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One year on: From liberation to jihad

by Pepe Escobar  (17 May 2004)

On April 9, 2002, Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdaus Square in Baghdad was still enveloped, like a Christo installation, waiting to be unveiled in an official ceremony. On April 9, 2003, the statue was toppled by the US Army, and later replaced by a faceless figure symbolizing "liberation". On April 9, 2004, the faceless statue is plastered with photographs of "outlaw" Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

One year after the "fall" of Baghdad, the old colonial maxim "divide and rule" does not apply anymore. For the occupiers, this is the ultimate nightmare: Sunni and Shi'ite, united (almost) as one. From Kirkuk in the north to Karbala in the south, from Fallujah to Nasiriyah, from Ramadi to Baghdad, Iraq is in turmoil - and this is not the work of "Saddam Fedayeen", "remnants of the Ba'ath Party" or "foreign terrorists". This is the beginning of the end: the serious possibility that the Shi'ites - 60 percent or so of the invaded and "liberated" Iraqi population - will be tempted actively to lead the multifaceted Iraqi resistance.

It's ironic that it took one year after its supposed US-sponsored liberation for the resistance to qualify Fallujah as liberated - before the city of almost 500,000 came under siege by the marines this past Monday. There's no food or water coming in. By blocking the highway connecting Baghdad, Amman and Damascus, the Americans have strangulated practically all trade between Iraq and its neighbors Jordan and Syria. The city is totally sealed off from the rest of the world. AlJazeera has the only media crew in town. Reporter Ahmad Mansur says: "Everybody walking in the streets is now becoming an [American] target." Mosques are broadcasting calls to jihad.

An Apache helicopter fired three missiles into a compound housing the Abdul Aziz al-Samarrai mosque in Fallujah during afternoon prayers. The mosque itself was not hit - but dozens of people were. Homes are being turned into makeshift hospitals. Whatever the spin from the Pentagon, this is the word of mouth in the Iraqi street, soon to spread like wildfire all over the Muslim world: the Americans now are bombing mosques. Fallujah is the new Gaza. Fallujah residents are to be subjected to ferocious Israeli-style search-and-destroy raids for the men with rocket-propelled grenades who first attacked the four American mercenaries from Blackwater Security Consulting, whose corpses were later mutilated and hanged by an angry mob. Iraqis in the Sunni triangle believe that the Americans received their "rules of engagement" from Ariel Sharon's army in Israel.

Meanwhile, in the Shi'ite belt, the holy city of Kufa, the power base of the clerical al-Sadr family, in whose mosque "outlaw" Muqtada al-Sadr took refuge, became the first Iraqi city to spin completely out of US control. Asia Times Online has confirmed that Muqtada is now in the holy city of Najaf, in his office in an alley near the Imam Ali shrine, protected by hundreds of armed members of his Mahdi Army. The Iraqi police have totally vanished. The Spanish garrison outside of town describes the situation as "high tension". The Mahdi Army now in effect controls the shrine, as well as central Najaf. A constant stream of Muqtada's followers comes from Baghdad. In his most recent statement, he says: "I'm prepared to have my own blood shed for what is holy to me," and calls on Sunnis and Shi'ites alike to fight the Americans.

Proconsul L Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has already amplified Muqtada's cult-hero status, and may soon create a martyr by having a warrant for his arrest issued. Muqtada's black-clad Mahdi Army may have only several thousand members, but he commands support of at least 30 percent of an estimated 15 million Iraqi Shi'ites: some serious Arab analysts even talk of 50 percent. And just as his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed al-Sadr, became a martyr to Saddam in 1999, Muqtada well appreciates the benefits of becoming a martyr to the US occupation.

Cross-confessional intifada For all purposes, an intifada is now going on. Local sources tell Asia Times Online there are pro-Muqtada posters all over Anbar - the richest, predominantly Sunni, Iraqi province. Ramadi - where marines have been under fierce attack - is in Anbar. Only a war of national liberation is the motive capable of explaining these posters. The concept - penned by the Pentagon - of a Shi'ite Mahdi Army fighting the marines in Sunni Anbar is positively ludicrous. This regional resistance is conducted by former officers of the Iraqi army, as tribal sheikhs in the Sunni triangle told this correspondent last year.

Sunnis and Shi'ites are united in Baghdad, under the same nationalist impulse. Sheikh Raed al-Kazami, Muqtada's man in the Shi'ite-majority Kazimiya neighborhood, is not very far from the truth when he says: "All of Iraq is behind Muqtada al-Sadr; we are but one body, one people." On the other side of the Tigris, Sunni-majority Adhamiya is now aligned with Kazimiya, as well as Fallujah, Ramadi and even Mosul, against the "American invaders". The popular justification is always the same: this is now a jihad, regardless of whether one is Sunni or Shi'ite. People will fight in their neighborhoods, even if they don't join the Mahdi Army.

