Iraq: Latest Developments
Monday, April 12, 2004; 11:00 AM
In barber shops and living rooms, ordinary Iraqis are talking about Fallujah, and little else. The Marine siege of that city -- long dismissed by Iraqis as an exception, a rural place stuck in the past - is becoming a powerful symbol of resistance grounded at once in Islamic faith and nationalist feelings.
This is what comes across in chats and interviews with people on the street, in cafes and workplaces here. The great uncertainty is to what extent the coalition authorities - or the Governing Council - are aware of the change. The rhetoric from daily news briefings continues to heap blame on "extremists" and "enemies of democracy" and talk of a military response to a challenge framed in military terms. It sure seems a whole lot more complex than this.
"Strategic shift" is the phrase I just heard from Anthony Shadid, the Arabic-speaking Post correspondent who just won the Pulitzer for his work here over the last year. Sounds about right.
Now on with the show.
You'll see well-done polls from weeks and months ago that showed Iraqis split on whether they want the US to leave or not. The US presence was seen as stabilizing by many here. But as I say, in the last seven days so much has changed here it's impossible to tell what people think any more. A lot of Iraqis are probably trying to decide that for themselves.
But the main consideration has got to be whether the siege of Fallujah -- and the prospect of something similar at Najaf, the holy Shiite city where Moqtada Sadr is camped out --will make things better or worse for the occupation and the future of Iraq to which it is linked.
To first question, I've no idea, though as I say the number of people volunteering for jihad or to "defend my country" seems to be on the steep rise. Read news accounts closely, and you find quotes -- like the one in Pam Constable's story in this morning's Post; she's embedded with the Marines at Fallujah -- from soldiers stunned at the numbers of enemy the find themselves facing.
Post military affairs correspondent Tom Ricks, who yesterday embedded with a 1st ID unit in Baquba, north of Baghdad, was similarly surprised by the forces arraying themselves against US armor there. Scores--and more-- of insurgents making coordinated attacks, and standing out there alone against armor, as if welcoming death.
In the end, though, it was Paul Bremer's decision to test Moqatda Sadr by shuttering his newspaper....at the beginning of the week when Fallujah also blew up. One U.S. official called it "the perfect storm."
This morning both CBC and CNN are reporting that 600 Iraqis have been killed in Fallujah. The CBC reports that some of those killed were women and children. CNN reported that they were all enemy combatants. What is the truth? Do the TV reporters there ever check the "facts" spoon fed them by the military? Thanks for putting your life at risk to tell the world the unfiltered truth. That is something that is sorely lacking in the American television media.
The 600 figure is widely reported, and extraordinarily compelling to the Arab audience glued to the satellite news channels by coverage of the siege. But the figure also is almost impossible to check. The hospitals reporting the figures are inside the Marine perimeter, and news agencies are relying on local stringers to pass along basic information. It doesn't seem possible just now to ask them to perform a thorough vetting of such claims.
Now you have Shia families in Baghdad taking in Sunni refugees (women, children and old men allowed to pass thru the Marine lines). It's not all bad.
Inasmuch as Washington has not yet said what body would receive Iraq's sovereignty when it's officially returned to the sons and daughters of the land on June 30, maybe there's hope that out of this crucible will emerge a recipient some entity that Iraqis regard as more representative of their aspirations than the Governing Council appointed by Bush's viceroy, Mr. Bremer. It is widely criticized here as out of touch with ordinary people by dint of being dominated by exiles.
2. I haven't heard that one before, but, being Middle-Easterns (and Arabs to boot), Iraqis do love a good, double-banked, ju-jitsu conspiracy, of all things. Especially if you can get Ariel Sharon in there.
Only Washington Post editors get to mess with my copy (we say this lightly). And one of the joys of the online chat is that no one at all gets to edit my replies. I hit the "submit" button and there it is.
Seriously, though, all reporters in Baghdad exist and work outside outside the coalition. I imagine those very few who are embedded still have to abide by certain rules -- no giving away attacks in advance, specific positions, you know, common sense things -- but there's filter in Iraq otherwise.
Whatever's happening in Fallujah -- where, as I say, a lot of young Iraqi men (and some foreign ones, such as Saudis) seem to be going the fight against the infidel occupiers -- war is not a clean business, U.S. weapons are extraordinarily lethal, and even professional soldiers are human.
I wrote a week ago about a day I spent in a Sadr City hospital. There were old men and little girls with bullet wounds. All Iraqis say they fear American soldiers when someone is shooting at them. We journalists do too. The lead flies.
The contrary may be true. This afternoon I talked with a guy who ... I'm not sure how to describe him, except as someone who says he takes volunteers in and out of Fallujah several times a day. He said the ones coming out say, "It is beautiful there." The bliss is one of a fight that feels utterly pure and righteous, and ends in paradise.
Another question, though is whether the appearance of the conflicts -- especially on Arabic language television stations -- feeds the impression of similarity. And that is surely happening.
Hostility between ethnic groups seems to be a big issue for Iraq. Is it your impression that the Shia and Sunni communities are working more productively together now (aside from attacking Americans), rather than outright hostility over past wrongs? That hopes for a functional society actually are increasing?
Iraqi's Sunni and Shiite communities have never been so very hostile to one another, least of all in cosmopolitan Baghdad. But, yes, in the last week there's even less. I've actually gotten scolded for asking if a person is Shiite or Sunni. "Muslim!" an old woman told me.
