BAGHDAD–You probably haven’t heard much about it, but around a month ago, a U.S. military base near Ramadi in the Sunni Triangle came under a mortar attack. The Americans responded with artillery, accidentally lobbing several rounds into the town itself, damaging homes, destroying livestock, but killing no civilians. Seeking to make amends, an officer went to the affected area, where he encountered a group of Iraqis armed–not with AK-47s or RPGs–but a lawyer preparing property-damage claims. After some negotiations, the officer agreed to compensate town residents with $70,000. “We’re glad this happened,” the Ramadians informed the soldier. “This way we got to know you Americans better”–and, not incidentally, emerge from the mishap substantially wealthier.
Not every resident of the Sunni Triangle is so easily swayed by dollars, of course, but this incident–witnessed by Steve Mumford, a journalist friend of mine–highlights a major tactic America is using to quell anti-Coalition sentiment in the region. With direct payouts of greenbacks to aggrieved Sunnis–or, more commonly, to tribal sheiks who then exert influence over their members–the U.S. is literally purchasing peace and acceptance among the populace. Attacks still occur–an IED killed a soldier near Baquba recently–but increasing numbers of Iraqis seem more interested in American currency than American casualties. “We’re simply outspending the bad guys,” remarks my journalist friend. Or, as Andy Warhol once said about art, it’s all about the money, honey.
I think about the army’s protection payments each time I encounter news reports that attribute anti-Coalition violence to the so-called Iraqi “resistance.” I picture people back home hearing about “guerrillas” and “insurgents” and thinking that America is once again fighting cadres of dedicated revolutionaries. I see them recalling the nightmare of Vietnam and sense the word “quagmire” lurking in the back of their minds. And I remember a woman in New York saying to me after my first trip to Iraq, “Why are we there? The resistance shows that Iraqis don’t want us occupying their country.” And I get very, very angry.
For the truth is, there is no Iraqi “resistance.” Not, at least, in the traditional manner evoked by the word: a disciplined insurgency intent on seizing control of an unpopular government. In the same sense, there are no “guerrillas” forming a national liberation front on behalf of an oppressed people. Instead, Iraq is plagued by a volatile mixture of criminal gangs, tribal gunmen, and humiliated Saddamites who, for inscrutable and often conflicting reasons, pay impoverished farmers to plant roadside bombs that kill more civilians that Coalition soldiers–and who, if the price is right, will cease their “insurgency.” The country also suffers from foreign-born Islamofascists who target Iraq’s Shia population in hopes of rekindling a 14-century-old sectarian war. Listening to the BBC talk of Iraqi “rebels,” or reading Reuters’ claptrap about “guerrilla forces,” I wonder–is there another conflict going on in this country I’m not aware of?
As I’ve written here before, a trip through the Sunni Triangle reveals that anti-Coalition forces lack such presumed requirements of a “resistance” movement as identifiable leaders, goals, demands, ideology, propaganda–even a name. My journalist friend reports that military forces around Tikrit recently picked up children who were paid to paint walls with anti-American slogans. What kind of “resistance,” you have to ask, needs to pay kids to scrawl its graffiti? As for the foreign terrorists, since al Qaeda began this war with a plan for pan-Islamic world domination, shouldn’t the Coalition be considered the “resistance?” But that, of course, would mess with the media’s conception of Iraqi “rebels” somehow involved in a righteous insurrection–as if Baby Boomer journalists were nostalgic for the anti-imperialist struggles of their youths.
Certainly Iraqis don’t see the “resistance” in such a sentimental light. Public opinion of the fedayeen and Mafia-like crime lords in the Sunni Triangle ranges from anger to contempt. “Sixty percent of the Sunnis are criminal followers of Saddam Hussein,” asserts Farman Hamid, director of the Office of Human Rights in Kirkuk. “They create problems in Iraq because they have no door to the future.” Argues Basran shopowner Ghattan Mohammad, “This resistance’ does not fight for Iraq, only for itself.”
Even in prickly Baghdad, you find similar reactions. “We keep telling the Sunnis that they are not serving their people by attacking U.S. soldiers–Iraq’s future lies with America,” says Abdul Mashtaq, a director of the Iraqi Human Rights Organization. “We are proud to help the Americans in the Sunni Triangle,” proclaims sheik Ali Nsayief, of the Baghdad Council of Confederated Tribes. “What kind of resistance’ kills seven civilians for every U.S. soldier, then sabotages our electricity?” asks Samir Adil, head of the Worker’s Communist Party. “Ninety-five percent of Iraqis do not believe in this ‘resistance.’”
The unfavorability rating of foreign-born mujihedeen is even higher–as I discovered in Basra this when I found myself stopped innumerable times by police, private security guards, and religious militiamen suspicious of my foreign appearance. “We apologize,” one hotel manager said after his staff seized me in the building’s lobby and took apart my bag before assuring themselves that I was American. “But Iraq is at war with the terrorists.”
And therein lies my main beef with the press’s use of terms like as “resistance,” “guerrillas,” “rebels”–even “insurgents.” By evoking the revolutionary conflicts of the last century–and such boomer heroes as Che, Fidel, and Uncle Ho–the media bestows legitimacy on anti-Coalition fighters that the psychopaths, black marketeers and religious fanatics neither deserve nor enjoy in Iraq. This, in turn, denies the heroism of the Iraqi people themselves: They are the true “resistance force,” fighting to prevent antidemocratic forces from pitching their nation in chaos and civil war. But all this is lost on a queasy American electorate who, hearing the words “occupation” and “resistance,” fears that Uncle Sam is once more acting as an imperialist oppressor. After all, the war is really about Halliburton contracts and oil, right?
How should we describe this conflict? First, we might follow the example of some Baghdadi diners I recently overheard who, when asked how they viewed the “occupation,” replied, “Occupation? This is a liberation.” The Coalition is a liberating power. This way, should you find yourself, as I did, talking to an anti-American lawyer in Baquba, who states “My country has been occupied by a foreign power, of course I must resist”– you need only replace “occupied” with “liberated” to understand the pathetic quality of the ex-Baathist’s patriotism and the true nature of his goals.
We might then exchange the term “guerrilla fighters”–and its association with left-wing (and therefore “progressive”) insurrections–for the more accurate word “paramilitaries.” “Paramilitaries” conjures images of anonymous killers terrorizing a populace in the name of a repressive regime–pretty much what the fedayeen and jihadists are doing in Iraq. And while we’re at it, we could end U.S.-centric press reports that describe every rocket attack or suicide bombing as a “setback to the American occupation….” These are setbacks to the Iraqi people, who are struggling to resist the paramilitary murderers and terrorists valorized by our media. Actually, if we really want to conform press coverage to the true nature of anti-Coalition forces, we should replace the word “resistance ” with “reactionary criminal aggressors”–or better yet, “fascists.” It smacks of Soviet-style propaganda, I admit, but that’s okay. The Communists may have been wrong about dialectical materialism, but–unlike today’s Western media–they knew a brown shirt when they saw one.