Iraq: the world’s first Suicide State

With daily bombings by faceless insurgents, Iraq looks like a country committing suicide for the cameras rather than aspiring to independence.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

‘Two pre-teen girls embraced each other as they burned to death….’ That line in a Washington Post report about a recent bloody suicide bombing in Iraq leapt out at me. On Saturday, 38 people, mainly women and children, were killed in a fiery explosion as they queued for fuel in Baghdad. It is believed that a female suicide bomber – ‘wearing a black veil that left only her eyes exposed’ – blew herself up as she tried to push into the queue for kerosene. She was reportedly pushing a cart carrying a barrel filled with ball bearings. The impact of her bomb with the kerosene and the ball bearings caused unimaginable carnage. ‘The horrific blast sent women engulfed in flames screaming through the streets’, witnesses told the Post (1).

What is going on in postwar Iraq? The one certainty of America and Britain’s invasion was that it would cause greater instability and bloody clashes, both inside Iraq and beyond. As spiked predicted in February 2003, a month before the war began, ‘The internationalisation of Iraq’s local conflicts threatens to divide Iraqis further and store up conflict for the future, rather than herald anything like a new era of freedom’ (see Dangerous territory, by Brendan O’Neill). Yet the violence in postwar Iraq is more peculiar and barbaric than any of us could have predicted. There is no national liberation struggle between any coherent Iraqi force and the armies of the Coalition, or even much sign of the civil war between Shia and Sunni forces that was predicted by many. Instead there is a kind of spectacle of death, a relentless and pointless bombing and burning of men, women and children by faceless, nameless killers.

Iraq looks like a country committing suicide rather than aspiring to independence and liberty. It is striking, for example, that the bombers seem always to lash out against Iraqi civilians, including civilians who have signed up for Iraq’s ragbag police force, rather than against America and Britain’s occupying armies. Iraq takes today’s ‘cult of the suicide bomber’ a stage further: we could say that Iraq is the world’s first Suicide State, responding to war and occupation not by mobilising the masses in opposition or organising resistance armies, but rather by destroying itself, by committing suicide in front of the world’s cameras. As strange and unsettling as this may seem, it requires an explanation. It strikes me that the new Suicide State of Iraq is not quite as foreign or ‘evil’ as commentators and officials would have us believe. Rather, it seems to have been shaped by some very contemporary political trends, and by the denigration of international politics over the past decade.

The killing of women and children queuing for fuel was only the latest in a long line of grotesque attacks on civilians. In April this year, 74 Shia worshippers were killed by three suicide bombers dressed as Shia women at a mosque in Baghdad. The first bomber blew himself up among a crowd of worshippers leaving the mosque; the second and third bombers blew themselves up inside the mosque where panic-stricken worshippers had taken refuge following the first explosion. Last year 26 children were blown up as they accepted sweets from an American soldier. A suicide bomber rammed his car into the group of children and then detonated his suicide vest. Almost every day there is an attack on civilians. According to UN figures, July and August this year provided the highest and grimmest death tolls yet: the toll of violent civilian deaths in July was 3,590; in August it was 3,009. That is an average of 100 deaths a day. A minibus driver in Sadr City recently told a reporter: ‘We carry our death certificates with us now, waiting only to fill in the date of death.’ (2)

The insurgency in Iraq seems more primal than political, a scream of impotent rage rather than violence executed in order to achieve a specific aim. There seems to be no political agenda at all, or certainly none that has been articulated. One report on how the insurgency has ‘baffled’ leading US officials and counterinsurgency experts says it is bizarre that the insurgents have ‘put forward no single charismatic leader, developed no alternative government or political wing, and displayed no intention of amassing territory to govern’ (3). The insurgents often do not claim responsibility for their violent acts, much less explain why they carried them out. Where foreign invasions and occupations once gave rise to national liberation or anti-colonial movements, which normally had clear political aspirations and military tactics, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has given rise to mysterious groups of suicidal jihadists.

