The resistance and its impact

Print edition : May 21, 2004

While the rise of the Iraqi resistance has not yet altered the correlation of forces within Iraq, it has contributed mightily to transforming the global equation in the past one year.

A DEFIANT slogan repeated by residents of Falluja over the last year was that their city would be "the graveyard of the Americans". The last two weeks have seen that chant become a reality, with a significant number of the 102 United States combat deaths accounted for by the intense fighting around Falluja. But there is a bigger sense in the truth of the slogan: Falluja has become the graveyard of U.S. policy in Iraq.

U.S. Marines and a detained Iraqi near Falluja on April 27.-OLEG POPOV/REUTERS

The battle for the city is not yet over but the Iraqi resistance has already won it. Irregular fighters fuelled mainly by spirit and courage were able to fight the elite U.S. colonial legions - the Marines - to a standstill on the outer neighbourhoods of Falluja. Moreover, so frustrated were the Americans that, in their trademark fashion of technology-intensive warfare, they unleashed firepower indiscriminately, leading to the death of some 600 people, mainly women and children, according to eyewitness accounts. Captured graphically by Arab television, these two developments have created both inspiration and deep anger, which are likely to be translated into thousands of new recruits for the already burgeoning resistance.

The Americans are now confronted with an unenviable dilemma: they stick to the ceasefire and admit they cannot handle Falluja, or they go in and take it at a terrible cost both to the civilian population and to themselves. There is no doubt the heavily armed Marines can pacify Falluja, but the costs are likely to make that victory a Pyrrhic one.

As if one battlefield blunder did not suffice, the U.S. sent a 2,500-man force to arrest the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to Najaf. Again, even before the battle had begun, the Americans had created a fine mess for themselves. The threat of a U.S. assault has merely brought over more Shias, including the widely respected Ayatollah Sistani, to the defence of al-Sadr. If the U.S. does not attack, it will be seen by the Iraqis as being scared of taking on al-Sadr. If it attacks, then it will have to engage in the same sort of high-casualty, close-quarters combat-cum-indiscriminate firepower, which can only deliver the same outcome as an assault on Falluja: tactical victory, strategic defeat.

The last few days have left one with indelible images that will underline forever the quicksand that is U.S. policy in Iraq. There are the Marines blaring speakers at the Falluja insurgents, taunting them for hiding behind women and children, when the reality is that women and children are part of the Iraqi resistance. There is Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cursing telecasts by Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera which claim that there were 600 women and children among the dead when even CNN has admitted that a high proportion of the dead and wounded in Falluja were indeed women and children. Then there is President George W. Bush vowing not to "cut and run" but not offering any way out of the impasse except the application of more of the military force with which the U.S. has ruled Iraq in the past year.

To some analysts, the problem lies in the miscalculations of Rumsfeld. The man, in this view, simply underestimated what it would take to have a successful military occupation of Iraq. Rumsfeld thought 160,000 troops would suffice to invade and occupy Iraq. The result, according to James Fallows in the latest issue of The Atlantic, is that "it is only a slight exaggeration to say that today the entire U.S. military is either in Iraq, returning from Iraq, or getting ready to go". Forty per cent of the troops deployed to Iraq this year will not be professional soldiers but members of the National Guard or Reserves, who signed up on the understanding that they were only going to be weekend warriors. To many it now seems that the estimates of military professionals like Gen. Anthony Zinni, who said that it would take 500,000 troops to secure Iraq, were more on the mark. But even Zinni's figure - the high-water mark of the U.S. troop presence in Vietnam - may now have been outstripped by the wildfire speed of the insurgency racing through rural and urban Iraq.

To other observers, it is the ineptitude of Paul Bremer, the U.S. proconsul, that created the crisis. In this view, Bremer made three big mistakes of a political nature, all during his first month in office: removing top-ranking Baath party figures, some 30,000 of them, from office; dissolving the Iraqi Army, thus throwing a quarter of a million Iraqis out of work; and making a handing over of power indefinite and dependent on the writing of a Constitution under military occupation. Add to these his recent closing of a Shia newspaper critical of the occupation and his ordering the arrest of an aide of Muqtada al-Sadr - moves that the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein contends were calculated to draw al-Sadr into an open confrontation in order to crush him.

