Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

The war is not over; it has not even begun. Iraq has been betrayed from within, the regime having cut a deal with the invaders. The resistance now remains deferred.

UMM QASR is a small town of a couple of thousand inhabitants, close to the Kuwaiti border and barely a few kilometres from the point from where the mighty Anglo-American forces entered Iraq. It was the first town that those forces tried to take, but the town held out in a fierce battle that raged for two weeks. During those same weeks, the Iraqi forces held out throughout the Fao peninsula against massive armour and ferocious air attacks, with no air cover for themselves. Battles raged during those two weeks around An Nassiriyah, Basra, Kerbala, An Najaf and scores of other towns and cities, large and small, and none of them fell. That same story was being repeated in the North which had been largely under Kurdish control thanks to 10 years of Anglo-American bombings which had favoured their Kurdish clients against the Iraqi state administration and armed forces. Neither Kirkuk nor Mosul fell during those weeks of resistance.

The encircling of the southern towns and cities required the deployment of large contingents of troops and quantities of weaponry. This meant that the Anglo-American forces which raced through the desert towards Baghdad kept getting depleted and came to have intolerably long and exposed supply lines behind them. Most military observers believed that two weeks of fighting and traversing hundreds of kilometres had probably tired out the remaining forces, that the invaders would probably need fresh supplies and at least another one hundred thousand troops before mounting an assault on Baghdad, that there would be a lull of perhaps three weeks in preparation for an assault on a city of perhaps six million people which was also the citadel of a government that had yet not used its air force, most of its armour and artillery, most of its famed and feared Republican Guard, the Fedayeen-e-Saddam, the Baathist irregulars who were said to be fully armed for urban warfare. Unless there was a Dresden-style firebombing of the city on an even larger scale, Baghdad was expected to remain a fortress-city that would have to be won through a prolonged battle with a much bigger army than the Anglo-American alliance had when it reached the city's suburbs.

But there was neither a lull before the assault, nor an assault of any great scale, nor fighting even on the scale seen in the small towns where the invaders had been held at bay. The Americans just kept driving, some of their tanks wandered into various parts of the city, then more came, occupied one part, then another, and then another. Baghdad did not fight back. The invaders celebrated their victory in this non-war by allowing and inciting a sacking of the city quite on the scale of - in some respects worse than - the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols in the 13th century. The regime simply disappeared. The accumulated treasures of a civilisation were looted, and libraries burnt, on a scale that even the marauding Mongols had not dared to do - not just in Baghdad but in town after town, which now fell, after the Surrender of Baghdad.

This is worth repeating. Umm Qasr, a dusty border town of no military significance, fought back for two weeks. Kerbala and An Najaf, sleepy towns of shrines and seminaries and holy men, fought back for two weeks. So did scores of others. None of them fell. Baghdad fell, the whole of it, in three days, without a fight. A myth is now being made in front of our eyes, which is being lapped up by the more gullible even within the anti-war movement, that Baghdad collapsed in the face of superior weaponry, greater firepower, the historically unprecedented ferocity of the bombings which began on the first night of the attack.

The fact of the matter, however, is that Baghdad fell not to that weaponry but thanks to a deal that the Baathist regime made with the Americans under which it renounced the defence of the city in exchange for a whole variety of favours - to the Baathist leaders and Ministers, the military commanders including the commanders of the elite Republican Guard, possibly to Saddam himself and his family - the details of which are yet unknown but these can be easily surmised: secret transportation to safe havens, treasury chests and payoffs, and, for many, lucrative posts in the post-Saddam regime that the U.S. is now putting together. The Americans have said all along that they shall absorb much of the Baathist Party and bureaucracy in the new regime - and so it shall be.

Saddam Hussein had begun his savage, ignominious career in treason, as a 22-year-old paid agent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hired in 1959 to assassinate Abdel Karim Qasim, the man who had led the anti-monarchical revolution the previous year. Once the Baathists firmed up their grip on power in 1968 and Saddam seized positions as the Vice-President and deputy head of the Revolutionary Command Council, he used lists provided by the Western intelligence agencies to execute communists.