Asia Times Online has learned that in an unprecedented move, 150 powerful Sunni tribal leaders and emissaries personally delivered a support message to Muqtada's key aides in the 2-million-plus slum of Sadr City, the former Saddam City: "We are all behind Muqtada al-Sadr, we are by his side because he awakened the Iraqi people to liberate the country from the infidel invaders." The message also said: "We are but one Muslim nation - no one can separate us, be it in Iraq or Palestine."

Washington was busy predicting a civil war among Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds. The White House, the Pentagon and the CPA even had the perfectly manufactured culprit: Jordanian Mussab al-Zarqawi, the new Osama bin Laden. What they bought themselves instead is the ultimate occupier nightmare: Sunni and Shi'ite united. Muqtada may be a cross between two-thirds Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran and one-third Che Guevara (without the romantic charisma). But he finds enormous echo in Iraq when he compares Bremer to Saddam (in Sadr City, US-trained Iraqi soldiers first fired on peaceful demonstrators, followed by the US Army with tanks, Apaches and jets firing at random on homes, shops and even ambulances; according to local hospitals, dozens of civilians were killed and many more were injured). Muqtada also finds enormous echo in the Arab world when he aligns himself with Hamas - predominantly Sunni - and Hezbollah - predominantly Shi'ite.

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld swears Washington has nothing to do with the arrest warrant against Muqtada: this is "Iraqi justice" in action. Wrong. The Iraqi Jurists Association published a statement on Wednesday saying that the arrest warrant is "illegal and based on a lie ... The arrest warrant is illegal and incorrect, as the occupation forces issued it in disregard for sovereignty of Iraq's justice system." The Iraqi minister of justice, Abdel-Rahim Al-Shibly, also says he had not been aware of the arrest warrant.

The Bremer-Muqtada-Sistani triangle The CPA will never persuade Iraqis - Sunni or Shi'ite - that the violent repression against Muqtada and the Mahdi Army is capable of safeguarding the "handover of sovereignty" on June 30. Apart from Humvees, tanks and Apaches, Bremer sent the new Iraqi army - using ski masks, so they would not be recognized later by the neighbors - to fire on the urban poor of Sadr City, the same Saddam City "liberated" by the marines a year ago. After this performance, the CPA's credibility, already low, is now less than zero: the average Iraqi portrays it as a dictatorship exactly like Saddam's - intolerant of a critical press and fully repressing peaceful protests.

Former counter-terrorism expert Bremer may have been foolish to use such tactics. Or he may have been very clever - employing a typical Sharon move: a provocation leading to anger and protests, which cries for a crackdown to restore "order". He may have wanted to trigger a move to cripple the growing influence of the army of Sadrists. Muqtada and his followers would have every chance of getting a great number of seats if elections for a Iraqi parliament are really held next January.

Muqtada is indeed a radical upstart compared with the religious Shi'ite first among equals, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But Sistani prefers to carefully mold the United Nations to his wishes, rather than confronting the CPA - which he loathes in silence and seclusion. But as many Shi'ite religious leaders have told this correspondent, Sistani just has to say the word (or issue a fatwa). If he says the word, the occupation is finished.

One thing is absolutely certain: there is no possible US military solution to smash the resistance. Harith al-Dari, secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Scholars Association - one of the country's highest religious authorities - goes straight to the point: "They insist on enforcing a military solution as if they are facing an enemy in a battleground, not isolated civilians."

If Bremer behaved like a fool, he only has one card left to play. He badly needs Sistani's help to reign in Muqtada. But Sistani does not even admit receiving a deferential visit from Bremer in person. Supposing this would happen, there would be a heavy political price to pay: plenty of US concessions and a total review of the US-imposed Iraqi constitution. For the moment, Sistani has voiced "solidarity" with Muqtada, and is still preaching "negotiations", while Dawa - the oldest Shi'ite political party - has distanced itself from the Muqtada uprising.

