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Iraq on the brink of anarchy

"Things are getting very bad and they're going to get worse," a special forces officer said close to the airport yesterday. "But no one is saying that - either because they don't know or because they don't want you to know."

By Robert Fisk in Fallujah

06 April 2004 "The Independent" --

Not content with surrounding the largest Sunni city west of Baghdad with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and heavy machine guns, US forces used Apache helicopters to attack the Shia Muslim slums of Shoula yesterday, sent dozens of their main battle tanks into the hovels of Sadr City and then slapped an arrest warrant on the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr - who must dearly have wanted the United States to do just that.

Gun battles in Sadr City overnight had cost the lives of up to 40 Iraqis and at least eight Americans, but in the sewage-damp streets yesterday, they were handing out letters, allegedly written by the Sunni townspeople of Fallujah, newly surrounded by 1,200 marines. "We support you, our brothers, in your struggle," the letters said. If they are authentic, it should be enough to make the US proconsul, Paul Bremer, wonder if he can ever extricate Washington from Iraq. The British took three years to turn both the Sunnis and the Shias into their enemies in 1920. The Americans are achieving it in just under a year.

Anarchy has been a condition of our occupation from the very first days when we let the looters and arsonists destroy Iraq's infrastructure and history. But that lawlessness is now coming back to haunt us. Anarchy is what we are now being plunged into in Iraq, among a people with whom we share no common language, no common religion and no common culture.

Officially, Mr Bremer and his president are standing tall, claiming they will not "tolerate" violence and those who oppose democracy, but occupation officials - in anticipation of a far more violent insurrection - have been privately discussing the legalities of martial law. And although Mr Bremer and President George Bush are publicly insisting that the notional "handover" of Iraq's "sovereignty" will still take place on 30 June, legal experts attached to the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council have also been considering a delay of further months. Many Iraqis are now asking if the Americans want disaster in Iraq. Surely not, but yesterday's violence told its own story of blundering military operations and political provocations that will undoubtedly add to the support for the charmless and provocative Shia cleric whom Mr Bremer now wants to lock up - allegedly for plotting the murder of a pro-Western Shia cleric, Abdul-Majid el-Khoi. Sadr was surrounded by his militiamen yesterday, in a mosque in Kufa from where he issues regular denunciations of the occupation.

Dan Senor, a spokesman for the occupying power, would not tell anyone exactly what the evidence against Sadr was - even though it has supposedly existed since an Iraqi judge issued the warrant some months ago.

The US military response to the atrocities committed against four American mercenaries in Fallujah last week has been to surround the entire city and to announce the cutting off of the neighbouring international highway link between Baghdad, Amman and Damascus - thus bringing to a halt almost all economic trade between Iraq and its two western neighbours.

What good this will do "new" Iraq is anyone's guess. Vast concrete walls have been lowered across the road and military vehicles have been used to chase away civilians trying to bypass them. A prolonged series of Israeli-style house raids are now apparently planned for the people of Fallujah to seek out the gunmen who first attacked the four Americans. The corpses were stripped, mutilated and hanged.

The helicopter attacks in Shoula - by ghastly coincidence the very same Shoula suburb in which civilians were slaughtered by an American aircraft during last year's invasion - looked like a copy of every Israeli raid on the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, Iraqis are well aware that the US military asked for - and received - Israel's "rules of engagement" from Ariel Sharon's government.

America's losses over the past 48 hours - at least 12 soldiers killed and many wounded - come nowhere near the number of Iraqi victims over the same period.

US forces in Sadr City believe they were fighting up to 500 militia men from Sadr's black-uniformed Army of Mehdi early yesterday. Even so, using Apache helicopters in a heavily populated district to hunt for gunmen raises new questions about the rules to which occupation troops are supposed to adhere.

The British fared less badly in Basra, Iraq's second city, where they avoided violence with militiamen who had taken over the town hall and wounded no one in a brief gun battle. Spanish troops were again involved in shooting with militiamen in Najaf. The grim truth, however, is that the occupying powers are now facing insurrection of various strengths in almost every big city in Iraq.

Yet they are still not confronting that truth. For the past nine nights, for example, the main US base close to Baghdad airport - and the area around the terminals - has come under mortar fire.

But the occupying powers have kept this secret. "Things are getting very bad and they're going to get worse," a special forces officer said close to the airport yesterday. "But no one is saying that - either because they don't know or because they don't want you to know."

As for Sadr, he will, no doubt, try to surround himself with squads of gunmen and supporters in the hope that the Americans will not dare to shoot their way in to him.

