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Politics

Slight Uptick

1 April 2004

Iraq: “A Slight Uptick”

By Gwynne Dyer

Brigadier-General Mark Kimmit, deputy director of operations for the US occupation forces in Iraq, described the events as a “slight uptick in localised engagements.” Meanwhile, analysts back in the United States compared the pictures from Falluja to footage of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by cheering crowds in 1993 — footage that led directly to the withdrawal of US troops from Somalia. But Americans were shielded from the real ugliness of the killings in Falluja by their television networks; Arab viewers saw it all.

True, the murder and mutilation of four American civilian contractors in Falluja really was just a ‘slight uptick’ in the violence in Iraq. In the previous forty-eight hours there were two Britons hurt in violence in Basra, an Iraqi shot at a US checkpoint, an attack on an Iraqi paramilitary recruiting station in Baghdad, a soldier killed near Ramadi, a suicide bomb against the home of the police chief in Hilleh, a US Marine killed near Fallujah, several American soldiers wounded in Mosul, five more Marines killed by a roadside bomb, and fifteen Iraqis wounded by a car bomb in Baquba.

In other words, the four unfortunate American contractors in Falluja were just another drop in the bucket. It was the manner of their deaths — set on fire, beaten with pipes and mutilated by a cheering crowd who then dragged their charred bodies through the streets and hung them upside down, handless, footless and in one case headless, just above the roadway on the old railway bridge across the Euphrates — that made it so different. That, and the fact that the whole thing was filmed.

If American viewers had seen what Arab viewers saw — the obscene enthusiasm of the crowd, the blithe disregard with which local people were driving under the burned American corpses half an hour later — then President Bush might be having his Mogadishu moment right now. They never will see it, of course, but the question won’t go away: at what point will the American public decide that the price is too high and pull the plug on this foreign adventure? They did it on the Korean war, the Vietnam war, the Lebanon intervention in the 80s and the Somalia intervention in the 90s. They will almost certainly do it on Iraq, too, in the end, but when?

In the mid-90s there used to be something called the ‘Mogadishu line’ which the US military were never supposed to cross. Rounding up from the eighteen US soldiers who were killed in one day in Mogadishu in 1993, it was a doctrine which stated that the US armed forces should undertake no overseas mission that was likely to cause the deaths of more than twenty American soldiers except when vital national interests were involved. That was far too simplistic, of course — it was not so much the number of dead Americans as the videotape of their bodies being dragged before cheering crowds that turned the US public against Somalia — but that is why this incident may mark a turning point.

Four hundred and sixty-one American soldiers have been killed in Iraq since Mr Bush flew onto an aircraft carrier last May to declare the ‘major combat phase’ of the Iraq operation over — almost four times as many as died in the war itself. (Any bets that those shots of the flight-jacketed Mr Bush posing before the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, originally staged to provide footage for his re-election campaign this autumn, will end up being used by the Democrats instead?) So the Mogadishu line has clearly moved a long way, as you would expect after the shock of 9/11. But it’s out there somewhere; it has not evaporated.

The unique impact of the Mogadishu footage came not from the indignities inflicted on the American dead, but from the obvious pleasure that the Somali onlookers took in it. There was a whole background story that Americans didn’t know — almost a thousand Somalis had been killed by US firepower that day — but the viewers at home took one look and decided that no more Americans should die to help the Somalis. The impact of this videotape from Falluja and of the others that will doubtless follow — for these events will set a new standard for Iraqi resistance fighters to aspire to — could be the same.

Statistics don’t actually mean much to people; pictures mean a lot. Mr Bush has succeeded in persuading a (dwindling) majority of Americans that his Iraq adventure had something to do with fighting terrorism, which is why the public has been so patient with him as the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ failed to turn up and the Iraqi armed resistance grew. But surely not all of the people in those jeering crowds in Falluja can be terrorists? Is it possible that they really don’t want us there? Then why are our kids being sent there to die?

It’s more complicated than that, of course. Falluja has been the supreme stronghold of the resistance from the start of the occupation because of an early massacre of Arab civilians by panicky US troops; most other towns are nowhere near as unanimous in their hatred of the US presence. But distrust of American intentions and resentment at American behaviour run strongly throughout Iraqi society, as indeed they run strongly through the whole Arab world. There will be more videos — and if American voters figure that out before November, then Mr Bush is in serious trouble.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“In themid-90s…evaporated”)