America will pay the price if it ignores Iraqi nationalism

By Paul-Marie de La Gorce, Special to Gulf News (27-07-2003)


Iraqi resistance is now a force to be reckoned with, both within the country and across the political and strategic map of the Middle East. This resistance has become an effective guerrilla war and has led to nearly daily losses of the occupying U.S. troops. Even the most careful observers did not expect this movement to take hold so quickly.

The scope of the resistance has particularly shocked Washington officials who misunderstood Iraqi national sentiment and expected U.S. troops to be welcomed with open arms. It is true Iraqi Shiites and probably the larger majority of Iraqis were hostile to Saddam Hussain's regime. But Washington, to its peril, has ignored the levels of patriotism and nationalism in the country.

The resistance began almost immediately in the cities along the U.S.-led offensive, each of which was Shiite. U.S. troops were forced to bypass these cities so as not to slow down the march towards Baghdad. There was also an uprising as the U.S. and its allies destroyed southern districts of Baghdad and areas in the city where a guerrilla war was taking hold, between April 4-9.

It was during this time - when the U.S. was not taking prisoners or making any substantial seizure of light weapons - that Iraqi fighters began dispersing across the territory and within the population.

Resistance is now a reality. Against this backdrop of instability, there must be an attempt to answer essential questions about Iraq's future. Who are the men behind this resistance? Many Western observers believe they are former members of the Baath party who remain in some way connected to Saddam and his regime. Observers also believe Islamists, comparable to the Al Qaida group, are part of the movement. Neither argument is sound.

A large number of Iraqis who belonged to the Baath party did so because it was crucial for making a living. The Islamist connection is even more tenuous, since there is no culture among Iraqis of radical Islamic movements. Even more doubtful is that any co-ordination exists between Islamists and members of the former ruling party.

In fact, the extent to which the resistance has taken hold indicates that it has recruits from mainstream Iraqis. The Shiite community, let us not forget, was the backbone of larger nationalist parties, as well as the communist party.

Will this resistance last? There are certainly no physical impediments to its development: the country consists of mountainous zones, desert areas, and sprawling and populated cities. Resistance can continue, in various forms, for a long time.

On the other hand, as is the case for all armed rebellions and guerrilla movements, foreign aid will be essential. This help could come only from Iran and Syria, countries towards which Washington has issued repeated warnings and threats. The survival of the guerrillas will depend on the political and strategic choices of Iran and Syria, who, for the moment, have remained reserved.

The next stage of Iraqi resistance does not depend on these two countries, however. It has, quite simply, a considerable stash of light weaponry - besides infantry weapons and munitions.

The majority of Iraqi fighters have managed to keep their weapons, as have civilians who were distributed arms by the government before the war broke out. So the armed fight against American occupation can continue, without foreign assistance, perhaps for many months.

What will U.S. officials do? It must be noted that after the end of operations, Washington facilitated Iraqi resistance. The U.S. could not or did not want to repair, in an urgent fashion, vital infrastucture such as electricity, communications and transport. The catastrophic economic sitution was left to deteriorate quickly.

There was also a refusal to employ or pay civil servants and soldiers who would probably have agreed to serve under a new authority.

Furthermore, nothing was done to prevent the systematic looting of ministries and public offices essential to the functionning of the state apparatus that would have served to restore order.

The problem that U.S. officials have to resolve is both military and political. In order to establish control in the country, the U.S. needs more than the 150,000 Americans and British personnel already deployed. An appeal for international contingents, and to establish a Polish-led occupation zone, has been made.

But there is every reason to believe that these contingents will be insufficiently equipped, trained, and motivated to fight against guerrillas. Untimately, political factors will prevail.

The U.S. war against Saddam requires the support of the Shiite community. But Washington does not want to risk turning Iraq into an islamic republic whose behaviour and orientation might be difficult to control.

To avoid this, should the U.S. admit to the existence and popularity of Iraqi nationalism - with all its ethnic and religious components and its modernism - and seek its support?

Undoubtedly, this would be the most rational choice. But this would run counter to its original war objectives that have driven American policy up until now.

In the meantime, Iraqi nationalism continues to express itself through a growing armed resistance.

The writer is a French writer and an international affairs analyst.

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