from the press conferences held by Iraqi officials, intelligence reports emanating from Russia, or bits of news filtering through the Arab channels, notably Al-Jazeera. Faced with vast discrepancies between their claims and what seems to be happening on the ground, American officials have said publicly that `disinformation' is a legitimate weapon of war, very much in line with precepts first laid out by Hitlerian propaganda, and they have gone so far as to hack and block the website of Al-Jazeera, the independent news channel which is watched by 45 million people in the Arab world and which has gained four million new subscribers in Europe since the beginning of this war of occupation.

For all this fierce control of the news, the axis powers are facing a yawning credibility gap. Ken Adelman, who was the U.S. Arms Control Director under President Ronald Reagan, wrote in The Washington Post last February that "regime change" in Iraq "would be a cakewalk". Senior members of the Bush administration, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Rumsfeld in particular, have been promising a short campaign of two to three weeks. Gen. Tommy Franks, who is at the helm of the Southern Command and is the chief commander of this war, has said time and again that the war was proceeding according to plan and on schedule. Tony Blair has said so in Parliament. The evidence they are presenting as these lines are being written on the 18th day of the assault, is that the axis forces have moved rapidly through southern Iraq and the U.S. troops have indeed arrived on the perimeter of Baghdad. They claim that the Saddam International Airport has been captured and the city encircled, with elite squadrons of the U.S. forces operating in the centre of Baghdad.

The facts would appear to be otherwise. The fall of Umm Qasr, a small port town near the Kuwait border, was announced on the second day of the assault; the fall of Nasiriyah, a somewhat larger town of 500,000 people that is also close to the Kuwait border, was announced two days later. Both are still holding out, fierce battles being reported especially from the latter while the British hold over Umm Qasr is undermined by periodic explosions and sniper fire. Indeed, even as the U.S. troops have raced through huge stretches of the desert to reach the outskirts of Baghdad, no town of any significance has fallen to them and Iraqi resistance is operating in all of them as well as along the whole length of the 450-km Iraq-Kuwait border. The holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, which the Americans regard as vital for the defence of their thinly scattered supply lines across the desert, have reported hand-to-hand street-fighting.

The U.S. claims that six divisions of the Republican Guards, the core of the Iraqi defence forces, have been decimated or otherwise rendered inoperational and that upwards of 9,000 Iraqis have surrendered. However, even those Western journalists who do not have to have their stories approved by the Anglo-U.S. authorities have reported that there seem to have been no significant battles involving the Republican Guards. Nor is it clear how many of the 9,000 prisoners of war (PoWs) are civilians.

What is significant, however, is that even the U.S. command claims to have captured only one General and that on the very day that the U.S. announced that 2,500 Iraqi troops had surrendered, the authoritative intelligence bulletin issued by Russia said that the total number of those who surrendered in the whole week had not exceeded 1,000. Similarly, when the U.S. announced that it had captured Baghdad's international airport, the Iraqi authorities took a busload of journalists to within 150 metres of the airport to show that there were no U.S. troops there. And when the U.S. announced that its forces were operating in central Baghdad - "to stay there", they said - one of the BBC's two main correspondents in the city reported that he had driven around the whole city, without any obstruction from the authorities, and saw no Americans anywhere in a city that continued to function normally despite the unspeakably savage levels of virtually round-the-clock high-altitude bombings by the U.S.-U.K. axis.

The U.S. had predicted, and seems to have based its own planning on the assumption, that its policy of so-called "shock and awe" - that is, bombing the capital city as well as Basra with historically unprecedented intensity - would break the morale of the civilian population and would provoke the rapid disintegration of the regime, leading to mass defections. In reality, there have been few refugees leaving the cities so far, despite the mounting rate of casualties especially in Basra and the rest of the smaller cities of southern Lebanon. And the regime has held together, with Ministers and high officials appearing regularly on Iraqi television. Iraqi television has shown even Saddam Hussein moving about among civilian residents in the affected areas of Baghdad.

Instead, there are extensive reports of confusion, disarray and bickering among the highest officials of the U.S., with disagreements among some of the seniormost Generals and civilian heads of the Pentagon reaching such intensity that a group of Republican members of Congress are reported to have met President Bush to urge him to rely not so much on Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul D. Wolfowitz, and to give a serious hearing to the professionals of the armed forces and the intelligence agencies who are deeply sceptical of those ideologues.

