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Battle for Najef exposes crisis of the U.S. occupation
What's behind the growing resistance

August 20, 2004 | Page 5

ERIC RUDER reports on the growing crisis facing the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

THE MANTRA from U.S. officials remains the same. According to Washington, the forces opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq consist variously of foreigners, "Saddam loyalists," Islamic fundamentalist and terrorists.

These lies were exposed once again in August as U.S. forces surrounded Shiite fighters in the holy city of Najaf--a bloody confrontation that has sparked protests and further rebel attacks across the country.

Conservatives in the U.S. may still believe the Bush administration's claims about the Iraqi opposition. But no one in Iraq doubts that the vast majority of the population supports the resistance.

The case of militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr is a clear example. The U.S. has denounced Sadr as an "extremist" with little popularity. Administration officials have tried to blame the confrontation in Najaf on Sadr--claiming that by stationing his forces inside the Imam Ali Mosque, Sadr, not the U.S., is responsible for desecrating the holiest site to Shiite Muslims.

But it's easy to say why this argument falls flat. Imagine if resistance fighters holed up in the Vatican to improve their chances of holding off a foreign occupying force? Would Catholics blame them?

Or as historian and Iraq expert Juan Cole put it recently: "If a Muslim group stormed (and damaged) the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome to remove a band of, say, [Irish Republican Army members] who had holed up in it, do you really think Western Christians would side with the Muslims?"

Iraqis may reject Sadr's religious movement, but they admire his courage in standing up to the U.S. A poll conducted by Washington's Coalition Provisional Authority in May showed that Sadr was viewed favorably by 68 percent of Iraqis--a number that has surely increased since then. George Bush should be jealous--his approval rating has been hovering around 47 percent!

Realizing that a U.S.-led assault on the mosque could be catastrophic for his new regime, interim Iraqi Prime Minister and U.S. puppet Iyad Allawi is trying to contain the outrage by claiming that Iraqi troops--and not U.S. soldiers--will drive the Sadr fighters out of the mosque when the time comes. But by mid-August, more than 100 Iraqi National Guard troops and a battalion of Iraqi soldiers had thrown down their rifles in Najaf and refused to attack their fellow Iraqis.

Soldier and police defections are only one sign of the growing crisis of legitimacy for the Allawi government. When U.S. military brass ordered a tight curfew on Sadr City--the huge slum in Baghdad that is home to 2 million of the capital city's 5.5 million people, and the heart of Sadr's base of support--Sadr responded by issuing a curfew of his own that covered all of Baghdad.

As the 1 p.m. curfew deadline approached, streets throughout the capital went quiet as businesses closed and workers went home. "Even if the twists of negotiations or the resumption of the American and Iraqi military operation shake Mr. Sadr's grip on the Imam Ali shrine," wrote the New York Times, "his principal power base in Sadr City will remain, poised like an arrow at the capital's heart."

U.S. military officials boast of their successes in killing and capturing Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters. But every killing only stiffens the resolve of the rebels--and creates new recruits out of brothers, nephews, cousins and uncles looking to avenge the deaths of their loved ones.

With millions of Iraqis saying that they are worse off than they were under Saddam--living amid stagnant pools of sewage, without power or clean drinking water--anger at the U.S. continues to climb. Like during Vietnam, the U.S. may be able to use its overwhelming military power to win crucial battles--while still face the real prospect of losing the war.

"Mayor of downtown Baghdad"

THE APPOINTMENT of Iyad Allawi as Iraq's interim prime minister has done nothing to appease critics of the U.S. occupation. And for good reason. Allawi's first six weeks in office have been marked by a string of repressive measures that U.S. forces feared to impose.

After pushing through a law granting himself powers to impose martial law and reinstate the death penalty, Allawi has now turned to banning the Arab television network Al Jazeera. As a former Baathist who later became a CIA asset in the 1970s and spent the last two decades in London, Allawi has no base of support in Iraq.

His backing of U.S. attacks on Sadr has only further isolated him. "The credibility of the Allawi government as an independent Iraqi government has been decisively undermined by [his backing of the U.S. assault on Najaf]," said Juan Cole. "He will now be seen as nothing more than an American puppet or, worse, an American agent."

Recognizing this potential trap, Allawi has repeatedly extended an olive branch to Sadr, inviting him to participate in upcoming elections planned for January and allowing his Al Hawza newspaper, which was shut down by U.S. forces in April, to resume operations. But Sadr has humiliated Allawi by refusing his overtures.

"I advise the dictatorial, agent government to resign," Sadr declared in mid-August. "The whole Iraqi people demands the resignation of the government...They replaced Saddam [Hussein] with a government worse than him." All of this means that Allawi is, as Cole puts it, nothing more than "the mayor of downtown Baghdad."

Victim of the other occupation

THE U.S. occupation of Iraq may be grabbing headlines in the U.S., but the Israeli government has used similar methods--and equal savagery--to carry out its occupation of Palestine. In early August, Israeli authorities arrested Abdel Latif Ghaith, head of the board of directors of the Addameer Prisoners' Support and Human Rights Association.

Ghaith was one of many prominent Palestinians who took part in a high-profile hunger strike protesting the construction of Israel's apartheid wall, a towering barricade that snakes through the West Bank and is designed to turn Palestinians into prisoners in their own land. Ghaith was arrested July 29 as he tried to pass through the Qalandiya military checkpoint.

After being held for six days without being given any reason for his detention and without any access to legal counsel, Ghaith was told that Israel's West Bank military commander had ordered his administrative detention until February 4, 2005--because he posed a "danger to the security of the region." The 63-year-old Ghaith has devoted his life to the struggle for social justice--most recently focusing on human rights violations experienced by Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

The Addameer Prisoners' Support and Human Rights Association demands that Israel immediately release Ghaith, along with all administrative detainees being held without charge or trial. "The administrative detention of Ghaith [is] part of an ongoing, systematic oppressive campaign by Israel to use arbitrary detention to silence the work of Palestinian social activists, with the aim of destroying the social fabric of Palestinian society as a whole," says an Addameer press release.

"Like the over 700 Palestinians currently in administrative detention, and the thousands of others who have been subject to this form of arbitrary punishment over the past few decades, Ghaith is detained in a military detention camp, renowned for their inhumane conditions of detention, and is subject to the physical and psychological torment of imprisonment for indefinite periods of time, without knowing the reasons for his detention or the opportunity to defend himself against charges brought against him."

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