It is widely believed that the U.S. assisted him to seize power in 1979 in a palace coup against President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr because the U.S. wanted to build him up against the new Iranian regime after the Islamic Revolution. And indeed he invaded Iran the next year, in collusion with the U.S. which supported him in a variety of ways, including through the supply of technology for the production of chemical and biological weapons, in its own bid to get Iran weakened and have both Iraq and Iran, major oil producing countries opposed to Israel, weaken each other. He fell afoul of the Americans only when he invaded Kuwait, a close U.S. ally, in an attempt to capture Kuwait's vast oil resources and thus emerge as the strongman of West Asia. In this respect, the recent U.S. determination to oust him resembles the earlier cases of Ngo Danh Diem in Vietnam, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Manuel Noreiga in Panama, who were all agents and allies but became liabilities later on.

In the perspective of this past history, it is only fitting that Saddam's regime collapsed thanks to a deal made with the U.S. Whether the deal was made by him to save his own skin, or by his subordinates who acted against him, is unclear. It is also unclear as to who brokered the deal. Probably Vladimir Putin's men did it, just as Boris Yeltsin's men had eventually persuaded Slobodan Milosevic to give up. It is often the case that traitors are eventually betrayed by their own friends.

Details of that deal are now beginning to emerge, though some of the relevant facts are still shrouded in mystery. The circumstantial evidence pointing to a deal is overwhelming nevertheless. The entire political and military high command has disappeared without a trace. Indeed, most of that high command disappeared from sight immediately after the war began. Key leaders such as Saddam's two notorious sons, Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, the Ministers of Defence, Health, and so on, have all become invisible. U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld kept repeating in statements over the past several weeks that the U.S. was in "negotiation" with senior leaders of the party and senior military commanders, offering safe passage to all, jobs to others in the post-war dispensation.

Is that why we do not see now those eminences of yesteryear? No one knows what happened to the Republican Guard; they just melted away. And even the `embedded' reporters and photographers have reported no big battles or scenes of military carnage - as was seen on television when the Iraqi Army that had retreated was decimated by U.S. bombing during the Gulf War of 1991, with U.S. bulldozers pushing thousands of the dead into mass graves. Saddam Hussein had made a spectacular bonfire of oil wells during that earlier war; this time they were wired (just in case the deal did not go through) but never put to flame (because the U.S. did come through with the deal).

Iraq was said to have some 500 military aircraft and, as the destruction of the World Trade Centre demonstrated, planes can be used as missiles to crash into targets, even if they cannot take on the superior might of the U.S.-U.K. air forces. But none was used. The U.S. tanks drove on highways which were never mined, not even in the vicinity of Baghdad; they crossed into the city over bridges which were wired for destruction but never detonated. They came on to the boulevards and encountered the most sporadic of small-arms fire. They parked their tanks in squares, and nothing happened. They just sat atop their tanks, watching the burning, the looting. From the first day to the last, independent journalists who were working in Baghdad on their own were mystified why they never could see any preparation for the defence of the city even as Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, the brutish Information Minister, kept making all kinds of claims about impending battles in the city - until he too disappeared, slipping into an obscurity which might have been prepared for him in advance.

Understanding that Baghdad failed to fight back not because of the overwhelming military superiority of the U.S. but because the regime cut a deal even before a battle for Baghdad could begin is a matter of great political importance. This fact tells us at least three things. First, the Saddam regime was so barbarically repressive, so unwilling to tolerate any force independent of it, that the regime alone - and no one else - controlled all the resources and therefore had the wherewithal to wage a battle for the defence of Baghdad; once it made a deal, there was no alternative force to organise a defence of that magnitude.

Secondly, and most crucially, it means that the removal of that regime - that is, its top political leaders and military commanders - is in fact the precondition for the emergence of a popular struggle.

Thirdly, and by the same token, the quick surrender tells us nothing about the will of the Iraqi people to fight for their freedom or even the preparedness of the lower levels of the armed forces or of the ordinary cadres of the Baath Party itself. They are probably relieved over the demise of the Saddam regime even as they are revolted by the re-colonisation of their country. Their resistance has been deferred, and their war is yet to come. And the leadership for that shall emerge over the next few months. The U.S. is planning to announce a victory formally in a few days. That is too soon. The war is not over; it has not even begun.

