With reports on Wednesday of United States warplanes and helicopter gunships firing machine-guns, rockets and cannons at gunmen in the besieged city of Fallujah, a brief truce is being strained to the limit. Reports from non-US sources describe that hundreds of Iraqis have died in Fallujah as a result of a week's intense fighting between Sunnis and the US troops. One Shi'ite member of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) has suspended his membership in that body, and four others have threatened to follow suit in protest against what they label as “collective punishment” of Fallujah residents by the occupation forces for the death and mutilation of the bodies of four American security workers. One member of the IGC has even described that operation as “genocide”. If the discussions of a quagmire in Iraq were previously dismissed by the Bush administration as hyperbolic, this time all indications are that the wolf is, indeed, at the door.
One year ago on April 9 Iraqis were celebrating the toppling of a giant-sized statue of Saddam Hussein, an event that will forever be remembered as the defining moment of the end of a brutal era in Iraq. On the first anniversary of that event, on April 9, there was another defining – albeit not a heavily publicized – moment: a US Marine was tearing down the poster of the young Shi'ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, from the same pedestal that had once carried the statue of the Iraqi dictator. Except, unlike Saddam, Muqtada has emerged as a leader whose popularity is perceptibly increasing. He has already declared his intention of becoming a “martyr” in the Iraqi quest for independence that still defies the besieged nation. Now, a growing number of Iraqis are fighting the awesome military might of the US, their erstwhile “liberator”. The unfolding tragedy in Iraq promises to contain even more tragic chapters and gruesome events than before.
The outbreak of hostilities in Fallujah, and the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, reported to be turning into a powerful basis for cooperation between the Sunnis and Shi'ites of Iraq, marks a development beyond the wildest imagination of fiction writers. That cooperation is based on a common perception that “enemies” in Iraq are Western occupation forces, especially its leader, the United States.
One wonders what motivated L Paul Bremer, America's viceroy in Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and the US military commanders to resort to tough actions in Fallujah and Najaf, and to declare Muqtada an “outlaw”, or by threatening to use “overwhelming force” to punish those who mutilated the bodies of the American contractors. In the case of Fallujah, the perpetrators of the mutilation could have been extracted through negotiations with city elders or tribal leaders. In the case of Muqtada, the CPA's best option would have been to continue to ignore him as a minor irritation, instead of deciding to confront him through such actions as closing down his newspaper, arresting his aide, and going to the extent of threatening to kill him if he resisted arrest.
For the CPA, prior to the events that led to the escalation of violence in the northern and southern portions of Iraq, the supreme objective was to see that the symbolic transition of authority to the IGC was carried out as smoothly as possible. Fanning the flames of anger through threats of retribution in Fallujah, or heightening confrontation with Muqtada were not measures that would serve America's best interests in Iraq. The consequences for talking tough or reacting impulsively are too severe and serious for America's overall purpose.
Now the forces of moderation – members of the IGC and even Shi'ite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – will be constantly looking over their shoulders if they were to maintain their moderate modus operandi. Political moderation is likely to be seen as an “appeasement” of the occupiers and as “collaboration” more now than ever before. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the alleged al-Qaeda operative in Iraq – who is reported to be the mastermind of a number of terrorist attacks against American forces and Iraqis – could not have imagined a more friendly environment in which to accelerate the pace of his campaign of terror against forces of civility in Iraq, especially against those Iraqis who still dare to dream of a stable and democratic Iraq, and who still have half a mind of cooperating with the Americans.
The feelings of anger, anxiety and insecurity among the IGC were highlighted by the fact that one Shi'ite member, Abdul Karim Mohammedawi, has suspended his membership, and four other members – Salma Khafaji (Shi'ite woman), Ghazi Ajil Yawer (a Sunni from Mosul), Hassani (a representative of Iraqi Islamic Party) – are reportedly contemplating to follow suit.
More to the point, Adnan Pachachi, a senior Sunni member of IGC – and previously a vocal supporter of the occupation, and a person who was showcased by the Bush administration as a representative of the “new” Iraq – has publicly condemned US actions. He told al-Arabiyya television: “We consider the action carried out by US forces illegal and totally unacceptable. We denounce the military operations carried out by the American forces because, in effect, it is [inflicting] collective punishment on the residents of Fallujah.” Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, a spokesman of the US military, responded: “Nothing can be further from the truth. We run extremely precise operations focused on people we have intelligence on for crimes of violence against the coalition and against the Iraqi people.”
Another member of the IGC, Hachim Hassani, stated: “The coalition has opened too many fronts in Iraq, alienating a large swath of the population. The Iraqi people now equate democracy with bloodshed.” A resident of Fallujah was even more poignant when he observed: “It is only 300,000 people living here, a small city, but the way the Americans are fighting it's as if they are fighting a whole continent. Is this the reconstruction and the freedom Bush is talking about? We prefer Saddam's repression.”
The very survival of the IGC as a viable entity depends not only on the declaration of a meaningful ceasefire in Fallujah, but, more substantially, on the successful participation of its members to negotiate some sort of resolution.
There is little doubt that the American military power will be able to silence and subjugate the dissenters and protagonists in Iraq, at least for now. But the enormous resentment that its brutal use of force is creating in Iraq is likely to become a profound reason why a Christian superpower will fail in proselytizing Muslim Iraqis into believing in the inherent superiority of democracy. Unfortunately from the Bush administration's perspectives, as the Shi'ites and Sunnis continue to cooperate to oust the US from their country, conflict in Iraq is increasingly perceived along religious lines, not just by Iraqis, but also by most of the Arab Middle East.
If the purpose of the US's continued occupation of Iraq is to create democracy, that purpose is presently witnessing its darkest hour. When will the US bring an end to its occupation of Iraq? Currently, we only hear that it is there to stay for the long haul. How can democracy emerge as a viable form of government if, in the process of its creation, Washington continues to alienate a large number of Iraqis on a sustained basis? Even if the United Nations were to take charge of rebuilding Iraq – an option that is frequently mentioned as US forces continue to face stiffened resistance to their high profile presence and strong-armed maneuvering in that country – the world body has to operate on the basis of some sort of a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops, especially American ones.
However, there are no indications to date that the US is thinking about pulling out of Iraq. No one should view this proposition as a sole representative of the thinking and commitment of George W Bush. John Kerry, if he were to be elected as the next US president, is not likely to “cut and run” from Iraq, he has said on many occasions. If the preceding is not the description of Iraq turning into a quagmire for the United States, then no one knows what else it really is.
Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.