Inept, Rumsfeld and Bremer have certainly been, but their military and political blunders were inevitable consequences of the collective delusion of George W. Bush and the reigning neo-Conservatives at the White House. One element of this delusion was the belief that Iraqis hated Saddam Hussein so much that they would tolerate an indefinite political and military occupation that had the licence to blunder at will. A second element was persisting with the belief that it was mainly the "remnants" of the Saddam Hussein regime that were behind the spreading insurgency when everybody else in Baghdad realised the resistance had grassroots backing. A third was that the divide between the Shias and the Sunnis was so deep that their coming together for a common enterprise against the U.S. on a nationalist and religious platform was impossible. In other words, it was the Americans themselves who spun their own web of false fundamental assumptions that entrapped them.

The Bushites are hopelessly out of touch with reality. But so are others in Washington's hegemonic Conservative circles. An influential conservative critic of the administration's policy, Fareed Zakaria, Editor of Newsweek's international editions, for instance, has this to offer as the way out: "The U.S. must bribe, cajole, and coopt various Sunni leaders to separate the insurgents from the local population... [T]he tribal sheiks, former low-level Baathists, and regional leaders must be courted assiduously. In addition, money must start flowing into Iraqi hands."

The truth is that the neo-Conservative scenario of a quick invasion, pacification of the population with chocolates and cash, installation of a puppet "democracy" dominated by Washington's proteges, and then withdrawal to distant military bastions while a U.S.-trained army and police force took over security in the cities was dead on arrival. For all its many fractures, the cross-ethnic appeal of nationalism and Islam is strong in Iraq. This was brought home to me by two incidents when I visited Iraq along with a parliamentary delegation shortly before the U.S. bombing began. When we asked a class at Baghdad University what they thought of the coming invasion, a young woman answered firmly that had Bush studied his history, he would have known that the U.S. would face the same fate as the countless armies that had invaded and pillaged Mesopotamia in the last 4,000 years. When we left Baghdad, we were convinced that the young men and women we talked to were not the kind that would submit easily to foreign occupation.

Two days later, at the Syrian border, hours before the U.S. bombing began, we encountered a group of mujahideen heading in the opposite direction, full of energy and enthusiasm, to take on the U.S. They were from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Palestine and Syria, and they were the cutting edge of the droves of Islamic volunteers that would stream into Iraq over the next few months to participate in what they welcomed as the decisive battle with the U.S.

As the invasion began, many of us predicted that the U.S. would face an urban resistance that would be difficult to neutralise in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country. Famously, Scott Ritter, the former United Nations Arms Inspector, said that the Americans would be forced to exit Iraq as Napoleon was from Russia, their ranks harried by partisans. We were wrong, of course, since there was little popular resistance to the entry of the Americans to Baghdad. But we were eventually proved right. Our mistake lay in underestimating the time it would take to transform the population from an unorganised, submissive mass under Saddam to a force empowered by nationalism and Islam. Bush and Bremer constantly talk about their dream of a "new Iraq". Ironically, the new post-Saddam Iraq is being forged in a common struggle against a hated occupation.

The Americans thought they could coerce and buy the Iraqis into submission. They failed to reckon with one thing: spirit. Of course, spirit is not enough, and what we have seen over the past one year is a movement travelling on a steep learning curve from clumsy and amateurish acts of resistance to a sophisticated repertoire combining the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), hit-and-run tactics, stand-your-ground gun battles, and ground missile attacks.

Unfortunately, these tactics have also included strategically planned car bombings and kidnappings that have harmed civilians along with coalition combatants and mercenaries. Unfortunately, again, in its daring effort to sap the will of the enemy by carrying the battle to the latter's territory, the resistance has included missions that deliberately target civilians, like the Madrid subway bombing that killed hundreds of innocents. Such acts are unjustifiable and deeply deplorable, but to those quick to condemn, one must point out that the indiscriminate killing of some 10,000 Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops in the first year of the occupation and the current targeting of civilians in the siege of Falluja are on the same moral plane as these methods of the Iraqi and Islamic resistance. Indeed, the "American way of war" has always involved the killing and punishing of civilian populations. The bombing of Dresden, the firebombing of Tokyo, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Operation Phoenix in Vietnam - all had the strategic objective of winning wars via the deliberate targeting of civilians. So, please, no moralising about the West's "civilised warfare" and Islamic "barbarism".

The resistance is on the ascendant in Iraq, but the balance of forces continues to be on the U.S.' side. The Iraq war has developed into a multi-front war, with the struggle for public opinion in the U.S. being one of the key battles. Here, there has been no decisive break so far. The liberals are hopeless. At a time that they should be calling for a fundamental re-examination of U.S. policy and pushing withdrawal as an option, their line, as the liberal Financial Times columnist Gerard Baker expresses it, is, "Whether or not you believe Iraq was a real threat under Saddam Hussein, you cannot deny that a U.S. defeat there will make it one now." It does not help to point out to Baker and others that this is a non sequitur. For the liberals are not responding to logic but to baiting from the same frothing right wing that predicted three decades ago chaos, massacre and civil war should the U.S. withdraw from Vietnam.

