With the guerillas and the U.S.-led occupying forces sticking to their respective political goals, Iraq appears to be headed for an autumn of bloodshed.
AS the countdown for the elections in January begins, a fresh wave of violence is sweeping across Iraq, mirroring the tussle between the American-led forces and the Iraqi resistance. It has become evident that the Iraqi guerilla fighters are opposed to the U.S.-backed elections, which would elect a Constitutional Assembly in January 2005. In fact, the resistance is seeking to expand its hold over as large a territory as possible in order to make the elections as untenable as it can. Already the guerillas' control over parts of Baghdad and adjoining areas is considerable.
Falluja, which is around 50 km west of the Iraqi capital, is widely recognised as a "liberated zone", bereft of any U.S. military presence. After intense combat in April, U.S. troops decided to withdraw from the city, handing over administrative authority to an Iraqi force, which had links to the Baath Party of former President Saddam Hussein. Similarly, the hold of the resistance over neighbouring Ramadi is tight. North of Baghdad, the historic city of Samaara, which has a mixed Sunni and Shia population, is also a "no-go" zone.
There is a perception in Baghdad that the guerillas wish to radiate their influence from the cluster of towns and cities they control until they can militarily and politically dominate a large contiguous swath of territory. In Shia-dominated Najaf, the firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr's Mehdi army, which had revolted against the occupation, is out of the holy city. However, these fighters appear to have regrouped and are a formidable force in Sadr City, a sprawling working class Shia district on the outskirts of Baghdad. Pitched battles are now fought in this impoverished neighbourhood. Fierce fighting on September 7 killed at least 40 people belonging to the Mehdi army, health authorities in Baghdad said. These clashes were preceded by heavy aerial bombardment, which began at 11 p.m. the previous day and lasted until 4 a.m. During the clashes, U.S. tanks rumbled around the neighbourhood and automatic fire echoed on Sadr City's main Al-Shuhader Street. Kidnappings, generally of nationals of those countries that are part of the U.S.-led occupation force, have become rampant. The purpose of these is to discourage countries from cooperating with the occupation, though in certain cases, it is monetary gains that have been the driving force.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has been shuttling across regional capitals in order to free two abducted Italian women, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta. The two aid workers were taken hostage in Baghdad on September 7. The French government is also facing a hostage crisis and is trying to free two journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, who were kidnapped in August. More than 100 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq since March 2003. Iraqi fighters have also targeted oil pipelines transiting oil either towards the southern export terminal of Basra or towards the Turkish port of Ceyhan in the north. The impact of their actions has been global, as the exploding of pipelines in Iraq has contributed to the surge in international oil prices.
August turned out to be a month of nightmares for the U.S. forces. Pentagon figures revealed that the death roll of U.S. troops had crossed the 1,000-mark. In terms of clashes, August saw 87 incidents a day, an all-time high since President George W. Bush claimed victory over Iraq in May 2003. Significantly, the number of U.S. troops dying of bullet injuries has increased markedly. That means a step-up in the guerilla war to "phase-II" when fighters stand up to fight their more powerful adversary. Phase-I of guerilla wars usually revolves around recruitment. Ambushes during this period are rare.
With many parts of Iraq slipping out of control and the timetable for elections genuinely threatened, the U.S. occupation authorities, backed by forces belonging to the American-appointed Iraqi interim government, have begun a violent campaign to re-establish control. Falluja has borne the brunt of these attacks. Repeated air raids have been mounted in the city with the alleged objective of striking "international terrorists", especially those loyal to the Jordanian-born Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. The Americans have alleged that Zarqawi has Al Qaeda leanings and his followers have entrenched themselves in Falluja. The Arab media and a few Western news organisations, however, have a different perception. After a particularly heavy air raid on September 13, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television reported that at least 18 civilians were killed in the pre-dawn strike. The planes also destroyed an ambulance that was ferrying the wounded to hospital. Western news agencies reported an exodus of hundreds of families from Falluja following the air strike.
A day earlier, when nearly 100 Iraqis died, an American helicopter killed at least 13 people in Baghdad's Haifa Street, a stronghold of Palestinians. These people had apparently gathered near a burning American armoured vehicle. Among those killed was Mazen Tomeizi, the 26-year-old producer for the Dubai-based Al Araybia television. As the U.S. and the interim government focus on strong-arm tactics, they have ensured that sections of the media that can show the "other side" of the story are driven out. The most glaring example of "media management" has been the denial of permission for Al Jazeera to operate.
Al Jazeera was first banned from operating for a month on August 5 for "advocating violence and inciting hatred". It faced indefinite closure under an order issued earlier in September. Al Jazeera's gagging has already led to an outcry in media circles, with organisations such as the Reporters Without Borders, the London-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), and the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, headquartered in Cairo, joining in the protests.
Despite the spiralling violence, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has not budged from his position that polls should be held according to the January schedule. He has, however, hinted that the electoral exercise might be modified. With clashes taking place in Falluja and the areas surrounding it, Allawi has begun to signal that these areas, which have a dominant Sunni population, can be temporarily cut out of the electoral process. In recent interviews to several Western newspapers, Allawi said: "If for any reason 300,000 people cannot have an election, cannot vote (that)... is not going to alter 25 million people voting. If the elections were prevented in Falluja, its inhabitants could vote later."
With both parties seemingly committed to achieving their goals, Iraq appears to be set for experiencing an autumn of bloodshed, which is likely to have Baghdad, its western neighbourhood and areas stretching northwards in the direction of Mosul bearing the brunt.