Report from Baghdad--Opening the Gates of Hell

Baghdad, Iraq -- Before the Iraq war, at a meeting of the Arab League, Secretary General Amr Moussa famously said that a U.S. war on Iraq would "open the gates of hell."

In Iraq, those gates are yawning wider than they ever have before -- at least for the United States.

"Sunni and Shi'a are now one hand, together against the Americans," a man on the street in the mostly Shi'a slum of Shuala on the west side of Baghdad told me, as we conversed in the shadow of a burnt-out American tank transporter. Those sentiments were echoed at the local headquarters of Moqtada al-Sadr's organization, which had one day previously come under assault from U.S. forces.

And, indeed, everyone in the area agreed that when those forces were driven from Shuala, it was done by Sunni and Shi'a fighting together -- and by unorganized local inhabitants, not al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Whether or not the resistance here grows to a scale that the United States cannot control -- and this is more in the hands of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani than of Paul Bremer or George Bush -- it is already clear that the events of the last ten days mark a critical turning point in the occupation of Iraq.

We're being told a convenient and self-serving story about those events. In that story, a few barbaric "isolated extremists" from the "Saddamist stronghold" of Falluja killed four contractors who were guarding food convoys in an act of unprovoked lawlessness. Moqtada al-Sadr is fighting the U.S. forces right now because, in the words of George Bush, he decided that "rather than allow democracy to flourish, he's going to exercise force."

The truth is rather different. Falluja, although heavily Sunni Arab, was hardly in Saddam's pocket. Its imams got into trouble for refusing to obey his orders to praise him personally during prayers. Many inhabitants were Salafists (Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism), a group singled out for political persecution by Saddam.

In fact, during the war, Falluja was not a hotbed of resistance. Its turn to resistance started on April 28, when U.S. troops opened fire on a group of 100 to 200 peaceful protesters, killing 15. They claimed they were returning gunfire, but Human Rights Watch investigated and found that the bullet holes in the area were inconsistent with that story -- and, furthermore, every Iraqi witness maintained that the crowd was unarmed. Two days later, another three protesters were killed.

These incidents caused many people in the area to join the resistance, forming their own groups (see an interview with one in the San Francisco Chronicle here). Violence back and forth and frequent collective punishment measures levied on the town quickly turned it into a place seething with anger against the occupation -- to an even greater degree than other places.

The most recent incident, in which four mercenaries from Blackwater Security, a company formed by ex-Navy Seals (Blackwater people are performing many of the same functions as soldiers in Iraq and do get involved in combat), did not arise in a vacuum. In fact, just the week before, U.S. Marines had mounted heavy raids on Falluja, killing at least seven civilians, including a cameraman. Residents spoke of this as the reason for the attack on the Blackwater people and the gruesome spectacle that followed.

With the recent fighting in Falluja, cordoning off the city, in which 12 Marines, two other soldiers, and at least 66 Iraqis were killed, there is no chance to get off this track in the foreseeable future.

But, not satisfied with this massive problem with the Sunni, the CPA chose the same time to pick a fight with the Shi'a followers of Moqtada al-Sadr.

Whatever al-Sadr's views about democracy may be, Bush's claim that he started this violence to derail democracy is ridiculous. First of all, for all of al-Sadr's firebrand rhetoric, he and his followers had always stopped short of overt violence against the occupying forces. Second, the incident that precipitated this whole round of violence was the closing of his newspaper, al-Hawza, a blatantly undemocratic act. In fact, the paper was not closed for directly advocating violence, but simply for reporting one eyewitness claim that a supposed car bombing that killed numerous volunteers for the New Iraqi defense forces was actually done by plane (and therefore by the United States).

In general, there is no quicker way to get an Iraqi to laugh than to talk about how the United States is bringing freedom or democracy to the country. It's standard when talking about the latest problem the Americans cause, to say derisively, "This is the freedom." When I asked Rasool Gurawi, a spokesman at the al-Sadr office in Thawra, the slum of two million that is perhaps al-Sadr's strongest base of support, about Bush's claims, he said, "This is democracy? Attacking peaceful demonstrations? Killing people and destroying buildings?"

As the occupation simultaneously loses control in Basra, Najaf, Kerbala, Nasiriyah, Kufa, Kut, Diwaniyah, and in Thawra, Shuala, and Kadhimiyah in Baghdad, Bremer and Bush have backed off a little. Instead of wanting al-Sadr for his political role, they now say he is wanted in connection with the murder of Shi'a cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei last April. And, indeed, one of the other precipitating factors in the recent violence was the arrest of Mustafa Yacoubi, a top Sadr aide, for the same killing. They even say it has nothing to do with them -- an Iraqi judge, acting independently, issued the warrant.

This explanation isn't getting very far with anyone here. It's already been revealed that the warrants were written long ago and have been sitting unused until the right time. In fact, claimed Gurawi, the Iraqi Minister of Justice proclaimed publicly that he had no information about Sadr's or Yacoubi's involvement with al-Khoei and that they were not wanted by the Iraqi government.

Whatever the case, the administration's militaristic response and hollow rhetoric cut no ice with any Iraqis here, and are certain simply to exacerbate a situation that has already spun out of control for the United States.

Although the situation with Fallujah seems to have been mostly happenstance (of the kind that was inevitable with the constant skirmishing), the signs seem to indicate that the move against al-Sadr's people was deliberately timed. If so, it was presumably an attempt to squeeze him out of the political sphere before the token "transfer of sovereignty" on June 30.

It has backfired in the way that anyone who reads the newspapers himself instead of having them explained to him by aides could have predicted. When three U.S. soldiers were killed in the Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad yesterday, that was a clear sign. Although al-Sadr supporters are probably a majority in Thawra and a very sizeable minority in Shuala, his influence had always been negligible in Kadhimiyah.

Even though the violence that has broken out is major news right now, in a sense it's not the real story. The killing of over 100 people in the last ten days is a tragedy, but so is everyday life under the occupation.

The people in the Shi'a slums of Baghdad who are now furiously resisting the Americans hate Saddam with a passion to this day. They suffered under his repression and they also suffered from neglect, especially under the sanctions -- scarce resources and repairs went to politically more favored areas. They expected great improvements when the United States took over.

Shaykh Sadun al-Shemary, a former member of the Iraqi army who participated in the 1991 uprising and now a spokesman for the al-Sadr organization in Shuala, told me, "Things are exactly the same as in Saddam's time -- maybe worse."

That is all you need to know about the occupation of Iraq.

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Rahul Mahajan's picture
Columns on STR: 5

Rahul Mahajan is the publisher of the weblog Empire Notes and is currently writing and blogging from Baghdad. His latest book is Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond.