US and Them

The dispute over Samarra points to a deeper disconnect.


What happened in Samarra? The American and Iraqi versions of Sunday’s firefight diverge so neatly along lines of self-interest that it’s impossible, at this distance, to know. Whatever the truth, the dual narratives stand as a metaphor for a fundamental disconnect betwen occupying forces and an increasing number of Iraqis, extending from differences over specific incidents to clashing conceptions of the nature and meaning of the U.S. role in Iraq.

An American convoy delivering new currency to an Iraqi bank north of Baghdad was apparently attacked by militants. The U.S. military claims that in the ensuing fight 54 Iraqi fighters were killed and twenty-two wounded, the highest toll in a single incident for months. Samarra residents claim that only 10 people were killed in the fighting, and that these were mostly civilians, including a child and an old woman. And Iraqi police reported that only eight had been killed.

Iraqis and Americans were both sticking to their stories, but the dispute points to a larger disconnect. As the U.S. claims progress is being made, signs are multiplying that America has lost support from growing numbers of Iraqis, frustrated with a situation that feels more like occupation than the liberation they were promised.

UPI runs an exchange with an Iraqi calling himself Abu Mujhid who, when the Americans invaded, waited to see whether they would serve as a force of liberation or an army occupation. It didn’t take long for Mujhid to draw his conclusions, and to devote himself to driving out the Americans.

“I had always looked at the American government as respectable until now…I had met Americans before and always respected them. I still do. They are educated, they know how to build things, how to think and how to work hard.

They promised to liberate us from occupation, they promised us rights and liberty and my colleagues and I waited to make our decision on whether to fight until we saw how they would act.

They should have come and just given us food and some security…Even today I feel like I cannot drive my car at night because of Ali Baba (the Baghdad slang for criminals).

It was then I realized that they had come as occupiers and not as liberators…And my colleagues and I then voted to fight. So we began to meet and plan. We met with others and have tried to buy weapons. None of us are afraid to die, but it is hard. We are just men, workers, not soldiers.”

Abu Mujhid’s message is exactly what the CPA doesn’t want to hear, having insisted all along that the U.S. soldiers are in Iraq as occupiers, not liberators.

For months the Bush administration took solace in the fact that armed resistance in Iraq seemed to be limited to the Sunni triangle. But recent attacks on U.S. forces in Mosul and elsewhere indicate that disenchantment with the U.S. presence is spreading.

A propos, in a recent piece in the New York Times, reporter John Burns writes that once you scratch beneath the surface, it’s not hard to get Iraqis talking about their frustration with Americans, even if they’re glad to be rid of Saddam.

The actions of CPA forces leave little doubt that while “liberation” was the official label for the invasion, “occupation” is the reality. Iraqis know it and so do foreign soldiers on the ground. As Nir Rosen notes in Asia Times, some in the U.S. army argue that the U.S.’s failure to acknowledge its role as occupier has only made its job harder.

“The problems associated with being a ‘liberator’ or an ‘occupier’ impacted on the war right from the outset. ‘For political reasons, leaders declared that US forces were ‘liberating forces’ rather than occupying forces,’ admits a confidential After Action Report written by the US Army’s Third Infantry Division. Up to 15,000 Third Infantry Division (3rd ID) troops fought in Iraq, and 44 soldiers from this unit that formed the bulk of the ground invasion from Kuwait to Baghdad were killed in battle. The authors of the leaked report, which is 281 pages long, are not known, but they provide a critique of the war and its aftermath that candidly reveals the army’s view.

The failure to call the occupation an occupation, the authors state, ‘may have caused military commanders to be reluctant to use the full power granted to occupying forces to accomplish our legitimate objectives”. They assert that “as a matter of law and fact, the United States is an occupying power in Iraq, even if we characterize ourselves as liberators. Under international law, occupation is a de facto status that occurs when an invading army takes effective control of a portion of another country. If necessary to maintain this public affairs position, our national command should have stated that while we were ‘liberators’, we intended to comply with international law requirements regarding occupation.”