How George Bush became the new Saddam
COVER STORY: Its strategies shattered, a desperate Washington is reaching out to the late dictator's henchmen.
Patrick Graham | Sep 20, 2007 | 14:04:44
The real question is, what are Iran’s objectives in Iraq, and how will Iraqis react? If Iran wants economic, political and military domination, the problems are long-term. If Iran is in Iraq to fight a proxy war against the United States, then presumably it will leave when the U.S. does. In general, I have found Iraqis to be extremely suspicious of the Iranian government and its involvement in their country—not just the Sunnis, but the Shias and Kurds as well. But then again, even Iranians are suspicious of their own government.
Iran has a number of interests in Iraq that go beyond security. The most obvious is religious—Iraq contains some of the holiest sites of Shia Islam that have been cut off from Iranian pilgrims for decades. The other is economic. With a population of over 65 million people, Iran views itself as a regional superpower and expects the financial rewards that come from that position. And like any other superpower, it creates economic problems for its neighbours. When I was in Baghdad in August, people complained that Iraqi farm produce was being driven off of the market by Iran, which is dumping its fruit and vegetables in Iraq. This is a disaster for Iraqi agriculture, one of the few areas of employment in the country.
The actual influence of Iran on the Iraqi government is hard to gauge. The present administration is made up of mainly Shia parties, some of which are very nationalistic and anti-Iranian, like the Fadhila party, while others, like the SIIC, that was formed as an anti-Saddam party in Iran in 1982, are very close to Tehran. For the U.S., the most worrying Iranian influence is the authority that Iranian security services have over militias like the SIIC’s Badr Organization, which was based in Iran for 20 years until the fall of Saddam. Even Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, is thought to have one wing controlled by Iran.
These days, though, the biggest concern on the highways of Baghdad is not Sunni insurgent bombs, but the explosively formed penetrators that fire a molten copper slug through even American heavy armour. According to U.S. intelligence, they are provided by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to Shia militias. Of course, U.S. intelligence accusations are now as suspect as the Iranian government denials that they provoke.
America’s other main enemy is al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda what a cheap watch is to a Swiss timepiece—effective, easily reproduced, and disposable. Al-Qaeda did not exist in Iraq before the invasion, but today it, along with Iran, are the two strongest arguments the U.S. makes for “staying the course.” Al-Qaeda in Iraq is essentially a religious criminal gang that kills anyone who threatens its power or differs from its Salafist views on establishing a perverse form of an Islamic state. Its death squads and enormously destructive truck bombs have killed thousands of Shias, but Sunnis, too, have suffered al-Qaeda’s violent nihilism. Car bombs, assassinations and “religious punishments,” including decapitations and cutting off the fingers of smokers, have put Sunni Iraq under a Mordor-like shadow of terror and justified collective punishment from the Shias. In his testimony to Congress, Gen. Petraeus pointed out the lethal threat of al-Qaeda. But this should come as no surprise to an American general—because the U.S. Army helped create al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The American role in the promotion of the terrorist organization is not some mad conspiracy theory, but a well-documented attempt by the U.S. government to demonize the insurgency and make it appear to be the central front in the war on terror. This was as great a mistake as disbanding the Iraqi army, which the U.S. did in May 2003, or perhaps even greater, since it led to the sectarian downward spiral that has destroyed the country.
When the insurgency started in the summer of 2003, it was made up primarily of the same class of alienated Sunnis who are now part of the tribal Anbar Awakening. The insurgents I spent time with in 2003 and 2004 were, in essence, nationalists who didn’t like the U.S. Army driving around their villages, kicking down their doors and shooting their cousins at checkpoints. They were also deeply suspicious of American plans for democracy, because they feared it would lead to Iran taking over the government. Some hated Saddam, some liked him, but Saddam wasn’t the issue. For want of a better term, they are the equivalent of rednecks who believe in God, their country, and the right to bear arms.
But rather than come up with an intelligent counter-insurgency policy, reach out to traditional tribal social structures and try to understand why American soldiers were getting killed, U.S. military leaders did what Americans have gotten very good at doing in the last few years. They made up a story, which they repeated on the news for U.S. domestic consumption—and then started to believe themselves. In this story, evil foreign terrorists led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a chubby Jordanian freelance terrorist, were setting upon the popular U.S. Army. AMZ, as the U.S. Army jauntily called him, existed, but he was a minor figure unlikely to get much of a following on his own in Iraq. Jordanians are not greatly respected by Sunni tribal Iraqis, who tend to view them as the metrosexuals of the Middle East. I used to watch the nightly news with insurgents—they called themselves the “resistance”—and they would laugh at what U.S. spokesmen were saying about the insurgency and Zarqawi’s prominence. But from the U.S. perspective, “tribal freedom fighter,” as the former Sunni insurgents are described today, does not sound as good as “foreign terrorist” or “anti-Iraqi fighter” when you are trying to demonize people fighting your occupation.
The ploy backfired. As AMZ(he was killed in June 2006)got more and more airtime, he gained more and more legitimacy, money and volunteers. It was as if Japanese whalers were mounting a “Save The Whales” campaign on television. Thanks to the Americans, al-Qaeda in Iraq became the Greenpeace of the jihadi world.
AMZ’s foreign fighters were never more than a tiny percentage of the insurgency, but they got all the credit, especially when their car bombs began killing civilians. Al-Qaeda in Iraq also had a tremendous appeal among the Sunni Iraqi underclass, just as Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda appeals to poor, angry Muslims the world over. Provinces like Anbar are very poor and very hierarchical, with a large and resentful social stratum at the bottom. Local Iraqis were drawn to al-Qaeda’s Salafist fundamentalism because it freed them from the conservative, tribal oppression that governed their lives. Al-Qaeda was able to take over some of the insurgency—and still controls chunks of Iraq—precisely because it was revolutionary, not conservative, and offered poor people in Anbar a chance to kick some rich sheik and Baathist ass, as well as kill Americans and Shias. In part, al-Qaeda was part of a class war fuelled by profound anger and social resentment.