Letter from Lebanon: Arabs See a Colonizer Army, Not 'Liberation'

BEIRUT, Lebanon--The Iraqi man who detonated a car bomb that killed himself and four American soldiers seems to have ushered in a dramatic new phase of the war in Iraq. But we should deal carefully with hyperbole that speaks of thousands of Arab suicide bombers coming to attack American-British forces. Some will try, for sure, but most such warnings probably reflect the heightened emotions of the moment.

There is clearly a profound wave of anti-colonial resistance sweeping much of the Arab world. For some, this may take the shape of indiscriminate terror, perhaps even an attempt at germ or chemical attacks on American soil. Much more certain and definable is the destructive dynamic unfolding in this region now.

The military superiority of the American-British armada leaves little doubt that Baghdad will be subjected to a siege and an assault, resulting in the overthrow of the current Iraqi regime. This is likely to come at a very high price for two parties: Iraqi lives and property, and American political standing in this region and the world at large.

The suicide bomber who killed himself and four American soldiers certainly defined his act as resistance to occupation, while the American-British command said it was an act of terror. This is an interesting but ultimately irrelevant distinction, because the invasion and the resistance it generates both will go on, regardless of how the two sides define their acts. More important is the transformed perception of the dynamic underway in the minds of most people in the Middle East.

Arabs and many others who oppose the American-British invasion do not defend Saddam Hussein, but rather the right of the Iraqi people to be spared from such unilateral assaults. The American-British armada also is being viewed increasingly in this region as an army of occupation -- and in some important ways it is behaving accordingly.

The suicide bombing has led American and British troops to be much more careful about coming into contact with Iraqis. The troops are more nervous and more trigger happy, as we witnessed when American soldiers shot and killed a number of women and children in a van at a checkpoint Monday. Television pictures show columns of young American and British troops walking through Iraqi villages with their guns drawn and loaded. Men who approach the soldiers have to take their shirts off, to show that they are not carrying bombs. Troops break down doors and rush into Iraqi houses, guns drawn and sometimes blazing. American and British guns shell entire Iraqi neighborhoods.

Tommy Franks, welcome to Nablus, the historic Palestinian West Bank city that became a symbol for Israeli bombardment, destruction and occupation last year.

The American-British army in Iraq is dangerously close to joining an ignominious list of modern occupation armies that generated fierce resistance from the natives, sought unsuccessfully to stay in place by the force of their superior firepower, and ultimately were driven out, dropped their imperial adventure, and returned home. The three most glaring examples of this cycle in recent memory are probably the Americans in Vietnam, the Russians in Afghanistan, and the Israelis in South Lebanon.

We already hear voices around the Arab and Islamic world asking for volunteers to travel to Iraq to fight and oust the invaders, just as tens of thousands of volunteers went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to oust the occupying Russians. Some have already made the trip, along with thousands of Iraqi men who have returned home to defend their country.

The common emotional response to the Iraq war throughout the Arab World has been one of anti-colonial resistance. This war is being seen widely as merely the latest phase of a long-running colonial drama by which Western armies invade, subjugate, reconfigure, and exploit the lands and resources of the Middle East. This may be a romantic, emotional notion, or it may be an accurate one.

Given the compelling historical lessons of the three other east, west and central Asian lands of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Lebanon, one would be a fool to be dazzled by the power and determination of a mighty nation that sends its army into distant Asian adventures. We should remember that these three other failed Asian episodes started with a superior military power occupying another land while repeating pleasant sounding rationales about security, democracy, liberation, prosperity and defending freedom. They all ended in humiliating failure at the hands of invaded men and women whose will to resist was greater than the invader's will to persist. The actions of both sides in the coming weeks may well reveal if we are moving in this direction.

PNS contributor Rami G. Khouri (rgskhouri@hotmail.com) is a political scientist and executive editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon.

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