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The Ghosts of Vietnam

by ROBERT FISK

The Independent

Who said this and when?

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient that the public knows… We are today not far from a disaster.”

Answer: TE Lawrence (of Arabia fame) in The Sunday Times in August, 1920. And every word of it is true today. We were lied to about weapons of mass destruction. We were lied to about the links between Saddam Hussein and September 11, 2001. We were lied to about the insurgents–remember how they were just “dead-enders” and “remnants”?–and we were lied to about the improvements in Iraq when the entire country was steadily falling outside the hands of the occupying powers or of the government of satraps that they have set up in their place. We are, I suspect, being lied to about elections next month.

Over the past year, there has been evidence enough that our whole project in Iraq is hopelessly flawed, that our Western armies–when they are not torturing prisoners, killing innocents and destroying one of the largest cities in Iraq–are being vanquished by a ferocious guerrilla army, the like of which we have not seen before in the Middle East. My own calculations–probably conservative, because there are many violent acts that we are never told about -suggest that in the past 12 months, at least 190 suicide bombers have blown themselves up, sometimes at the rate of two a day. How does this happen? Is there asuicide-bomber supermarket, an off-the-shelf store? What have we done to create this extraordinary industry? Time was, in Lebanon, when a suicide bombing was a once-a-month event. Or in Palestine/Israel a once-a-week event. Now, in Iraq, it is daily or twice daily.

And American troops are sending home increasingly terrible stories of the wanton killing of civilians by US forces in the towns and cities of Iraq. Here, for example, is the evidence of ex-marine staff sergeant Jimmy Massey, testifying at a refugee hearing in Canada earlier this month. Massey told the Canadian board–which had to decide whether to give refugee status to an American deserter from the 82nd Airborne–that he and his fellow marines shot and killed more than 30 unarmed men, women and children, including a young Iraqi who got out of his car with his arms up.

“We killed the man,” Massey said. “We fired at a cyclic rate of 500 bullets per vehicle.” Massey assumed that the dead Iraqis didn’t understand the hand signals to stop. On another occasion, according to Massey, marines–in reaction to a stray bullet–opened fire and killed a group of unarmed protesters and bystanders.

“I was deeply concerned about the civilian casualties,” Massey said. “What they (the marines) were doing was committing murder.” The defector from the 82nd Airborne, Jeremy Hinzman, told the court that “we were told to consider all Arabs as potential terrorists… to foster an attitude of hatred that gets your blood boiling”.

All this, of course, is part of the “withholding of information”. It took months before the Abu Ghraib torture and abuses were made public–even though the International Red Cross had already told the American and British authorities. It took months, for that matter, for the British Government to respond to the outrageous beatings–and one killing–carried out on defenceless Iraqis in Basra, first exposed by The Independent. In the first seven months of last year, the authorities maintained that they still “controlled” Iraq, even though–when I drove 70 miles south of Baghdad in August–I found every checkpoint deserted and the highways littered with burnt American trucks and police vehicles.

Still we are not told how many civilians were killed in the American attack on Fallujah. The Americans’ claim that they killed more than 1,000 insurgents–only insurgents, mark you, not a single civilian among them–is preposterous. Still we are not freeto enter the city. Nor, given the fact that the insurgents still appear to be there, is it likely that anyone can do so. Why are American aircraft still bombing Fallujah, weeks after the US military claimed to have captured it?

It is difficult, over the past year, to think of anything that has not gone wrong or grown worse in Iraq. The electrical grid is collapsing again, the petrol queues are greater than they were in the days following the illegal invasion in 2003, and security is non-existent in all but the Kurdish north of the country.

The proposal to put Saddam’s minions on trial looks more and more like an attempt to justify the invasion and distract attention from the horrors to come. Even the forthcoming elections are beginning to look more and more like a diversion. For if the Sunnis cannot–or will not–vote, what will this election be worth? Donald Rumsfeld gave us the first hint that things might not be going quite to plan when he spoke before the American election about a poll in “parts” of Iraq. What does this mean?

Yet, still the invaders go on telling us that things are getting better, that Iraq is about to enter the brotherhood of nations. Bush even got re-elected after telling this lie. The body bags are returning home more frequently than ever–we are not supposed to ask how many Iraqis are dying–yet still we are told that the invasion was worthwhile, that Iraqis are better off, that security will improve or–my favourite, this one–that they will get worse, the nearer we get to elections.