Even as the propaganda machines would have us believe that Baghdad is about to fall, it is the U.S. war plans that seem to be in disarray. We now know that the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz plans, which are being executed in Iraq, did not have the support of many of the highest military and intelligence officials and that Rumsfeld had systematically moved many of those officials out of key posts, replacing them with more pliant officials who accepted his plans. Frustration among those dissenting officials was indicated by the fact that during the months leading up to the more recent invasions we witnessed a remarkable pattern of leaks to the press of top secret documents which had advised against these plans that had assumed that towns in southern Iraq shall submit easily, welcoming the American "liberators", so that they would be able to leave loyal local administrations in the captured towns as they moved toward Baghdad with their rear secured and supply lines safe. They had similarly assumed that they would be able to amass a huge army of their own in northern Iraq through a Turkish corridor.

The first shock in fact came when the Turkish Parliament refused to allow the projected force of 62,000 U.S. troops to pass through its territory and in effect use Turkey to gain strategic depth. We now have reliable reports that even Gen. Tommy Franks, who had been one of the few top Generals on Rumsfeld's side of the argument, had come to recommend after the Turkish vote that the invasion be postponed until after a much larger force had been assembled in Kuwait. The dissenters had of course argued that military planning based on dubious political expectations of the masses of Iraqis welcoming an Anglo-American invading force and a quick disintegration of the Iraqi regime was unrealistic, that the size of the force assembled in Kuwait was insufficient for the occupation of Iraq, and that the plans to occupy a city the size of Baghdad were probably militarily unrealisable.

THAT scepticism in fact has a history of its own. Back in 1996, five years after the first Gulf war, President Bush Sr., the father of the current President, had said in an interview on the BBC: "To occupy Iraq would instantly shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us, and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero." Dick Cheney, current Vice-President and a leading figure in the right-wing, Zionist cabal which is masterminding this war, had been a Defence Secretary in Bush Sr.'s administration and had said in 1997 that if the U.S. were to engage in another Gulf war to remove Saddam Hussein, the international coalition "would come apart", indicating that major European powers shall oppose such a move - as Germany, France and Russia indeed did more recently. Cheney had also said at that time: "To have brought the war into the populous Iraqi capital of Baghdad where Hussein is based would have involved a different type of military operation than in the desert, and would have put large numbers of Iraqi civilians and hundreds of thousands of our troops at risk of being killed." On the key question of ousting Saddam, Cheney at that time said: "The only way to make certain you could get him was to occupy all of Iraq and start sorting through Iraqis until you find Saddam Hussein."

That the same Dick Cheney would now be spearheading precisely that kind of war plan, against the advice of some of the seniormost U.S. Generals, indicates how much deeper the hold of the Far-Right now is in Washington (at the Pentagon in particular) and how much the current policy is being shaped by a group working as much for the Israeli interests as it pursues its own fantasies of world conquest, in which the occupation of Iraq is conceived of as merely a first step.

This war plan at any rate comprised two key components. The political component presumed that Iraqis would rise in rebellion, the Iraqi Army and regime shall disintegrate, the loyalist sections of the population shall flee under the shock and awe induced by the bombings, Saddam shall be quickly isolated, and U.S. troops shall walk into Baghdad to cheering crowds, pretty much as the Allied forces had entered Paris after its liberation from Nazi occupation. The military component, based on this extensive political fantasy, was that massive bombings, high-tech firepower on the ground and a relatively small land army sweeping through the country would be sufficient to bring about a quick victory.

This combination of political fantasy and military miscalculation seems now to be unravelling. Even Basra was supposed to fall with no effort - indeed, the city was supposed to welcome the `liberators'. The fact that not even the smallest of towns have surrendered means that the forces which were supposed to conquer Baghdad in a lightning attack have had to surround the towns on the way, leaving behind contingents at each town so as to secure the rear, while the supply lines have stretched over hostile territories and a relatively smaller number of troops is now available for the battle of Baghdad. A combination of sand storms and persistent Iraqi resistance has meant daily casualties and the disabling of a large amount of the equipment available to the invading army. They have had to stop for re-supply and repairs. Now, having reached the perimeter of Baghdad (as these lines are written on the morning of April 7), these forces face a quandary. They are exhausted from constant movement and persistent skirmishes, and in need of rest, repairs, resupply and reinforcements. Few people have fled from the city, the bulk of the Iraqi fighting forces have been withdrawn into the city for prolonged, street-to-street defence, and an indeterminate number of new and highly motivated fighters have come in from elsewhere. There have been skirmishes, and even modest battles. The war is now about to begin. This is Baghdad 2003; it could be Algiers 1958.

