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"With a heavy dose of fear and violence, I think we can convince these people that we're here to help them."
--Lt. Colonel Nathan Sassaman

The logic of occupation

December 12, 2003 | Pages 8 and 9

WHEN U.S. military officials claimed to have killed 54 uniformed "Saddam loyalists" on November 30 in the town of Samarra, the U.S. media were quick to applaud this "victory." Finally, after months of guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops by what the Bush administration claimed were remnants of the former Iraqi regime, here was a concrete success for Washington to point to--the largest battle since Bush declared the war over seven months ago and an apparent blow to the Iraqi resistance.

As one anonymous "senior military official" smirked to the New York Times, "They got whacked, and won't try that again." But as it turns out, the U.S. victory wasn't so concrete after all. And the victims who got "whacked" weren't supposed Fedayeen militia members, but the helpless residents of Samarra, who had the misfortune of getting in the way of a U.S. shooting spree. As NICOLE COLSON reports, the killings in Samarra are another example of the brutality of the U.S. occupation for oil and empire.

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"THEY WERE shooting the houses at random. People were killed." That's how Kamul Agulla, a resident of the town of Samarra, described the U.S. slaughter on November 30.

Residents say that the real number of people killed by U.S. forces was eight--and that all of them were civilians. They say that at least 54 more civilians were wounded in a hail of bullets--as U.S. troops opened fire indiscriminately. Journalists visiting the only hospital and morgue in Samarra have been unable to find evidence that U.S. forces killed as many as they claim--or verify that the dead were members of Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen militia.

What isn't in doubt, however, is that U.S. troops unleashed their massive firepower on a defenseless neighborhood in response to what they claim was an ambush. News photos show blocks of buildings in Samarra riddled with massive bullet and mortar holes.

Residents say that troops used tanks to roll over parked cars and even shelled people attempting to drop off the wounded at the local hospital. Workers at a nearby pharmaceutical plant say they were fired on as they walked out of the factory gates at the end of their shift--two workers were reportedly killed and several injured. A U.S. tank even fired its shells at a kindergarten--which, luckily, had been evacuated.

Yet the Pentagon refuses to admit that it may have inflated the body count or hit a single civilian. Instead, U.S. officials claim that residents or guerrillas must have dragged the bodies of militia members away at night for quick burial.

The inflated body count is a sign of the Pentagon's desperation for a victory to trumpet. That's nothing new for the U.S. military.

During the Vietnam War, Washington routinely reported overblown figures of enemy dead to prove that the U.S. was winning the war. Whatever the truth behind the numbers, the latest attack left residents of Samarra feeling even more resentment toward the U.S.

"All the people here are fed up and angry," Dr. Mohammed Badie told Britain's Independent newspaper. "They want the Americans out of town...[The Americans] have to respect our feelings and traditions and customs, but we see the opposite. There is something here that is hidden from the American public. They call it 'Tha'ar'--revenge. That means that if anyone kills your friend, or your brother, you have to avenge it by killing an American soldier."

Samarra's U.S.-appointed police chief, Ismail Mahmoud Mohammed, put it even more bluntly to the Financial Times. "Were the French happy under the Nazis?" he said. "It is the same thing here."

Samarra is only the latest example of the brutality of Washington's occupation. Throughout Iraq, the tactics of U.S. forces seem to be growing crueler. Continual roadblocks and body searches, surrounding entire towns in barbed wire, demolishing the homes of family members of suspected "militants"--these and countless other humiliations are now part of daily life for Iraqis.

Even the Pentagon admits that its so-called "liberation" is delivered with an iron fist designed to inspire terror. As Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman bragged to the New York Times, "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them."

Sassaman, a battalion commander whose soldiers oversee the village of Abu Hishma, knows about fear and violence. In response to a November 17 attack on a U.S. convoy, Sassaman's battalion sealed off the entire village with razor wire. Civilians wishing to enter or leave the town are forced to pass through a single U.S.-guarded checkpoint. They must carry an identification card--printed in English. Without the card, they can't leave or enter. But erecting the razor-wire fence wasn't all that U.S. troops did.

As part of November's "Operation Iron Hammer"--designed to bring swift retribution for attacks on U.S. targets--a U.S. jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on the house that the convoy had been attacked from. The U.S. arrested eight sheiks, the mayor, the police chief and most members of the city council. In Tikrit, when U.S. forces demolished at least a dozen homes belonging to family members of suspected resistance fighters last month, they said THIS was "within the rules of war."

"We don't just destroy their homes for no reason," Major Gordon Tate, a spokesperson for the 4th Infantry Division, told Knight-Ridder. "I don't want to say [U.S. military commanders] are cold-hearted." Tate is right in one sense. The problem is not individual "cold-heartedness," but the brutal logic of the occupation itself.

That's why, for example, the Pentagon admitted in November to having paid out more than $1.5 million for thousands of non-combat personal injury, death and property destruction claims made by Iraqis against U.S. troops. According to Britain's Guardian, "Payouts average just a few hundred dollars, and in some cases, families have been asked to sign forms waving their right to press for further compensation."

A few hundred dollars for an Iraqi life? Yet the Pentagon still refuses to keep an overall count of the number of Iraqi civilians killed or injured by its soldiers.

"You have to understand the Arab mind," Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, explained to the Times as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. "The only thing they understand is force--force, pride and saving face."

