Newsnotes 2004 05

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M. Williams

Victory at al-Fallujah

A Roughly Civilised Society [Iraq]

Fragging By Internet [Abu Ghraib abuse photos]

The Mirror Cracked? [Britain in Iraq]

Paper Tiger, Sleeping Warrant [Accusations against Muqtada al-Sadr]

Speedboats don’t grow on trees [Iraq and oil]

Book-Of-Revelations Diplomacy [Israel]

Innocent Until Proven Irish? [IRA men in Columbia]


Victory at al-Fallujah

All changed, changed utterly. That’s how Yates put it after Ireland’s Easter Rising. The drastic upheaval in Iraq occurred among people who care nothing for the Christian Easter: the enforceable secularism of Saddam and the Baath has gone for ever and non-Muslim Iraqis would be wise to get out while they can. But the USA chose to fight on the wrong ground, and then abandon that ground when the going got tough.

Last month I said “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind”. But I’d not have dare expect a couple of military stalemates and one definite defeat for the Occupation.

People will quibble about it being a ‘defeat’, obviously. But the Resistance have not handed over the corpse-mutilators, have not surrendered heavy weapons and have not agreed to co-exist with the Occupiers. They also possess the disputed ground, which is a common rule for victory.

At the time the crisis hit, I happened to be reading General Grant’s history of their civil war. Interestingly, he thought the war with Mexico was wrong and aggressive, though he did his duty in it. Whereas he had no qualms about crushing the Southern secession, figuring that it was unjustified. But his firm rule as commander was to keep going, whatever he was doing, since retreat was very demoralising.

Even if you shouldn’t have started it, make sure you finish it. Which is just what has not happened at Fallujah. The US did enough to look brutal, but too little to look effective.

The US could have avoided getting into a simultaneous fight with Iraqi rivals, by not closing a paper run by Shia militants at the same time as they were trying to take back Fallujah. But having made such a mess, they should not have allowed any sign of weakness. Like saying publicly they will not be kicked out, which would be militarily impossibly for a badly armed militia facing the world’s biggest military machine. And then showing that this vast power could still fail against people willing to stand their ground.

Who wants to die for a bad cause? Or for a cause that’s managed badly?

People fight, or not, depending on how much they believe in their cause, and on whether they think that they can win. Saddam’s army melted away when it became clear that the USA was going to push on despite initial setbacks, and could punch holes in the Iraqi’s static defences. But the USA have hugely damaged their moral status by their mishandling of Iraq over the past year, failing to restore normal life. And then stopping outside Fallujah gave a key sign of weakness. Iraqis no longer think that the USA cannot be stopped.

US troops are a cowboy outfit, in both senses of the term. Nation-building is not something they are up to. In the 1940s, their actual role was to supply money and ‘muscle’ to home-grown forces in Germany and Japan that understood what needed to be done. In Iraq they had only hangers-on, and they have failed.

We now see the US Marines trying to hand over Fallujah to the same people who were running it before the US invasion. Same uniforms, same flag, same people and even a commander whose Baathist credentials became too embarrassing and they hastily swapped him. They have almost admitted that the whole invasion was a monstrous error, which it was even from a US viewpoint.

But the Baath machine has been broken and is very unlikely to be rebuilt. From a Resistance viewpoint, the ex-Saddam people replacing the US Marines are a legitimate armed faction. Their presence is the price for an end to the US bombing and blockade.

Peace remains conditional: it holds at the time of writing, but could soon fall apart.


A Roughly Civilised Society [Iraq]

In a land of many peoples, torn out of the Ottoman Empire and required to be a coherent state by the British Empire, politics was always going to be rough. The Iraqi Baath Party had managed to shut down existing tribal and sectarian politics—the things that might add up to ‘civil society’ in a Western society. This was done with great brutality, but no more than was needed in Turkey and similar new places. No more than in Western Europe, when Europe was breaking its own ‘old order’. The Baath were clearing the ground for Modernism, which had begun to grow as an authentic local force, not a shallow copy of the West.

The Bush Administration understood none of this. The Bush Administration was in the grip of an ideology that believed that Iraq contained an authentic ‘civil society’ of a Western sort, and that would reappear when the Baath were removed. Iraqi exiles encouraged this view.

