Evolving resistance

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

The pipeline that was blown up on the first day oil was pumped through it to the Syrian port of Banias. - ALADIN ABDEL NABY/ REUTERS

The pipeline that was blown up on the first day oil was pumped through it to the Syrian port of Banias. - ALADIN ABDEL NABY/ REUTERS

The Iraqi response to the Anglo-American occupation is apparently developing into an organised resistance movement that increasingly resorts to guerilla warfare.

HOW many Iraqis were killed in the course of the Anglo-American invasion of their country? Almost two months after President George W. Bush declared that the military campaign had come to an end, the estimates of Iraqi casualties vary over widely - 5,000 definitely, probably 10,000, possibly over 25,000. Some of the casualties were soldiers who died in combat, but, as independent observers noted, neither was the Anglo-American weaponry as precise as it was touted to be nor were the invading soldiers very selective about whom to shoot at and hence the civilian death toll was in all probability higher than that of the military.

These statistics have been largely overlooked by the mainstream Western media, which seem to treat the Iraqi deaths as part of a lamentable past. But this prognosis and that of the U.S. and British leaders whose words the media parroted, that Iraq was all set for a glorious democratic future in partnership with the West are now clouded by another statistic. Over 50 U.S. and British soldiers were killed in Iraq since the war was declared to be over and the numbers are increasing by the day. Less than 150 personnel of the invading forces were killed in the war proper. Some of them died in accidents, but a significant number have been killed in hit-and-run shootings or ambushes.

At first only the U.S. forces appeared to be suffering casualties in this new phase of guerilla warfare, while the British troops stationed in the south of the country, appeared to be immune from it. Several explanations for this were on offer. It was noted that the U.S. troops were stationed in the Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad where die-hard supporters of the ousted President, Saddam Hussein, are present. The troops, it was further noted, were not as well trained as the British were in peace-keeping operations. While the British soldiers, with their experience of Northern Ireland, knew how to carry out a "hearts-and-minds" campaign, their U.S. counterparts had yet to learn these tactics, it was said. Overall, the impression created was that the problem was manageable and that with time and proper training, the troops would soon wipe out the remnants of Saddam loyalists.

Then British paratroopers who were on patrol in the Shia belt north of Basra were attacked in two separate incidents, and these trite explanations no longer looked adequate. Theories involving the ubiquitous external hand were then brought into play in which the usual suspect, Al Qaeda, figured prominently, as did a mysterious new Wahabi force that was supposed to have come in from Saudi Arabia. With the most recent attack having occurred in the Shia belt, it will not be long before Iran is marked up on the list of suspects, especially given the current U.S. drive to demonise the theocrats in that country. The U.S. and British leaderships are far from the point at which they will begin to acknowledge that the resistance is a direct consequence of their occupation of Iraq and that no external forces need sustain it.

The U.S. responded to the attacks by conducting a search-and-destroy mission, code-named "Operation Desert Scorpion", in the Sunni heartland and centred on the town of Fallujah. Its forces reportedly did not have much success in capturing members of the underground though they did gather great piles of arms, ammunition and currency. Since arms are available in abundance in Iraq and since most people in the country keep currency bundles at home, these discoveries might not amount to much. However, the manner in which the operation was conducted would by itself have inflamed Iraqis. Young troops with no training in such missions, who had fought uniform-less Iraqis during the invasion and who did not understand the language or culture of the people they had to deal with, are reported to have treated them in a very rough manner.

There have been unconfirmed reports (in not very credible media outlets) that U.S. troops killed almost a hundred civilians when they opened fire indiscriminately in a town called Rawah. More credible journalists have presented a picture of a U.S. soldiery - suffering from the heat, the boredom, and living conditions that they are not used to - that is prepared to shoot first and ask questions later. In particular, troops from the Third Infantry Division, who had spearheaded the invasion, were reportedly bitter with their commanders for having kept them in-country instead of moving them out once their offensive mission was over. It does not take a great deal of imagination to envisage situations where the soldiers will vent their bitterness against their superiors on the helpless civilians before them.

For a while, the media handlers of the U.S. tried to create the impression that the resistance was attributable solely to the fact that Saddam and his two sons had not yet been captured and were thus able to provide it leadership. Soon after the former Iraqi President's secretary surrendered, the coalition spin-masters claimed that their soldiers were getting close to Saddam's hide-out and that once they had captured or otherwise eliminated him and his sons, the resistance would collapse. But there were reasons to believe that the resistance would prove far more resilient.

From the tactic of conducting sporadic raids that it initially adopted, the Iraqi resistance appeared to be loosely organised. Indeed, for a while it was not clear whether the resistance movement was cross-networked or consisted solely of loose cells with minimum contact among them. Then it came to be recognised that messages were being flashed (car horns and coloured flares were the medium of choice) of the movement of Anglo-American convoys. There were other indications of the existence of an organised resistance.

Once again there was speculation that the Baath party was organising the resistance, but explanation of this sort clarified nothing since anyone who was of any social consequence under the toppled dispensation would have had a connection with the Baath. It appears that the label Baath is being unthinkingly applied merely to depict the resistance as a minor movement of discredited elements.

