Alone at the receiving end

Print edition : December 05, 2003

Italian and British soldiers inspect destroyed cars next to the Italian Carabinieri head office, which was badly damaged in a truck bomb attack in Nassiriya. - ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/AP

As the Iraqi resistance grows stronger and stronger, the Bush administration finds it hard to get friends to share the burden of occupation.

THE events that took place in West Asia in early October have an ominous ring. The United States occupation forces suffered the highest casualty since President George W. Bush officially announced the end of hostilities in Iraq in early May. Two U.S. Army helicopters, a Chinook and a Black Hawk, were downed by the Iraqi resistance forces in the first week of November. Fifteen U.S. soldiers were killed when the Chinook came down near the Baghdad airport. Later in the same week, the Black Hawk was shot down in Tikrit, and another Chinook in Fallajah - the two major strongholds of the Iraqi resistance. This was the second Black Hawk to be downed by the resistance forces since the U.S. occupation began. More than 400 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the war began and over 5,000 injured.

In the last week of October, two days after Ramzan started, there was an audacious attempt to target Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. Deputy Secretery of State, at the Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad. Rockets launched by the Iraqi resistance forces narrowly missed the room in which the "eminence grise" of the Bush administration was staying. A senior U.S. Army official was killed and many others injured. The Al Rashid is located in the "green zone", which is supposed to be sanitised from attacks. Many senior officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) are ensconced in the hotel.

The resistance is inexorably spreading to all parts of occupied Iraq, including the Shia-dominated south and the Kurdish areas of the north. Two senior Judges appointed by the Americans were assassinated in Kirkuk. The Deputy Mayor of Baghdad was killed in early November. From all available indications, the month of Ramzan is likely to bring more bad tidings for the U.S. and its allies in the region. The massive suicide bombing in Riyadh may only be a precursor to things to come, if predictions of some of the experts of the region are to be given credence.

A truck bomb attack on the headquarters of the Italian Carabinieri (paramilitary police) in the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya on November 12 has resulted in a large number of casualties. At least 14 Italian policemen were reported killed, with many more injured or missing. This is the first time that the Italian garrison has been targeted and that too in a Shi'ite dominated city. Italy has sent around 2,300 troops to Iraq. Italian Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi has been one of the most vocal supporters of President Bush.

The war in Iraq is, however, very unpopular with the Italian public as it is in the rest of Europe. Demands that troops be withdrawn from Iraq are bound to grow louder in Italy after the latest setback suffered by the "coalition forces".

The U.S. Congress' passage of a Bill authorising $87.5 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, with $18.6 billion specifically being earmarked for Iraqi's reconstruction, is a signal to the international community that the Bush administration intends to stay the course in Iraq. A few days after the downing of the helicopters, U.S. jets bombed civilian areas in Tikrit. Two 500-lb bombs were dropped on residential areas. Analysts interpret this move as a sign of desperation. U.S. officials have refused to divulge the number of Iraqi civilians killed after the occupation commenced. Iraqis and aid workers say that the U.S. forces have a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. It is pointed out that targeting innocent civilians in this manner in a country under their occupation is against all accepted norms and is a war crime.

Another indication of the Bush administration's frustration at the way things are going in Iraq is the growing criticism of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council by senior U.S. officials. The council has been described as "ineffective" by officials working for the U.S. National Security Council. The Interim Council's united stance against the deployment of Turkish troops in Iraq has angered the Americans. Senior Bush administration officials have indicated that they are not averse to reconsidering the French proposal to create an interim authority based on the Afghan model. However, U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld has been quick to deny that the Bush administration is preparing the ground for a speedy military withdrawal from Iraq after putting in place a new caretaker government in Baghdad and holding elections soon thereafter.

Scott Ritter, the former United Nations weapons inspector, who was among the first to state categorically that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, has said, echoing the views of other experts and Arab commentators, that the guerilla war in Iraq is very much a domestic insurgency. The former U.S. marine officer said that during his long inspection tours of Iraq on U.N. duty in the 1990s, he had witnessed a lot of work going on in the development of "improvised explosive devices" (IED) in Iraq. Ritter, in a recent article in Christian Science Monitor, said that the "tools and tactics killing Americans today in Iraq are those of the former regime and not imported from abroad". He emphasised that the anti-U.S. resistance was "Iraqi in nature and broadly based and deeply rooted than acknowledged". Ritter is of the opinion that Saddam Hussein's government and now its remnants were conversant with every square inch of Iraqi land, including the Shi'ite and Kurdish areas.

The Bush administration has been insisting, without providing any evidence, that those involved in escalating attacks against the American forces are "foreign fighters" aligned with organisations such as Al Qaeda and Al-Ansar al Islam. Experts on the region point out that the military units most loyal to Saddam Hussein, along with the intelligence and security forces, never surrendered to the U.S. They simply melted away and have now re-organised to carry on a liberation struggle. U.S. officials admit that the guerillas may be having more than 3,000 shoulder-fired missiles, like the one that brought down the Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters.

THE first week of November also saw new revelations surfacing to show that the Bush administration had spurned the Iraqi government's last-ditch attempts to avert the war. The Iraqi government had sent messages through various governments a week before the U.S. invasion, signalling that it was prepared to meet many of the conditions that the Bush administration had set. These included the promise to hold elections within two years, and the grant of permission to thousands of U.S. troops to search for weapons of mass destruction. One of the key persons involved in the behind-the-scenes negotiations had met Richard Perle, an influential "neo-conservative" player in the Bush administration, at a London hotel, before the war started. Perle has so far refused to divulge any details but has said that he was instructed by senior Bush administration officials to reject any Iraqi overtures that were meant to prevent or delay the planned U.S. invasion. The Iraqi intelligence chief under Saddam, Gen. Tahir Habbash, had told the intermediaries involved in the delicate negotiations that Iraq wanted to show that there was no merit in the U.S. propaganda linking the Iraqi government with the events of September 11 and the charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. media have quoted unnamed officials from the country's top intelligence agency as saying that the decision to spurn the generous Iraqi offer came from the White House.

Another diplomatic setback to the Bush administration has been Turkey's decision in the second week of November to withdraw its offer to send troops to Iraq. After a great deal of internal debate, the Turkish government took the controversial decision in October to send troops to Iraq. Many ruling party legislators as well as Turkish public opinion were against the move. The Islamists openly questioned the rationale of Turkey sending troops to assist a Christian "crusade", as President Bush had first described the war he was waging.

Not a single prominent Iraqi, even those in the interim government, welcomed the decision. Iraq's neighbours, especially Syria and Iran, were also unhappy at the prospect of having Turkish troops on their borders with Iraq. Turkey's initial move to send troops was dictated by the need to have political and military leverage inside Iraq. Many Turks believe that the Bush administration is not averse to the creation of a state for the Kurds. As things stand now, the Kurds in Iraq are virtually running an autonomous enclave.

With Turkey's refusal to send troops, hopes of other countries sharing the Bush administration's burden in Iraq have faded almost completely. After a Polish soldier was killed, there have been strident protests in Warsaw against the deployment of troops in Iraq. South Korea and Japan have said that they are willing in principle to send a token contingent of troops to Iraq. However, domestic opposition to their deployment is high. Japanese commentators have pointed out that one important reason why the ruling Liberal Democratic Party did not do as well as expected was this issue. Seoul is also backtracking on the issue saying that it needs its troops more urgently at home as tensions remain unabated in the Korean peninsula.

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