The last 12 months has shown what nonsense this was. Iraq was a jumble of many different cultures, all of them alien to Western values. The Baath and the Iraqi Communists were the only effective Westernising forces, and the Iraqi Communists have clearly ceased to matter.

There is a striking lack of Iraqis ready to die as US allies. In this respect, it is already a lot worse than it ever was in Vietnam, where the USA stepped into an existing civil war. Colonial war, rather, they came in as supporters of the French Empire and inherited its allies.

In Iraq, they have nothing but some squabbling exiles, people with their own agenda and not very pro-US.   The only non-foreign fighters are the Kurds, two factions who seek a separate Kurdistan and who have fought each other in the past.

“The only Iraqi brigade to fight on America’s side this month was one composed of Kurdish peshmergas and the Free Iraq Forces of Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the Governing Council” (Economist, April 15th). Other sources said just the Kurds.

The exiles have had an entire year in charge of the society, and they are not in charge of the society. On a news program, I saw them epitomised by fat man in a western suit asking for more western military aid to protect his kind against their own people. The US maybe wants to dump them, but who else can they get? A year ago they had choices, but what rat is going to jump on board a sinking ship?

The loyalty of the USA to its South Vietnamese allies is well remembers. Or I suppose it is; maybe some of the Arabic channels should show timely documentaries about the panicky flight and all of the ‘allies’ left behind.


Fragging By Internet [Abu Ghraib abuse photos]

The appearance of abuse-photos was most remarkable. Accusations of abuse have been around a long time. The Resistance must always have wanted to get hold of hard evidence, and they failed. But no sooner had Iraq begun to look like a lost cause to the people stuck with the fighting , than suddenly hard evidence ‘appeared’. Stuff that must disgust Westerners who up until now have been right behind the armed forces.

(A couple of thousand miles behind the armed forces, in most cases. Some war-supporters are ex-military, some would be happy to risk their own lives. But the Bush camp is dominated by ‘Chickenhawks’ who found legal ways to dodge Vietnam.)

Considering that just one man got punished for the murder of several hundred helpless civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam war, you would not expect US troops to be worried about punishment for abusing non-white foreigners. You qualify as human if you are white, or if you are US citizen, but otherwise not.

Maybe also it wasn’t a case of ‘let’s go abuse some prisoners’, but a complex situation in which one thing led to another. According to one inmate:

“I was taken to Camp One in Abu Ghraib.

“They tortured me after I had a fight with an Iraqi working in the camp who was having a relationship with a female soldier.

“He was giving us a hard time and we had to beat him up.

“So they started torturing us. They cut our clothes off with blades. We were stripped naked, even our underwear was cut off.

“Then they ordered us to do things in front of a female soldier.

“They told us to masturbate towards this female soldier. But we didn’t agree to do it, so they beat us…

“They made us act like dogs, putting leashes around our necks and making us bark. They’d whistle and we’d have to bark like dogs.” (Iraqi inmate: ‘Treated like dogs’, BBC Online, 6/5/2004).

In modern times, it was the Soviet Union that began the practice of giving women real combat roles, including snipers and fighter-pilots in World War Two. It was also the policy of Leninist insurgents generally, and had a big cultural influence. Up until the 1960s, this was seen as a leftist-soviet oddity, and sexual freedom was widely identified with Bolshevism. After the 1960s it was assimilated and treated as if it was home-grown.

Since the USA’s dysfunctional conservatives can’t acknowledge that history ever happened, they cannot understand why it hasn’t happened elsewhere, or how to make it happen. Putting US female soldiers in charge of Arab men was certain to cause trouble. But no one should be puzzled that the US military stuck to established habits without caring which country they were operating in.

The really puzzling thing is why so much hard evidence be coming out now. The events seemed to have happened months ago, some of them at least. But from late April there has been a kind of ‘rolling thunder’, fresh material every few days to keep the story thoroughly alive. At the time of writing, everything shown has features men of military age, and features humiliation rather than major physical damage.

