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Legacy of resistance

Published : Jan 02, 2004 00:00 IST

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An era in the history of Iraqi nationalism has ended, but the resistance to U.S. occupation is only likely to intensify.

in Baghdad

THE imprint of Saddam Hussein is all over Baghdad. Despite years of sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War, there is an air of modernity about the city. The maze of flyovers that the Saddam regime built in the capital still look good. The government buildings along the Tigris river, charred by bombing during the war and vandalised by the army of looters who descended upon them, have not lost all of their grandeur. After the first Iraq war and following the suppression of the Shias who had rebelled then, the Iraqi government went into overdrive to build a number of mosques inside the city. Some of these structures, solid and massive, continue to dominate the busy streets.

One of the prominent achievements of the Baathist regime was the state-of-the art highways that it built. The six-lane desert expressway that links Baghdad to Jordan allows vehicles to cover a distance of around 1,000 km in around eight hours. A regular stream of container trucks, some ferrying passenger cars from faraway Arabian destinations such as Dubai, Bahrain and Jordan heading towards Baghdad, is a common sight.

As the highway nears Baghdad, the barren desert landscape gives way to eye-catching greenery. Watered by the Euphrates river, agriculture in this proverbial "cradle of civilisation" is fairly well-developed, and even in these troubled times tractors are seen tilling the fertile soil.

However, with the capture of Saddam on December 13, at 8-30 p.m. local time from a cellar in a farm near his home town of Tikrit, curtains came down on an era of wars, achievement and controversy. Many people see Saddam's arrest as a turning point in Iraq's modern history. But what direction will the country take after his arrest is anybody's guess.

There is guarded optimism in the U.S. camp that the Iraqi resistance, after spiralling to a new high in the immediate aftermath of the capture, will taper off in the not-so-distant future. However, many analysts in the region disagree. On the contrary, they argue that the guerilla war could enter a new and more determined phase now. Observers point out that the assumption that Saddam has been the symbol around which the Iraqi resistance revolved may be exaggerated, if not unfounded. Several factors have combined to spur the guerilla response. First, a deep sense of nationalism, which transcends the emergence of Saddam Hussein as the leader of Iraq. A large number of Iraqis continue to believe that the U.S. invasion of their country had less to do with Saddam's weapons of mass destruction than oil. The image of the U.S. as the predator seeking the vast pool of Iraqi oil has spurred the nationalistic sentiment even further.

Besides, in Iraq and in many other parts of the Arab world, history is a tangible political force shaping present-day events. Iraqis are extremely conscious about their Babylonian past, their contribution to human civilisation and in the Islamic era, about the glorious development of their lands under the rule of the Abassid dynasty. The acute consciousness about their historical legacy has hardened their disposition against foreign rule.

Secondly, there has been a pan-Arab ideological stream, which has encouraged some to join the ranks of the guerillas. These are people inspired by the Nasserite legacy of Arab nationalism, which disallows foreigners, in this case, the Americans, to appropriate what essentially is an Arab political stage. Third, there is a segment of foreign fighters, influenced by the extremist variant of Wahabi Islam, that has gravitated to Iraq after the post-September 11, 2001 events squeezed them out of Afghanistan.

The disbanding of the armed forces and the sacking of thousands of government employees, including oil workers, because of their links with the outlawed Baath party, have further swelled the guerilla ranks. Many technicians and engineers have in fact become advisers to the Iraqi fighters seeking to bomb the pipelines, especially those carrying oil from the northern oilfields around Kirkuk and Mosul. The capture of Saddam does not neutralise any of these deep-seated factors that have powered the Iraqi resistance.

Not surprisingly, a day after the capture was announced, the atmosphere in areas such as Ramadi and Falujah was not unusually charged. In Ramadi, the U.S. presence did not appear to be abnormally high. A couple of machinegun-mounted U.S. personnel carriers could be seen perched on dusty high ground close to the banks of the Euphrates, which passes through this town. But the traffic flow was smooth. Several Iraqis could be seen queuing up at the petrol station in Ramadi, as is usually the case.

Unlike a few months ago, U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were almost absent in the skies of Ramadi and Falujah. However, the U.S. military profile appeared to be significantly higher from a distance of around 40 km from the capital. Troop convoys moved around the city swiftly and civilian vehicles took care to stay away from them, lest a roadside bomb attacked the Americans.

Evidence that the resistance has been spreading beyond Saddam's "loyal" Sunni heartland in and around Tikrit, Falujah, Baghdad and Baquba has been emerging thick and fast in recent weeks.

The northern city of Mosul has become a flashpoint of guerilla fighting. Iraqi ground fire caused a double helicopter crash over Mosul recently, resulting in the death of 17 U.S. soldiers. Two U.S. troops were killed subsequently in mysterious circumstances after a military vehicle got stuck in a traffic jam in the city. The U.S. authorities, however, denied reports that Iraqi fighters had slit their throats. The area along the Baghdad-Najaf highway, south of the Iraqi capital, has also become restive. It was here that a Polish Army Major and seven Spanish intelligence officers were killed recently, while 21 Italian paramilitary troops were killed in a suicide bombing of their headquarters in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

In the first reactions to Saddam's capture, the extremist Palestinian organisations Hamas and the Islamic Jihad anticipate that the Iraqi resistance will continue undeterred. Hamas leader in the West Bank Adnan Asfour said the Iraqi people will "learn from the experience of the Palestinian people". The Palestinian people's symbolic leaders had been either killed or detained, but their resistance of the occupation has never been affected and they continue fighting the Israeli occupation, he said. Islamic Jihad leader Nafez Azzam said that by arresting Saddam, "the United States has achieved a very simple symbolic triumph. But we are certain that this will never end the Iraqi people's resistance against the U.S. occupation that is taking their lands from them".

In defining the future of the Iraqi resistance, the majority Shia community, which constitutes an estimated 62 per cent of Iraq's population, will play a crucial role. Historically denied a central role in Iraqi politics, the Shias are of the view that after the invasion of Iraq the primacy of political power should fall into their hands. But betrayed once by the Americans, who did not come to their aid after they had rebelled against Saddam soon after the first Gulf War, they are extremely suspicious of Washington. The Shias' spiritual head, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, recently rejected the U.S. road map for handing over power to the Iraqis by the middle of next year. The Shias have been advocating early elections in the hope that, as the majority community, the ballot will bring them to power in Baghdad.

Unhappy with the U.S. disposition, the Sunnis and the Shias have been networking feverishly in recent months. Ahmed Al Qubasy, a Sunni Muslim and a former Professor in Islamic studies in Baghdad University, has been meeting and interacting with the young Shia firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr regularly. Unlike Ayatollah Sistani, Muqtada al-Sadr has the muscle power with him and is influential in the Shia working class district, previously called Saddam City and at present known as Sadr City, on the outskirts of Baghdad. Only the pro-Iran Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has the physical force to stand up to Muqtada al-Sadr. In case the Shias arrive at the conclusion that taking political centrestage through peaceful means will be impossible once again, the chances are that they will join the resistance as full partners. That will expand the reach and intensity of the guerilla struggle dramatically.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 02, 2004.)

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