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Patrick Cockburn on Iraq After Falluja:
Will the US Win the Occupation?

by Alan Maass
December 6, 2004
First Published in Socialist Worker

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From the execution of unarmed civilians, to U.S. snipers planted in mosques, to raids on hospitals, the horrors of the U.S. invasion of Falluja continue to emerge in the media.

The international media, that is. It’s almost impossible to learn the real story of the U.S. assault from America’s corporate media--which has reverted to the same uncritical, cheerleading attitude it had during the weeks after the invasion of Iraq began.

But accounts of what actually took place when the U.S. attacked what it claimed was a small force of “terrorists” in Falluja describe a high-tech slaughter. The leveling of Falluja will only add to the fury of ordinary Iraqis--ultimately fueling opposition and resistance, whether in the so-called “Sunni triangle” in central Iraq, or among the majority Shias in the south, or in northern cities like Mosul once thought relatively stable.

Patrick Cockburn has been an invaluable source of information for anyone wanting to know what is going on in Iraq. As a correspondent for Britain’s Independent newspaper, he has written regular reports from Iraq throughout the occupation. Many of these reports have appeared on the CounterPunch Web site. With his brother Andrew, he wrote Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein--one of the best books on Iraq under Saddam’s Baath Party regime.

Last month, in the aftermath of the invasion, he talked to Socialist Worker’s Alan Maass about what really happened in Falluja--and why Washington’s “victory” in this battle won’t help it win the war.

Alan Maass: The U.S. claimed that they were targeting a small force of hard-core insurgents in Falluja, including “foreign” terrorists. What’s the reality?

Patrick Cockburn: There should be no mystery about the nature of the resistance in Iraq. The situation is very simple, as it would be in most countries of the world--when you have an occupation by a foreign power, you have resistance. And that’s exactly what’s happened in Iraq.

It’s absurd to think that there are tiny groups either of foreign fighters or remnants of the former regime who are holding the rest of the population to ransom.

You can see this in Falluja, in Mosul. You could see this from the very beginning--from the summer of 2003. Whenever I went to a place where there had been an attack on an American patrol, and U.S. soldiers had been killed, always, the local kids were jumping up and down for joy. This was always an unpopular occupation with most of the population, and that majority has gone up.

Having said that, the resistance has always been fragmented. It’s different in different areas. In places like Falluja, there was a very strong tribal element. In fact, in a place as tribal as that, it would be very difficult to have any movement, military or political, that wasn’t tribal.

In the villages, often the resistance was really just the local young men. I remember in April of this year, I was caught up in an ambush on the road west of Baghdad, between Abu Ghraib and Falluja. The U.S. army hadn’t realized that the road had fallen to the resistance, and I was caught up in an ambush of trucks carrying gasoline to U.S. forces.

We got out of the car and lay on the ground. And when we were escaping, it was very noticeable that all the young men were running with their guns from villages nearby, shouting to us and other cars, “Where’s the fighting, where’s the fighting?” This was very much a local militia in action.

What happened in Falluja has been exaggerated in the newspapers and on television. You see these great satellite maps showing Falluja, as if this was Stalingrad or the Battle of Berlin in 1945.

Falluja is kind of a one-horse town--it’s not that big. You could walk across it in about half an hour.

And just at the moment that the U.S. troops were moving into Falluja, suddenly, most of Mosul--a city in the north, which is at least five or six times the size of Falluja--fell to the insurgents. Most of the police went home or changed sides.

This is far more important in some ways than what’s happened in Falluja. But Falluja was drummed up as a media spectacular, and therefore, what’s happened in the rest of the country got much less publicity.

When the U.S. moved to retake Mosul after the rebellion, it appeared to be using Kurdish troops. That will only increase the threat of ethnic conflicts between Arabs and Kurds, won’t it?

The problem for the U.S. army in Iraq is that if they’re going to use local forces, the only ones that they can really rely on are Kurdish forces--commonly called peshmerga. Elsewhere, they clearly don’t really trust the Iraqi National Guard forces that have been raised.

You can see that from the number of very bloody attacks on the National Guard by insurgents. It turns out that the National Guard have no weapons outside their camps. Everybody in Iraq carries a gun, but not these guys. And the reason appears to be that the U.S. Army was nervous about giving them weapons when they went home--in case they didn’t come back, or in case they’d use them against Americans.

Mosul is mostly an Arab city. The Arabs are on the west bank of the Tigris--about 700,000 or 800,000. There are over a quarter million Kurds, mostly on the east bank. And sectarian feelings have been growing since the city fell during the war last year. The Arabs blamed the Kurds for being behind the looting, and there was an element of truth in this.

