Built-in resistance

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

Theories that divide Iraqi society into separate compartments are too simplistic, and the calculation that Iraqis will trust the invaders and reject the Baath Party is bound to prove wrong.

AT the outset of the invasion Iraq's Defence Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmed had pronounced his assessment that the Anglo-American forces would take 12 days to reach Baghdad. This assessment turned out to be dead-on accurate, while the calculations of the timetable by the military and political leaderships in the United States and the United Kingdom were way off the mark. Would the comparative abilities displayed by the leaderships of the two opposing sides in prognosticating the progress of the invasion thus far have a bearing on the developments to come?

With their fighting formations grouped on the outskirts of Baghdad and their support and logistic units strung out in three long lines all the way to the Kuwait border, the Anglo-American invasion force did present a picture of a snake (or three, to be more accurate) with its head at one end and tail at the other. The Iraqi Minister has let it be known that the Iraqis envisaged that the invasion would unfold in this manner and has sworn that they will soon cut the snake into pieces now that it has been stretched out for the slaughter. What will be watched with great interest over the coming days and weeks is whether this will indeed happen.

Shorn of all the hype put out by the politico-military leaderships of the U. S. and the U.K. and the journalists that they have embedded all over the place, the truth is that the invading force has not been able to secure a single town other than a part of Najaf. What they have done elsewhere - including in crucial road junctions near Basra, Nasiriyah and Karbala - is that they have secured the highways so that supplies can reach the forward echelons unhindered. They have spread out on either side of the highways only so far as to enhance the security of the supply lines. But the towns, to go by the accounts of all independent journalists who have been able to visit or receive credible information from these places, remained firmly under the control of the Baath Party or other networks loyal to President Saddam Hussein.

This meant that there were strong pockets of resistance adjacent to the U.S. columns all along their length. Theoretically, at least, there was a possibility that the columns could be cut into pieces in a convulsive wave of attacks launched from the towns and villages. However, Iraqi efforts along these lines were not likely to meet with much success since the Anglo-American forces have had the time to strengthen their defences along the positions they occupy. The warning that Baghdad would be defended with "unconventional methods" could apply, in reverse, to the Anglo-American supply lines since it was conceivable that the Iraqis could blow up bridges, dams and irrigational canals so as to cut the logistical columns into segmented units. Once the lines were disrupted the segmented units of the columns could become more vulnerable to Iraqi attacks.

Even if the military developments to come do not pan out in this fashion, the manner in which the Iraqis have fought the invaders so far gives an idea of the roots from which the resistance has sprung. These roots could well prove to be as strong and enduring once, and if, the conquest of Baghdad is complete. The very nature of Iraqi society could provide the fertile ground from which a cult of resistance to the occupation can grow. Even if, at some stage, the Iraqis were to expend more of their energies fighting each other rather than the occupiers of their land, this strife could prove to be so turbulent as to make the occupation untenable.

Theories that categorise Iraqis into separate compartments are too simplistic. Since the time before the invasion began, there have been a number of facile analyses that state that Iraqi society is composed of three major and several minor ethnic groups defined on linguistic and/or sectarian lines - Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Turkoman, Christian, Assyrian, and so on. After the invasion began and it was discovered that Iraqi society would not so easily splinter along the lines of ethnicity, there was a sudden realisation that the tribal structure provided an alternative mode and level of networking. When the efforts of the Anglo-American intelligence services to suborn key tribes and make them switch their allegiance did not succeed, it was put out that it was the Baath Party's oppressive measures that alone kept the rest of Iraqi society obedient to the Baghdad regime's orders.

In reality these different networks have been intertwined for long. The Baath Party has always included components from all ethnic communities. Over the three decades that it has been in power, the Baath Party regime has doled out favours - construction contracts, monopolies over certain services in select areas, appointments to official positions, and so on - with a keen eye on keeping the various tribal groups loyal to the power centre in Baghdad and in balance with each other. Saddam's Al Majid clan might sit at the centre of power and dominate, but it has done so by ensuring the allegiance of the other tribes through a well-calibrated policy of carrot and stick. To complete the circle, many individuals, irrespective of their tribal or ethnic origin, who had jobs or other lucrative contacts with the government would have found it in their interest to take Baath Party membership.

