Black Days in Baghdad

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Fire rages outside the Canal Hotel in Baghdad

When George Bush talks about Iraq, his standard response is "We're making good progress." But as Tuesday's terror strike on UN headquarters in Baghdad underscored, America's enemies in Iraq have good reason to be satisfied with their own, grisly progress. The truck-bomb attack that killed 15 people, including UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira De Mello, was simply the latest brutal calling card from what appears to be an increasingly confident and tactically diverse insurgency. President Bush left no doubt that the attacks have not shaken his resolve, vowing hours after the bombing that "these killers will not determine the future of Iraq." Still, the UN bombing and those that preceded it suggest the battle to subdue Iraq may be longer, and harder, than most Americans had anticipated.

Last weekend, insurgents twice bombed the pipeline pumping oil from northern Iraq to Turkey, only two days after it was reopened for the first time since the war — and depriving the reconstruction effort of $7 million a day during the weeks it may take to repair. The pipeline remains vulnerable despite U.S. plans to deploy some 1,000 Iraqi security guards along the 600-mile route. Insurgents Saturday blew a hole in Baghdad's key water pipeline, leaving residents without drinking water for days. While such attacks might seem counterintuitive for an insurgency seeking popular support, there may nonetheless be a political rationale behind each: Given the high level of mistrust toward the occupying authority in Baghdad, it's a safe bet that many in the capital would blame the Americans for the absence of drinking water, no matter who was really responsible. And cutting off Iraq's oil exports leaves a massive deficit in the budget of Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, inevitably shifting some of the burden to the U.S. taxpayer.

Even the attack on the UN fits an agenda pursuing the failure of the U.S.-authored transition in Iraq. Not only had the international body been engaged in humanitarian relief work, but De Mello and others had discreetly played a major role in helping Bremer manage the political transition. Key Shiite leaders, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have refused until now to even meet with Bremer, but they enjoyed cordial relations with De Mello — and the UN man was credited with having persuaded some key Shiite figures to serve on the Iraqi Governing Council appointed by the U.S. viceroy.

And those high-profile attacks come atop the daily drumbeat of hit-and-run attacks on U.S. and allied forces, which continue to kill an American soldier on average every second day, and wound more. Iraqis cooperating with the U.S. have also increasingly become targets for murder. Insurgents interviewed by Western news outlets point to Fallujah as a model achievement they hope to emulate elsewhere — U.S. forces recently pulled out of the Western Iraqi town, leaving local police in charge after an ongoing series of street clashes and ambushes of American troops. The U.S. forces may have acted to defuse the situation, but in the folklore of the insurgency, they were driven out.

Though the damage being wrought by the insurgents is plain to see, their identity is not always clear. Bremer describes the insurgents as "Baathist bitter-enders," but other U.S. officials say the attacks come from a number of quite distinct forces. Remnants of the regime's security and intelligence services certainly play a major part, and Bremer's decision to summarily dissolve the Iraqi army and the Interior Ministry may have swelled the ranks of those willing to fight on. Secret documents reportedly issued by Saddam's security services shortly before the war instructed operatives to join up with Islamic resistance organizations once the regime fell. Numbering up to 50,000, such operatives clearly have extensive paramilitary and organizational training, and access to funds and weapons. But they are by no means the only game in town.

For al-Qaeda, the U.S. occupation of Iraq presents a growth opportunity commensurate with that offered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan three decades ago. Then, as now, the presence of "infidel" troops in a Muslim land aroused the ire of young Muslim militants around the world, and many of those that volunteered to go to Afghanistan to join the anti-Soviet jihad later became the organizational and political core of al-Qaeda. Now, the movement is hoping to repeat the experience, albeit under more trying circumstances — this time, the volunteers won't have the support of the CIA and the Saudis, or staging areas in Pakistan. Al-Arabiya TV on Monday broadcast an audio tape from an al-Qaeda leader urging supporters to make their way to Iraq to fight the occupation forces, and after that to overthrow the Saudi regime. And U.S. forces have found evidence that a number of radical Islamists from all over the Arab world may have already heeded such calls. Some fighters captured by U.S. forces in Iraq have carried foreign passports, and a substantial number of volunteer fighters had crossed into Iraq from Jordan and Syria before the war. It was reported last week that large numbers of Saudi Islamists may have recently crossed the border to join the battle in Iraq — a number that may actually grow as the Saudi authorities press their crackdown against domestic al-Qaeda sympathizers. (Many of the radicals who made their way to Afghanistan 30 years ago, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and the other Egyptians in Bin Laden's inner circle, were also escaping a crackdown at home.)

Journalists and academics making a closer study of the patterns of resistance in Iraq suggest, however, that many of those doing the fighting are neither Baathists nor al-Qaeda, but are instead a broad group of mostly Sunni Iraqi nationalists taking guidance from militant Sunni clerics. Some are drawn into cell structures under the command of former security and intelligence officers; others operate through tribal and clan networks. Their motivations range from a religious-inflected nationalism resentful at the indignity of occupation — and fearful of the loss of Sunni privilege that had been guaranteed by the Baathists — to the tribal politics of vengeance. And the mounting anger among ordinary Iraqis at the failure of the occupation authorities to restore normalcy also functions as a protective blanket: Most Iraqis are unlikely to support a violent challenge to the occupation, but right now they may not be inclined to oppose it with any great conviction, either.

A simple tabulation of targets provides sufficient circumstantial evidence that there is clearly some regional if not national coordination at work among those waging attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. But it also shows that most of their activity is confined to a relatively small pocket of territory stretching northward from Baghdad — the "Sunni triangle." The insurgency may find significant communal support among Sunnis, but its growth potential remains distinctly limited without participation from the Shiite majority. The Shiites were the brutally oppressed underclass of Saddam's Iraq, and they are deeply hostile to the Baathists. They also, however, remain for the most part suspicious of the U.S., and the firebrand young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is making confrontation with the occupiers the centerpiece of his own bid for power among the Shiites. Sadr supporters have engaged in violent street demonstrations against the U.S. and its allies both in Baghdad and southern Iraq, and they control the Shiite slums of East Baghdad where some 10 percent of Iraq's entire population live. Sadr has told his supporters to form an army to protect Shiite holy sites, and they have also warned the U.S. not to enter East Baghdad following street clashes last week in which at least one Sadr supporter was killed. Most troubling, from a U.S. point of view, are reports that Sadr has received political and financial support from Ahmed Kubeisi, a popular Baghdad Sunni imam who has preached forcefully against the occupation. The prospect of ecumenical unity against the U.S. and its allies among former rivals would be a significant force-multiplier for the insurgency. And, again, the Afghan model provides the political inspiration — after all, politically and ethnically diverse armies who were more than willing to kill each other once the Soviets left nonetheless cooperated in fighting the common enemy.

There is little chance, of course, of the insurgents putting the U.S. to flight by ambushes, terror strikes and sabotage. Their objective, right now, however, may simply be to disrupt plans for a transition to Iraqi rule under U.S. tutelage by next fall. The Bush administration is committed to staying the course in Iraq, and will certainly not be deterred by terror strikes — after all, the war on terrorism is the reason it went into Iraq in the first place. But the latest wave of attacks suggests the price of honoring that commitment may be rising.