Give us hope, not bombs

Ayub Nuri
15 April 2004

One year ago the Iraqi people welcomed the US troops into their country. Despite all the hazards of the war, Iraqis could not help coming out of their homes and onto their roofs to wave their hands at the US soldiers.

Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime had left few Iraqis against the war. The majority could not wait for war to overthrow Saddam.

Now, American occupation policy has sharply reduced the numbers of Iraqis welcoming the war and its results.

Killing thirteen civilians in Falluja in May 2003 lit the fire of a resistance that has exacted a heavy price from the American army ever since. Those people were immediately called “terrorists and supporters of Saddam Hussein” by the occupying powers. Saddam’s regime had been overthrown and he himself captured, but the US was still happy to invoke that enemy to fill a space created by the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which had justified their war in the first place.

One big mistake made by the Americans has led to today’s critical situation. This was the neglect of a significant section of Iraqi society, and the man they look to at this turning point in Iraqi history. Muqtada al-Sadr is the son of one of the highest Shi’ite clerics, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, assassinated by Saddam’s security services in 1999. The American occupying authorities created an Iraqi Governing Council (ICG) in July last year and appointed 25 politicians and party leaders members of this Council. Later, they set up a ministerial cabinet, blatantly consisting almost exclusively of brothers, sons or cousins of the members of the IGC.

Muqtada al-Sadr was neither consulted nor acknowledged in the creation of either of these institutions. In reaction, al-Sadr promptly organised his own militia (the Mahdi army) and nominated his own government. Muqtada al-Sadr is himself only young, but he is the son of a cleric as revered in status as Ayatollah Sistani, whom the US authorities in Iraq listen to and take seriously.

The occupying forces did not properly register or appreciate the calm and peaceful environment that the Shi’ite leaders and community had insisted upon and permitted to exist from the moment that Saddam’s regime fell. From the beginning, Muqtada al-Sadr repeated over and over again that he did not court or encourage violence against the occupying forces. This expression of good will was met by the arrest of al-Sadr’s deputy in Najaf, and the summary closure of his newspaper Al-Hawza.

For further views on Al-Hawza and its closure, see articles in the Asia Times and the World Press Review.

One of the factors that allowed the US forces to deal with the so-called “Sunni Triangle” was Shi’ite support for regime change in Iraq. But it is very difficult to find a convincing, neat description for the type of violence and resistance taking place against US forces today.

The Shi’ites have risen against the US presence and fight as strongly as the Sunnis do in Falluja and Ramadi. Everybody expected the US authorities to seek a peaceful solution to calm the situation down immediately after the Shi’ites got involved. But once again they have made the same mistake – resorted to force, relying on their tanks to solve the problem.

Neither Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters nor the Sunni fighters are a small group, as the US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, would have the world believe. These are Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims who reject the occupation of their country.

I went to a meeting of sheikhs and other well-known figures who had travelled to Sadr City to tell Muqtada al-Sadr’s representative in Baghdad that they were ready to offer their souls, their families and their money to support Sadr’s revolution. Sheikh Adil al Shara, the deputy of al-Sadr’s representative said to those present, “Bush and the Pentagon have to realise that the whole of the Iraqi people are the Mahdi army” – a clear reply to General Kimmitt’s press conference pledge to “destroy the Mahdi army”.

Think of all the expectations that Iraqi people had for rebuilding the country, finding jobs and a new life after Saddam; and all the promises that the US president made to Iraqis, including liberation, rebuilding and democracy. The US army is using F16 fighter planes and cluster bombs against Iraqi civilians, and besieging Iraq’s towns. Heavy bombing is not what the Iraqi people wanted from America.

Nothing about the coalition forces in Iraq rings true. Japanese troops came into Iraq, based in the southern province of Samawa, maintaining that they have come to participate in rebuilding Iraq. But when has rebuilding been carried out by tanks, armed vehicles and military bulldozers?

America is very proud of its military power, but Americans must understand that this does not impress the Iraqi people. We have been through so many wars. We are so very well accustomed to bombing and killing. Moreover, have the US authorities forgotten that every house in Iraq has got at least one gun with enough ammunition for the foreseeable future?

As we see in some of the battles taking place now, many families have got heavy weapons. What is 150 thousand US soldiers in the face of Iraq’s multi-million population? A small number of US generals and 19-year-old soldiers are attempting to take on a very traditional Muslim population. Most US soldiers have no idea what they have come to Iraq for. They have been brained-washed by the words “fighting terrorism and liberating a nation”.

Meanwhile, we hear many rumours about contracts being signed by US administrator Paul Bremer for millions of dollars. This is taking place when, since 9 April 2003, not one single stone has been put on top of another stone to rebuild Iraq. Had the coalition forces really come to rebuild Iraq, the war-torn Iraqi people would never have let militias come into being to impede that process.

But the Iraqi people are not told what is going on inside the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the governing council: what deals are signed and with which companies? Sure enough, several militia groups have mushroomed all over the country: not just the Mahdi army, but the Iraqi Mujahideen, the Muhammad army, the Ansar al Sunna (Iraqi resistance) and several other unknown groups. I expect the Iraqi people will keep quiet about these groups’ activities.

Many Iraqis have been arrested for carrying small guns such as pistols. Elsewhere in the country, several children have been killed for pointing plastic toy weapons at US soldiers. Thanks to the misguided arrogance of Iraqi advisors who spent almost their whole life in the west, the American army ran into a battle this week, screened throughout the whole world, which ended up with them having to negotiate.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s group are described as Saddam-supporting thugs like the fighters in Falluja. But I have been to both areas and these are people who had high expectations for post war Iraq, like every other Iraqi. When has it happened in history that a group of thugs and gangsters have taken on a strong army like that of the US? Thugs rob banks and break into supermarkets. Clearly al-Sadr’s Mahdi army like the Sunnis in Falluja have lost their patience and what little trust they have in the Americans. This suggests many more people could join them.

A young supporter of Muqtada al-Sadr came up to me and said, “we have Mr Bush to thank for making us put aside our differences with the Sunnis and get united”. That is a message which means America can no longer explain away the Sunnis as Saddam loyalists, because the Shi’ites were systematically exterminated by him.

Muqtada al-Sadr is called an outlaw for leading a militia. But there is another story to be told about militias in Iraq. Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ayad Alawi of the Iraqi National Accord, and Abdul Aziz Hakim of the Supreme Council for Islamic revolution in Iraq, are all members of the IGC. They have always had their own militias.

These militias have joined the new Iraqi army, but as soon as there is the slightest whiff of danger threatening their own position, or even in the eventuality of an election failure, these leaders will whip their militias out of the Iraqi army in a second. Muqtada, by contrast, has never left the country. He has certainly not spent his life abroad for 20 years or more. He is accused of seeking power. But what is it but the love of power and influence that has kept the members of the IGC quiet in the face of all the crimes committed by the US army against the people of Iraq?

If there is to be any democracy in post-Saddam Iraq, let people from Falluja and Kufa be active in the country’s politics. Then a free election can decide who should stay and who should go.

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