Britons were killed across the Middle East yesterday as the region was engulfed by waves of violence. They died in Iraq, Afghanistan and Jordan but British citizens are increasingly at risk everywhere in the area because Britain is seen as the closest political and military ally of the US.
“I want to kill Bush and Blair because of what they have done to us,” said a middle aged Palestinian man called Abdul Rahman Imran whom I met in the street in Nablus on the West Bank yesterday. “They are against Islam whether it is in Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan.”
A group of tourists were looking at the remains of a Roman amphitheatre in the heart of Amman, the capital of Jordan, yesterday morning when a lone gunman approached them. He shouted “Allahu Akbar – God is Great” and opened fire killing one Briton and wounding five other people including two Britons. A Jordanian man was later arrested for the shooting.
Hundreds of miles away across the great stony desert dividing Jordan from Iraq a British military unit came under attack at Ad Dayr north of Basra. A roadside bomb tore apart their vehicle killing two British soldiers and severely wounding a third. The deaths bring the total number of British dead in Iraq to 117.
Still further east in Afghanistan in Kabul a suicide bomber in a car blew himself up beside a British convoy killing one British soldier and wounding three others, one of them seriously. Four Afghans were also killed in the blast.
Here I write only of British dead. They are but a small percentage of the casualties in the multiple crises which are now cross-infecting each other in the Middle East. For instance Mr Imran in Nablus was particularly angry because, without the rest of the world paying any attention, 251 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army in July and August. Half of them were civilians including women, children and the Elderly, according the Israeli daily Haaretz.
It may soon become uncommon for a day to pass without a Briton, military or civilian, to be killed somewhere in the Middle East. It is dangerous to be a foreigner in any part of Iraq but I noticed last year that my Iraqi translator had started stressing to anybody we met that I was Irish rather than British. He claimed that ‘The Independent’ was a well-known Scandinavian publication.
To Tony Blair, due to visit Israel next week-end, the problem is very simple. Speaking in Los Angeles last month he produced a terrifyingly over-simple view of the Middle East saying “the Iraqi and Afghan fight for democracy is our fight. Same values. Same enemy.” He claimed that “we have to empower Moderate, Mainstream Islam to defeat Reactionary Islam.” The American and British governments will apparently decide in future just who belongs to the latter strand of Islam and go to war with them.
They will have their work cut out. The Britons who were killed yesterday in attacks across the Middle East died at the hands of very different people. The suicide bomber in Kabul was almost certainly sent on his mission by the Taliban who are fundamentalist Sunni Muslims. The Taliban might not even recognize as Muslim the men, almost certainly Shia in the south of Iraq, who planted the roadside bomb that killed two British soldiers north of Basra.
I have spent most of my time since 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq. The reason for the rise of radical Islam is foreign occupation. Iraq had a secular tradition. Fanatical Islamic groups made little headway under Saddam Hussein not only because he persecuted them but because they had little popular support. But the five million-strong Sunni community in Iraq almost entirely supported armed resistance to the US occupation. Fanatical Islamic groups were for the first time operating in a friendly environment.
At one moment in the last year the many Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq debated whether they should try to hammer out a common platform. They eventually decided that their differences were too deep for unity on most issues but they were all agreed on opposition to the occupation and they concluded this was sufficient to hold them togethor.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of Tony Blair’s analysis of militant Islam is his blindness to the extent to which foreign invasion and occupation has radicalized the region and legitimized militant Islam. For instance this week-end a group of Palestinian students in Jerusalem were debating the impact of the war in Lebanon on Palestinian fortunes. The issue was which most interested them was the reason why Hezbullah was able to withstand Israeli attack compared to the failure of secular nationalist movements like Fatah, led by Yasser Arafat for so many years.
Across the Middle East secularist and nationalist regimes are being discredited by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. Most governments in the region are corrupt patronage machines backed by brutal security services. They are close to the US but have little influence over it. All are becoming unstable in a way not seen since the 1960s.
The attack by a lone gunman in Jordan holds another dangerous message. At the end of 2001 I was able to stroll through the streets of Kabul and Kandahar without fear of being attacked. I drove between the two cities in a taxi. The same was true in Baghdad under Saddam Hussein and during the first months of the occupation. In 2003 I drove down to Basra in southern Iraq and up to Mosul in the far north without incident. If I tried to repeat any of these journeys in Afghanistan or Iraq today I would certainly be killed. The rest of the Middle East is becoming more dangerous by the day. The American and British embassies this week warned foreigners with good reason from going to Gaza where two American journalists were recently kidnapped.
The real reason of the increasing violence in the Middle East is the return to imperial control and foreign occupation half a century after the European colonial empires were broken up. This is the fuel for Islamic militancy. This is why fanatical but isolated Islamic groups can suddenly win broader support. Governments allied to the US and Britain have no legitimacy. The very attempts by America and Britain to crush Islamic militancy across the Middle East are making sure that it will become stronger.
Patrick Cockburn writes for the Independent of London and CounterPunch. He is the author of the Broken Boy, and next month Verso will be publishing his new book, The Occupation. War and Resistance in Iraq.