Since, generally speaking, the tribes are localised in certain areas, it is probable that the pattern of fighting that has been seen so far is a reflection of the fact that each tribe has withdrawn into the base of its own power in an effort to protect its assets. In this sort of a situation it is possible to theorise that the group that wields power in any locality (whether that group defines itself on tribal or sectarian lines) would be indifferent to the fate of the Baghdad regime so long as its own base is protected. That it will not care if the Al Majid clan is replaced by some other group as the dominant force in Baghdad so long as its own interests are secure.

The situation might not turn out to be so simple. While different tribes have benefited in different ways, they also know that the system enforced by the Baath Party has maintained order in an Iraq which is otherwise fragmented in so many different lines. Without the Baath Party as a cementing force, Iraq might well have fragmented long ago. The possibility that Iraqi society could fragment once the Baath Party is destroyed is a factor that would worry Iraqis. They have already seen how the situation is developing in the extreme south of the country where the Anglo-American forces appear to have succeeded in destroying the Baath infrastructure in the vicinity of Umm Qasr and Basra. In the absence of the familiar authority these areas have descended into a situation of banditry and anarchy.

The West has enjoyed democracy and the rule of law for so long that it seems to have forgotten that people yearn just as strongly for order and security. The destruction of the Baath Party could well spell the end of order and, therefore, the onset of insecurity in Iraq and the people of Iraq would be awake to these possibilities. All the talk of tribes, ethnic groups and so on obscures the fact that there are a large number of well-educated Iraqis belonging to all segments who can understand the threat of instability that now confronts their society. The Iraqis know just as well as anyone else that the U.S. has the habit of intruding aggressively into other societies, de-stabilising them and then leaving the local people to their own devices. It does not take any great wisdom to see that no interim administration or multi-national force can swiftly engineer a system to replace a destroyed order that had survived for 25 years.

Concern over an uncertain future could well have supplemented the spirit of nationalism of the Iraqi people. But a combination of the two might not still be enough to make the Iraqis immune to defeat by the far more powerful Anglo-American forces, in conventional terms. The destruction of the established order will, however, lead to an upheaval as various groups scramble for advancement in the conditions that will follow. Groups that have been dominant thus far could be challenged by those who were out of favour in the past but now find a chance to advance their own interests. Iraqis have to look no further than Lebanon to understand the fate that awaits their country if the established order is destroyed.

A commonly shared fear of the chaos that could follow might not by itself be sufficient to jell the Iraqis into a widespread and organised resistance. But the lack of an organised form to the resentments aroused amongst the Iraqi people by the occupation of their country need not work out as a factor in favour of the Anglo-American alliance. If the Iraqis do not unite against a common enemy, they could well end up fighting each other. Internecine war within Iraq will hardly serve the economic and commercial plans that the occupation force currently entertain.

IRAQ'S future will have a major impact on the psyche of the entire Arab world. The picture that is clearly before the Arab world at this juncture is one in which a Western alliance has smashed its way into a stable society with great economic potential and a people talented enough to make the most of it. There is nothing in the unfolding situation in respect of Iraq that will persuade the Arabs that their perception that the West is intrinsically hostile to them is wrong.

Reports that as many as 4,000 volunteers from the rest of the Arab world - jehadis as they have been described - have crossed into Iraq to join the fight might be exaggerated and are also probably not of much immediate relevance. Situations such as the unfolding one do have the effect of heightening the emotions. But as the experience of the Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups (and even of Al Qaeda for that matter) demonstrates, the really dangerous are the quiet ones who have time to brood on the course of action they will take. While it may take time for the invasion of Iraq to develop as the cause for a fresh terrorist wave, it must not be forgotten that the consequences of the war and the destruction it causes will have its own consequences.

The political and military leaderships behind this war, and their armies of compliant journalists, can find it very convenient to categorise the dead into soldiers, party loyalists, unfortunate bystanders, and so on. But each dead person is the parent or child or sibling of someone. When lives are scorched for no justifiable reason, it can only deepen the thirst for revenge.

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