Iraq

TAKING IN THE WELCOME MAT

Mistrust of U.S. forces is spreading like a virus

ADNAN R. KHAN August 25 2003
Iraq

TAKING IN THE WELCOME MAT

Mistrust of U.S. forces is spreading like a virus

ADNAN R. KHAN August 25 2003

TAKING IN THE WELCOME MAT

Iraq

Mistrust of U.S. forces is spreading like a virus, reports ADNAN R. KHAN

ADNAN R. KHAN

“AND MILES TO GO before I sleep.” Robert Frost may seem worlds removed from the charred streets of Baghdad, but for Ihsan Thweny, no words sum up life under foreign occupation better than these. Thweny, a 25-year-old student majoring in English at Baghdad University, quotes Frost to make a point: Iraqis must choose their own road to peace. “America cannot do it for us,” he says. “They are too afraid to take the road less travelled. We see it already—the same pattern repeating itself. Iraqis are being excluded from the rebuilding process. America has shut the doors to us, just like they’ve shut the doors to the rest of the world.”

Even in Baghdad’s blistering heat, Thweny has remained vigilant in his protest against the occupation of his country, standing guard daily outside the gates of the heavily fortified coalition headquarters on the sprawling presidential palace grounds, holding up

hand-painted signs. On the other side of the fence, behind the tanks and soldiers, American strategists, led by Ambassador Paul Bremer and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, plan the next phase of Iraq’s destiny, safely sequestered away. It’s become one of the dominant characteristics of the occupation: Ihsan has yet to see any of these principal players behind the redesign of his country. “It’s as if we don’t exist,” he laments. “Or if we do exist, it’s only as a threat.”

Five months after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, problems in Iraq are beginning to come into unsettling focus. The most ubiquitous symbol of the liberating forces’ presence in Baghdad is the rapidly expanding tangle of razor wire, newly trucked in to help secure a city steadily evolving from

chaos to organized resistance. Its job is to keep people out, and it’s very good at what it does. No wonder that American forces have made such liberal use of the material, spreading it over the streets of Baghdad like some metallic shrubbery gone wild.

Despite American administration claims that nothing has changed, razor wire has replaced the softer touch employed when coalition forces first came to the city. Gone are the euphoric days that followed the triumphant arrival of U.S. troops. “At first, we were sort of a novelty,” recalls 21-yearold Sgt. John Valdez of the 1st Armored Division, which arrived on the scene three months ago. “People were happy to see us. Now they know we’re in for the long haul and there are some elements in the population, those with a vested interest in seeing us gone, who are making trouble.”

It’s steadily getting worse. Evidence of

an escalation in hostilities, and its consequences—defensive posturing, heightened tensions—are everywhere. “When we first got here,” said one American soldier who refused to be identified, “it was great. We were walking the streets, playing with the kids. But now, we’ve been told to tighten up. Now we can’t let people come within 30 feet of us.”

Coalition soldiers face regular attacks from an increasingly hostile enemy. Checkpoints and security posts have evolved into armed encampments, while the nearly 2,000 daily security patrols have become stringently organized. Instances of soldiers casually walking the streets and bantering with locals are nowhere to be seen these days; no one dares risk being caught off guard. And in this most critical moment for the occupying powers, digging in behind the razor wire has not meant an end to casualties: as of last week, at least 59 U.S. troops had died since George W. Bush declared the major combat to be over, with the latest death last week when a convoy hit a roadside bomb near Tikrit, killing one soldier and injuring another.

“The streets of Baghdad are not safe,” says Dr. Mohammad al Fahad, an orthopedic surgeon at Baghdad’s al Yarmuk Flospital. “And from my vantage point, things are not improving.” Along the bustling corridors of his ward, al Fahad somberly points out patients who he claims are innocent victims of the United States’s aggressive crackdown on anti-coalition elements. “I’ve seen more incidents of accidental shootings of civilians by American forces this past month than I did in all of June and July combined,” says al Fahad. But, he hastily adds, he doesn’t necessarily blame the increase only on the Americans. “There are, of course, always two sides in a war.”

The other side, the volatile stew of Saddam loyalists, disgruntled Iraqis and foreign terrorists who comprise the bitter resistance, has given coalition troops ample justification for adopting an aggressive posture. With the American death toll mounting, and domestic support in the U.S. for the war effort on the wane, coalition commanders can ill afford a steady stream of body bags out of Iraq. But the latest indicators sketch a grim reality: attacks have not only become more frequent, but also more sophisticated, and, perhaps most ominously, now bear the trademarks of organized terrorism.

The recent Jordanian embassy bombing, which killed 17 innocent Iraqis and injured scores of others, is only the latest, and most deadly, in a rash of attacks involving precise planning and advanced explosive devices. FBI investigators working with Iraqi authorities have indicated that one suspect in

TWO MONTHS AGO, we were able to go right up to soldiers and ask for help. But now they don’t even let us get close.’

the bombing is a Jordanian national known to have ties to al-Qaeda. But for some of the survivors of the attack, the U.S. is also to blame.

In the trauma ward of al Yarmuk hospital, Mohammad Rashid Ismail, a 43-year-old father of four, tells of the explosion. “I don’t remember hearing the bomb go off,” he says, his mangled left arm propped up on pillows. “One moment I’m talking to the woman at the visa window, the next I’m on the ground surrounded by screaming peo-

ple.” As he talks, doctors examine the severed Achilles tendon of his right foot, stretching open the gash. Ismail seems not to notice. “It’s getting worse and worse for me here in Baghdad. First I had my car stolen, then thieves robbed my house, now this. I thought the Americans would bring peace to Iraq. Instead, they bring us terrorists.” Mohammad Jaffar, a 35-year-old labourer who occupies the bed next to Mohammad’s, is more severe in his condemnation of the U.S. “They did this themselves,” he proclaims. “They want us to live in fear.”

Mistrust of the occupying forces is spreading like a virus through Baghdad, fuelled in part by the distance current security tactics have created between occupiers and occupied. “Two month ago, we were able to go right up to soldiers and ask for help. But now they don’t even let us get close,” one guard at the Khadmiya mosque in Baghdad’s Shia-dominated Khadmiya district complains. “Maybe there are some Baathists now working for the U.S., telling them to stop helping us.”

For the American administrators, this sort of hostility and paranoia exacerbates an already complex situation—even as the Jordanian embassy bombing has lifted what

Sanchez has characterized as a “low-intensity war” to another, more volatile level. “They have the training, they have the money, they have the will,” he said recently of the terrorist threat. “The reason they’re here is to kill American soldiers.” The bitter irony is that the Bush administration’s prewar claim of direct links between Iraq and al-Qaeda terrorists, roundly debunked by terrorism experts (according to a leaked report, the CIA itself concluded there was no such connection), rings more true now, in a post-war Iraq, a Muslim country invaded by a Western power.

The coalition has shut the gates to the outside world, and is trying to hunt down those who pose a threat. But the consequences of such tactics undermine the intent. As coalition forces take cover inside heavily fortified encampments, as checkpoints spread, as troops adopt more rigorous screening techniques, Iraqis become angrier. Many are beginning to feel they’re now living under another hostile regime, as the gap between occupiers and occupied widens. Mounting suspicion has, inevitably, created a more conducive environment for

destabilizing forces to operate in.

On the streets of Baghdad, the tensions are taking their toll on both the civilian population and the men and women assigned the task of keeping the peace. For one 21year-old soldier, identifying dangers and isolating them has become increasingly difficult given the prevailing mood of distrust. “Some people are still too scared to come forward with information,” he says, fumbling with his cigarette outside a Bradley armoured vehicle. “But others, and there seem to be more and more of these, just don’t want to help us any more.”

And as the security situation erodes, the prospect of a sovereign Iraq steadily diminishes. With Iraqi self-government tied to stability on the ground, the Iraqi Governing Council, a group of 25 prominent Iraqis hand-picked by Bremer to head up an interim government, has made security its No.l priority. Many Iraqis, though, do not believe the council will have any lasting impact, viewing the group as a puppet government that lacks legitimacy—another victim of suspicion. An Aug. 5 decision by the Arab League not to recognize the new

entity did little to help the matter.

As for the council itself, it appears to be mired in bureaucratic sludge. Its first act? Abolishing national holidays that honoured Saddam and creating a new one to mark his downfall. As for the key task of writing the new Iraqi constitution, the council set up a subcommittee to study the matter and no time frame on when its work will be completed has been given, let alone a date for the drafting of a constitution itself. Without a constitution, Bremer has stated, there will not be any elections—and without elections, there can be no sovereignty.

For all his diligence on the front lines of the protest movement, Ihsan Thweny recognizes the Herculean task confronting his people. “We’re running circles around democracy,” he says. “We have no one who has stepped forward as a potential leader. We have an occupying force that prefers to rule us from a tower.” For him, the only road to peace and stability is through open dialogue with the people of Iraq. “You cannot hide behind tanks, give orders, and expect us to listen,” he says. If there is to be any security, Fortress America must open up.