Both the coalition and its critics read what they want into the actions of the faceless insurgents in Iraq.
Who’s behind the suicide bombings, roadside attacks and prison breakouts in postwar Iraq? Whoever you want it to be, by the look of things. No Iraqi or Islamic group has claimed responsibility for the sporadic attacks, but there is no shortage of Western commentators, coalition officials and anti-war activists claiming responsibility on behalf of various groups and interests and reading their own interpretations into the bloody assaults. Many in the West are effectively marshalling the nameless, nihilistic terrorists/resisters like a phantom army, to back up their own views of the war, the occupation and what should happen next.
Last week was Iraq’s bloodiest since the war officially ended in April 2003. On 10 February, a suicide bomber detonated a truck outside a police station in Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, killing 53 Iraqis. On 11 February, an Oldsmobile packed with 500 pounds of explosives blew up outside an Iraqi army recruitment centre in Baghdad, killing 47. On 14 February, a group of 50 armed men wearing masks stormed a police station in Fallujah, freeing up to 100 prisoners and killing over 20 newly recruited Iraqi policemen. This morning, a suicide attack at a Polish Army base in Hilla, south of Baghdad, killed at least 11 Iraqis and wounded eight coalition soldiers.
Coalition officials have little idea who is carrying out these attacks, or why. According to Paul Bremer, America’s administrator in Iraq, the prison attack on 14 February was executed by ‘foreign fighters’ or al-Qaeda elements, who have ‘infiltrated Iraq’ (1). But a senior US military official in Baghdad says the attack ‘was something put together by people with knowledge of small-unit tactics. It was a complex, well coordinated attack. This would not be the same tactics that al-Qaeda would employ – these are military tactics’ (2). Ahmed Ibrahim, deputy minister of the interior in postwar Iraq, said the raid was the work of ‘a bunch of criminals who tried to free prisoners. They were gangsters, not terrorists’ (3).
Coalition officials also blame foreigners for the suicide bombings of recent months – Bremer claims that they ‘exactly fit the strategy that has been outlined by…al-Qaeda’ (4). On 8 February, US officials released a letter reportedly written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Islamic fundamentalist suspected to be in Iraq, appealing to Osama bin Laden for assistance in destabilising Iraq. Yet there is little evidence that al-Zarqawi wrote the letter (it is unsigned) or when it was written (it is undated) or whether it ever reached bin Laden (it was found on a CD in a suspected al-Qaeda safe house near Baghdad). One report points out that of the dozens of insurgents arrested to date, only a ‘handful’ have been non-Iraqis (5). The coalition’s focus on al-Zarqawi’s alleged letter looks like a desperate attempt to give the enemy in Iraq some kind of definition, by falling back on the familiar spectre of bin Laden and co.
As one report says: ‘USA has a murky picture of Iraqi resistance’. With little sense of who the attackers are – and little indication from the attackers themselves about what they are hoping to achieve by planting bombs and shooting soldiers – officials are reduced to speculating about the enemy. Now the coalition is latching on to the rise in violent attacks as a justification of both its mission in Iraq and the ongoing ‘war against terror’. Following the WMD debacle (the coalition said Saddam had lots, but in fact he had none), coalition officials today talk up their role in Iraq as one of ‘keeping the peace’ and ‘protecting Iraqis’ from insurgents – or, as one headline put it, ‘US Iraq administrator says recent violence underscores need for coalition forces’ (6). Others claim that al-Zarqawi’s alleged letter and the ongoing suicide bombings show that you cannot separate the ‘War in Iraq’ from the ‘War Against Terrorism’ (7).
The bombers in Iraq may not speak their name – but for uncertain coalition leaders scratching about for a mission post-WMD, they have become the latest symbol of Evil that the coalition has a duty to combat in its never-ending, ever-shifting war against terror. Coalition officials may disagree over whether their enemies are Iraqis or foreigners, al-Qaeda types or ‘military units’, gangsters or terrorists – and may not know where they are based, who leads them or what they’re planning to do next – but still officials round them up as an advert for the coalition’s mission. In the attacks in postwar Iraq, an uncertain coalition sees another reason for its existence.
On the other side, anti-war activists in the West hail the nameless attackers in Iraq as a national liberation movement seeking to defeat America’s mighty empire. Veteran anti-war writer John Pilger describes the bombers as a ‘resistance’ and one which is ‘incredibly important for all of us. I think that we depend on the resistance to win so that other countries might not be attacked’ (8). Tariq Ali compares those carrying out attacks on coalition forces in Iraq to resistance movements in Vichy France during the Second World War and later in Vietnam. ‘The immediate tasks that face an anti-imperialist movement are support for the Iraqi resistance’, declares Ali (9).
What kind of national liberation movement does not declare its aims? Or take responsibility for its actions? Or posit an alternative to the powers-that-be? The ‘resistance’ in Iraq is a destructive, nihilistic force that only kicks against the coalition and runs away again, a case of terrorism for terrorism’s sake. Indeed, it is the empty, vacuous nature of the violence in postwar Iraq that allows so many interpretations of what is behind it – whether it’s an Islamic infiltration from beyond Iraq’s borders, the first stirrings of a civil war between Sunnis in the north and Shias in the south, or, in the wishful thinking of some in the anti-war lobby, a blow for liberation against American arrogance.
The rise in pointless violence in postwar Iraq is better understood as a result of the coalition’s war. The coalition chased a weakened regime out of a weakened state, with little sense of what might take its place – leaving a vacuum that various armed and opportunistic groups have moved in to. Now, it seems, opportunistic elements in the West are following them, seeing great battles of purpose and meaning in postwar Iraq where none exists.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
(1) Bremer: Foreign Fighters in Iraq Attack, Observer, 15 February 2003
(2) US blames ‘foreign fighters’ for raid, Scotsman, 16 February 2004
(3) Raid causes experts to question readiness of Iraqi security forces, Neela Banerjee, New York Times, 15 February 2004
(4) As US draws down, doubt over Iraqis, Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, 17 February 2004
(5) Bush keeps trying to make Iraq invasion look justified, Gwynne Dyer, Salt Lake Tribune, 16 February 2004
(6) US Iraq administrator says recent violence underscores need for coalition forces, Michael Bowman, Voice of America, 15 February 2004
(7) Is it just for oil?, Ray Thomas, Sierra Times, 16 February 2004
(8) Soft spot for Iraqi thugs, David McKnight, Weekend Austrialian, 9 February 2004
(9) Soft spot for Iraqi thugs, David McKnight, Weekend Austrialian, 9 February 2004
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