Terrifying Iraq

The coalition's war has given rise to terrorism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Who was behind the four suicide bombings in Baghdad yesterday, which left 42 dead, 224 injured and coalition officials shaken? No individual or group has claimed responsibility, much less articulated a political rationale to their outrageous acts. Yet there has been no shortage of Western commentators and politicians speculating over who detonated the bombs and why.

The front page of today’s UK Sun says ‘42 die in “Osama” hell’, claiming that the attacks ‘bore the hallmarks of…fanatical followers of Osama bin Laden’. Those who support the United Nations taking the reins in postwar Iraq claim the attacks are the work of an emerging liberation movement, and ‘as long as there’s an [American] occupation, the resistance will grow’. One security expert says the reason the Red Cross got bombed is because ‘to Islamic fundamentalists, the Red Cross symbolises the Richard the Lionheart crusades in which Muslims died’ (1).

That the attacks can be interpreted in such diverse ways points to a deeper uncertainty and confusion over postwar Iraq. Commentators and coalition officials are projecting their prejudices on to events in Baghdad, in an attempt to understand what is happening and to put the case for what should happen next. They are imposing their own scripts – complete with ‘foreign fighters’ or old-fashioned national liberation movements – on to what seem like, in the words of one Red Cross official, ‘un-understandable’ events (2).

In truth, the nihilistic attacks are a product of the coalition’s hollow war and its increasingly risk-averse occupation. In destroying the state bodies that dominated Iraq for the past 30 years, without putting anything in their place, the coalition’s invasion gave rise to opportunistic armed groups. And the nervous occupation of Iraq – with its emphasis on minimising engagement and reducing the risk of casualties among coalition forces – creates a climate in which a couple of bloody bombs can have a disproportionate impact both on coalition morale and world opinion. Having created the space for the rise of terrorist groups in Iraq, the coalition’s fearful response to such groups effectively invites further attack.

America and Britain’s war created a vacuum; it destroyed the central authority in Iraq when there was nothing else to take over. After 30 years of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party dominating every aspect of political life, there is no other political group with the legitimacy or mass support to take the reins in postwar Iraq. Bush officials discovered this after the war, when their attempts to install Ahmed Chalabi – a Pentagon-trained Iraqi exile who has lived in Washington and London for the past 45 years – as a new interim leader were greeted with contempt. ‘Every time you mention Chalabi’s name to an Iraqi, they want to puke’, admitted one official.

The coalition’s destruction of Iraq’s old political framework has given rise, not to new political parties or national liberation movements or any other traditional expression of political interests, but to unrepresentative groups that exploit the vacuum left by the war. Western intervention has exacerbated tensions while removing the outlets for the expression of such tensions. This has heightened violence on the fringes of Iraqi society, where armed groups simply lash out against the drift of events. Those in the West who describe such acts as a strike for ‘national liberation’ give the attacks too much credence, and effectively project their own aspirations (for a winding down of America’s presence and a takeover by the UN) on to the Baghdad bombers.

The nebulous nature of the coalition’s postwar order is reflected in the targets that the new terror outfits choose to attack. As well as bombing US and UK forces and the UN building in Baghdad, the terrorists have launched assaults on aid agencies – including, most strikingly, yesterday’s attack on the International Committee for the Red Cross. This highlights how the current violence in Iraq is not a case of Iraqi liberationists vs American occupiers, as imagined by some in the West, but rather a kicking against anything that is seen as a symbol of the coalition.

If it was the coalition’s war that led to the emergence of these terror outfits, it is its risk-averse policy on the ground that sustains the attacks and makes new ones more likely. From the start of the war, the coalition has been concerned with avoiding risky battles, taking as few casualties as possible and, in the words of US deputy of defence Paul Wolfowitz, trying to ‘minimise the inhumanity’. This approach was not driven by a newfound respect for Iraqi lives (thousands were killed in the war) but by a sense of caution on the part of coalition forces, a desire to avoid risky and unpredictable engagement. Now, the occupation is being executed on a similar safety-first basis.

This jittery approach has created a situation where isolated, sporadic attacks carried out by persons unknown can have a massive impact. When the occupation of Iraq is conducted on the basis of avoiding risk and minimising danger, then even relatively small attacks can cause shockwaves both inside Iraq and around the world. Opportunistic terrorists appear to be playing off the coalition’s cautious approach, by launching fairly small-scale assaults that they know will dent American morale and focus international attention on Iraq. Who needs a mass army when the occasional car bomb is enough to rattle the coalition?

In effect, it is the coalition’s frightened response to the attacks that gives the attacks their power – and which ensures that the terrorists will try their hand again.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) 42 die in “Osama” hell’, Sun; The seeds of Iraq’s future terror, Shirley Williams, Guardian, 28 October 2003

(2) Red Cross a terrorist target, ABC News, 27 October 2003

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Topics Politics


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