IN a sense, however, this new war has actually begun - in the shape of an extraordinary expression of mass resentment against the U.S. presence as such. The tone was set already on April 15, as the occupation and sacking of Baghdad was fully under way and the U.S. tried to hold a meeting of some of its top clients in An Nassiriyah, the first such meeting since the beginning of the invasion and certainly the first on Iraqi soil. Jay Garner, a retired General and currently an arms dealer who has been appointed to lead the U.S. administration in Iraq, opened the conference, held near the city of Ur, the biblical birthplace of the Prophet Abraham. Garner opened it with the grand statement: "What better place than the birthplace of civilisation could you have for the beginning of a freer Iraq?" Well, much to his dismay, his little meeting was greeted by 20,000 protesters in that small town, chanting "No to America, No to Saddam."

When the Baathists came to power (briefly in 1963, and in a more lasting stint in 1968 through a coup), Iraq had a huge Communist Party, the largest in the Arab world, which then faced mass arrests, torture, execution, exile and general decimation. Other modern political forces met the same fate as Saddam perfected his brutal monopoly over power and politics in civil society, but he failed to suppress entirely the religious opposition which took refuge in its mosques and seminaries, its informal civil networks, its monopoly of shrines and pilgrimages. Now, with the demise of the Saddam regime, there is no secular force that is organised enough to fill the vacuum and, for the first time in modern Iraqi history, the mosque is emerging as the site of opposition, the focus of anti-colonial organisation, and a contender for the construction of a parallel system of governance rooted in civil society, in opposition to the colonial administration and a subordinate network of clients that the U.S. is putting together. Less than two weeks into the colonial occupation, Friday prayers became the occasion to mobilise a mass insurgency.

On Friday, April 18, Sunnis and Shias offered prayers together in the Abu Haneefa Al Nu'man mosque in Baghdad (a veritable Sunni mosque, and one whose dome was smashed by American bombing), listened to anti-American sermons and erupted into the streets, marching peacefully and calling for a united struggle of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds against foreign occupation. Some of them were chanting "No Bush - No Saddam; Yes to Islam". Others were carrying banners in English and Arabic saying "Leave our country. We want peace" and "We reject American hegemony." The organisers, mostly Sunni, are calling themselves `the Iraqi National Movement'.

Meanwhile, in the poorer part of Baghdad where the Shia population predominates, local militias that are hostile to the occupation forces are reported to have sprouted everywhere, taking control of the streets at night and organising welfare activities - supplying food, providing medical aid, making funeral arrangements - by the day. In faraway An Najaf, the city where Ayatollah Khomeini spent some 15 years in exile and from where he plotted his revolution for Iran, the venerated clergy have come together as a decision-making body, organised a nation-wide system of communications for instructions sent through messengers. They have also initiated the formation of defence committees in neighbourhoods throughout Iraq, ostensibly for the restoration of normalcy and provision of aid for the suffering population but obviously as part of a move to create a grassroots administration designed to function as a parallel state and a network of local organisations to launch a popular armed struggle. Meanwhile, the U.S. creates its own administration at the top and pretends to put in place a supposedly `democratic' government comprising its own clients.

In towns such as Kut, some enterprising clergymen have simply walked into the mayoral offices to take over the local administration, with a remarkable degree of popular acceptance. Checkpoints are coming up inside cities and on roads linking various cities in southern Iraq which are manned by these new groupings, and there are already reports of confrontations with Americans who are simply unprepared for this kind of challenge on the ground. The presence of militants from a variety of Islamicist groups is in evidence, and some of them are reported as having said that in case the Americans oppose them on the ground they are willing to turn themselves into suicide bombers. Most of the groups that have emerged are Shia ones, but more Sunni groups are likely to emerge as well. Reports suggest that entirely secular armed groups are also emerging in particular neighbourhoods. All these shall be the militias of tomorrow.

As was stated in the previous essay in this series ("Barbarians at the gate," Frontline, April 25), far from turning into a "Stalingrad in the desert", as some people fancifully expected Baghdad to become, it was more likely to resemble Algiers under French occupation, Palestine under Zionist occupation, and Beirut at the time of the Israeli occupation and the prolonged civil war. Not a city defending itself against siege by a foreign army which is then repulsed after some weeks or months, but a city actually under full occupation where the costs of an occupation will become unbearable only over a period of time and which engages in a type of warfare against which the most modern weaponry is largely useless. And a city, moreover, that is surrounded by a rebellious hinterland comprising other cities, towns and villages. But then, also like Beirut, a city riven by its own communal divides, its warring militias fighting for turf, arms merchants flourishing by feeding the multiplicity of militias - the more warring factions there are, the more splendid the arms bazaar becomes. Not the sheer, brute power of American weaponry but the internal communal divides shall be the largest challenge to anti-colonial unity in Iraq during this new phase. For, just as the establishment of a colonial administration shall serve to bring together the various opposing groups, the sudden collapse of the central authority and the lack of a successor central organising force shall serve to accentuate the communal divides and mutual competition over scarce resources.

