Haunted by Iraq




    Quote of the day from our revisionist-historian-in-chief: “In an interview with the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service given on Thursday and released by the White House yesterday, Bush interrupted the questioner when asked about his announcement on May 1 of, as the journalist put it, ‘the end of combat operations.’

    “‘Actually, major military operations,’ Bush replied. ‘Because we still have combat operations going on.’ Bush added: ‘It’s a different kind of combat mission, but, nevertheless, it’s combat, just ask the kids that are over there killing and being shot at.'”

    — From a piece by Dana Milbank and Bradley Graham of The Washington Post, where someone with a sense of humor or is it irony, headlined the piece “Bush Revises Views On ‘Combat’ in Iraq.”

As of this week, that’s one of the understatements of the decade. The forgotten war in Afghanistan has ratcheted up a notch, the hotel in which the UN mission to Iraq was housed just collapsed under what may have been a suicide truck bombing with the death of up to twenty people including UN special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, and of course another suicide bombing in Jerusalem has just brought the peace process in Israel, such as it was (and it wasn’t much), to a screeching halt. Welcome to the war on terror.

I thought I might start today with an email I received recently from a “unilateral” photojournalist (that is, one not “embedded” with American troops) who spent several months in Iraq and Kuwait both during and after the recent war. He wanted me to know that Vietnam Vet James Larocca, whose Newsday op-ed, “Have We Forgotten Anger in the Eyes” was quoted in a previous dispatch, “has it right.” The photojournalist says:

“I saw these tactics first hand and having a great deal of experience in law-enforcement coverage first hand, I stood in disbelief as we blundered and bullied away the hearts and minds of the common Iraqi people. The culture gap is being widened to an abyss, as wide as the eyes of the children dragged out of bed in the night. Iraqis who once viewed our soldiers as liberators now see us as no different than Saddam’s enforcers, holding ‘suspects’ at gunpoint with bags over their heads for all to see. In one published case U.S. soldiers took the family of a sought-after Iraqi officer hostage, leaving a note behind stating if he wanted to see them again, he should surrender.

I will always be haunted by the faces of war, but I will also be haunted by the faces of the ‘Iraqi peace.’ I know that not all Iraqis see us this way and I still hold out hope that things will turn around. But I do not see anything changing our tactics at all.

I must also say that I support our soldiers, as I got to know many of them. They as a whole are stuck doing the dirty work as the service demands. I can tell you that many of them are wondering out loud what we have done, and whether it’s right. I could go on and on about the lack of planning and common sense associated with the occupation of Iraq (or the war itself).”

Tactics:

For those following the news from Iraq, even without today’s bombing of the UN mission, the chaos seems to be spreading. More American dead and wounded daily; a British soldier killed and two wounded by a bomb in Basra; the first Danish soldier killed; the fifth journalist killed by American troops, a Palestinian Reuters cameraman shot by soldiers who claimed they mistook his camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher (more likely they mistook him for an Iraqi and are, by now, thoroughly edgy and trigger happy); oil pipelines are in flames; a major water pipeline evidently bombed — new forms of sabotage spreading weekly — electricity still failing; phones not yet working; unemployment in the 60% – 70% range; crimes like kidnapping and carjacking seemingly soaring; the police chief of Mosul shot; the main prison the Americans are using in Baghdad mortared by unknown parties, with many prisoners dead and wounded; new self-proclaimed resistance groups with names like the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Movement releasing tapes to Al-Jazeera and other Arab TV outfits almost daily (“This resistance is not a reaction to the American provocations against the Iraqi people or to the shortage of services … but to kick out the occupiers as a matter of principle.”); frustrated Shiites venting in Baghdad’s slums; and, as The Washington Post‘s Anthony Shadid reports, the first signs of cooperation among Sunni and Shia clerics opposed to the occupation, something which has sent shudders of alarm through American officialdom. And of course, there are still those Iraqis shot at checkpoints or humiliated in the streets or at home, arrested and neither released nor charged. There are still those ubiquitous bags over Iraqi heads.

As Justin Huggler, the Independent‘s man in Baghdad puts it in a summary article on recent developments:

“The American-led occupation is going badly wrong before our eyes. Already US soldiers are dying daily in attacks and there is anarchy on the streets. As of yesterday, the Americans appeared to be facing an all-out assault on another front – on their efforts to rebuild the infrastructure of Iraq.