Or he will go underground and we'll have another "enemy of democracy" to bestialise in the approach to the American elections. Or - much more serious perhaps - his capture may unleash far more violence from his supporters.

And all this because Mr Bremer decided to ban Sadr's trashy 10,000-circulation weekly newspaper for "inciting violence."

Copyright The Independent. UK. ZNet | Iraq

Shoot Out

by Robert Fisk


TO THE horror of the occupying powers in Iraq, the country's ever more bloody insurgency spilt into the majority Shia Muslim community yesterday as Spanish and other Western soldiers fought gunmen in the holy city of Najaf, with the loss of at least 22 lives, most of them Iraqis.

The shooting started after protesters gathered at the Spanish military base on the outskirts of the city following the arrest of an aide to Muqtada Sadr, the young Shia cleric whose "Army of Mehdi" has never before fired its guns.

That the latest bloodbath should have occurred in Najaf - one of the holiest shrines in Islam - was as dangerous as it was painfully symbolic.
Even as bullets skittered past them, protesters held up pictures of the imams Ali and Hussein whose epic martyrdom is being mourned in every Shia home. That it should be Spanish troops who were engaged in the battle, only weeks from being withdrawn from Iraq by Spain's new Socialist government, was a final irony.

More than 200 people were wounded during the three-hour gun battle. At Najaf's main hospital, many of the dead were wearing the black uniform of Mr Sadr's army but two Iraqi police officers, one soldier from El Salvador and one US soldier were also among the dead.

Each side claimed the other started the shooting. Mr Sadr himself called for an end to the fighting, with his spokesman, Abdulhadi al-Daraji, claiming that the "arrogant powers say thank you for your peaceful protests and then fire on the demonstrators". The demonstrations had their roots in the decision of Paul Bremer, the US proconsul, to close Mr Sadr's small circulation weekly newspaper al-Hawza in Baghdad a week ago for "inciting violence against coalition forces."

It now seems that his decision to shut down the paper (its circulation of 10,000 was hardly going to arouse Shias to attack Western troops) has incited violence on a far greater scale than Mr Bremer could have imagined.

Yet he managed to say all the wrong things again yesterday. "This morning, a group of people in Najaf have crossed the line and they have moved to violence," he announced. "This will not be tolerated. This will not be tolerated by the Iraqi people and this will not be tolerated by the Iraqi security forces."

The trouble is that Mr Bremer has said all this before, but about Sunni insurgents, and his warnings almost always increase the anger of his antagonists and bring no end to violence. Mr Sadr, of course, has his own reasons to find political satisfaction in this bloodshed.

In the shadow of his infinitely more learned and judicious clerical superior, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Mr Sadr has for months attempted to present himself as the putative leader of the Shia community.

The Anglo-American occupying powers have long suspected that Mr Sadr wanted just such a confrontation to rally support for his minority movement although why they should have arrested Mustafa Yacoubi, an aaide to Mr Sadr, remains a political mystery. Mr Bremer, it seems, has now helped to bring that confrontation about.

A newspaper that was ignored by millions of Iraqis, but whose sarcastic criticism of Mr Bremer is said to have personally annoyed the American proconsul, may henceforth be known as the paper which started a Shia insurrection.

Mr Sadr may be gambling that the other Shia militias will fall into step with his own armed men. If this happens, and the insurgency spreads to other Shia cities, then the entire occupation of Iraq could become untenable.

The Americans can scarcely contain the Sunni Muslim revolt to the north; they cannot fight another community, this one representing 60 per cent of Iraqis, even if British troops, who control the largely Shia city of Basra, become involved.

The Spanish base in Najaf is located on the campus of Kufa university, a broad expanse of land close to the Euphrates river and defended by troops from San Salvador. The Spanish - their force numbers 1,300 men and women but only a few hundred are in Najaf - are due to leave on 30 June but were never part of the occupying power. Many of the soldiers in Najaf are involved in irrigation and agricultural projects. When bombs killed 200 in Madrid last month, Shia clerics visited the Spanish troops in Najaf to express their condolences. That is unlikely to happen again. More Shia protests erupted in the centre of Baghdad where US-paid Iraqi police fired rifles in the air. The crowd carried a coffin draped with the Iraqi flag which they said held the body of a demonstrator killed on Saturday. In Anbar province, two US soldiers were killed near the Sunni city of Fallujah, where four American contractors were murdered last week. In all, 600 US troops have been killed in the year-long war.