Against a Countrywide Rebellion, the Capture of Samarra is a Bloody, But Useless, Gesture
American generals in Iraq triumphantly announced at the weekend that they had successfully taken over Samarra and killed 125 insurgents. They failed to mention that this is the third time they have captured this particular city on the Tigris river north of Baghdad in the past 18 months.
The campaign to eliminate the no-go areas under rebel control in Iraq is getting into full swing. Fallujah is being bombed every night and may soon be subjected to ground assault. Najaf was recaptured from Shia militiamen in August and much of the city is in ruins.
The current US military campaign is very much geared to getting President George Bush reelected to the White House in November. The aim of the bombing is to prove to American voters that their army is on the offensive, but without substantially increasing US casualties.
The situation on the ground in Iraq is far worse than what is portrayed by the media. Ironically, this is because it is now so dangerous for journalists and television crews to leave their heavily guarded hotels in Baghdad that they cannot refute claims by the American and British governments that much of Iraq is safe.
Nothing could be more untrue. I have spent most of the past year-and-a-half travelling in Iraq, and I have never known it so bad. The roads all around Baghdad are cut by insurgents. At Mahmoudiyah, just south of the capital, rebels in black masks felt confident enough last week to establish a checkpoint on the main road to Najaf.
In Baghdad, US planes regularly bomb Sadr City, home to two million out of the capital’s five million people. Haifa Street, a resistance bastion 400 yards from the Green Zone where American generals give relentlessly upbeat briefings, can only be entered by US heavy armour supported by helicopters.
The creation of the no-go zones around Baghdad was largely the consequence of the way in which US strategy is dictated by the electoral needs of President Bush. The US marine commander in charge of western Iraq in April says it was against his advice that Fallujah was first besieged on orders from above. The siege enraged the Sunni Arab community in Iraq. The marine attack was then called off after a few days, again apparently on orders from the White House because it did not want Iraq leading the television news night after night.
The conquest of cities like Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra and Baquba will not end the insurrection. In recent months, there have been more attacks on US troops and Iraqi security forces elsewhere in Iraq than in the original centres of the rebellion. In Mosul, the northern capital, the Iraqi police even contribute part of their salary to the resistance.
The upsurge in rebel attacks is being portrayed in London and Washington as an attempt to sabotage the Iraqi elections in January. There is no reason to think that the impending polls in Iraq have any connection with the increasing violence. The insurrection is spreading each month under its own momentum. It does so because the dominant fact in Iraqi politics is the overwhelming unpopularity of the US occupation.
One of the last opinion polls taken by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority this summer showed that just 2 per cent of Iraqi Arabs (Kurds were not included) supported the occupation. There is nothing surprising in this. How many foreign occupations are popular?
The Iraqi Sunni and Shia communities may have their differences, as do the Islamic militants and nationalists, but they hate the US army more than they hate each other. One Shia leader told me how in his city, Kerbala, the Shia radical Muqtada Sadr is deeply unpopular. But when a US helicopter dropped leaflets in Arabic denouncing him, local people rushed out and burned them. They would not be told by a foreign invader what to think about one of their own.
If an election is held in January, it will not end the fighting. If the Sunni Muslims do not take part, but the Shia and Kurds do, then Iraq will be even more divided. A great number of Iraqis also believes that you simply cannot have a free and fair election with 138,000 US troops in the country.
The system of voting has also been skewed towards producing a photocopy of the interim government and the parties of former exiles which compose it. A voter will cast his ballot for a central list of parties. The parties will then be allocated seats in a legislative assembly proportionate to their percentage of the overall vote.
The problem is that the Iraqi political parties are imported and are generally unpopular. Only the Kurdish parties have real roots. The Shia parties will come together–possibly including Muqtada Sadr–and Iyad Allawi, the prime minister, will ally himself with the Kurds. Many local leaders will not stand.
Any Iraqi politician who wants a long-term future in his country will have to demonstrate that he is playing a role in ending the US occupation. Those who do not will end up in exile or worse. Capturing cities like Samarra might be a sign of progress if the US were combating isolated bands of insurgents, but against a countrywide rebellion it is a bloody, but largely useless, gesture.