Is it just a coincidence that material in possession of the military should start leaking, just at the time when the ordinary solider on the ground might be deciding that it’s a bad cause and a doomed cause and it’s best to end it quickly? In Vietnam, this led to ‘fragging’, blowing up officers who were over-keen on fighting, and there have been some odd cases in which the Resistance got close to senior Americans whose presence should have been secret. But this is a primarily a media war, and the internet gives all sorts of ways for someone with a bit of technical knowledge to transmit material at little personal risk.

It’s not to be expected that the USA will really clean up its act. It’s hardly a good signal to appoint ‘Blind-Eye’ Negroponte as Ambassador, given his past record of being improbably ignorant of death squads that everyone else knew about. Pro-US forces that were almost certainly paid and trained by the USA, and which did vastly worse things than anything yet shown or even alleged in Iraq.


The Mirror Cracked? [Britain in Iraq]

The status of the Daily Mirror photos remains disputed as I write. But there is great reluctance to say that nothing happened, even if the ‘hard evidence’ should turn out to be unreal. Hiding faces and using non-standard equipment for your misdeeds would be a rather simple precaution. The sort of thing you’d expect from British military culture, which is brutal and racist but not stupid. And whose experience in Northern Ireland has included some prosecutions and punishment, whereas the US military have very seldom suffered for stuff they did to foreigners.

The BBC was claiming that British forces are popular among Shia, unlike the US among Sunni. The BBC has not been the same since ‘Justice’ Hutton said that blatant distortions by the government were fine, while minor exaggerations by a BBC reporter were unforgivable. Still, they had to report that after the Basra bomb, the British troops were stoned by hostile crowds. The British were held responsible—and since it looks to have been a revenge attack on pro-Western forces by Sunni from Fallujah, I’d say the crowd had it pretty much right.

It seems that the USA was asking the British to move north to fill the gap left by the Spanish, including Najaf where Moqtada al-Sadr is holding out. (Guardian, 23rd April 2004). Also that the British were resisting this: the military must be pretty pissed off the Tony Blair’s attitude of ‘just say yes’. But—assuming that the US military in Iraq leak like a sieve, which is a pretty good assumption—there was also excellent reason for the Resistance to organise trouble for the British occupiers.

Also an excellent reason to give the British Press some very photogenic evidence that the military’s behaviour has not been quite so nice. And that a lot more of it is likely to happen if they are seriously asked to hold down chunks of Iraq where they are outstaying their welcome.


Paper Tiger, Sleeping Warrant [Accusations against Muqtada al-Sadr]

Newspaper reports about Muqtada al-Sadr keep saying that he’s “wanted for the murder of a fellow Islamic cleric”. Which isn’t true at all. The killing of Abdel Majid al-Khoei had sometimes been blamed on Sadr’s supporters, but there were other theories. Moreover the killing did not look much like a planned assassination.

It began with an attack on Haidar Raifee, another cleric who was a member of the Baath party and whose had also attracted a lot of personal enmity. “Raifee also allegedly diverted many of the donations left inside the tomb to the Baath Party. The thefts got so bad that Shiite religious leaders in Najaf issued a fatwa ordering followers to cease leaving donations… Yet al-Khoei apparently viewed the return of Raifee to his post as a key gesture of reconciliation in the seething city.” ( And when Raifee’s enemies attacked him, al-Khoei fired at least one shot to try to put them off. And ending up being killed himself, a common enough outcome if you try interfering with a violent mob.

The above account also has the mob filled with a bizarre determination to associate Muqtada al-Sadr with the deed, repeatedly saying that they were his people and under his orders. If that really was how it happened, then I’d take it as proof that someone else staged it. The Sadrist movement held out under Saddam and were unlikely to suddenly loose all caution and common sense. But first reports indicated a real uncertainty as to the alignment of the killers, indicating that it was just a mob attacking a pro-Saddam cleric who had been accused of blasphemous crimes.

If it was planned, then who benefited? The pro-American al-Khoei appealed to those who were never likely to support Sadr, and vice versa. But with al-Khoei gone, the US had little choice but to work with Sistani. If I were a ruthless-minded person acting in Sistani’s interest, I’d say “shout a few pro-Sadr slogans, so he gets the blame. Even act like you were also after Sistani, but make sure nothing really happens”. Such a fix could have been arranged without Sistani ever knowing about it, of course. Factional politics are a complex matter.