For the Democrats and their presidential contender John Kerry, the alternative is stabilisation via greater participation by the U.N. and the U.S.' European allies, which, of course, hardly distinguishes them from Bush, who is desperate to bring in the U.N. and more troops from the `coalition of the willing' to relieve U.S. troops in frontline positions.

One of the reasons why Democratic leaders do not call for the withdrawal of troops is their fear that this could harm them in the November elections - despite the fact that, according to the Pew Research Centre, 44 per cent of Americans now say that the troops should be brought home as soon as possible, up from 32 per cent last September. But an even more fundamental reason is that they agree with Baker's position that while the invasion of Iraq may not have been justified, a unilateral withdrawal cannot be allowed since this would strike an incalculable blow to American prestige and leadership.

The paralysis that has gripped the Democrats on Iraq can only be broken by one thing: a strong anti-war movement like the one that took over the streets daily before and after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968. So far that has not materialised, though disillusion with U.S. policy in Iraq has spread to more than half of the U.S. population.

Indeed, the international peace movement has had trouble getting in gear at the very time that it has been necessitated by developments in Iraq. The demonstrations on March 20 this year were significantly smaller than the February 10 marches last year, when tens of millions marched throughout the world against the projected invasion of Iraq. The kind of international mass pressure that makes an impact on policy-makers - the daily staging of demonstration after demonstration by hundreds of thousands of people in city after city - is simply not in evidence, at least not yet, which raises the question: Was The New York Times premature in calling international civil society the world's "second greatest superpower" in the wake of the February 10 demonstrations?

All this indicates that the dramatic April events in Iraq do not yet add up to an Iraqi equivalent of the Tet events. At most they constitute a dress rehearsal. Domestic opposition to the war in the U.S. has yet to escalate to a critical mass. Without this domestic challenge from below, the Bush administration will most likely continue to send in troops to the Iraq meat-grinder in pursuit of an elusive military solution that would turn the conflict into a long-drawn-out war of attrition until the level of casualties finally ends public tolerance in the U.S. for a policy headed nowhere but more body bags.

Members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force pray during an open-air Sunday mass in the military base near Falluja on April 25.-OLEG POPOV/REUTERS

Paradoxically enough, while the rise of the Iraqi resistance has not yet altered the correlation of forces within Iraq, it has contributed mightily to transforming the global equation in the past 12 months. It has discouraged a militarily overextended the U.S. from making efforts at regime change in other countries, such as Syria, North Korea and Iran. It has deflected the attention and resources needed by Washington for a successful occupation of Afghanistan. It has prevented the U.S. from focussing on its backyard, thus allowing the consolidation of anti-neo-liberal and anti-U.S. governments in Latin America, such as those of Norberto Kirchner in Argentina, Luis Inacio da Silva or Lula in Brazil, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. It has deepened the rift in the political, military and cultural alliance known as the Atlantic Alliance, which served as a potent instrument of Washington's global hegemony during and immediately after the Cold War. Without the example of the defiant challenge posed by the Iraqi resistance, the developing countries might not have gotten their act together to sink the World Trade Organisation Ministerial in Cancun last September and the U.S. plan for a Free Trade Area of the Americas in Miami in November.

Anti-hegemonic movements the world over, in short, owe the Iraqi resistance a great deal for exacerbating the American Empire's crisis of overextension. Yet its face is not pretty, and many with the progressive movement in the U.S. and the rest of the West hesitate to embrace it as an ally. This is probably one of the key obstacles to the emergence of a sustained peace movement in the U.S. and internationally - that the organising efforts of progressives have been incapacitated by their own qualms about the Iraqi resistance.

But there has never been any pretty movement for national liberation or independence. Many Western progressives were also repelled by some of the methods of the Mau Mau in Kenya, the FLN in Algeria, the NLF in Vietnam, and the Irish Republican Movement. National liberation movements, however, do not ask for ideological or political support. All they seek is international pressure for the withdrawal of illegitimate occupying powers so that internal forces can have the space to forge a truly national government. Surely, on this limited programme progressives throughout the world and the Iraqi resistance can unite.

Walden Bello is Executive Director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and Professor of Sociology and Public Administration at the University of the Philippines. A visitor to Baghdad shortly before the American invasion in March 2003, he is heading the International Parliamentary and Civil Society Mission to Investigate the Political Transition in Iraq that is scheduled to visit Baghdad soon.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor