Now, at the receiving end

Published : May 21, 2004 00:00 IST

As the Shias and Sunnis of Iraq apparently unite in resisting the occupation, the tide is turning against the U.S. and U.K. forces which are increasingly coming under attack.

IN the last week of April, United States forces resumed their military offensive against Falluja and Najaf, breaking the relative lull in fighting centred around the two cities. In Falluja, where a ceasefire was partially implemented in mid-April, the Americans seem intent on bombing the city to rubble. President George W. Bush reiterated that he was determined to crush the resistance even if it meant the destruction of the city. The U.S. administration, despite strong protests from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Iraqi Governing Council, appears intent on taking Falluja and Najaf by military means. The Americans had demanded the surrender of around 2,000 Falluja-based fighters along with their heavy weapons. Naturally, the fighters were reluctant to accept the diktat.

In the fighting that erupted in mid-April, more than 750 Iraqis, mostly women and children, were killed in Falluja alone. It took two weeks for the Americans to give permission to the residents of the city to bury their dead. In the latest round of attacks, the Americans apparently relied more on fighter jets and helicopters than on snipers, who were responsible for many of the deaths in the first assault on the city. The U.S. is rushing more tanks and armoured vehicles into the country in an effort to quell the uprising. The Bush administration has realised that the coming days could be decisive in its efforts to implement its imperial game plan in West Asia.

There is a widespread feeling that the morale of the U.S. forces is low, having to fight the Shias in Najaf and the Sunnis in Falluja. Reports suggest that Shia fighters have joined Sunnis in the fight to defend Falluja. In the town of Kufa, near the holy city of Najaf, U.S. forces claim to have killed more than 57 guerillas in a single assault in the last week of April. It has been the bloodiest encounter with the forces of the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr since his militia, the Mehdi army, launched its insurrection in early April.

One of the main Shia parties in the country, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), has expressed its concern about the safety of the people and shrines in Najaf and Karbala. The SCIRI has representation in the Iraqi Governing Council and is close to the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani has called on all armed groups, including the U.S. Army, to leave the holy cities. For the ordinary Iraqi Muslim, Americans attacking Najaf and Karbala is akin to a foreign force invading Mecca and Medina. The Bush administration is aware that moving against the Shias' holy places would trigger widespread revolt.

More than 115 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq in April alone - the highest casualty figure in a month since the war began. This is more than the number of casualties suffered by the Americans when they invaded Iraq a year ago. The media images of coffins bearing the remains of U.S. soldiers have inflamed domestic opinion in the U.S. and altered significantly the ordinary citizens' idea of the war. Supporters of Bush have criticised the publication of the photographs.

In late April, an important oil terminal in Basra was incapacitated by insurgents in a sea-borne attack. Earlier, a series of suicide attacks on police posts in and around Basra killed several police personnel and civilians. The Americans are now virtually friendless in Iraq. Even pro-U.S. Kurdish leaders, such as Masud Barzani, seem to be distancing themselves from the occupation forces. Barzani said recently said that Iraqis no longer looked at Americans as liberators but considered them as "occupiers". To add to U.S. woes, the Spanish military contingent was pulled out of Iraq following the orders of Jose Rodriguez Zapatero, the new Socialist Prime Minster of the country. The Spanish troops moved out of their base in Najaf as the fighting was raging around them.

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov's convoy was attacked by insurgents as he was on his way to visit the troops from his country. He immediately demanded that the 450 Bulgarian troops be shifted to a safer place, away from the holy city of Karbala, where they are currently located. Former Prime Minister of Holland Dries Van Agt has demanded that Dutch troops be pulled out of Iraq at the earliest. He told the Dutch radio recently that the Americans were in Iraq without a U.N. mandate and described the U.S. presence as "illegal occupation". He went to the extent of calling the U.S. a "rogue state" and said that the U.S. and Israel "repeatedly and seriously" broke international law. The Iraqi intifada has forced big contractors such as Siemens and GE to stop work and evacuate their employees to safer climes. The two companies were involved in the crucial electricity sector.