Hell and Blackwater

The four Americans killed in Fallujah were not simply "civilians". Three were Navy Seals (sea, air, land special forces) and one was Delta Force, working on contract for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and employees of Blackwater Security Consulting - one among dozens of so-called "private" companies performing shady operations in Iraq and other parts of the world Washington prefers be attributed to "civilians": a US$100-billion-a-year market. There may be as many as 10,000 "civilian" security contractors in Iraq at the moment. Blackwater is a paramilitary operation: it trains soldiers in counter-terrorism and urban combat, and profits from rent-a-soldier schemes (using former Green Berets, Army Rangers and Navy Seals). Blackwater's corporate leaders are proud to manage the largest and most professional private army in the world, with around 400 armed commandos in Iraq alone. Some of them compose the Praetorian Guard of Bremer himself.

Additionally, there may be up to 3,000 CIA agents in Iraq at the moment. As far as the Iraqi resistance is concerned, "security" contractors, Seals, Delta Force or CIA are not civilians but legitimate military-related targets.

Anybody who has traveled in the Sunni triangle knows how the US occupation is universally loathed. Fallujah residents told this correspondent last year that the Americans themselves triggered the birth of the resistance only two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, when their troops entrenched in a Fallujah school opened indiscriminate fire against an angry crowd, killing at least 17 people, including women and children.

The Pentagon and the White House could not possibly admit there's a war of national resistance going on - but that's what it is: the spirit of the resistance is a mix of Iraqi nationalism and Arab pride, and has absolutely nothing to do with Saddam. Even before the crackdown on Fallujah and against Muqtada's followers, different groups had united under an official denomination: the Patriotic Front for the Liberation of Iraq.

The US response in Fallujah - "deliberate, precise and overwhelming", according to General Mark Kimmitt - won't deter the resistance. In Fallujah, they call themselves the Resistance Brigades of Fallujah, and have even issued a communique taking credit for the killing of the American contractors. The Brigades include the Brigades of the Martyr Ahmad Yasin, the Brigades of Ali ibn Abi Talib the Lion of God and Conqueror, and the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution.

'Free Iraq' Bremer has declared war on local populations: this is an enormous mistake. The Bush administration's "war on terror" has led to thousands more civilian victims in Afghanistan and Iraq than in the United States on September 11, 2001. This is never debated in the US mainstream media - where as a rule an American life is deemed to be superior to any other. On every front, the "war on terror" is not leading to an end of terrorism, but to a never-ending war.

The administration of President George W Bush is busy selling the concept of a June 30 handover of "sovereignty" to an Iraqi administration. Even before the current Operation Bloodshed, Iraqis - avid consumers of political intrigue - knew full well what's behind it. They know the CPA has confirmed that after June 30, the $18.4 billion of reconstruction funds will be administered by the US Embassy in Iraq - the largest in the world, capable of housing 3,000 people. These funds - supposed to last for five years - will be spent on Iraq's crucial infrastructure: oil, water, electricity, communications, police and the judiciary. What Bremer's CPA is in fact saying is that any Iraqi government simply won't be able to decide how the country will be rebuilt.

Iraqis also know that 14 US military bases are already under construction, enough to accommodate the (for the moment) 110,000 American soldiers who will stay in Iraq until at least 2007. No sovereign Iraqi government has approved the construction of these bases. Kimmitt - the No 2 Pentagon man in Iraq, and the one who launched total war on Fallujah - said the bases are "a blueprint for how we could operate in the Middle East". A ring of US military bases throughout what the Pentagon calls the Greater Middle East is a key element of the neo-conservative-driven strategy to control world energy resources as the way to control the destiny of America's economic rivals - the European Union and Northeast Asia.

Iraqis also know about another Bremer executive order - according to which even with an interim Iraqi government the Iraqi army will be controlled by top US commander Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez. And they know they will also have to live with an Iraqi version of Condoleezza Rice - a Bremer-appointed national security adviser with a five-year mandate.

Muqtada may be an Islamic fundamentalist. But his intifada is popular because the base consists of legions of Iraq's urban poor and unemployed - roughly 70 percent of the total working-age population. And the motive is plain and simple: this is part of a national resistance against a colonial enterprise. No institution created by the US invasion - especially the CPA - has any political legitimacy, any moral legitimacy, or any kind of popular support. Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and one of the leading American experts on Iraq, is adamant: "The United States has managed to create a failed state, similar to Somalia and Haiti, in Iraq."

So this is the Bush administration-sponsored "free Iraq" people identify not only in the Sunni triangle but in the Shi'ite south: an occupying power maybe not formally occupying the country any more, but installed in 14 military bases and able to exercise full control on security, the economy and the whole infrastructure. In plain English: a US colony. This is the reason the mob in Fallujah rejoiced in the burning of those American bodies. This is the reason Sunnis and Shi'ites have for now united in anger. And this is the reason the "liberation" has finally turned into a jihad.

- The Asian Times

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revised 18 November 2005