The same logic could be applied to other Shia factions who were willing to work with the USA, but saw al-Khoei as someone who was ready to give too much for too little return. Al-Khoei must have ‘gone metropolitan’ during his exile and genuinely shared the Bush-Blair view of Iraq’s nature and destiny.

The issue of the murder is big and complex enough, I’ve done an entire separate article for those who want to get fuller details. But what’s really bizarre is what happened next.

The current flare-up began on March 28th, when the USA closed down Sadr’s newspaper—a journal with a small circulation, mostly among existing supporters. There followed the arrest of a key aide, with no reason given publicly:

On April 4th, “The demonstrators joined the protest after hearing that one of his senior aides, Mustafa al-Yacoubi, had been arrested. Spanish troops in the area said they had no information on the arrest.” (Iraq protests end in 20 deaths, BBC Online.) And the Spaniards and Latin Americans must have been edgy because of a recent suicide-explosion following on from the mass killings of the train bombs. The difference between North African Sunni and Iraqi Shiite might not have seemed important to men a long way from home, especially since they knew they were going to be withdrawn anyway.

The events have since been presented as a planned uprising, but reporters at the time were uncertain as to how the shooting had started. (As in the former USSR, you never know what’s going to happen yesterday.) The demonstrators included armed men, certainly, but that is normal enough in the anarchy that the USA has made of Iraq.

If the Sadrists had planned an armed assault on the Spanish-run base, you’d have expected them to kill a lot more of their enemies than actually died. Nor would it make sense to bring along a mass of vulnerable non-combatants.

Only after Muqtada al-Sadr went into armed opposition did the news break that he was wanted for the al-Khoei killing. We were then told that there had been grounds found for arresting him months ago, but that nothing had been done about it. “For now, US attempts to work with Sadr are over, and he’ll probably be arrested soon. But his arrest could stir up more anti-American anger among Iraq’s Shiites. As I talk to more people here on the streets, I get the feeling that the US will have to be careful in the way that it handles Sadr, but that widespread fighting for him isn’t likely. There will undoubtedly be more bloody incidents, but he so far hasn’t managed to spark the broader uprising he was hoping for.” (Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 2004, ).

What actually happened was much more than Sadr could possibly have been hoping for. The US thought they were breaking a little extremist sect, not realising that it was much more a part of the society than they were. Not realising that societies are organic and that an attack on one part is likely to be seen as an attack on the whole. And the US was also left having to explain why it had sat on a murder warrant for several months while it tried to strike a bargain with the alleged killer.

Except that they haven’t yet needed to think of excuses. The ‘free’ press has been astonishingly tolerant and reserved on the matter. Showing no interest in the massive discrepancies in the various versions of al-Khoei’s death. Not questioning the USA’s right to ignore ‘rule of law’ in as far as it suits them. Mostly not even using al-Khoei’s name, because feed the name and ‘murder’ into Google and you get all sorts of posted news reports about things that are no longer deemed to have happened.

[Muqtada al-Sadr remains a major leader of Religious-Shia Iraq, though with no current official position.]

Speedboats don’t grow on trees [Iraq and oil]

The attack on Iraq’s offshore oil terminal did enough damage to close them, and oil prices are at a record high. They’d been going up anyway, a continuing trend as a the war gets worse. Some price rise might be good for the oil-interests that dominate the Bush administration, but there are limits. Pro-war people who expected cheap oil to flow from a nice little war in a foreign country might suddenly loose their enthusiasm. And oil prices would skyrocket if something happened to the Saudi dynasty’s grip on Arabia.

Oil is unlikely to run out, but cheap oil may. Oil prices are vastly too low, because the real price is the replacement cost. No new oil is being formed, and extra cheap oil is unlikely.

The standing of the Saudi dynasty may run out before the oil does. That’s probably why they run an oil policy that favours oil-consumers at the expense of the producing countries

Saddam was no more corrupt than the Saudi dynasty. But unlike them, he used a large chunk of the revenue to buy modern social services for Iraq. The sort of serious nationalism and modernisation that the USA tolerated and even supported during the Cold War, but which they began targeting after the Soviet collapse.

