Failing in Iraq
Iraqi political scientist Wameed Al-Nithmi talks to Graham Usher about the the causes and probable consequences of the present violence in Iraq
Dr Wameed Al-Nithmi is a professor of political science at Baghdad University. He is widely seen as one of the most astute commentators on Iraqi affairs, appearing regularly on Arab and Western media networks.
How do you explain the recent upsurge in violence?
First of all, there has been rising frustration with the occupation among ordinary Iraqis. In cities like Baghdad, there is an almost total lack of personal security. There is rising crime, kidnappings, and shortages of gas, petrol and electricity. There is a sense that no one is governing the country. The American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council is so powerless that it cannot win the trust of the people. And the US army had become increasingly brutal in its attempts to crush the Iraqi armed resistance -- which of course has played into the resistance's hands.
Iraqis saw all this as signs of American weakness. And to counter this impression I think the US administration in Baghdad decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against the two main centres of opposition to its rule in Iraq -- the Sunni resistance in Falluja and the Shia Islamist movement of Muqtada Al-Sadr. It did this not only to ensure a smooth passage to Iraqi sovereignty on 30 June but also -- and far more importantly as far as Mr Bush is concerned -- to ensure quiet in Iraq ahead of the US presidential elections in November.
What the Americans clearly did not foresee was the strength of the resistance in Falluja and that the Shia were a tinderbox waiting to ignite. The move against Al-Sadr -- combined with the anger caused by the death and destruction in Falluja -- provided the spark and what I think is the main political significance of the response: the first widespread Shia rejection of the occupation.
But what is inexplicable is that the US should take on Al-Sadr and Falluja simultaneously, rather than one after the other. In doing so they have provoked a reality their entire project in Iraq was designed to suppress: a revolt that expresses Iraqis' common Arab and Islamic identity.
Why do you think the US miscalculated so badly?
The Americans see Iraq as a fragmented society -- as a mosaic of different religions and ethnicities. It is true there is a Kurdish national minority in Iraq. There is also a Turkoman national minority.
But the Sunnis and Shia in Iraq -- who make up about 75 per cent of the population -- are not two different religions. They are branches of the same Muslim religion. Nor are they different nationalities -- they are Arabs.
And like most Arabs they view the US not as a liberator but as an occupier: as the power behind 13 years of brutal sanctions in Iraq, as the defender of Israel, the oppressor of the Palestinians. So it should be no surprise to anyone that when Iraqi Arabs see what is happening in Falluja there would be sympathy with its people and outrage at the US, regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shia.
Do you think the resistance in Falluja and Al-Sadr's revolt heralds a new "Iraqi awakening", the beginnings of a new Iraqi national movement?
No. Al-Sadr remains an individualist and the armed resistance is divided into 20 different groups -- and none have a clear political programme. Some are Islamist, some are nationalist, some are former military officers and some are fanatics. The most you can say is that the recent events show the possibility of an alliance between some of them. This alliance would not be a national movement but rather a national united front cemented by two demands: independence and an end to the occupation.
You have to remember that Saddam Hussein destroyed politics in this country. We don't have a national leadership. We may need one but we don't have it. This applies to the political parties as much as it does to the armed resistance. All the movements are in the process of formation.
There are currently mediation efforts to resolve the crises in Falluja and Najaf. Do you think they can succeed?
The very fact of mediation is a failure of US policy. What is "mediation", if not political negotiations with forces the Americans have always dismissed as "terrorists", "foreign fighters" and "remnants loyal to Saddam Hussein"? On the other hand, more force will not solve the problem facing the Americans.
Everyone knows that the Americans can crush Al- Sadr and Falluja. The US is the strongest military power the world has ever seen. But further destruction in Falluja or an invasion of Najaf would not only cause an outcry throughout the Arab and Muslim world but also in America and Europe. Iraq is no longer an Iraqi problem: it has become a global problem. Yes, the US can subdue Falluja and Al-Sadr. But so what? It would only create more enemies, more violence and more hatred. How would that help the American project here?