MEANWHILE, the White House made it official in late April that Iraqi sovereignty would be extremely limited after the proclamation of self-rule in the country on June 30. The Bush administration, working in close coordination with the U.N. Special Envoy to Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi, agreed to the dismantling of the Iraqi Governing Council and replacing it with a caretaker government. The composition of the government will be decided by the U.S. in consultation with the U.N. in May. The caretaker government will remain in place until elections are held in the beginning of 2005. The Bush administration announced that the caretaker government would have no authority to enact laws and would have limited control over the Iraqi National Army.

A new U.N. resolution authorising the new arrangement is unlikely to get Security Council approval if Washington insists on a hands-on role in Iraq after June 30 even while expecting the U.N. to handle the messy job of maintaining law and order. The earlier talk of handing over full sovereignty to the Iraqi people by June 30 has gone up in smoke following the events in Falluja and Najaf.

In another policy flip-flop, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, announced in late April that former Baath Party officials and Army officers would be re-inducted into the government. This is an open acknowledgement that the earlier decision by Bremer to dissolve the Iraqi Army and purge all Baathists from the government was a blunder. The decision also signals the distancing of the Americans from their erstwhile protege Ahmad Chalabi. The decision to allow senior Army officers including generals and colonels to return is also an acknowledgement of the failure of the U.S. forces to quell the Iraqi uprising. Chalabi is naturally distraught. In the initial attack on Falluja, only forces loyal to him and the two Kurdish factions had joined the U.S. forces.

According to a diplomat from the West Asian region, the Iraqi resistance has managed to consolidate itself. He said that the first phase of the resistance was to reorganise and choose the kind of struggle to be adopted after the fall of Baghdad. With the fighting in Falluja, Najaf and other parts of Iraq, the second phase has started. The diplomat said that the two big mistakes made by the U.S. occupation forces were the banning of the Baath Party and the de-recognition of the Sadr family. According to the diplomat, the Sadr family, whose representative today is Muqtada al-Sadr represents one of the three most prominent Shia factions in Iraq. While the two other Shia factions were given representation in the Governing Council, the Sadr faction was ignored.

The diplomat pointed out that while the other prominent Shia clerics chose to keep quiet when Saddam Hussein was in power, Muqtada al-Sadr's father refused to cooperate with Saddam Hussein despite the huge blandishments on offer. While many other prominent clerics left for Iran, the Sadr family chose to fight it out in Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr's father and brother were killed, allegedly on the orders of Saddam Hussein for non-cooperation with his government.

In a recent sermon in Najaf, Muqtada al-Sadr demanded free elections in Iraq before the Mehdi army would consider surrendering its arms. "If I agree with the law of the Americans and their followers, it will be as if I approve of them and a man like me will never approve," he said. He went on to cite the saying of the Shias' most important martyr, Imam Hussein, to justify his position: "Our people did not give their hand to the devil. We have our dignity and so we can't be traitors."

According to the diplomat, Muqtada al-Sadr's grassroots support among the Shias, especially among the poor, is much more than that of the other Shia notables. Besides, he has played his cards well so far. While continuing to negotiate under pressure from his fellow clerics, he has made it clear that he will not give up the armed struggle unless the U.S. makes some significant concessions. He told his supporters that he would rather die in Iraq than go into exile to Iran as the U.S. would want it. "The Shias will have to support Sadr. Nobody can support the occupation. He is negotiating but sticking to his position," said the diplomat.

It will be obligatory for the Shias to fight along with Muqtada al-Sadr if he decides to carry on militarily opposing the occupation. The diplomat said that the recent escalation in the use of military force against Iraqis had created more enemies for the U.S. "Every Iraqi killed has a family and a tribe behind him. The U.S. actions will only create more fighters."

The 500,000-strong Iraqi Army cashiered by the U.S. may also not be remaining idle. The Army was an experienced one, having fought several wars. According to observers, Iraq is currently in the grip of a nationalistic and patriotic fervour. "Shias and Sunnis will never fight against each other as long as the American occupation continues," predicted an Arab observer.

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