Iraq Update to May 2

RE SUNDAY’S ARTICLE: To update, taking account of the change of Iraqi general in charge of Falluja, substitute new paragraphs 6 and 7. Full amended text follows.

4 May 2004

Iraq: It’s All Over Now

By Gwynne Dyer

The situation in Iraq is “disintegration verging on collapse,” said Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the United Nations, on the last day of April. It was a month that saw more American troops killed than during last year’s invasion, a decisive US defeat in the siege of Falluja, and horrific revelations about the torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by both American and British soldiers. It may be years yet before the helicopters pluck the last Americans off the roof of the Baghdad embassy (or a post-Bush administration might still manage a more graceful exit), but basically the game is up.

One hundred and thirty-eight American soldiers were killed in Iraq in April, and over a thousand wounded. The ABC network’s decision to devote its ‘Nightline’ programme on Friday to showing pictures and reading out the names of the 721 American soldiers who have died in Iraq was not driven by hostility to the Bush administration. The producers were just responding to what their audience was feeling — but it spoke volumes about the state of American public opinion.

Meanwhile, any hope of getting the consent of Iraqis to a permanent US military and political presence in the country has gone gurgling down the drain. It is still not clear who ordered the siege of Falluja in response to the killing and mutilation of four American ‘security contractors’ (mercenaries) at the end of March, but it was a blunder that will be studied in military staff colleges for decades to come, the lesson being: when there is no way that you can succeed, it is wiser not to reveal your weakness by trying and failing.

There was no way that US Marines could occupy Falluja and destroy the local resistance forces without killing thousands of Iraqis, most of them civilians. There was no way that they could ever identify and capture the men who killed and mutilated the ‘contractors’. Besieging the city was an emotional response that made no military or political sense, as they only realised about three weeks too late.

‘They’ may be Paul Bremer’s occupation regime in Baghdad, or it may be the micro-managers back in the Pentagon who persistently usurp command functions in Iraq; the inquest that will finally lay the blame for this fatal move will only happen after US troops retreat from Iraq months or years from now. But in only one month they have inadvertently succeeded in reviving Iraqi pride and national identity on the basis of a shared anti-Americanism, and given the whole Arab and Muslim world nightly television lessons in how popular resistance can defeat US power.

After the first week’s fighting killed the better part of a thousand people in Falluja (with Arab TV crews in the city making it clear that a high proportion of the victims were civilians killed by American snipers), somebody in the US occupation forces realised the extent of the disaster and insisted on the talks that eventually let the US forces walk away without launching their final assault. But the price, by then, was handing the city over to a brand-new ’emergency military force’ consisting entirely of former Iraqi soldiers living in the city and commanded by a Saddam-era Iraqi general.

The first nominee for this job, General Jassim Mohammed Saleh, had to withdraw after protests about his role in killing Kurdish rebels in 1991, but his replacement, General Mohammed Latif, is operating under the same unwritten rules. Behind a face-saving pretense that he is under American command, Latif’s Falluja brigade will include many of the resistance fighters who held the Marines off throughout April. There will be no ‘disarmament’ of the resistance, no rounding up of the largely mythical ‘foreign fighters’ and ‘Baathist remnants’, and no hunting down of the men who killed and mutilated the American ‘contractors’.

Falluja has become a no-go zone for American troops, and that is also the likely outcome of the parallel showdown in the holy city of Najaf between American troops and the militia of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Making these deals does less damage to the US position than plowing on with unwinnable confrontations, but the damage has already been very great. The whole Arab world is absorbing the lesson that US military power has its limits — at the same time as it seethes in fury and humiliation at the brutal abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US and British forces.

One picture says it all: a 21-year-old female American soldier grinning cockily at the camera, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, as she points in mockery at a naked male Iraqi prisoner who is being forced to masturbate by his captors. You could not come up with an image better calculated to enrage and alienate Muslim opinion if you hired all the ad agencies in the world.

So the entire US neo-conservative adventure in the Middle East, never very plausible, is now doomed, though it will drag on in a broken-backed way for some time to come. Even the option of handing Iraq over to the United Nations and replacing American troops there with Muslim troops under UN command, still viable a month ago, will soon be foreclosed unless UN officials take a firmer stand against the occupation regime. It is going to get very messy.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“They…power”; and “The first…contractors”)