I went in there on the day Mosul fell, and I picked up a peshmerga bodyguard with a submachine. It turned out to be a really bad idea, because they weren’t after me, but they certainly were after anybody wearing a Kurdish uniform. So I had to get the guy to lie down in the back of my car, with his gun underneath him, and put a blanket over him. I spent half the day trying to protect our Kurdish bodyguard.

Before the invasion, the U.S. justified every missile strike on Falluja as an attack on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi--the “terrorist mastermind” behind all Iraqi resistance, if you believe Washington. What kind of power does Zarqawi and his supporters have? Or is he more a creation of U.S. propaganda?

There's no question that the Zarqawi group exists. But to think that it’s the main element--or even among the main elements--of the resistance is exaggerated, I think.

Obviously, it’s done a number of bloody and heavily publicized things by issuing videos of Zarqawi cutting people’s throats. But otherwise, I think that its public prominence really started from January of this year. At the press briefings in Baghdad, every time the military and civilian spokesmen appeared, they would say Zarqawi did this, Zarqawi did that.

Remember, this came a couple weeks after Saddam Hussein had been picked up--the main Iraqi figure who could be demonized. Everything bad happening previously could be blamed on Saddam. With no Saddam, you needed someone to demonize.

There was a story that a special letter from Zarqawi to al-Qaeda had been found, but this is pretty dubious. Many specialists on Iraq think that it’s a hoax.

I think that the Zarqawi group is really quite limited. I should also say, however, that because of all the publicity about Zarqawi’s group, this has enabled it to expand. I was in Haifa Street, which is just east of the Green Zone in Baghdad--a hard resistance area where a U.S. vehicle was hit a few months ago. The local kids were dancing up and down, and some of them had produced a black flag, as if it was Zarqawi’s group who was there. But this is just something that the local kids had heard about, so they ran it up themselves.

You suddenly have groups--some political, some criminal--claiming that they’re part of Zarqawi’s group. But that’s just what they’ve heard about, and it gives them an identity.

The U.S. claimed that the attack on Falluja had to go forward to prepare the way for elections in January. What do you make of this?

This whole connection between the attack on Falluja and the elections is one of the weirdest things I’ve heard. You go and smash up a city, you turn all of its population into refugees, you kill quite a number of them--and somehow they’re going to come out and vote? I think that was always kind of an absurdity.

It was always very odd that 30 miles from the center of Baghdad, you had this independent enclave in Falluja, where the U.S. had to withdraw, apparently under orders from the White House because of the presidential election. So it was always likely that they were going to attack. I don’t think it really has a strong connection with the election.

And in fact, you can see that most of the Sunni areas of Iraq are even more out of control after Falluja than they were before.

I think the elections are going to take place primarily because Ayatollah Ali Sistani wants them to take place. He wants there to be an election in which the Shiite Iraqis can demonstrate that they’re a majority. And the Kurds want the elections because they think they’ll do quite well.

But it’s doubtful that Sunni Muslims--who are about 20 percent of the population--will vote.

Perhaps more important is that you can have these elections, but will it effect anything? Is there any reason that the resistance should go down?

In Northern Ireland, in the 1970s and ’80s, there were lots of elections, and it never seemed to affect what the Provisional IRA was doing to the British Army. There’s no particular reason why elections in Iraq should stop the resistance.

The U.S. had a particular imperative before the U.S. presidential election to show the Iraqi elections as the prime policy objective in Iraq. That isn’t there anymore. But I think that it would be very difficult to postpone the elections now--because the Shiites are expecting it, have demanded it for a long time, and would see a postponement as one more attempt to deny them power.

Sistani was noticeably silent in opposing the U.S. assault on Falluja. Does mean that he’s on board with Washington? And if so, how much influence does he--as the main Shiite religious leader in Iraq--have compared to the more militant cleric Moktada al-Sadr?

I don't think it’s necessarily accurate to say that Sistani is on board with the U.S.

From the beginning, Sistani and the people around him have argued that the Iraqi Shia made a mistake when Iraq was occupied by the British during the First World War--when the Shia took the front line in the armed opposition to the occupation and led the great uprising in 1920. Consequently, it was the Sunni who were given power by the British, and really have held it up to the present moment.

But that doesn’t mean Sistani is in favor of the occupation. Sistani has refused to meet any American or foreign official representing the occupation since the invasion. Paul Bremer, when he was the U.S. viceroy of Iraq, never got to see him.

I think they’re walking a tightrope. On Falluja, they may have felt that at least part of the resistance in Falluja was sectarian and anti-Shiite. And consequently, that may be one of the reasons why they didn’t say anything.

There’s no doubt that Sadr has quite a large constituency. But his power stems partly from the religious reputation of his father, who was murdered by Saddam Hussein in 1999. It’s difficult for him to go 100 percent against the Shiite religious establishment.

Sadr’s people are a mixture of religious and nationalist. Their main poster is of Moktada and his family--as martyrs who were killed by Saddam--but in the background, there’s an Iraqi flag. So it’s not just religion--there’s a very strong nationalist element in Sadr’s group. There were those who wanted to go on fighting in Najaf, and there were the political leaders who didn’t want to.

One of the most important things to watch over the next year or two is the relationship in general, obviously, between the Shia and the Sunni, but also between the nationalist groups on both sides. The Sunnis will have seen that Moktada denounced the attack on Falluja, and Sistani didn’t--at least not until the last moment.

How far does this become a nationalist movement, and how far is it a sectarian movement? You can’t be sure about that yet. The recent uprising in Mosul in the last week or so appears to be much more straightforwardly nationalist, allegedly led by former members of the Baath Party. But all of this is very fluid.

Is there any developing national leadership or direction to the Iraqi resistance?

There isn't a national leadership, although there seems to be more contact between different groups.

The lack of a national leadership hasn’t necessarily been to their disadvantage. One of the difficulties that the U.S. has had in pinning them down is that there was no leadership to identify and target. Often, these are guys who come from a certain village or a certain area, but they don’t necessarily have many contacts elsewhere.

How much sectarian cooperation is there? I think it probably depends on each individual neighborhood or town. In some areas, there’s traditional hostility between Shia and Sunni; in some areas, there’s cooperation. It’s a complex relationship. Iraq is not like Northern Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics practically never marry.

Iraq--particularly Baghdad, but Iraq as a whole--is full of families where the husband or wife is Sunni, and the other is Shia. That’s true of Iraq in general, and it’s true of the resistance as well.

One of the outcomes that the U.S. media have raised is of civil war--and even of the U.S. pushing for the partition of Iraq along ethnic lines as a solution to the crisis of the occupation. Do you think this is in the cards?

Partition solves a few problems--or doesn’t quite even solve them--but it would create a whole series of new problems.

It’s difficult to divide Iraq up. What happens, for instance, to Kirkuk? This is a matter of deep dispute between the Kurds and the Arabs of Iraq--what happens to the oilfields around Kirkuk? Secondly, at least a quarter of the population of Iraq lives in the greater Baghdad area. What do you do about Baghdad? There are some Sunni areas, some Shia neighborhoods, and there are a lot of mixed neighborhoods.

It’s very difficult to just physically divide up the country.

There is the division between the Kurds and the Arabs, both Shia and Sunni, which is very deep and getting deeper, because Iraqi Kurdistan--the three provinces in the north--has effectively been independent for over a decade. Most young Kurds don’t speak Arabic, so those divisions are pretty deep.

But even here, partition creates other questions. Once you have an independent Kurdistan, what is Turkey going to do? Is it going to sit by? What’s going to happen?

What would happen to the Shia part of Iraq--is that going to fall under the influence of Iran?

Dividing up the country creates a vacuum, which is going to be filled by somebody, from inside or outside Iraq. I think partition also underestimates the fact that while there are deep sectarian divisions in Iraq, there’s also, among Arabs, strong Iraqi nationalism.

Sectarianism is growing, but nationalism is also strong. So students at one university have taken the decision not to ever refer to Shia and Sunni. Particularly among educated youth, there’s a strong feeling that they should refer to themselves only as Iraqis.

Everything is taking place in a country that’s deeply impoverished. At the time of the invasion, one of the reasons that a majority of Iraqis--not just Kurds and Shia, but a lot of Sunnis--were glad to see the end of Saddam was that they expected their material lives to get better. And they really haven’t, with some exceptions. In many cases, they’ve gotten worse.

So all these struggles and divisions are taking place in a country where more than half the population is unemployed, where people are living in poverty. And this has contributed to making Iraq such a violent place.

Alan Maass write for Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website (

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* Sex, Lies and Bill Clinton’s Book
* Corporate America’s CEO Pay Heist
* Why John Kerry Doesn’t Deserve Your Support
* A Challenge to the Politics of "Lesser Evilism"
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