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Occupation on the Rocks: Three Views on War and Liberation

By: 
Rayan El-Amine
Date Published: 
February 01, 2005
    The US occupation of Iraq is passing through a critical stage that may very well decide its fate. The November attack on Fallujah was intended to cripple the Iraqi resistance enough to clear the way for the January 30 elections. Instead it may have inflamed the insurgency and alienated the Sunni population, casting doubt on the legitimacy of any new Iraqi government. Who is the resistance and can it be overcome? What is the state of the occupation going into the elections and can a legitimate government be created under foreign occupation? Rami El-Amine asked several commentators for their views.

Juan Cole is professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and author of Sacred Space and Holy War. His blog, Informed Comment (www.juancole.com), is one of the most informative sites on Iraq and the occupation. Dahr Jamail is one of the few independent reporters in Iraq today. He reports regularly for Democracy Now!, the Inter Press Service, The New Standard, and is a special correspondent for Pacifica's Flashpoints radio show. His web log, dispatches, and hard stories are widely disseminated through his website, www.DahrJamailIraq.com, Electronic Iraq, and through various listservs. Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She is the author of, most recently, Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis, as well as Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN. She is also a member of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation's Steering Committee. Left Turn: Who is the Iraqi resistance? Juan Cole: The armed Iraqi resistance fluctuates. At the most basic level, it is all Iraqi men who have a gun and feel so strongly against the American presence that they are willing to at least occasionally let off a shot in the Americans' direction. This generalized resistance is very large, and includes both Sunni and Shi'a Arabs. Even some putative American allies have occasionally fired on Coalition troops, as with the Badr Corps of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Marsh Arabs of Hizbullah or those who have joined the Sadr Movement, e.g., have also engaged in such firefights. The stronghold of the resistance, of course, is generally the Sunni Arab areas. The Sunni Arab resistance includes the remnants of the Baath military and security apparatuses as well as Sunni fundamentalists and a small number of foreign fighters. Dahr Jamail: One of the first things Ambassador Paul Bremer did in Iraq was disband the Iraqi Army. Thus, he created the core of the Iraqi resistance now fighting the US military. Many of the resistance are ex-soldiers, but over time this has grown to include ordinary Iraqis. With 70% unemployment, fighting in the resistance is a means to make a living now for many Iraqis. The other reason for its continuing growth is the revenge factor. I've personally interviewed several mujahideen who told me that they celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein. But after having a family member killed by the US military, or detained, they had no choice but to pick up arms and avenge their death. Many Iraqis now refer to the resistance fighters as 'patriots.' It is estimated they are numbered at around 20,000, and growing. Phyllis Bennis: The visible Iraqi resistance appears to be an amalgam of Iraqi nationalists, democratic and otherwise, outraged by the illegal foreign occupation of their country; disgruntled former Baathists; Iraqi Islamists, both Shi'a and Sunni holding a range of religious views; and foreign fighters, apparently mostly fundamentalist Islamists, who see fighting the US occupation of Iraq as a religious obligation. LT: Many claim that the future looks bleak for Iraq because the resistance consists mainly of reactionary fundamentalists, both Sunni and Shi'a who want to establish an Islamic state. What do you think the future holds for the Iraqi people? Will there be a civil war between the Shi'a, Sunnis and Kurds if and when the US withdraws from Iraq? Cole: There is so far not good evidence of strong Sunni-Shi'a violent feelings among the Arabs. The main threat of secession comes from the Kurds. Rather than civil war, I think the real threat is substantial urban turmoil in cities like Kirkuk, Mosul and possibly Baghdad. Jamail: The future for Iraqis looks bleak unless any real reconstruction begins and jobs are created. It is hard to imagine any let-up in the violence as long as the country remains occupied, particularly when the heavy handed tactics of the US military are creating more resistance fighters by the day. It looks as though the seeds of civil war have already been sown...and while it still does not look as though nationwide civil war is yet on the horizon, small attacks between different sects have already occurred. Cities like Kirkuk, comprised of Arab/Kurds/Turkmen, are going to be hotspots for months to come. These tensions and problems will be growing now, whether the US military stays or goes. Bennis: It is very difficult to do more than speculate about the future of Iraq. Certainly it looks very bleak because the very high economic (oil), strategic (bases), and ideological (Middle East 'democratization') stakes make it very difficult to end the US occupation any time soon. And the occupation is the primary challenge facing the Iraqi people. At some points so far the occupation itself has created a higher level of unity among at least some of the various ethnic and religious groups in Iraq - as they unite to challenge the occupation. But it is difficult to say whether that unity has been consolidated and growing, or if it was temporary and already fading. We don't know exactly what will happen when the US withdraws. My personal and perhaps overly optimistic view is that without an outside enemy, Iraqi nationalism will prevail as the dominant, though not sole, political force, and that those in the resistance motivated solely by religious extremism will be isolated. The result would be a significant reduction in violence - although not likely an immediate end. But we do know what will happen if the US does NOT withdraw: the US occupation troops will continue to kill and continue to die, reconstruction will remain stalled, any 'election' held and any resulting Iraqi 'government' will remain illegitimate, and the overall situation in the country will remain dire. LT: What is the state of the resistance among the Shi'a? What's happened to Moqtada Al-Sadr and the Mahdi army? Also, could you comment on the view, particularly among the antiwar movement in the US, that Al-Sadr and the Mahdi army are religious zealots whose fundamentalism borders on fascism. Cole: Muqtada has been convinced that now is not the time to try to take on the Americans militarily. He has been subsumed under Grand Ayatollah Sistani's strategy of the Shi'a coming to power through the ballot box. Al-Sadr is a radical fundamentalist and his followers do adhere to a form of religious authoritarianism that has a fascist overtone. Jamail: The Mahdi Army of Sadr is in wait-and-see mode right now. They remain vehemently opposed to the occupation, and I suspect they will fight again before too much longer. Sadr aides are consistently being detained or killed even now, and this is increasing the tension greatly. Bennis: Whatever else they are, al-Sadr's people have shown themselves willing to be co-opted essentially out of the resistance. The US and global peace and justice movements' work is not and cannot be based on the search - successful or otherwise - for counterparts within the Iraqi resistance. This isn't the Cold War, Iraq isn't Viet Nam, and neither Saddam Hussein nor Sheik Ali al-Sistani are Ho Chi Minh. LT: A lot of people thought that the explosion of resistance by the Shi'a in April during the siege of Fallujah might be the beginning of the end of the occupation, particularly in light of the solidarity shown between Sunnis and Shi'a at the time. What happened? Is that solidarity still strong or has it weakened? Why did Shi'a resistance fizzle out while the Sunni campaign grew stronger and more successful? Cole: As long as the majority of Iraqis still think there is something to be gained by cooperating with the Americans, it is difficult to get up a mass resistance. Sistani has convinced the Shi'a to put their hopes in the elections. If it becomes clear that the Shi'a are not in fact able to get what they want in this way, there is a danger that Sistani will bring them into the streets. So far the Shi'a have not been able to overcome their hatred of the Fallujans to the extent where they would protest en masse against the American crackdown on them. Anbar province was a big center of pro-Saddam sentiment and the Shi'a know it. Jamail: With the upcoming elections, each sect is now jockeying for power. Thus, their ability/motivation to support the other is waning...for now. The solidarity is certainly weaker now than it was last spring and fall...but this could change quickly. The Shi'a resistance, compared to the Sunni, lack military training. They are comprised mostly of younger men who literally pick up their Kalashnikov and go attack the professional US soldiers because Sadr instructed them to do so. This is why they don't inflict heavy damage on occupation forces compared to the Sunni resistance. One thing they do have, however, are huge numbers over a huge area of the country and thus, an endless supply of fighters. Bennis: Views such as 'Fallujah is the beginning of the end' is, I am afraid, grounded in an unrealistic belief that an insurgency/guerrilla war/resistance movement, whatever we call it, can be won in conventional military victories. I don't think we know whether the 'Shi'a resistance' per se fizzled, as opposed to that sector of the resistance linked to al-Sadr in particular, and I don't think we know how much of the 'Sunni resistance' has anything to do with being Sunni as opposed to representing more of the former regime supporters angry at losing their power. I am not convinced those categories are the most useful. LT: What do you think is going to happen now that Bush has been reelected? Is the US going to launch a major offensive to wipe out the resistance, as they seem to be preparing to do in Fallujah? Will this work or will it lead to an escalation in resistance like we saw in August of this year? Cole: The Americans are capable of reducing Fallujah to rubble if they desire to, as with Najaf and Samara before it. There is unlikely to be a violent backlash just because US military force is so overwhelming. There may be increased guerrilla action. The main fall-out may be political. Crushing Fallujah may cause the Sunni Arabs to boycott elections, which will reduce the legitimacy of the elected government and will cause problems in the future. Jamail: We're seeing Bush policy played out on the ground now. With Fallujah demolished, however, rather than stopping the resistance it has spread it across central and parts of northern Iraq. Now we have several potential Fallujah's - Ramadi is seeing fierce clashes almost daily now, as are Samara, Beji, Qaim, Mosul, and certainly Baquba and Baghdad. Even in Fallujah, there continues to be heavy fighting as that situation is far from over. Fallujah will never be 'pacified' as the military claims as its goal. Again, the harder the military hits, the more the resistance spreads and reorganizes. The sword cuts both ways, and this is what we are seeing now. Bennis: There is little doubt that the US is trying to reduce the resistance as much as possible in anticipation of the January 30 election plan. It seems likely this escalation will take place in smaller scale operations than either the April or November offensives in Fallujah. And certainly resistance military attacks on Iraqis associated with the occupation forces, more than on US troops directly, are already increasing. LT: Clearly the US is in a quagmire and some in the administration, Pentagon, and CIA are finally admitting it and saying that we need to find a way out without looking bad. What do you think the US's plans for Iraq are? How are they going to get out of the mess they've created in Iraq? Cole: If the Bush administration can succeed in holding elections and getting an elected government up and running, it will be tempted to draw down its troop strength in Iraq and increasingly turn authority over to the Iraqis. In the absence of a strong Iraqi military, however, there is a danger that the US will have created a Haiti or Somalia, a failed state unable to assert its authority. Jamail: If it was an administration that made decisions based on the reality on the ground in Iraq, I would be willing to make a prediction on this. But as this administration continues to lurch ever forward into their failed policy regarding Iraq, it is impossible for me to say what they will do, or if/when they would pull out. But with four permanent military bases here now, I doubt we'll see a withdrawal anytime soon. LT: Do you think the elections are going to take place in January as planned? What are the elections going to look like? Cole:The Americans have to hold elections because all Iraqis want them and Sistani insists on it. The elections may be marred by violence and possibly resulting in poor turnout, and by a Sunni Arab boycott. There will be a joint Shi'a list of the al-Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the two major political parties of the religious Shi'a. There may be another joint list of Sadrists and the Iraqi National Congress. Sistani wants an independent list that would represent the tribal chieftains and urban notables of the middle Euphrates, his clients. There is now talk that the two Kurdish parties may open their joint list to the Iraqi National Accord of Iyad Allawi, and the small Sunni nationalist parties of Adnan Pachachi and Nasser Chaderchi. The Shi'a and Kurds are likely to have a good turnout. The Sunni Arabs may stay home. Jamail: I think we'll see something resembling an election in January, but already they are not going according to the plans initially set. The date has already been changed once, and now there is talk of the elections being spread over several days. Most of the Sunnis will boycott the elections, the Shi'a are showing solidarity amongst the groups under that umbrella, as are the Kurds. How can there be a legitimate election when at least 25% of the population will not be voting due to boycotts or the security situation? Bennis: The US claim is that the invasion of Fallujah was necessary to insure free and fair elections. But Iraqi elections held under the boot of US military occupation will not be legitimate, whoever is in control of Fallujah. Iraq commander General George W. Casey Jr., observing the destruction of Fallujah, said that "this whole operation was about the rule of law." Given the totality of Fallujah's destruction at US hands, his remarks reflect the legacy of the Viet Nam War's infamous "we had to destroy the village in order to save it." The Fallujah attack has severely undermined the already eroded legitimacy of the US-installed 'Prime Minister' Iyad Allawi, whom the US insisted take responsibility for the decision to invade Fallujah. The cost to Allawi will be high - not only with the kidnapping of his relatives but in the loss of any remaining claim that he is an Iraqi patriot. It is likely that his legacy (aside from having been an intelligence operative for the CIA, the British MI6 and Saddam Hussein's Baath Party) will focus on his role as the man who gave US troops permission to destroy Fallujah. LT: Finally, what do you think the next step for the antiwar/occupation movement needs to be? Cole: The US tactic of constantly bombarding Iraqi cities to deal with a small number of guerrillas, producing large civilian casualties, must be protested head on. Jamail: Full scale, coordinated nationwide non-violent civil disobedience until US policy in Iraq is radically altered. It has not been attempted yet, and none of the other tools to affect change have produced anything. Also, more serious efforts to have Mr. Bush and several members of his cabinet tried for war crimes. Bennis: We have to recognize that our obligation as the US section of the global peace and anti-occupation movement is to work to pressure the US government in as many ways and as strongly as we can. We must be clear in our demand to end the occupation - which means bring the troops home. Now. We have to identify constituencies for unifying and broadening the still-disparate parts of our movement, particularly working with African-American community organizations and the faith-based church peace movements with the goal of building a broader and more unified movement. We have to identify what is weakening the US capacity to wage war - the rising human and economic costs of the war, escalating dissent among soldiers, and growing public opposition - and figure out how to build on those realities. That means working with and helping to support organizations like Military Families Speak Out and Iraq Veterans Against the War, strengthening and broadening the most representative coalitions like United for Peace and Justice, and working to embed our movement, our work, and ourselves into the very fabric of US life.