This, it strikes me, can be seen as a consequence of what some have referred to as ‘the end of politics’, and specifically the emptying out of international politics over the past 10 to 15 years. For example, the Iraqi insurgents, distinct from anti-colonial movements throughout modern history, seem to have no desire to take over the Iraqi state or to create their own state. In the past militant groups, from India to the Middle East to Africa, fought foreign forces on the ground while trying to win legitimacy for their cause on the international stage. Their aim was to expel occupiers and convince the international community – specifically, after 1945, the United Nations, that hub of recognised sovereign states – that they had both the capability and the right to run their own states. The Iraqi insurgents, by contrast, ‘show little interest…in building international legitimacy or in articulating a governing programme’ (4). As the New York Times put it, the fact that no one even knows for certain whether the insurgents’ objective is to ‘control Iraq’ is, ‘by historical standards, one of several remarkable, perplexing features of [their] fight’ (5).

This can be seen as the end result of the continual denigration of state sovereignty in the recent period. Since the end of the Cold War in 1989/1990, the independent state has been problematised as the source of the world’s problems. Indeed, the West’s ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been largely premised on the idea that states are suspicious and untrustworthy things. Sovereignty has become a dirty word, seen as something that tyrants like Milosevic and Saddam Hussein hide behind as they get on with the business of persecuting their peoples. As the arch pro-interventionist Geoffrey Robertson argued in his book Crimes Against Humanity, published in 2000, ‘The movement for global justice has been a struggle against sovereignty’, since sovereignty is ‘the traditional enemy of the human rights movement’ (6). Even the United Nations, ostensibly the upholder of sovereign equality between states in the Cold War period from 1945 to 1990, now welcomes the fact that ‘state sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined by the forces of globalisation and international cooperation’ (7).

The demonisation of the state – the ‘struggle against sovereignty’, as Robertson describes it – has had a subtle and important impact on militant groups in world affairs. Today, such groups are less likely to organise and conduct themselves like national liberation movements, aspiring to create their own state and win a seat on the UN. Instead, their violence seems shallow and directionless, aimed either at winning the attention and sympathy of the new humanitarian West, or at expressing a sense of rage and frustration with their Western occupiers. The Cold War world order, which was based (at least in words) on respect and equality for sovereign states, nurtured political movements and guerrilla armies that aspired to create their own states; the humanitarian order, which is built on the idea that states are problematic and thus the international community must have the right to intervene in their affairs, has given rise to groups whose political agendas and use of force are more contingent and unpredictable. Lacking the old frameworks of sovereignty, independence and equality, the insurgents in Iraq are reduced to, as one report puts it, ‘screeching at the Coalition and its puppet government [in Iraq]’ (8).

Another ‘perplexing’ feature of the Iraqi insurgency is that it seems more interested in creating media images than winning real grassroots support for its agenda (whatever that might be). As the NYT says, ‘The insurgents are showing little interest in winning hearts and minds among the majority of Iraqis’, instead focusing their efforts on creating ‘images of chaos’ (9). So, many insurgent groups film their members blowing themselves up and post the footage on the web; sometimes these are sophisticated operations, involving more than one camera angle and half-decent post-production values. They have also filmed themselves beheading Western hostages for the cameras. Indeed, most insurgent attacks, whether filmed by them or not, seem designed to create a media spectacle. It strikes me that the recent attack on women and children queuing for fuel was an attempt to put the insurgency back on the front pages in the West. After months of ‘insurgency fatigue’ the insurgents needed to do something truly disturbing to win more coverage. They succeeded.

This, too, makes the insurgency more mainstream than some would like to admit. Across the West, and in many other parts of the world, the media have filled the gap left by the decline of politics and public debate. Today, politicians and various ‘new social movements’ seem more interested in executing media stunts, in an attempt to get their message across or improve their image, rather than in winning real mass support for their agenda.