This is the occupation that was supposed to pay for itself. All the Americans had to do was to get Iraq’s vast oil reserves flowing out of the country and that would finance the occupation. The sabotage of the [northern oil] pipeline, which will take 10 days to repair, means at least $70m (£43m) in lost revenue.

The cost of the occupation, being almost exclusively borne by US taxpayers, is out of control. The Pentagon conservatively estimates it is costing $5bn a month. Other analysts have put it at $600bn over 10 years – bigger than the current record US federal deficit.”

And as the photojournalist who wrote me makes all too clear, American tactics in Iraq only incite more of the same. A recent piece by Zvi Bar’el, a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reporting from Turkey and quoting a Turkish official catches something of what’s evidently going on. In a listing of offensive American acts, he writes in part:

“the head of an important Iraqi tribe was detained at a U.S. roadblock, and a woman soldier conducted a body search in front of his fellow tribesmen. The response: a public outcry from the elders of all the tribes whose cooperation the Americans covet.

‘Soldiers walk around the streets aiming their rifles at pedestrians. Sometimes women are searched by male soldiers who make vulgar jokes. There is total ignorance about Iraqi culture among the soldiers,’ said the Turkish government official. ‘In many cases, the soldiers don’t even know where they are, what city they’re next to, what distinguishes Shi’ites from Sunnis, how women are to be treated, or what they’re supposed to look for.’

[…]

Saddam Hussein’s responsibility for the tragedy of Iraq is eroding rapidly. Saddam is being replaced by the American soldier, who is viewed by a large segment of the population as being to blame for the evolving chaos.”

In this we can see another aspect of the Vietnam experience rerun in quite different circumstances. The soldiers on the ground simply play out the ignorance of those above them. After all, this was an occupation that moved in largely without either Iraqis or Iraqi translators in tow and, though this has been somewhat remedied since, it’s indicative of why we are where we are today. Talk about a cycle of catastrophe: American tactics drive Iraqis into the arms of the resistance and the tactics of the resistance – ambushes, car bombs, suicide attacks – cause the Americans to separate themselves ever more from Iraqis and become ever more short on the trigger and quick on the uptake. It’s a formula for just what’s happening.

We’re Number One: Incarceration

Let’s also remember that we bring our baggage with us. That was the Vietnam story. That undoubtedly will be the story of the occupation of Iraq, which, as it turns out, is brought to you by the country that’s just garnered the number one position in the global incarceration sweepstakes with the highest imprisoning rates on the planet. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

“More than 5.6 million Americans are in prison or have served time there, according to a new report by the Justice Department released Sunday. That’s 1 in 37 adults living in the United States, the highest incarceration level in the world….

If current trends continue, it means that a black male in the United States would have about a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison during his lifetime. For a Hispanic male, it’s 1 in 6; for a white male, 1 in 17….

‘These new numbers are shocking enough, but what we don’t see are the ripple effects of what they mean: For the generation of black children today, there’s almost an inevitable aspect of going to prison,’ says Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington. ‘We have the wealthiest society in human history, and we maintain the highest level of imprisonment. It’s striking what that says about our approach to social problems and inequality.’

Of course, even when we use his former prisons, the comparison to Saddam and his practices can’t but be flattering. But let’s forget about Saddam for a minute. Other comparisons could be made and they would be far less flattering. While I’ve seen a number of reports recently on our incarceration policies in Iraq (think as well of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Guantanamo prison camp in Cuba, and the military brig which holds Jose Padilla in the US), I’ve included below the single most chilling one I’ve run across — by Jonathan Steele of the Guardian. It deserves to be read in full, but it’s subhead sums up the cavalier, almost forgetful nature of the American approach to justice in Iraq and explains how in the very processes of everyday occupation, American military and civilian officials have been turning potential friends into sullen, angry enemies or actual resistors: “Hundreds of Iraqis civilians are being held in makeshift jails run by US troops — many without being charged or even questioned. And in these prisons are children whose parents have no way of locating them.” Think not of the liberation of Iraq, or even of its occupation, but of its incarceration.

Signs of the Times, Occupation-Style:

First it happened to Hamid Karzai, the American-protected head of the Afghan “national” government, widely known as “the mayor of Kabul” for his government’s lack of political control beyond the gates of that city; now it’s happening to the Iraqi Governing Council, reports the Los Angeles Times:

“[T]he U.S.-led occupation authority moved Tuesday to hire scores of security guards for the new Iraqi Governing Council…… For its own protection, the council has been all but invisible since it was appointed last month — a victory in itself for the anti-American forces.

