Striking with a vengeance

Print edition : January 16, 2004

A U.S. commander tries to cover up anti-U.S. graffiti that says "We will kill every American soldier", in Tikrit on December 14. - EFREM LUKATSKY/AP

Contrary to U.S. expectations, Saddam Hussein's capture has only reinvigorated Iraqi resistance.

THE early morning rocket barrage against American targets on Christmas day was a reminder to the occupation forces that the resistance was alive and kicking despite the capture of Saddam Hussein. The resistance forces targeted the area in and around the high-security "green zone", the site of the American military headquarters. After the capture of Saddam Hussein in the first week of December there was a brief lull in the attacks on American military personnel as the insurgent forces concentrated their attacks on Iraqi collaborators. American officials began making premature statements that the capture of Saddam Hussein had demoralised the resistance. However, American soldiers have started dying again.

A day before Christmas, three American soldiers were killed in the town of Samarra, a hotbed of the resistance. Earlier, Iraqi civilians peacefully demonstrating in support of Saddam Hussein were gunned down by American troops in the town of Ramadi. They quelled protests by Iraqis in other towns inside the "Sunni triangle".

Now the Americans have decreed that no pro-Saddam demonstrations will be allowed, even if they are peaceful. Immediately after Saddam's pictures were shown on television, there were bombings in the Husseiniya and Amariya districts of Baghdad, killing six people. A suicide bomber attacked a police station in Khaldiya, around 100 km north of Baghdad, killing 17 people, many of them policemen. Saddam's supporters were angry after a newspaper owned by Ahmad Chalabi published a picture of a dishevelled Saddam talking to a nattily dressed Chalabi in a prison cell.

Reports appearing in the Western media suggest that Saddam continues to be defiant. There are contradictory stories emerging about the circumstances under which he was arrested. A Kurdish faction aligned with the Americans has claimed credit for capturing Saddam much before the triumphant announcement by the American administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer. Jalal Talabani, the important Kurdish leader who is on the interim governing council, had leaked details of Saddam's capture much before the Americans announced it officially. The Iranian media announced Saddam's arrest before the American media did.

Saddam's eldest daughter Raghad Hussein has said that her father was betrayed and drugged into submission. A report in an American magazine said that Saddam spat on the face of the American soldier who first took him into custody. American Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted that Saddam was non-cooperative. Time Magazine quoted Saddam as telling his American interrogators that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "The U.S. dreamt them up itself to have a reason to go to war with us," he was quoted as saying.

Saddam is being held in a cell measuring 11ft by 14ft, with a bed, chairs and an inbuilt lavatory. The Arab media has reported that Saddam was betrayed by his bodyguard - identified as General Mohammed Ibrahim Omar al-Muslit - who is also a close relative. According to the reports, he led the American troops to Saddam's hideout after drugging him.

President George W. Bush has already predicted the fate that awaits Saddam. Speaking to the American media, he said that the Iraqi President deserved "the ultimate penalty". As Governor of Texas, Bush had routinely given assent to the death sentence of hundreds of prisoners.

Two other Presidents of sovereign states overthrown by the American military are in prison - Manuel Noriega of Panama has been in an American jail since 1989 and Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia is defending himself at The Hague. Both leaders preferred to be judged by their own countrymen but were taken against their will and incarcerated. On the other hand, Saddam, Americans insist, be tried in Iraq. Almost all the interim governing council members have demanded death for Saddam. The Americans hope that no inconvenient questions will be asked by the five-member Iraqi court, which will interrogate Saddam on the close links that previous Republican administrations and other Western governments had with the Iraqi government from the late 1970s.

Donald Rumsfeld was the man whom President Ronald Reagan sent to Baghdad in 1983 at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq's use of chemical weapons did not prevent the Americans from selling even more lethal weaponry to Iraq. The current President of the Iraqi governing council, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has said that if Saddam is proven guilty, "he could be condemned to death". International legal luminaries have said that the Iraqi legal system is not yet ready to deal with a case of such large ramifications and that the trial of Saddam in Iraq would not be considered fair and effective.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has objected to Saddam being given the death penalty. He pointed out that even U.N. tribunals trying people for war crimes did not provide for the death penalty.

Meanwhile, President Bush is trying to put the issue of weapons of mass destruction on the back burner. Iraq was invaded on the pretext of finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction. Bush had said that the war was a pre-emptive one and the rationale was the imminent threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Now the American President says that Iraq may have been only pursuing a weapons programme. In an interview to an American television channel in mid-December, Bush said the existence of the Iraqi programme was reason enough to justify the invasion. "If he (Saddam) were to acquire weapons, he would be the danger," Bush said.

In another pre-Christmas incident, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle and exploded it in front of an office of the Iraqi Interior Ministry in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil, a stronghold of the Kurds, resulting in many Iraqi casualties. Since the first Gulf War, the town has been under the control of the Kurds and their American allies. The resistance forces have signalled that they have the capacity to hit targets outside the "Sunni triangle". As the violence escalated, American forces continued with their aggressive military assault against the resistance. House-to-house searches and targeted killings have become the norm, alienating even more Iraqi civilians and non-combatants from among the Americans. The American military tactics are very similar to those being used by the Israeli army against Palestinians in the occupied territories. The latest American military operation in Iraq, code-named "Operation Iron Grip", used helicopters, aircraft and batteries of field guns against Iraqis even in Baghdad.

On Christmas eve, massive explosions and gunfire could be heard in the capital throughout the night. Most of the American firepower was directed against the southern district of Baghdad, a stronghold of Saddam loyalists. The shower of rockets that were sent by the insurgents as a Christmas present for the occupation forces showed that Iron Grip and the earlier Operation Iron Hammer were not all that successful. Paul Bremer narrowly escaped a bid on his life when Rumsfeld was on a visit to Iraq, in the third week of December. A bomb exploded near Bremer's convoy, and that was followed by small arms fire. The resistance forces have kept up their attacks on oil installations and pipelines. The Americans have not been able to restore regular power supply. People have to wait for hours to get petrol. The crime wave shows no sign of subsiding. Even the puppet Iraqi interim governing council has said that the occupiers devote more resources to their own safety than to the task of restoring normalcy in Iraq.

Saddam's capture has no doubt been welcomed by large sections of Iraqis, especially the Shias and the Kurds. There were celebrations in many Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad. There is growing confidence in the Shia elite that with the incarceration of Saddam, the last hurdle towards the goal of ultimate power in Iraq has been removed. In a bid to reassure the Americans, top-ranking Shia clergymen, such as the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Said Al-Hakim, have pledged that they do not aspire to form an Iranian-style theocratic government. While going out of their way to be accommodative of American security interests, the Shia leadership based in Najaf has strongly indicated that it will not be satisfied with anything less than the Presidency of Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the pre-eminent Shia cleric in Iraq, has asserted through an edict that only Iraqis elected through a popular vote can write a new Constitution. The Bush administration had earlier planned to ghost-write a constitution as General Douglas MacArthur did in occupied Japan after the Second World War.

Observers of the West Asian scene are of the opinion that the Bush administration has very little room for manoeuvre in Iraq. If it opts for federalism, it would annoy the Shia community, which has been patiently waiting for power. If the Bush administration makes concessions to the Sunnis, there will be a regime that will be a Ba'athist one for all practical purposes but without Saddam at the helm. The Bush administration may ultimately prefer a Sunni-dominated authoritarian regime to a popularly elected Shia-dominated government. Once in power with a popular mandate, a Shia-dominated government will no longer be submissive to American diktats. Experts of the region feel that a Shia-dominated government would be unsympathetic to the interests of Washington.

Retired American General Anthony Zinni, who was a former command chief of all U.S. Forces in the Persian Gulf, said recently that Iraq was "in serious danger of coming apart because of lack of planning, underestimating the task and buying into a flawed strategy". He told The Washington Post that America's "policy, strategy, tactics, et cetera, are still screwed up". The guerrilla tactics being successfully adopted by the Iraqi insurgents, like the use of donkey cart missile launchers and truck bombs, have disoriented the American forces and put them on the defensive. American military advisers in Iraq now talk of adopting a new strategy that "will pit terrorism versus terrorism". This strategy seems eerily similar to the one that the Ariel Sharon-led Israeli government has adopted in the occupied territories.

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