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Politics

$30 Million Hit

23 July 2003

The $30 Million Hit

By Gwynne Dyer

The United States government will almost certainly pay out $30 million to the person who fingered Saddam Hussein’s two sons for death. Is it getting its money’s worth?

Paul Bremer, the US diplomat who effectively rules Iraq, declared that the American action satisfied “the real desires of the Iraqi people to be rid once and for all of Saddam, his sons and his odious regime.” Dozens of coalition briefers and spinners hammered home the message that Uday and Qusay’s deaths will dishearten the ‘regime remnants’ whom they blame for the growing guerilla resistance to the American occupation.

The number of American soldiers killed by Iraqi guerillas since President George W. Bush announced the end of ‘major combat operations’ on 1 May is now over a third of the total killed in the war itself. It would exceed that total before the end of this year even at the current loss rate, but in fact the rate is going up steadily: US forces rarely report attacks unless American soldiers are actually killed or injured, but there are now over a dozen incidents a day.

It would be nice for the occupiers if just killing off Saddam’s bloodline — and eventually the monster himself — would end the resistance, but it is deeply unlikely. Nobody really liked Saddam Hussein, not even his fellow Baathists. Like Stalin and the Russian Communists, Saddam seized control of a party that contained many genuine idealists, killed quite a lot of them, and turned the Baath Party into a mere instrument of his own personal power. But there are still plenty of Arab nationalists left in Iraq, and quite a few religious zealots too. None of them likes being occupied by Americans.

Consider the American soldier who died in an attack on a US convoy passing through Khan Dari only hours after the deaths of Saddam’s sons in Mosul. The bomb that killed him was buried in the median divider of the highway running through Khan Dari and detonated by remote control. The highway is lined by shops and soft-drink stands and overlooked by hundreds of people day and night. Many presumably saw the guerillas dig up the median, bury the bomb and retire to wait for an American convoy, but nobody betrayed them. Reporters who arrived at the scene after the explosion said most of the onlookers were pleased by the soldier’s death.

Khan Dari is within the ‘Sunni triangle’ north and west from Baghdad that benefited greatly under Baathist rule. It was the birthplace of the first Iraqi rebel to kill a British officer in 1920 in an earlier uprising against a foreign occupation, and it is only five miles (8 km.) from Fallujah, where US troops killed 16 demonstrators in the early days of the occupation. It is not, in other words, a typical Iraqi town. But it is not nearly as untypical as the coalition’s leaders hope and claim, and it is highly improbable that Uday and Qusay’s deaths, or even Saddam’s own, would damp down the resistance.

Indeed, proving that the old regime is gone for good by killing Saddam and his family might even stiffen the resistance, as it would simplify the choices of many people in Iraq who hate the occupation but fear Saddam’s return. Besides, it is doubtful whether the secular nationalists of the Baath still dominate the resistance even now: there are indications that many of the current guerilla attacks are coming from formerly repressed Sunni Islamist groups that have been freed to act by Saddam’s fall.

It is a great irony that these are precisely the groups in Iraq that would be most likely to make common cause with America’s great enemy, al-Qaeda, but they are not the greatest threat to the US position in Iraq. The current guerilla war is a bearable burden; what would turn it into a nightmare for the United States is a decision by some major element of Iraq’s Shia majority to begin open resistance to the occupation forces as well.

Given the successful precedent of the Shia-led revolution against the Shah in Iran, there is a good chance that Shia resistance in Iraq would be mainly non-violent. It could nevertheless be very effective, provoking coalition soldiers into using force against unarmed civilians and closing the roads that carry supplies from the Gulf ports to the occupation troops in central and northern Iraq. Killing Saddam wouldn’t do a single thing to shrink this possibility.

The only thing that will shrink it is handing Iraq over to its Shia majority, but the Bush administration is loth to do that for two reasons. One is the strong sympathy that exists between the Shias of Iraq and of Iran, which Washington perceives as its greatest enemy in the region. The other is the near-certainty that handing power to the Shia would ignite a kind of civil war between the Sunni Arabs of the centre and the Shia Arabs of the south. On the other hand, a Sunni-Shia conflict would at least divert the efforts of the Sunni guerillas who are currently plaguing the occupation forces. Divide and rule is still a good imperial principle.

There was no real American plan on the way into this mess, and there still isn’t one now. But there had better be one pretty soon, or Mr Bush’s cheap ‘victory’ is going to look pretty Pyrrhic.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“Paul…occupation”; and “Khan…resistance”)