The council works cloistered in a building set back more than half a mile from the road. Visitors can enter only if they are met by a council member and after they have been checked by U.S. soldiers. Once inside the complex, they must drive past a second American checkpoint, stop their cars and wait while a soldier removes a set of road spikes.

[…]

The request for 120 bodyguards to protect 25 people suggests either around-the-clock coverage or multiple guards for certain members. [The training of these guards by imported [‘bodyguard trainers’], according to the authority’s Web site, will cover reaction to ‘attack, terrorism threat assessment, hostage situations, general security to include residence, office, vehicle and travel escort… anti-ambush drills… explosive awareness…'”

So the soon-to-be-guarded-round-the-clock official Iraqi governing body is also “all but invisible.” In the Washington Post Vivienne Walt makes a similar point in reporting on Ali Hassan, a jobless former accountant from the Ministry of Justice who has just sold his television and refrigerator to raise a little money for his four children. He has joined unemployed demonstrators chanting, “I’m happy Saddam is gone — but I need a job.” She writes:

“And to whom did he and the other demonstrators turn? Chanting their demands for work, they marched toward Saddam Hussein’s old Republican Palace, headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority — the almost all-American body, headed by L. Paul Bremer III, that runs Iraq. When I asked one of the organizers why they didn’t go to their own leaders in the Iraqi Governing Council, he looked blank. ‘We don’t know where they are,’ he said.

That’s no surprise. One month after the council’s 25 members were handpicked by Bremer’s office, its members work in a largely empty office building, surrounded by American military cordons and coils of barbed wire. They carry American-issued MCI cell phones, with an American area code (914).

Almost all have spent the past few decades in exile…to many of the people who stayed here through 23 years of Hussein’s stranglehold, they might as well have landed from another planet. They are generally inaccessible, with no control over their own budget…”

As Walt says, what we seem to be creating in Iraq is not (here’s a surprise) a democracy of liberated Iraqis which might be a model for the Middle East — and so goes the last leg in the now collapsed triad of official explanations for war, weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda, having long departed the scene — but a “resentful dependence.”

Even the tiny group of “royalists,” supporters of Iraq’s unpopular, long-gone monarchy, who returned with Saddam’s fall, are beginning to sound resentful, as Reuters writes of former exile Sharif Ali, who heads the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, which wants a democratic Iraq under a royal figurehead:

“U.S. troops must step back and let Iraqis run their own affairs or risk being equated in Arab minds with the Israeli forces in Palestinian territory, a leading member of Iraq’s former royal house said… ‘What I fear most is that the picture will be similar to that of the Israeli forces in the Palestinian lands,’ said the 47-year-old London banker who returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein to promote the restoration of the monarchy.

‘The reasons under which these forces entered Iraq have expired,’ he said. But he added: ‘I hope that my remarks are not understood that I want them to leave, because what is hoped for is that they help us rebuild the country and other things… We are an occupied people. It is our right to discuss the best ways and decisions to deal with this situation.'”

The Making of a Resistance:

Perhaps the most striking thing about the two major car bombings of the Jordanian embassy and the UN headquarters is that no one has yet taken credit for the attacks. The resistance remains faceless, portrayed by American occupation officials, Donald Rumsfeld et. al. alternately as Baathist “bitter-enders” and infiltrating foreign terrorists. That there is a resistance in limited areas of the country and that it is increasingly coordinated in some fashion is beyond question. But who exactly are these guerrilla fighters?

Paul McGeough of the Australian Sydney Morning Herald interviewed a number of Iraqis who claim to be part of the resistance and in a long, fascinating piece offers a picture that, grim though it is, bears little relation to the one the Americans are repeating daily. He met, for instance, with resisters from a group calling itself the Army of the Right. Here’s a little of what he recounts:

“The Pentagon, the US military and American analysts are reluctant to acknowledge popular support for the Iraqi resistance. But the chaos has tribal sheiks, Baghdad businessmen and many ordinary Iraqis speaking in such harsh anti-American terms that it is hard not to conclude there is a growing body of Palestinian or Belfast-style empathy with the resistance.

If the accounts of the resistance given to the Herald… are accurate, US intelligence is way behind understanding that what is emerging in Iraq is a centrally controlled movement, driven as much by nationalism as the mosque, a movement that has left Saddam and the Baath Party behind and already is getting foreign funds for its bid to drive out the US army….

