Autopsy of a Failed Occupation

Arrogance and incompetence are becoming the signature aspects of U.S. military rule in Iraq. Exhibit A is the siege of Fallujah, where more than 600 hundred have died within the past week.

Let's be perfectly clear about why we are in this bloody situation: The current uprising in both Sunni and Shia areas of Iraq was provoked by L Paul Bremer III, the American proconsul in Baghdad. First, he shut down al Hawza, the small weekly newspaper (circulation 10,000) of Moqtada al Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric. Then Bremer arrested one of his top aides and announced the imminent arrest of Sadr himself as an "outlaw." When Sadr's followers gathered in protests in Firdos Square, U.S. troops opened fire on them, and then took the battle into their stronghold, the Shia slum of Thawra, or Sadr City.

At the same time, Bremer and the U.S. military vowed spectacular revenge for the brutal killing of four contractors in Fallujah. In retaliation, the Marines laid siege to the town and are now bogged down in bloody fighting on its outskirts.

The truth is that had Bremer and Pentagon's top ground commander Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez played it cool and not provoked the Shias or attacked Fallujah, Iraq today would probably be limping along in relative peace -- as it has been for the past year.

In January, I spent time in Fallujah, Ramadi, Adamyia and Sadr City -- towns and neighborhoods that are now the battlegrounds in the war between the U.S. and the Iraqi resistance. I've both been embedded with the U.S. Military and interviewed cells of resistance fighters. I was with the 82nd Airborne in Fallujah, when they came under attack in the area that the Marines are now trying to occupy.

Based on these experiences, I have concluded that when it comes to Iraq, America is its own worst enemy.

Don't get me wrong, I never supported this war and I am not trying to offer a better way to colonize Iraq. My analysis is best viewed as an autopsy of a military and political strategy gone terribly awry.

Most Iraqis I met in January were war-weary and hesitant to fight. They were desperate for things like jobs, electricity and safety -- i.e., real reconstruction. The resistance was, for most of the past year, a loose network of cells mainly capable of hit-and-run attacks. While the Shia and Sunni communities eyed each other with increasing suspicion, Iraqis in general appeared to be patiently enduring the occupation; they were ambivalent toward the resistance, neither supporting nor condemning it. Many Iraqis continued to hope that maintaining the peace would allow them to regain real sovereignty.

Now all that has changed thanks to the arrogant and aggressive U.S. tactics, which are viewed as irrationally cruel by Iraqis.

In Fallujah, the various resistance cells are now engaged in a massive recruiting drive. As they fight the Marines, these insurgents are creating new alliances, reorganizing their efforts and launching a large-scale defense of their city.

As for new recruits, the resistance owes much to the U.S. Marine Corps, which is halting all refugee convoys, allowing the women, children, and elderly to proceed, while turning back all "fighting age" men! It only gives these men greater incentive to head right back into an urban battleground of alleyways, rooftops and side streets, and join the ranks of insurgents who battle to defend the city. In Baghdad, Sunni and Shia are united, praying and fighting together. Shia aid convoys are trying to smuggle food, supplies and men into Fallujah.

Even U.S.-appointed Iraqi leaders like Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, are condemning the Americans. Pachachi has called the siege of Fallujah "unacceptable and illegal." And it takes real effort to alienate the likes of Pachachi.

This new state of affairs is also a result of the absence of any meaningful reconstruction a full year after the invasion. The stalled political and economic efforts are the result of two interconnected factors: the pro-market ideological delusions of Bremer's staff and the wholesale private sector fraud these delusions foster.

To win hearts and minds, America needs to turn on the lights, provide clean water, give people jobs and impose law and order. But hardly any of this has happened because Bush administration-connected firms such as Halliburton and Bechtel have stolen the vast majority of the money allocated for such tasks.

Remember how Halliburton was caught over-billing the military for food and fuel? Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root voluntarily returned millions of dollars while the Pentagon has opened a criminal investigation into the matter. But these scandals are just the tip of the iceberg.

In sum, $11.2 billion in contracts have been awarded in non-competitive bids to U.S. firms. Yet, as journalist and former investment banker Nomi Prins found, no one agency even keeps track of this reconstruction. Instead, "a slew of separate entities" from "the State Department, Treasury Department, multiple Defense Department divisions, and international organizations like the World Bank and United Nations" are all keeping their own books, sort of. "Each is privy to receiving and responsible for disclosing only a subset of information," writes Prins.

One U.S. journalist found that many reconstruction projects that had allegedly been "rebuilt" had in reality barely been touched. One "repaired" school was overflowing with raw sewage. When I visited Ramadi and Fallujah in January, people on both towns were angry about chronic water and electricity shortages. Power plants, telephone exchanges and sewage systems all remain looted and bombed out. According to the NGO CorpWatch, only 10 percent of Halliburton's initial $2.2 billion in contracts has been spent on meeting community needs.

In counterinsurgency efforts past, lack of real reform -- that is lack of real reconstruction -- has forced the military to use increasingly greater levels of terror to ensure compliance. To separate what Mao Zedong called the "fish" of guerilla from the "sea" of the people, counterinsurgency forces use aerial bombardment, defoliation, forced relocation, torture and lots and lots of killing. This was the pattern in Vietnam, El Salvador and Guatemala and is still the case in Colombia.

This hyper-violent "plan B" that is now rearing its ugly head in Fallujah, where AC-130 gunships are being used to concentrate fire into densely packed civilian neighborhoods.

Will this kind of barbarism "work"? Will it "pacify" Iraq and if so, at what cost? For once, it is worth listening to Henry Kissinger, who said of the Vietnam War: "We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process, we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla warfare: The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win."

Christian Parenti writes regularly for The Nation magazine. His forthcoming book, "The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq" is due out from the New Press Fall 2004.

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