The world could run for decades on more expensive petrol and oil products, including Central Asian reserves. But if the cost of motoring started going up, that would undermine a big part of the populist-individualist culture that encourages ordinary people to back policies that mostly help the rich. Without cheap oil, Western governments would have to let petrol prices rise. Or else reduce the tax they charge, but that tax revenue is needed and could not easily be replaced. It’s an unstable politics under any circumstances, and a big rise in oil prices could trigger a seismic shift.

Another interesting question is how the attack was carried out. The boats must have been based somewhere in Iraqi-Shia territory. Significantly, it is just the US who are being attacked. I suspect that some Shia have a deal with part of the Resistance, allowing them to attack just the stuff in Shia territory that the US protects.

Al-Qaeda have an interest in disrupting the flow of oil. But so have the Shia, from short, medium and long-term viewpoints.

The Saudi dynasty have origins in a hard-line Sunni sect. A lot of the oil is on territory with Shia majorities, and this is also true of many of the Gulf states. There is indeed a pattern of politics spreading from Iraq to other Arab states, just not the one the USA was looking for.


Book-Of-Revelations Diplomacy [Israel]

The world would see remarkable results from a definite statement by a US President that Israel should not claim sovereignty beyond its 1967 borders. And that Jerusalem’s proper status is International. The 250,000 settlers on the West Bank should not be there.

Of course we’re not going to get it. The USA was lukewarm back in 1967, but then Israel scored the sort of dramatic success against the Arabs that Western armies used to be able to score all of the time against non-Western forces. This was much neater than the USA’s own experience of getting battered by the Japanese, fought to a standstill in Korea and then stalemated in Vietnam. So 1967 saw a big shift in mainstream US attitude to Jews, accepting them as Jews rather than ignoring their Jewishness when it suited.

It also fed into the mainstream Protestant and Catholic memories of the Bible, with modern wars fought in legendary places. This became stronger as American Liberalism collapsed under the demand to be more liberal than it actually wanted to be. Core values collapsed, and various forms of religious enthusiasm started sprouting.

It is also related to the way that our current McLunatic Globalisation is ripping tradition to shreds. In the USA, a large number of traditionally-minded voters are resigned to a corrupt world and are expecting it to end soon. But they have their own vision of an immanent Apocalypse, which involves a Jewish return

The Apocalypse also involves Jews ceasing to be Jews, or else going to Hell. Israel’s ‘supporters’ in the USA have a quite different view from the Israelis, who have managed to convince themselves that they can take the land they failed to get in 1948. (When they did snatch a lot more than the UN had assigned to them.)

My concern is for the long-term survival of Israel, as much as anything else. Twenty million Jews currently outbalance more than a thousand million Muslims in international politics. But for how much longer?

The invasion of Iraq was supposed to correct this by setting a splendid example of a different sort of Arab society. One which shared the USA’s viewpoint, including the notion that religion should not be allowed to get in the way of anything important. But there was no basis for such a thing in Iraqi society, to the degree that there ever was an Iraqi society. What has flourished since Saddam’s fall has been something much more alien.


Innocent Until Proven Irish? [IRA men in Columbia]

A lot of newspapers were outraged when they heard that the three IRA men in the Columbia case had been acquitted. How can a court acquit them after we have classed them as guilty? It is damn foolish of them to take such a view, newspaper power depends on them telling something like the truth. Abuse this position and it is lost, with newspapers treated like comics. This is already happening, but they are not noticing.

When I first heard the accusation, I was quite ready to believe the men were guilty. I don’t suppose that they were in the Columbian jungle trying to recruit monkeys for the British Army. But I heard last year that the specific charges were damn stupid and based on evidence that was obviously false. And now a court has agreed on it as well.

Meantime the USA is still able to keep its Guantanimo Bay prisoners in a kind of legal limbo—without the protections of Prisoners Of War and without the right to trial of criminal suspects. “Conservative” opinion in the USA is all in favour of this shysterism, even as the matter comes to the slow-moving attention of the US Supreme Court. Don’t these characters realise that they are discrediting their own system? Sawing off the branch that they are sitting on?

The world changed in April 2004, much more rapidly than I’d been expecting, but in directions that I’d fully been expecting. The order of the 1980s is overdue for a change, and it could be very dramatic once it begins.


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