U.S. military policeman Jack Craig put it another way. "Actually, I see 'hearts and minds' as a tactical doctrine," he told a freelance reporter. "To me, it means that's where we should aim first. Shoot them in the body or the head, but just make sure you shoot them first."

But while Washington hopes to stamp out resistance by bringing the boot of occupation down even harder on ordinary Iraqis, there's no guarantee that this will work. The Pentagon claims that Operation Iron Hammer and other similar measures have reduced the number of guerrilla attacks on U.S. soldiers to under 20 a day--from 40 a day two weeks ago.

But this leaves out the fact that more and more non-U.S. targets are coming under fire. Recent attacks of Spanish and Italian troops, for example, are calculated to isolate the U.S. from its "coalition of the willing." More than that, the resistance appears to be spreading, with more attacks on U.S. soldiers occurring outside of the so-called "Sunni triangle" in central Iraq.

Still, the Bush administration clings to the line that "progress" is being made in Iraq. Some conditions are improved from the misery that followed the U.S. invasion. Though still sporadic, electricity is back to its prewar levels, according to U.S. officials, and most schools remain open, even if students often don't attend for fear of attacks.

But in other ways, the situation for ordinary Iraqis continues to grow worse. Unemployment stands at an estimated 70 percent, and inflation continues to rise--creating a new wave of homelessness in Baghdad and other major cities.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported this month on the plight of 200 Baghdad families squatting behind a bombed-out Iraqi air force club. Hundreds more families have been reduced to living in overcrowded, makeshift shacks along the road to Baghdad's airport.

The families were evicted when their landlords increased rents by upwards of 50 percent. Rents were kept relatively low under Saddam Hussein, but the families say that they can't find affordable housing anymore because landlords have raised rents to accommodate foreigners.

With Iraq's winter arriving--where temperatures during the night can reach freezing, and many poor families can no longer afford heating oil--many more will fall victim to the cold. "Yesterday, it was freezing during the night," said Hussein Ali, while fixing a corrugated iron roof over his small room. "We huddled together and used blankets, but it didn't help a lot.

Families like Ali's are in danger of succumbing to Iraq's continuing health crisis--a crisis that is likely to kill more civilians than the war itself. According to a report released by the British charity Medact in late October, maternal mortality rates have nearly doubled over the past year, and the continued lack of clean water and medicines have led to an increase in preventable diseases.

"The mental and physical health of already weakened and unhealthy people is being damaged further," says the report. "Shortages of clean water, adequate food and power leads to an increase in diseases that is likely to result in more deaths than those directly caused by the conflict."

Seven months into the occupation, and Washington's arrogance and brutality is on display for the world to see. Iraqis shouldn't have to suffer for the U.S. drive for oil and empire. End the occupation now!

"The anger is growing and growing"

DAVID BACON is a labor journalist who visited Iraq in October as part a delegation from the national group U.S. Labor Against the War. He talked to Socialist Worker about what he saw.

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GEORGE BUSH and Paul Bremer say that progress is being made in Iraq, but the press isn't reporting it. What did you see in Iraq?

I THINK that the reconstruction is something that most [Iraqi] people have a hard time seeing, because a lot of the destruction from the war is still right out there in the streets. The buildings that were partially destroyed are still sitting there in the same condition that they were. There are piles of rubble in the streets. There's no kind of community reconstruction going on, and there were a lot of promises made about that.

I think that people living in Baghdad are pretty cynical about the actual reconstruction. They read the newspapers. They hear about $87 billion being appropriated. And then they don't see anything. So I think the conclusion that a lot of people come to is that this money is just going to line the pockets of big U.S. corporations that are getting the contracts. They're probably right. The unemployment rate is 70 percent, so that puts most people in a pretty desperate situation economically.

ON NOVEMBER 23, the U.S. military briefly arrested Qasim Hadi and Adil Salih, two leading members of the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq, which has been holding protests and sit-ins. Did you get a sense of whether these demonstrations were growing?

THAT'S HARD for me to say. I think that even the Union of the Unemployed, which is the main organization that is holding public demonstrations right now, is very careful about it. When I talked to Qasim Hadi, he said, "We have to be very careful about how we organize these demonstrations, and ensure that we provide our own security for them."

There have been demonstrations not organized by the unemployed union, but more spontaneous ones, where Iraqi police have actually fired on demonstrators and killed them. There are also these spontaneous protests about jobs that are going on, too.

WHAT WAS your sense of the development of the Iraqi resistance?

THE VIOLENCE started escalating as we were there and has gotten a lot worse since we left. But even when we were there, there was the bombing of the hotel in Baghdad, which was just a couple blocks from where we were. And they had bombed the Turkish embassy.

So it's not going well [for the U.S.] from the point of view of being able to contain and suppress this guerrilla war against the occupation. Obviously, they've not been able to do that. It's really kind of amazing how many people are getting killed all the time.

The troops will set up these checkpoints, and it's not like there's a lot of signs before you get to the checkpoint, saying "Checkpoint ahead, slow down and stop." So what will happen is that people will drive into the checkpoints, not knowing that they're there until it's too late. They panic, try to drive out, the troops will fire on them as though they were guerrillas, and people will die.

Those things breed, I think, even more resentment than the firing on demonstrators, because it's so clear that the violence is being directed at people who aren't doing anything political. They're just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I think that the level of anger is just growing and growing and growing. I don't think any "Iraqization" of this is going work. The only thing that's going to stop it is for the troops to leave.

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