For, what the Americans have brought with them is not only the gift of colonisation but all the paraphernalia of communalisation and factionalisation of Iraqi society: dividing the Turkoman against the Kurd, the Kurd against the Arab, the Sunni against the Shia, and indeed one Shia faction against the other, not to speak of the Baathist against the non-Baathist, the torturers of yesterday against a battered people, the clients against the patriots.

The one positive aspect of Saddam's authoritarian rule was its militant commitment to secularism against religious strife and to state-centred nationalism against divisive localism. With that nationalist cement gone, collapse into fiefdoms of local power in the name of primordial loyalties is very probable, and the colonial power is likely to do all it can to accentuate these conflicts since these conflicts are the surest means through which anti-colonial forces can be disorganised and the presence of colonial authority, as keepers of the peace among communities, can be justified. Far from this being an unintended consequence of colonisation, this emerging communalisation of Iraqi society is something that the invaders have foreseen and wanted to achieve. A foretaste of the bloody nature of this communalisation can be had in the ethnic cleansing of Arabs that is already under way in northern Iraq, at the hands of Kurdish zealots.

Intoxicated by the scale and ease of the victory, the U.S. had already begun to make ominous statements against Syria. Within a span of one week, George Bush, Colin Powell and Rumsfeld accused Syria of harbouring fugitives from the Iraqi regime, manufacturing chemical and biological weapons and providing bases and training facilities to a variety of "terrorist" organisations such as the Hizbollah. Each of them warned of reprisals, and Rumsfeld ordered the Pentagon to make contingency plans for the invasion of Syria. That planning shall indeed continue and Syria certainly faces the threat of invasion, especially now that it has refused to submit to the charade of inspections, which paved the way for the invasion of Iraq.

It also seems probable, however, that with the emergence of widespread religio-political opposition in Iraq, and with the religious establishment already launched on creating structures of dual authority even before the U.S. has put together its own administration, the Americans have come to understand that the pacification of Iraq shall be infinitely harder than the military conquest. The neo-conservative cabal at the Pentagon and the think tanks may well be restrained in their designs for a swift conquest of other countries in the region (Syria, Iran, perhaps even Saudi Arabia), and an invasion of Syria may well be postponed until after the U.S. presidential elections of November 2004. The fate of Syria shall in any case be decided in Iraq. If the resistance is slow in emerging, and if the U.S. feels confident of containing it, the invasion shall come sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, the structure of a unilateral colonial occupation and administration is being put in place with great alacrity, with Iraqi clients assigned a much more subordinate role, the United Nations being kept out of any significant decision-making process, and even Britain being given only a marginal role. Garner, who is to head the colonial authority, has been flown in and sections of the U.S. media have appropriately taken to referring to him as `viceroy'. This arms contractor specialising in missiles is known to get non-competitive contracts from the Pentagon. This year alone he obtained a defence contract worth $1.5 billion, as well as a contract for building Patriot missile systems in Israel.

Garner shall supervise a total of 23 Ministries, all headed by U.S. top brass and each of the heads of Ministries assisted by three assistants and eight advisers - all Americans. The `reconstruction' of Iraq, expected to generate $100 billion worth of contracts, is being monopolised by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which is distributing these contracts among U.S. transnational companies. A whole range of these corporations, from the little ones like Stevedoring Services of America to giants such as Bechtel and Halliburton - all closely aligned with the highest officials in the Bush administration - are grabbing these contracts. In the process, everything that has been in the state sector in Iraq - ports, water works and power grids, building of roads and bridges, trains and telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and medical facilities, and so on - are to be privatised and opened to foreign, principally American, investment and ownership.

The Iraqi dinar is being provisionally discarded as an unreliable and worthless currency and dollars are being spread as part of the so-called "humanitarian aid" packages and remunerations of various types. The dollar is already legal tender, parallel to the local currency, in Lebanon; the U.S. would like it to be so in the much larger, oil-based and lucrative economy of Iraq. If Saddam had the temerity to adopt the Euro as the currency for its foreign trade and foreign currency reserves, the U.S. is retaliating by making the dollar a domestic currency for Iraq.

Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the supreme commander of the neo-conservatives and the real godfather of this war, declared in early April that direct U.S. rule shall last at least six months and "probably... longer than that". Ahmed Chalabi, a crony of Wolfowitz and head of the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi National Congress, has been flown into Iraq along with a number of other Iraqi clients from London, New York and elsewhere. Echoing his Washington bosses, Chalabi has said that there can be no role for the U.N. in Iraq and that direct U.S. rule may be required for as long as two years. All the basic economic decisions shall have of course been made during these two years, putting in place an entirely new, privatised, neo-liberal economic structure dominated by U.S. multinationals. Plans for the privatisation of Iraqi oil are afoot. A lesser member of the Chalabi clan, Fadhli Chalabi, a former official of Iraq's Petroleum Ministry, said: "We need a huge amount of money coming into the country. The only way is to privatise the industry partially."

This privatisation of Iraqi oil assets and their sale to transnationals has been a major objective driving this war, as a first step in the campaign - backed by a military campaign if necessary - to privatise oil in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and elsewhere, including of course in the Caspian Sea basin.

Not the least significant aspect of this restructuring of the Iraqi oil industry is that a pipeline is being sought to be built quickly to supply Iraqi oil to Israel, which is currently boycotted by Arab states and purchases most of its oil from distant Russia. A direct pipeline from Iraq is expected to cut the Israeli oil bill by about a third, while more gains are expected from the plummeting of oil prices once Iraqi production is fully restored. A veritable tripartite Iraq-Jordan-Israel axis is envisaged in this regard, with Iraqi oil being delivered at the Jordanian port of Aqaba, across the waters from the Israeli port of Eilat.

IN the face of these grand designs, it is turning out to be virtually indecent to ask just what happened to the rationale that was trotted out to justify the invasion. Saddam Hussein was supposed to be sponsoring `international terrorism', yet the only `terrorist' the Americans have captured so far is an ageing Palestinian whose last action dates back to 1984. Predictably, the so-called weapons of mass destruction have not been found and the U.S. seems to be neither in a hurry to look for them nor embarrassed by their non-existence.

Saddam Hussein's "tyranny" was the other plank. Instead of toppling a regime, the U.S. made a deal with it, promising to integrate most of it in its own administration. The U.S. was said to bring in "democracy". Instead, what we have is a veritable colonial administration that is already being projected for two years. General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion, has said that U.S. troops shall be stationed on Iraqi soil for many, many more years, "on the model of Korea". Meanwhile, the Americans do not really like the democracy they are beginning to encounter on the streets of Iraqi cities, in the form of popular protests and the emergence of a grassroots administration opposed to the U.S. designs.

One has deliberately tried here not to outline the scale of atrocities and suffering that the invasion has inflicted upon the Iraqi people and the criminal silence of the so-called international media in which these atrocities have been shrouded. For the first time in the history of modern warfare, journalists from the entire spectrum of the international media, from CNN to Le Monde, agreed to become subordinates of the military command structure, voluntarily giving up their right to report what they saw.

This internationalised vow of silence has had a mafia-like quality to it, and only from the margins did a few brave ones tell the story of at least some of the gruesome details of mass civilian killings, organised looting of the national heritage and its treasures, the bonfire of books and rare manuscripts that would have impressed even the Nazis.

Every single Article of the Geneva Convention and the U.N. Charter was violated, and a whole range of war crimes committed, with impunity. Yet, not a single member of the so-called "international community" has come forward to say so: not Kofi Annan and his bureaucrats at the U.N., not the leaders of the Franco-German alliance or any other member of the Security Council, not the head of any Arab state. The moral bankruptcy of the whole state system of the world is there for all to see. This global complicity is what made the invasion possible in the first place.

And yet, in the distant and dingy alleyways of that battered and occupied country, a resistance is in the making. It will take some months to take organisational form, more months to make a transition to credible forms of armed resistance. In the long run, though, the U.S. may have made for itself not just a client state whose assets can be bought up for a song, but a veritable Palestine writ large. As the whole history of anti-colonial movements has shown, history does not end with conquest. A different history then begins.

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