Toying with his beard, [a guerrilla] describes a Sunni resistance that is a disciplined, religiously focused force. Asked where authority rests, he says: ‘It’s with the sheiks in the mosques. Baath Party people and former members of the military are not allowed to be our leaders. Baathists are losers; they didn’t succeed when they worked for the party.’

[…]

Another self-proclaimed guerrilla] declares: ‘The Americans say they are still looking for weapons of mass destruction. But they have found them. We are their WMD!'”

That last comment reminds us that in this single webbed world of ours the news from everywhere is available to everyone. I have no doubt that the Iraqi guerrillas, whoever they may be, know the latest polling figures on our President as well. McGeough concludes that “the US has not begun to grasp the depth of Iraqi resentment and continues to feed the anger.”

For one man’s story of resistance and an ill-planned ambush on an American convoy, check out the Christian Science Monitor‘s Cameron Barr:

“The group is nameless, [the guerrilla says] says, and so decentralized that he is not certain who is behind it. He says he doesn’t think foreigners are involved, but he admits he might not know it if they were…. The man in the tracksuit is disappointed by the experience. He says he was not well trained. He has risked his life in the attack, and he has failed. He remains part of the underground group, but its leaders have not asked him to take part in another mission.”

No such accounts can be corroborated as yet, but these seemed plausible to me.

A Movement to Bring the Troops Home:

In the meantime, the most recent Scripps Howard opinion poll indicates, once again, slowly sinking support for the war and for the President, even during these quiet weeks when Congress is in recess and the drumbeat of reports about the administration’s lies and evasions has faded temporarily. The Scripps Howard news service reports:

“Public confidence in America’s military involvement in Iraq has eroded recently with 42 percent of U.S. adults now describing themselves as ‘not certain’ that committing troops to war was the right thing to do…. Bush’s approval rating also has dropped, with 52 percent saying they approve of what he has done as president, a 12-percentage point decline in less than three months and the lowest number yet recorded by the polls since he took office in January 2001. The general feeling that America is headed “in the right direction” has taken a hit recently as well.”

At the same time, a “Bring them home now” campaign has been started by a group, Military Families Speak Out, which claims 600 members, and by Veterans for Peace. You can even read about it in the military paper, Stars & Stripes or you can check out San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ruth Rosen’s piece on the subject. This, I assure you, is a remarkable development less than half a year into our latest war.

Where Is Osama Anyway?

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, there’s been an explosion of violence, a level of fighting unseen since the American war there was “won.”

“Until recently,” according to today’s wire service reports, “guerrilla attacks in Afghanistan were hit-and-run assaults launched by small bands of gunmen. But fierce battles over the weekend brought an unprecedented show of force: Hundreds of fighters stormed into two towns and overran police stations. The expanded attacks put more pressure than ever on a fragile U.S.-backed government struggling to rebuild a country following the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001.”

And just as this is happening, the Boston Globe reports that we’re actually switching intelligence personnel from the “hunt” for Osama to the “hunt” for Saddam (remember that “tightening noose”) — just as critical Democrats have suggested all along:

“As the hunt for Saddam Hussein grows more urgent and the guerrilla war in Iraq shows little sign of abating, the Bush administration is continuing to shift highly specialized intelligence officers from the hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to the Iraq crisis, according to intelligence officials who have been involved in the redeployments.

The recent moves — involving both analysts in Washington and specially trained field operatives — follow the transfer of hundreds of elite commandos from Afghanistan duty to service in Iraq, Pentagon officials said.”

In his latest column, the ever acidic Eric Margolis of the Toronto Sun considers why the Canadian troops going to Afghanistan are not peacekeepers (“Just as the Soviet Union compelled its Warsaw Pact alliance during the 1980s to send troops to Angola, so the U.S. has forced its reluctant allies into Afghanistan.”), and manages to point out as well that in Afghanistan we are, as we have been in Central and Southeast Asia since our secret war in Laos in the 1960s, “in bed” with drug lords. If you want to know more about this, check out Al McCoy’s book The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.

The bigger our “footprint” gets in that “arc of instability,” the more unstable the region looks. These are, I suppose, the modest glitches that trail along after the urge to occupy the world. A small piece of belated advice to this administration, though: Think of that old children’s horror story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” and be careful what you wish for.