It was once again independent journalists such as Robert Fisk who were able to draw up a set of surmises that seemed to provide an explanation for the quick rise and fairly wide spread of the resistance movement. Ironically, the Anglo-American forces themselves seem to have facilitated the swift emergence of a fairly well-organised resistance movement by throwing the personnel of the Iraqi armed forces out of their jobs. In disbanding the Iraqi armed forces, the coalition ensured that half a million men, who are well aware of the hierarchy into which they were fitted, were left free to reorganise themselves without any external supervision. Reports speak of former soldiers and card-carrying members of the muqabarrat (the intelligence service, which was also dissolved) visiting private citizens and asking them either to join or provide assistance to the resistance.

Former soldiers and Baath party men have an incentive to build up a resistance movement. With some of their former colleagues having been hunted down and killed by those they had oppressed for 20 years, Baath party members need to rally for their own protection. They and the soldiers have been deprived of the relatively privileged life they led until the invasion; it also appears that they have no chance of being re-employed under the new dispensation. While the ban on the employment of Baath members remained, the Anglo-American forces appeared to have realised their mistake in leaving former soldiers out on a limb. Part of their back pay was given to the soldiers, and efforts have begun to raise a new Iraqi army.

Such damage control exercises have come too late to have any effect. For senior military personnel, the sops being thrown their way are meaningless because they are nothing more than an affirmation of their past entitlement and also because back pay cannot really compensate for loss of employment.

The opposition to the Anglo-American forces can also emanate from deeper and less personal motives. The forces appear to have planned the occupation so badly, and also appear to be so culturally insensitive, that they are causing widespread resentment at every turn.

Any hopes that the occupying forces might have entertained of being able to put in place a government of Iraqi quislings have died a swift death. Those Iraqis who were willing to toe the coalition line have no credibility, and Iraqi leaders who have some standing are anathema to the occupation forces. The Anglo-American forces have therefore been forced to set up what is called the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). This essentially consists of their viceroy (the U.S. President's special representative) Paul Bremer, his U.S. and British advisers, and a clutch of Iraqi technocrats to run the ministries. In time the CPA will be assisted by an advisory body comprising "respectable" Iraqis who will enter their charge not in any representative capacity but as nominees of Bremer.

While the coalition's promise that it would usher in parliamentary democracy has been postponed indefinitely, its commitment to establishing a liberal order in Iraq is also suspect. One of Bermer's first measures was to issue an edict banning the media from reporting material that could incite the Iraqi people to resist the occupation. The ban is likely to be extended to preachers in mosques soon. As Fisk has pointed out, the CPA has not even bothered to try out the alternative policy of trying to introduce the Iraqi media to more responsible standards of journalism.

The stifling of the political processes proceeded in tandem with a programme to throw open the Iraqi economy to whoever would be interested. Bremer announced that Iraq's public sector industries would be thrown open for private investment since, in his opinion (that of the Iraqis did not matter), that was the best way to revive the public sector. The country's oil industry is virtually under the control of Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of the American oil-services giant Halliburton. It is primarily charged with repairing facilities but its personnel are reportedly roaming the oilfields, free from any supervision by Iraqis. Under the circumstances, it was perhaps a small mercy that ChevronTexaco was the only U.S. firm among six companies that were the first to be granted oil contracts. What the Iraqis feel about all this was clear when the pipeline to the Banias port in Syria was blown up on the first day oil was pumped through it.

There is some mystery in the mode of financing the repair of the country's infrastructure. Oil revenues, which will go into an account controlled by the U.S., would be used for this, as would Iraqi assets frozen in Western banks for the past dozen years. That might appear fair but no one is clear whether the costs of the security cover and the comforts being provided on U.S. scales will also be factored into the account of expenditures.

It is also not clear whether the Iraqis will be asked to pay for their "liberation" once the U.S. realises that the costs of occupation are far more than they were expected to be.

What makes for a more immediate irritant is that the CAP appears to have adequately provided for its own comforts while the Iraqis have been left wondering when the debris of war will be cleared up. Bremer, who reportedly has not been seen outside his air-conditioned office and car, brazenly spoke of power supply being steadily restored in various parts of Iraq, when the reality was that even Baghdad residents had to do without lights, fans and refrigerators in a summer when the day-time temperature hovers around 500C.

Iraqis might be able to cope with the heat. What they have not been able to cope with is the complete breakdown of internal security. Neither homes nor offices nor power stations are free from the depredations of looters, while the coalition has busied itself with a purge of Baathists from the police forces and is setting up a police academy, which will produce its first graduates only six months hence. With their lives and families insecure, it is small wonder that Iraqis have begun to joke grimly that the coalition should contract out to Saddam Hussein the job of policing the streets.

Another two months must pass before high summer begins to draw to a close in West Asia. Coalition soldiers, who are unaccustomed to such heat, will be in daily confrontation with Iraqis, who have been deprived of the means with which they had coped with summers past. The physical conditions are themselves likely to ensure that tempers on both sides will come to boiling point.

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