There is likely to be a lull of a few days during which the Americans may secure their positions, rest their troops, repair their equipment, get more supplies from Kuwait - and wait for reinforcements, which cannot arrive in appreciable numbers for many days to come. The invaders certainly have the firepower to enter the city, terrorise the population and park their tanks at street corners. But they do not have the numbers to occupy the city in any meaningful sense. The rules of the thumb for any guerilla warfare are two: there must be at least six combat troops for each guerilla, and the occupying force must be ready for a fairly large number of casualties, one by one, in attrition, over a period of weeks and months, perhaps years.

We still have no measure of the fighting capacities of the Iraqi forces, regular and irregular. They may yet collapse and the American dream of a "cakewalk" may yet come true. However, the fact that the Anglo-American forces have been unable to occupy securely even small towns would indicate that pacification of Baghdad is unlikely in the coming days.

And then there is the weather. If the Iraqis can hold out for another month or so, temperatures will rise to as much as 600C and the swirling sandstorms shall minimise the effectiveness of air power, the mainstay of the Anglo-American assault plans. More of their people may die of heat than in combat, and the reduction in air cover shall expose their over-stretched lines to guerilla actions even in the desert and on the perimeter of scores of towns. This is not how it was supposed to be, but that is how it is.

MORE broadly, the Americans have three problems. One is simply of greed. Their eyes are set so much on the immense profits that are expected to accrue after the successful conclusion of this war that they do not wish to share the spoils with anyone. The U.S. Congress has just passed a bill that explicitly forbids post-war contracts in Iraq being granted to companies owned or even operating from France, Germany, Russia and Syria (China is not included in the list). The rest of Europe is not debarred but unhappiness with their European allies in countries like Italy is increasing, owing to their reluctance to share the costs of war. The inclination in Washington and London is to go it alone as a purely Anglo-Saxon phalanx, so much so that even as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan wants so much to step forward and provide the U.S. some figleaf of a U.N. authority, it is the U.S. itself that is not keen on a U.N. role beyond what is euphemistically called "humanitarian aid".

Secondly, the U.S. has been quite unable to put together anything resembling a credible opposition that can succeed Saddam Hussein. There are of course their clients scattered in the U.S., the U.K., Kuwait, Doha, what have you, but the fantasy that this group of discreditable clients shall be supplemented with new clients recruited from among the welcoming elites in southern Iraq and the deserting officials of the army and the Baath Party has proved to be unrealisable. This combination - the greedy push to corner all the profits and the political failure to obtain a broad enough group of clients - is impelling the U.S. to hold fast to its original plan to oust the Saddam government and establish an Anglo-American, in effect American, administration in post-war Iraq. We have been treated to various versions of this plan over the past year or so. Gen. Tommy Franks said many months ago that post-war Iraq shall need not only direct U.S. military administration but also the stationing of a substantial number of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil "on the model of South Korea", that is, for decades to come.

Third, the Americans are also burdened with their self-image of having come as benefactors and `liberators', and cannot quite fathom the inscrutable Oriental's wish not to be occupied, colonised and ruled by others. Towns and cities have proved to be ungrateful, unwilling to be either bribed or bombed into submission. Basra was supposed to rise in rebellion against Saddam and in jubilation over the arrival of the British troops. In reality, the whole military might of Tony Blair's neo-imperialist Britain has been unable to secure even a significant foothold in the city despite the unspeakable savagery of its bombings, armoured assaults and artillery barrages. The horrendous scale of civilian casualties there shall only be known after the fighting is over; In Nasiriyah, a town one-tenth the size of Basra but equally unwilling to be occupied, the number of the dead and the injured is already estimated in the thousands.

Then there is Baghdad. The Iraqis have always said they will concede the desert and fight the invaders in the capital itself. This presents the mighty Americans with an impossible choice. They have to either engage in prolonged urban warfare with its predictably high levels of casualties for themselves, which will erode domestic American support for this war and the many other wars the Bush administration is planning. Or, they can bomb the city from above, killing the whole lot - a genocide from the skies, as it were - which will lead to mass-scale revulsion not just in sections of the U.S. population but all over the world, including Europe. Among other things, that might lead to the downfall of Blair and his New Labour - along with its Tory allies - in Britain and the strengthening of the Communist-Socialist-Green alliance in the European Parliament. Neither of these options seems particularly favourable to the U.S. So, they have come up with an ingenious plan in which, according to The Washington Post, a `victory' shall be declared even when there is no victory.

