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Muslim fundamentalist insurgents seeking to topple the government are holed up in a conservative city with little sympathy for secularism or pluralism. They raise the banner of Islam, and they call on the rest of the country to rise up and expel the oppressors. The government reacts by massing forces around the city. It demanded that the militants surrender or the city give them up. If not, the city would be destroyed. Fallujah this week? Yes, but it was also the Syrian city of Hama in the spring of 1982.
The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood seized Hama as the first step towards its goal of a national uprising against the secular Baathist regime. The Syrian President demanded their surrender. His army shelled the city, and special forces went in to kill or capture the militants. The Syrians employed the same strategy that the US is using now. Its tanks and artillery waited outside the city; they fired on militants and civilians alike. Its elite units, like the American Marines surrounding Falljuah today, braced themselves for a bloody battle.
The US condemned Syria for the assault that is believed to have cost 10,000 civilian lives. The Syrian army destroyed the historic centre of Hama, and it rounded up Muslim rebels for imprisonment or execution. Syria’s actions against Hama came to form part of the American case that Syria was a terrorist state. Partly because of Hama, Syria is on a list of countries in the Middle East whose regimes the US wants to change.
Iraq’s American-appointed Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, declared a state of emergency on Sunday to assume powers reminiscent of those wielded by Saddam Hussein: to break up public gatherings, enter private houses without warrants and detain people without trial. Perhaps in waging war against the Iraqis who want to expel the Americans and topple America’s chosen Iraqi leaders, the insurgents have compelled the US and its Iraqi allied regime to behave like the two Baathist regimes that they believed were so totalitarian they had to go.
Other Iraqi cities must now fear the use of what The New York Times correspondent Tom Friedman called “Hama rules” against them. Unrest in the northern city of Mosul, where relations between its Kurdish and Arab residents have deteriorated to the point where Arabs on the west bank of the Tigris and Kurds to the west rarely cross the bridges to each other’s neighbourhoods. Already, because the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq are the only ethnic group allied to the US in Iraq, Arabs have begun killing Kurds. And Kurds are seeking refuge in the Kurdish-controlled northern region.
Mosul was the social base [of the Baath], said the deputy leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Noshirwan Ali Moustafa, in Suleimania. “There were 24,000 military officers from Mosul. The city is very poor. People went into the army and government service.”
With the army disbanded and most of the civil service unemployed, thousands of young men in Mosul have no work. The insurgents have made strong appeals to them to change their conditions by expelling the Americans. Religious appeals have turned against the Kurds.
Residents report that graffiti in Mosul has appeared saying: “Kill a Jew. Kill a Kurd.”
Insurgent forces in Falluja are connected to those already in Mosul, the interior minister of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s government in the Kurdish region, Karim Sinjari. Sinjari, said. Abu Musab Zarqawi’s representative in Mosul, a man he called Abu Talha, was actively promoting attacks on US forces there, he said.
“They [Islamic militants] exist in Fallujah, Baghdad and especially Mosul. Right now, a majority of the Kurdish Ansar al-Islam people are in Mosul. From Mosul, they want to carry out operations in Dohuk and Arbil. They have carried out two operations against this ministry.” Mr Sinjari referred to two suicide bombings aimed at himself in the past year.
The Iraqi forces with the Americans outside Falluja include Kurds, but the Kurdish leadership has been careful to avoid sending Kurdish units into battle against Arabs. They fear a backlash against the estimated two million Kurds who live in Arab areas such as Baghdad, Mosul and Samarra.
William Polk, who served President John Kennedy in the state department, wrote recently: “Most Iraqis regard the government as an American puppet. The idea that America can fashion a local militia to accomplish what its powerful army cannot do is not policy but fantasy.”
CHARLES GLASS is reporting from Iraq for the Independent and other publications.