Understanding Iraq

October 26, 2007

The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq

By Patrick Cockburn

Verso, 2006

229 pages, $49.95 (hb)

President George W. Bush's premature declaration on May 1 2003 that the Iraq war was over just six weeks after it started was, writes Patrick Cockburn in The Occupation, made a lie by the regular columns of black smoke on the 10 kilometre road, where US convoys were regularly hit by roadside bombs, between Baghdad and the optimistically named "Camp Victory" — the gigantic US military headquarters on the edge of Iraq's main airport.

Cockburn, one of the few Western journalists armed with scepticism of US military boasts and political spin, has reported the four years of war that followed the initial, and deceptive, US pushover against an Iraqi army where "few soldiers had any intention of dying for a regime they did not like in a war it could not win" and who largely evaporated from the field.

Opinion polls just after the invasion, writes Cockburn, showed that half of all Iraqis thought they had been liberated by the invasion. But, just two months later, polls recorded a large majority of Arab Iraqis who believed the US had invaded Iraq to establish imperial rule. Washington's early jubilation quickly turned sour as neither the mythical "weapons of mass destruction" (the ostensible justification for the war) nor US concerns for the liberties and welfare of ordinary Iraqis materialised. The protracted electricity fiasco — as Iraqi homes sweltered in 45°C heat with no air conditioning, or refrigerators to prevent food from rotting, or light to make the streets safe from criminals — has become a "symbol of the general failure of the occupation".

This material deprivation, writes Cockburn, is "the overwhelming political and economic fact" of occupied Iraq, leaving a legacy of "bitter people with little left to lose". While "the country became a feeding trough for politically well-connected American companies and individuals", the gold rush left most Iraqis further behind, mired in economic misery.

In response, resistance to the US military occupation soon scaled up from sporadic attacks on US soldiers to an organised insurgency. As in the Vietnam War, says Cockburn, US "counter-insurgency" tactics ("indiscriminate, massive overuse of firepower, and success calculated by the number of supposed insurgents killed, weapons captured and suspects taken away with bags over their heads") were counter-productive.

An accumulation of occupation-caused grievances fed the appetite for resistance — the ever-expanding toll of Iraqis beaten and shot by nervous or trigger-happy US soldiers; money stolen in raids and not returned; collective punishment against civilians under flimsy suspicion of supporting insurgents (e.g., bulldozing the date-palm and fruit-growing farms of 32 families in a village north of Baghdad); anger over the loss of jobs in the army, civil service and schools under a harsh "de-Baathisation" policy.

The Iraqi resistance developed skilled guerrilla fighters, striking at the US military where it was most vulnerable — its dependence on a constant flow of road-borne supply columns. The improvised explosive device hidden on the roadside was an amateur but versatile and lethal bomb, with an insistent political impact in the US where the war was steadily losing public favour.

Yet, the "profound extent of US failure", tabulated in the thousands of US casualties and in the opinion polls that recorded large majorities of Iraqis wanting a US withdrawal and approving of armed attacks on occupation forces, is routinely denied in US press conferences and briefings. These were always relentlessly upbeat with a US victory always just over the horizon as the US military closed in on "a small gang of al-Qaeda terrorists and die-hard survivors of Saddam Hussein's regime, both desperate to prevent the birth of a free and democratic Iraq".

This "Deadenders" pitch was, says Cockburn, an absurd thesis — Hussein loyalists and foreign terrorists were always a minority of the armed resistance. The importance of extreme Islamic foreign terrorists, typified by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was systematically exaggerated by the US to downplay the indigenous resistance. It suited the fantasy Iraq of US officials who were "oblivious to the simple fact that Iraqis objected to foreigners running their country" . In the real Iraq, nationalist resentment of the US occupation powered public opinion and armed resistance.

Insurgents controlled large parts of the capital at night. There were major uprisings in Mosul, Najaf and Fallujah. Iraqi police and army were infiltrated by the resistance and staffed with "economic recruits" escaping unemployment who harboured nationalist sentiments. The only reliable security forces were the hated 12,000 strong police commando death squads that, in their garish green and yellow uniforms, arrested, tortured and murdered Sunni Arabs in revenge killings orchestrated by the collaborationist Shia-controlled Ministry of the Interior.

This Sunni-Shia sectarian warfare has distorted the anti-occupation resistance but Cockburn, despite flirting with the proposition of the "inevitability" of the sectarian divide, is generally careful not to overstate the sectarian war. Although not systematically positioning sectarian division in the context of a colonialist divide-and-rule strategy, Cockburn acknowledges that a too-ready emphasis on religious, ethnic and tribal divisions "underestimates the desire of Iraqis to be in control of their own country and the strength of Iraqi nationalism — however much they hate each other, they hate the US more".

The core dynamic in Iraq, argues Cockburn, remains "the struggle for power" between, on the one hand, the White House, its army of occupation and a local Iraqi political leadership and, on the other side, Iraqi Arabs motivated by nationalism and economic desperation.

Washington and its representatives in the Green Zone, protected by blast-proof concrete and reality-deflecting propaganda, chooses to disguise what its unfortunate foot soldiers know — that they are not welcome in Iraq. The writing was literally on the wall from the first days of conquest — Iraqi women sex-workers had written in lipstick on large mirrors above their hand basins anti-US slogans in Arabic that their new US clients were unable to read. The message was, and remains, simple — go home!

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