And I spent the morning at a Sunni mosque decorated with a poster of Moqtada Sadr, the infamous "firebrand Shiite cleric."
That kind of gallows humor is going around, of course. I saw a howlarious e-mail the other day drawing on the comparisons. Dare I post it?
Is there a way to restore order in Iraq *by* killing Moqtada Sadr? And is he a terrorist? He calls himself a nationalist, and many Iraqis -- don't ask me how many; it's just impossible to know -- are giving him the benefit of the doubt, and thanking him for stirring people to fight the power.
He's also clearly a fundamentalist, and junior in both influence and followers to more moderate (and more senior) clerics, led by Ayatollah Sistani. What Sistani and other senior clerics in Iraq are doing right now to contain, accommodate or otherwise defuse Sadr is for now the great untold story.
I never wanted to go back into the Green Zone anyway. If it all goes badly pear-shaped, I'm putting my faith in Mam Jalal....
This is being forwarded around the Internet...
Subject: If Iraq like Vietnam, why's there no Coppola movie?
The White House is mightily cheesed off at suggestions Iraq has turned into
some sort of Vietnam for George W. Bush.
When Senator Ted Kennedy made that comment ? and he wasn't exactly the
to make or think it ? the Bush administration was dismissive. They said it
was about what you could expect from a pal of John Kerry, the guy who's got
the Democratic presidential nomination in the bag and hopes to defeat Bush
And Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even got into a debate with an uppity
reporter over the definition of "quagmire," something Vietnam might have
been, he said, but Iraq certainly is not.
Fact is, the White House says, there are a number of substantive
between the war in Iraq, and the war in Vietnam. To prove its point, it has
released a list of them:
Iraq is over here, and Vietnam is way, way over here, to the right.
Francis Ford Coppola hasn't made a movie about Iraq. He hasn't even started
During the Vietnam War, while the country's young people were being sent
into battle, rich Americans back home had to do without huge tax cuts. Not
this time! Today, well-to-do Americans don't have to make any sort of
financial sacrifices ? in fact, they're coming out ahead! ? while the
country's young men and women are being sent into harm's way.
There were lots of protest songs written about Vietnam, like "Give Peace a
Chance" by John Lennon, "Bring 'Em Home" by Pete Seeger, and "The Story of
Isaac" by Leonard Cohen, but hardly any protest songs about Iraq have been
recorded yet by major artists.
Uh, hello? Did you ever hear anyone talking about huge oil reserves in
As the war in Vietnam dragged on and seemed more and more hopeless, the
United States was forced to send over thousands more troops to try to get a
handle on the situation, but today ... whoa, hang on, let's just move on to
the next item.
A few weeks after the war in Vietnam began, the president at the time
able to land on an aircraft carrier and declare "Mission accomplished!",
Vietnam was not hiding weapons of mass destruction, was not actively
developing biological and chemical and nuclear weapons, and did not have
missiles that it could launch in 90 seconds, unlike the nation of Ir--.
Actually, again, let's go on to the next item.
Okay, say "Iraq." Now say "Vietnam." Do it again. Two syllables, three
syllables. They share a couple of vowels, and that's it.
Vietnam was not preparing to attack the United States but, as we knew way
back in early 2003, based on our impeccable intelligence resources, Saddam
Hussein was getting ready to ... look, you're not going to believe this,
maybe you should scratch this one off the list, as well.
Vietnam had lots and lots of jungles, and Iraq does not.
The United States didn't actually start the Vietnam War. So there!
In Vietnam, the U.S. didn't end up finding, in a hidey-hole, the very guy
who was in no way responsible for a major attack on U.S. soil.
The presidents who presided over the Vietnam War never had their picture
taken with the troops while holding a fake turkey.
During the Vietnam War, you'd never have seen stodgy ol' President Johnson
or humorless President Nixon at the Radio and Television Correspondents'
Association Dinner, doing a funny slide show that mocked their intentions
Vietnam, unlike our current president, who can, incredibly, find some yucks
in invading a country ? and leaving thousands dead in the process ? to find
something it turns out was never even there.
Your article this morning was truly excellent, and added much need texture to the recent reportage coming from Iraq. My question is related to this. Publicly, officials from the Bush administration have offered a very simple "read" of the situation in Iraq... one of "gangs" "terrorists" "thugs" "freedom" "anti-democratic forces." Does this sort of language have any real play in how the U.S. manages the situation in the streets of Iraq? Is this purely for American consumption? Is there support/frustration with this sort of simplification among those military officers and civilians who actually have to meet with Iraqis face-to-face? (I am hoping you can reassure me)
And *it* wasn't too re-assuring, was it?
One problem seems to be the polarizing that comes with combat -- us against them on both sides. Another is the isolation. One day last week I was in Sadr City, talking to a young officer who a week earlier had been in neighborhood council meetings with the people he now looked at across an armored column, the one between the police station he was sent to guard and the people he thought he'd come to protect and serve, if you will. (Mind, no one's calling this a police action.) He asked me what I was hearing from the population.
"I'm in my own little world here," he said. I don't know if he could even talk to the people if they approached; the last officer I'd talked to, a captain at another station, said he didn't have a translator.
"Probably be a good time to have one," he said.