This is the same old story that Bush and Rumsfeld used to put about last spring: that things are getting better–which is why the insurgents are creating so much violence; in other words, the better things are, the worse things are going to get. When you read this nonsense in Washington or London, it might make sense. In Baghdad, it is madness. I wouldn’t want to try it out on the young American soldiers who were so arrogantly

informed by Rumsfeld that “you go to war with the army you have”.

It would be pleasant to record some happiness somewhere in the Middle East. Palestinian elections in the New Year? Well, yes, but if the colourless and undemocratic Mahmoud Abbas is the best the Palestinians have to look forward to, after the far too colourful Yassir Arafat, then their chances of achieving statehood are about as dismal as they were when Arafat resided in his Ramallah bunker.

The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is not trying to close down illegal Jewish settlements in Gaza because he wants to be nice to the Palestinians; and his spokesman’s dismissive remarks about the West Bank–that the Gaza withdrawal will put Palestinian statehood into “formaldehyde”–does not suggest that the occupied are going to receive statehood from their occupiers. Which means, one way or another, that the intifada will restart. At which point, the Israelis will complain that Abbas cannot “control his own people”, and the Israelis and the Palestinians will return to their hopeless conflict.

It is impossible to reflect on the year in Iraq without realising just how deeply the Israeli-Palestinian struggle affects the entire Middle East. Iraqis watch the Palestinian battle with great earnestness. Saddam Hussein’s support for the Palestinians was one with which many Iraqis could identify–even if they loathed their own dictator. And I doubt very much if the suicide bomber would have come of age so quickly in Iraq without the precedent set by the suicide bombers of Palestine and, before them, of Lebanon.

It is this precedent-setting capacity of events in the Middle East–not the mythical “foreign fighters” of George Bush’s fantasy world–that is costing America so much blood in Iraq. When Sharon tries to prevent Palestinian statehood, Iraqis remember that his closest ally is represented in Iraq by an army which most of them regard as occupiers. When US forces learn their guerrilla warfare techniques from the Israelis–when they bomb houses from the air, when they abuse prisoners, when they even erect razor-wire round recalcitrant villages–is it surprising that Iraqis treat the Americans as surrogate Israelis?

We shouldn’t need the evidence of ex-marine Massey to show us how brutal the occupying armies have become–and how irrelevant Iraq’s “interim” government truly is. In Washington or London, these “ministers” play the role of international statesmen, but in Baghdad, where they hide behind the walls of their dangerous little enclave, they have as much status as rural mayors. Besides, they cannot even negotiate with their enemies.

Which leads us to the one clear fact about the last year of chaos and anarchy and brutality in Iraq. We still do not know who our enemies are. Save for the one name, “Zarqawi”, the Americans–with all the billions of dollars they have thrown into intelligence, their CIA mainframe computers and their huge payments to informers–simply do not know whom they are fighting. They “recapture” Samarra–three times–and then they lose it again. They “recapture” Fallujah and then they lose it again. They cannot even control the main streets of Baghdad.

Who would have believed, in 2003, as US forces drove into Baghdad, that within two years they would be mired in their biggest guerrilla war since Vietnam? Those few of us who predicted just that–and The Independent was among them–were derided as nay-sayers, doom-mongers, pessimists.

Iraq is now proving all over again what we should have learned in Lebanon and Palestine/Israel: that Arabs have lost their fear. It has been a slow process. But a quarter of a century ago, the Arabs lived in chains, cowed by occupiers and oppressive regimes. They were a submissive society and they did as they were told. The Israelis even used a “Palestinian police force” to help them in their occupation. Not any more. The biggest development in the Middle East over the past 30 years has been this shaking off of fear. Fear–of the occupier, of the dictator–is something that you cannot re-inject into people. And this, I suspect, is what has happened in Iraq.

Iraqis are just not prepared to live in fear any more. They know they must depend on themselves–our betrayal of the 1991 rising against Saddam proved that–and they refuse to be frightened by their occupiers. It was we who warned them of the dangers of civil war, even though there never has been a civil war in Iraq. As a people, they watched Westerners turn up by the thousand to make money out of a country that had been beaten down by a corrupt dictatorship and UN sanctions. Is it any surprised that Iraqis are angry?

The American columnist Tom Friedman, in one of his less messianic articles, posed a good question before the 2003 invasion. Who knows, he asked, what bats will fly out of the box when we get to Baghdad? Well, now we know. So we should repeat Lawrence’s chilling remark–without the quotation marks and the date 1920. We are today not far from a disaster.

ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

 

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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