Middle East

Middle East

Shooting at the Liberators

Jobless Iraqi soldiers yell at U.S. soldiers guarding the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs in Baghdad
Jobless Iraqi soldiers demonstrate in front of the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs in Baghdad (Photo: Sabah Arar/AFP-Getty Images).

Three months after the end of the war, Baghdad has four hours of electricity per day; the overwhelming majority of the residents do not have running water; their telephones are dead; there is a shortage of gasoline—and this in a country floating on crude oil. The most powerful military machine in the world is not in a position to guarantee security—not even its own. Daily, soldiers from the occupation powers die in attacks. Soon the number of casualties in “peacetime” will surpass those lost during the war.

This is a crude sketch of the situation in Iraq after liberation from Saddam Hussein. No one is satisfied with it—not the victors in Washington, nor the Iraqis, who expected more of peace than the absence of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. The Americans are not alone in asking why the liberated are shooting at the liberators.

Diplomat Paul Bremer is the first who must come up with an answer. The “viceroy” of Iraq is supposed to win the peace for George W. Bush, so that the president does not lose the war. One can read from Bremer’s vacillating, uncertain policy that superpower America has not yet found its way in Iraq: It is in a bind because it has to explain why it is taking such high losses from attacks.

One of the most spectacular actions taken by Bremer since his appointment in May was dissolving the Iraqi army. This meant that thousands of soldiers and officers were put out on the street. They threatened to turn to violence if they did not get their pay and rights back. Bremer promised to pay them immediately and then possibly integrate them into a future army. The former soldiers’ threats worked.

A little later, Bremer sought to disarm the Iraqi population. A huge task, given that official estimates are that 7 million guns are now in circulation—in a population of 24 million. Bremer started off by offering an amnesty for all those who voluntarily turned in their weapons by June 15. But the warehouses set aside to receive guns remained almost empty.

After the voluntary program failed, the U.S. troops turned to force—with terrible results for the lives of Iraqis. The daily traffic jams on Baghdad’s streets caused by checkpoints were one of the lesser evils.

Much worse were the searches of private homes. Mostly at night and without warning, soldiers burst into houses where they suspected resisters to be. And their behavior—according to the Iraqis affected—was extraordinarily heedless.

Ali Zeidani had to endure such a search. He lives in the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad. A tank drove into the courtyard of his house, knocked down the outside wall, damaged the house, and broke several water lines. An unfortunate accident, the American soldiers said by way of excuse. But Zeidani does not know whom he should complain to, or who will compensate him for the damage. His house was damaged during the war by fragments from a missile, and he is also an invalid due to injuries suffered during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. He is an example of the fate of a typical Iraqi citizen.

Of course Zeidani has nothing good to say about the Americans, and he is not alone. Anger and hostility are hitting the liberators in the face. When the first assaults struck American patrols and convoys, Washington still talked about “pockets of resistance” from supporters of Saddam Hussein. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld even called them “common criminals.”

Such statements did not stand up to scrutiny. From the attacks, which have now been going on for weeks, one can sketch a kind of geography of resistance. The first attacks came in western Baghdad and in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Then came Hit and Rawa in the north, and finally the tide of violence shifted to the east, across the Tigris, to include the cities of Tikrit, Balad, and Baquba. Today this area is being called the Triangle of Death, because it is where attacks on U.S. soldiers are most common. This triangle is located in an area where Sunni Muslims—the ones who benefited most under Saddam Hussein—are in the majority.

The first sparks were ignited in Fallujah. At the end of April, 16 people died there after being shot by U.S. soldiers. Fallujah is of eminent political and religious importance for the Sunnis—the majority of their imams were educated here. The brand of Islam practiced is oriented toward the ultraconservative Wahhabi school from Saudi Arabia.

The residents themselves at first denied that the attacks on the Americans represented organized resistance—but they have since begun to talk about it. “It is not simply supporters of Saddam Hussein,” says Kamal, a young mechanic from Fallujah. “It is members of the Baath Party and its Iraqi nationalism. Many of these Baath people were persecuted by Saddam Hussein just as much as other opposition groups!” In Fallujah, the resistance to the Americans is nourished by many factors: nationalism, clan loyalties, religious conservatism—all of them very sensitive when challenged by outside interference. 

Kamal says that no one in Fallujah speaks to the Americans. Then he corrects himself: “Of course, there are spies and collaborators here, too. But we know who they are and they will die!” He states this without a shred of doubt. The execution of “collaborators” has, in any case, already begun. Last weekend Haifa Aziz Daoud, the director of electricity distribution for north Baghdad, was assassinated.

Kamal reports that foreign mujahedeen maintained a training camp in Rawa, on the border with Syria. In mid-June, the Americans struck, several houses in the town were destroyed, and 70 people died. The rebels in Fallujah deny that they are in contact with the foreign mujahedeen. But there is talk of connections with resistance groups in nearby Khaldiya and Ramadi.

The complexity of the resistance movement becomes clear in southern Iraq. In Majar al-Kabir, six British soldiers died in a hail of bullets fired by Hezbollah (which has no connection to the movement of the same name in Lebanon). It fought for 20 years against Iraqi despots and had its lair in the marshes, which were later drained by Saddam Hussein when he was still a partner of the West.

But the bloodbath in Majar al-Kabir was an exception. So far, the south has been relatively peaceful. This may be because the Shiites there, as victims of Saddam Hussein, are more grateful to the occupiers than are the Sunnis in central Iraq. It may also have to do with the fact that Shiite leaders are busy with an internal power struggle. Their anti-Americanism is limited to an occasional fiery sermon on Fridays.

Why, therefore, are the liberated shooting at their liberators? There is no simple answer. But any search for a reason always leads to the war. Nowadays in Baghdad it has almost become part of common knowledge that there must have been a secret agreement between Saddam Hussein and the Americans. How else could Baghdad have fallen into American hands on April 9 almost without a fight? This may sound like a conspiracy theory, but in the minds of the Iraqis, it has been accepted as true: “We were betrayed by our own commanders. They took money from the Americans and then fled abroad,” says Hussein Hassan, a junior officer in the Iraqi army. “They simply sent us home.” Hassan finds this shameful. He served for 15 years in the army that the Americans have now dissolved.

He did not serve “Saddam Hussein, but this country,” and he cannot rid himself of the feeling “of having betrayed my homeland.”

There are times when this is made painfully clear. When Hassan gathered with other low-ranking officers to demonstrate in front of the American occupation headquarters in Baghdad, the translator for the U.S. soldiers screamed at them: “You are an army of cowards!” The translator is a man from Kuwait—the country that Saddam Hussein’s army invaded in 1990.