This `victory' shall have three components. First, it is surely the case that much of northern Iraq is already effectively under the control of the U.S. Special Forces and the U.S.' Kurdish clients, and that much of the desert and the countryside in southern Iraq has been abandoned in the face of the devastatingly superior American firepower. Measured in sheer kilometres, it can certainly be said that the Anglo-American forces and their Kurdish clients have occupied the bulk of Iraqi territory outside the fertile Tigris-Euphrates heartlands; the oil resources conveniently lie in the occupied territories. Secondly, towns and cities are indeed encircled and under constant attack. With further reinforcements and fresh supplies, this encirclement can be sustained in the foreseeable future. Thirdly, as for Baghdad, the U.S. may simply prolong its encirclement and siege, with periodic incursions and withdrawals, with the hope of leaving exhausted and starving the population, accelerating the decay of its infrastructure, and inflicting enough casualties with sufficient regularity to generate more and more refugees, with the hope of the city eventually surrendering.

With these three elements in place, the U.S. may simply declare `victory', represent the war of position around the cities as a `mopping-up operation' in a war that will be said to have ended already, and establish a U.S. military administration not in Baghdad but outside it, perhaps on its outskirts, or even in some place like Basra if and when that city falls. In the media, then, attention shall be shifted away from the daily, relatively low-intensity warfare around the cities and in the countryside, and focussed instead on the doings of the U.S. military administration, its so-called `reconstruction' activities, the occupation and revival of the oilfields by the U.S. corporations and their local clients, and so on. War shall thus be institutionalised and even naturalised as something ordinary and largely invisible, as the war on Iraq, especially in its northern zones, for the past decade or more had been made invisible. The so-called `international community' - Kofi Annan, the U.N. Security Council, the CNN-BBC disinformation regime, and so on - shall be expected to accept that coming war of the next decade as they had willingly, even enthusiastically, embraced the sanctions and the war of the past decade. The sanctions, fully supported by every single member of this so-called `international community', killed a million and half Iraqis and exposed about a third of the population to malnutrition, epidemics, miscarriages, declining life expectancy, disappearing drinkable water and disabled schools and hospitals. These atrocities may be multiplied in the coming years of what shall soon be billed as `post-war reconstruction', in which even the Schroeders and the Chiracs shall participate gladly.

That at least is what the Americans seem to be planning for now. Gen. Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that once Baghdad is isolated from the rest of the country it will be "almost irrelevant" and that "whatever remnants are left would not be in charge of anything except their own defence and it would be fairly small compared to the rest of the country and what's happening". Many of the top officials of the U.S. administration are already citing the example of Hamid Karzai, whose government has been accepted by the governments of the world although that government controls only a small part of the territory of Afghanistan, and though even the personal security of Karzai himself is in the hands not of Afghans but a unit of the U.S. Special Forces. In this scenario, then, Iraq shall not be formally partitioned but there shall be, in effect, dual authority - that of the current Iraqi government among forces and sections of the populations in the towns and cities under siege, and that of the American military administration in the areas under their control, notably the oil-producing regions. It is also likely that the U.S.-controlled area shall gradually become a mosaic of local fiefdoms, autonomous zones and shifting loyalties, very much on the pattern of present-day Afghanistan, while the Americans are free to do as they wish with the oil.

This is the revised war scenario that is leading to an otherwise absurd situation in which despite the inability to take even a single significant town, let alone the big cities, the U.S. is already announcing the skeletal structure of this military administration, euphemistically named the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which is headed by Jay Garner, a retired General, currently making his money in the arms trade, and whose core officials have been named already. In one variant of the plan we hear that perhaps as many as 23 `Ministries' shall be established, each headed by an American official. We are back to the heyday of colonial conquests, crown colonies, Mandates sanctioned by the League of Nations, imperial administrations resting on local chiefs, and the rest. Not the least of the ironies of the situation is that if the first Gulf war was fought in the name of `liberating' Kuwait from the Iraqis, so as to restore princelings to their sheikhdom, now it is from Kuwait itself that Iraq is being `liberated' from itself and into full-scale foreign rule, with Blair imagining himself as the rightful pro-consul of Iraq, in the good old British colonial tradition, but in the service of the new colonial masters in Washington.

This at least is the current American dreamIn. We are yet to see if and how and when the Iraqis will puncture it. For, we may be witnessing not the making of a new colony but simply another Palestine. Imperial dreams do have a way of turning into nightmares.

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