Opening the Gates of Hell


Before the Iraq war, at a meeting of the Arab League, Secretary General Amr Moussa famously said that a U.S. war on Iraq would "open the gates of hell." In Iraq, those gates are yawning wider than ever before -- at least for the United States.

"Sunni and Shi'a are now one hand, together against the Americans," says a man on the street in the mostly Shi'a slum of Shuala on the west side of Baghdad, standing in the shadow of a burnt-out American tank transporter.

These sentiments are echoed at the local headquarters of Moqtada al-Sadr's organization, which had come under assault from U.S. forces the day before. Indeed, everyone in the area agrees that Sunni and Shi'a fought together to beat back the military -- and they were unorganized local inhabitants, not al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, as the Paul Bremer-led CPA would claim.

Whether or not the resistance here grows to a scale that the United States cannot control -- and such a development depends more on the moderate Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani than of Paul Bremer or George Bush -- it is already clear that the events of the last 10 days mark a critical turning point in the occupation of Iraq.

The administration is putting out a convenient and self-serving narrative to explain recent events in Iraq. According to the official story, a few barbaric "isolated extremists" from the "Saddamist stronghold" of Fallujah killed four contractors who were guarding food convoys in an act of unprovoked lawlessness. Moreover, the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is fighting the U.S. forces right now because, in the words of George Bush, he has decided that "rather than allow democracy to flourish, he's going to exercise force."

The truth is rather different on both counts.

To begin with, Fallujah, although heavily Sunni-dominated, is hardly the bastion of Saddam sympathizers. During his regime, its imams got into trouble for refusing to obey his orders to praise him personally during prayers. Furthermore, many of its inhabitants are Salafists (Wahhabism is a subset of Salafism), a group singled out for political persecution by Saddam.

In fact, during the war, Fallujah was not a hotbed of resistance. The origins of its hostility to coalition forces dates back to Apr. 28, 2003, when U.S. troops opened fire on a group of up to 200 peaceful protesters, killing 15. The soldiers claimed that they were merely returning gunfire, but Human Rights Watch investigated and found that the bullet holes examined at the location were inconsistent with that story -- moreover, Iraqi witnesses at the scene maintained that the crowd was unarmed. Two days later, another three protesters were killed.

A string of such incidents over the following months caused many people in the area to join the resistance, forming their own groups. Sporadic violence, combined with the Pentagon's policy of responing with blanket punitive measures quickly left the town seething with anger against the occupation -- more so than other places in Iraq.

The most recent incident, in which four contractors working for Blackwater Security were killed, did not arise in a vacuum. In fact, just the week before the horrific event, U.S. Marines had mounted heavy raids on Fallujah, killing at least seven civilians, including a cameraman. Residents cite these raids as the reason for the attack on the Blackwater people and the gruesome spectacle that followed.

Given the recent fighting in Fallujah, which killed 12 Marines, two other soldiers, and at least 66 Iraqis, there is no prospect of getting off this track of senseless violence in the foreseeable future.

Rather than deal with this growing threat of violent resistance in the so- called Sunni Triangle, the CPA has instead chosen to pick a fight with the Shi'a followers of Moqtada al-Sadr.

Whatever al-Sadr's views about democracy may be, Bush's claim that he started this violence to derail the path to a free and democratic Iraq is ridiculous. To begin with, for all of al-Sadr's firebrand rhetoric, he and his followers had until now stopped short of overt violence against the occupying forces.

Moreover, the incident that precipitated this round of violence was the CPA's decision to ban his newspaper, al-Hawza, which in itself was a blatantly undemocratic act. The paper was not shut down for directly advocating violence, but for reporting one eyewitness claim that a supposed car bombing that killed numerous volunteers for the New Iraqi defense forces was actually done by plane (and therefore by the United States). In other words, it claimed that a terrorist incident was in fact carried out by the coalition forces.

In general, there is no quicker way to get an Iraqi to laugh than to talk about how the United States is bringing freedom or democracy to the country. When talking about any problem created by the occupation, Iraqis will derisively say, "This is the freedom."

As the occupation simultaneously loses control in Iraq, from Basra and Najaf to Baghdad, the U.S. has switched explanations as to why they plan to arrest al-Sadr. Now they claim that he is wanted in connection with the murder of Shi'a cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei last April. And, indeed, one of the other precipitating factors in the recent violence was the arrest of Mustafa Yacoubi, a top Sadr aide, for the same killing. They even say his impending arrest has nothing to do with his anti-occupation activities or even a concern of the coalition authorities -- rather, an Iraqi judge, acting independently, issued the warrant.

This explanation isn't getting very far with anyone here. It has already been revealed that the warrants were written long ago and have been sitting unused until this time. According to an al-Sadr spokesman, the Iraqi Minister of Justice has publicly stated that he has no information tying Sadr or Yacoubi to al-Khoei's murder and that they are not wanted by the Iraqi government.

Their guilt is, for the most part, beside the point. The signs seem to indicate that the move against al-Sadr's people was deliberately timed. If so, it was presumably an attempt to squeeze him out of the political sphere before the token "transfer of sovereignty" on Jun. 30. The strategy has backfired, as is apparent in the deaths of three U.S. soldiers in the Kadhimiyah district of Baghdad Tuesday. Although al-Sadr supporters are probably a majority in Thawra and a very sizeable minority in Shuala, the cleric's influence was until now negligible in Kadhimiyah.

But most importantly, the current violence may be dominating the headlines but it's not the real story about what is happening on the ground. The bloody violence of the last ten days is a tragedy, but so is everyday life under the occupation. And it is this daily experience of repression that is fueling the rage, not any misguided loyalty to Saddam. The people in the Shi'a slums of Baghdad who are now furiously resisting the Americans hate Saddam with a passion to this day.

Iraqis suffered tyranny and neglect and expected great improvements when the United States took over. Shaykh Sadun al-Shemary, a former member of the Iraqi army who participated in the 1991 uprising and now a spokesman for the al-Sadr organization in Shuala, told me, "Things are exactly the same as in Saddam's time -- maybe worse."

That is all you need to know about the occupation of Iraq.

Rahul Mahajan is the publisher of the weblog Empire Notes and is currently writing and blogging from Baghdad. His latest book is "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond."

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