Indeed, America and Britain’s invasion of Iraq was itself largely a media stunt. The ‘shock and awe’ bombing at the start of the war was designed to ‘send a message’ about the Coalition’s sense of purpose and commitment both to Saddam’s ragbag of generals and officials and to the watching world. The insurgency’s response – to create ‘images of chaos’ – should be seen as a direct response to the Coalition’s media strategy. Where the Coalition sought to generate images of Western strength, cheering Iraqis and statues of Saddam being toppled, the insurgency creates images of death and bloodshed, in an attempt to counter the Coalition’s ‘Good News’ headlines with ‘Bad News’ headlines. They create ‘shock and gore’ to challenge the Coalition’s ‘shock and awe’. To the extent that there is a battle between the Coalition and insurgents in Iraq, it is, as in so many other areas of life and politics these days, a battle for the front pages.

The insurgency’s lack of political ideology is often also remarked upon. Steven Metz of the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute says ‘it is really significant’ that three years into the insurgency ‘there hasn’t been anything like any kind of ideology’. ‘If you look at twentieth-century insurgencies, they all tend to be fairly coherent in terms of their ideology. Most of the serious insurgencies, you could sit down and say, “Here’s what they want”’, says Metz (10). Not so with the Iraqis. They seem to be a new breed of post-ideological insurgents. At a time when political ideology is derided, and when fighting or agitating for a clear self-interest is looked upon with suspicion, we seem to have an insurgency fighting for nothing in particular: one that expresses itself almost emotionally rather than politically, in suicide bombings that can be seen as individuated expressions of frustration rather than part of a collective strategy to expel Coalition forces and take the reins of power in Iraq. The demise of the old ideologies of left and right, or West vs East, has given rise to seemingly aimless and unwieldy movements, especially in more volatile parts of the world such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

In present-day Iraq, we can glimpse what violent struggle looks like in the absence of politics. Without the old structures, or any new ones to take their place, the Iraqi insurgents express no distinct political interest or ideology, show no interest in winning mass support or strength, and focus their efforts, like many others today, on making an impact through the media. The insurgents’ separation from the masses and from any clear political goals goes some way to explaining why they seem so much more unrestrained and brutal than earlier militant movements. Freed from responsibility to a distinct community, and with few ties to national territory or political principles, they have fewer constraints on their actions. It is because the insurgents are really free-floating agents rather than rooted political actors, reflecting the broader demise of politics in recent years, that they can execute what appear to be unthinkable acts. In the absence of conventional political structures that might define and direct a violent campaign, they have little compunction about killing or injuring scores of innocent people. As Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute of International Affairs has argued, because contemporary violent movements are often ‘not motivated by political ideology on the far left or right’, they are more likely to be ‘extremists…with an apocalyptic mindset’ (11).

The end result is a suicidal state in Iraq, where groups destroy lives and buildings rather than trying to create an independent state built on a clear ideology with the support of large sections of the population. It is not enough to describe these insurgents as ‘evil’, however horrendous their actions might be. We must also interrogate how today’s political crises and the dismantling of the international order contributed to such a ‘perplexing’ violent movement – and find ways to renew the language and politics of liberation, for the people of Iraq and beyond.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Women and children slaughtered in Baghdad, Washington Post, 24 September 2006

(2) Women and children slaughtered in Baghdad, Washington Post, 24 September 2006

(3) The mystery of insurgency, New York Times, 15 May 2005

(4) The mystery of insurgency, New York Times, 15 May 2005

(5) The mystery of insurgency, New York Times, 15 May 2005

(6) Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes Against Humanity, New Press, 2000, p151

(7) See The real cowboys, by Brendan O’Neill, Comment Is Free, 25 April 2006

(8) Basics of democracy in Iraq include frustration, USA Today, 26 March 2006

(9) The mystery of insurgency, New York Times, 15 May 2005

(10) The mystery of insurgency, New York Times, 15 May 2005

(11) The Proliferation of Chemical and Biological Weapons Materials and Technologies to State and Sub-State Actors, Jonathan Tucker, November 2001

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