Iraqi insurgents’ claim to be "fighting for the liberation of their country" is, according to Prime Minister Tony Blair, "a palpable lie." Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of whether it is appropriate for Blair, a man who deceived his country into an illegal war, to accuse others of lying. More important is that in one respect, he is right: it does indeed seem "palpable" (i.e. clear or obvious) to most people that the Iraqi resistance has no legitimacy. Rather, the insurgents are just a bunch of crazy-psycho-terrorists who hate democracy and freedom so much that they are willing to kill other Iraqis to fight it. It is not difficult to see how people could have got that impression.
On October 30, 2003, the chief foreign policy commentator for the liberal New York Times, Thomas Friedman, wrote:
"The people who mounted the attacks on the Red Cross are not the Iraqi Vietcong. They are the Iraqi Khmer Rouge—a murderous band of Saddam Hussein loyalists and Al Qaeda nihilists, who are not killing us so Iraqis can rule themselves. They are killing us so they can rule Iraqis.
The great irony is that the Baathists and Arab dictators are opposing the US in Iraq because—unlike many leftists—they understand exactly what this war is about. They understand that US power is not being used in Iraq for oil, or imperialism, or to shore up a corrupt status quo, as it was in Vietnam and elsewhere in the Arab world during the cold war. They understand that this is the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched—a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world."
In a speech in 2004, President Bush described the insurgency thus:
"They seek the total control of every person in mind and soul; a harsh society in which women are voiceless and brutalized. They seek bases of operation to train more killers and export more violence. They commit dramatic acts of murder to shock, frighten and demoralize civilized nations, hoping we will retreat from the world and give them free reign. They seek weapons of mass destruction to impose their will through blackmail and catastrophic attacks."
In June 2004, ITV News described the insurgents as "determined and brutal terrorists". Liberal commentator Michael Ignatieff branded the resistance "hateful" in the New York Times on June 27 2004, whilst in July, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme - Newsnight - reported that insurgent attacks were "blighting US attempts to bring peace and stability to Iraq". On October 1 2004, the BBC’s Nicholas Witchell described a series of insurgent attacks as "intended to undermine the future". In September, the same journalist reported,
"As is so often the case in this conflict it’s the Iraqi civilian population which suffers the greatest loss of life - either as a result of mistakes by the Americans, or, far more frequently, of course, as a result of the bombs and the bullets of the insurgents."
In July 2005, a Guardian article approvingly cited a spokesman for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani as saying,
"Take a good look at these figures. They show that the real aim of the insurgents is simply to kill as many people as they can.
"All civilians are targets: young and old, male and female, Sunni, Shia or Kurd. It should also tell you more and more about those who talk of "an honest resistance".
On September 1 2006, Edward Wong reported in the New York Times that,
"Since Sunday, more than 300 Iraqis have been killed in bombings, murders and a deadly pipeline explosion...The violence is generally believed to be the work of insurgents, militias and criminal gangs embroiled in Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife",
thereby grouping "insurgents" with "militias and criminal gangs", involved in "Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife" as opposed to fighting the occupation.
Of course, the insurgency has no "popular support" (Charles Krauthammer, FOX News, May 2004), or else the extent of Iraqi support for the insurgency is "unknown" (USA Today, May 2004).
Writing in The Guardian yesterday, Peter Beaumont depicts the insurgents as brutal and immoral "jihadi fighters", who "use human shields and force children to run weapons for them." Meanwhile, the occupying forces are painted as benevolent bystanders, trying their hardest to combat the evil jihadis whilst sparing innocent civilian lives.
The demonisation of the Iraqi insurgency is understandable. It is in the interests of the political elites, and the corporate media that serve them, to portray any opposition to Western imperial policies as illegitimate, terroristic and barbaric. That an imperialistic or occupying power will attempt to demonise any resistance to it is a historical universal, as writer and activist Tariq Ali points out:
"Every resistance movement against imperialism has been categorised as terrorist ‹ the Mau Mau in Kenya were demonised and brutally tortured by the British; the Algerian FLN by the French; the Vietnamese by the French and the Americans.
Today Israel’s Ariel Sharon refers to Palestinians as terrorists, Russia’s Vladimir Putin crushes the Chechens in the name of fighting terror and Tony Blair is assaulting traditional civil liberties in this country in the name of fighting terror. It’s hardly surprising that the Iraqi resistance is characterised in the same fashion."
A quick examination of the reality, however, tells a very different story. Firstly, the Iraqi resistance is overwhelmingly indigenous. According to Major General Joseph Taluto, "99.9 per cent" of militants captured fighting U.S. forces in Iraq are Iraqi. When U.S. and Iraqi soldiers ‘methodically swept through Tall Afar’ in the largest counter-insurgency operation of 2005, they killed nearly 200 insurgents and detained close to 1,000. All those detained were Iraqi. Serious analysts of the occupation have long recognised that, in Scott Ritter’s words, the "anti-US resistance in Iraq today is Iraqi in nature, and more broadly based and deeply rooted than acknowledged." In a recent article for the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, Stephen Zunes writes (.pdf) that "the al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists and the foreign fighters upon whom the Bush administration has focused represent only a small minority of the insurgency." The U.S. and UK governments, together with the Western media, focus disproportionately on the very few foreign fighters present in Iraq to minimise Iraqi opposition to the occupation and to delegitimise the resistance. In addition, as Zunes explains, branding the entire resistance movement "terrorists" (or by focusing disproportionately on al-Qaeda’s small role in the insurgency, thereby associating the insurgency as a whole with terrorism) enables Bush and Blair to present Iraq as a front in the "war on terror", whereas in fact it is nothing of the sort, and to "portray the US invasion and occupation of Iraq not as an act of aggression – as most of the international community sees it – but as an act of self-defence. By extension, it seeks to portray those who oppose the ongoing US occupation as appeasers or even supporters of totalitarianism and violence." According to Zunes, the number of foreign insurgents fighting with an agenda even remotely resembling that described by President Bush above constitutes "well under 5 per cent of the armed resistance."
Speaking yesterday, Tony Blair encapsulated perfectly this fallacy about the Iraqi resistance:
"These forces that are operating in Iraq at the moment are not the fault of a lack of planning or administration. It is a deliberate attempt [by] external extremists, like al-Qaida [and] like elements connected to Iran, who are linking up with internal extremists to thwart the will of the majority."
Why mention al-Qaeda, which represents a tiny proportion of the insurgency, except in order to demonise the resistance by associating it with the ultimate bogeyman? This extract from Blair’s speech also contains another major misrepresentation of the resistance: that it is composed of "extremists" who are thwarting the "will of the majority". In reality, it is the Coalition forces who are opposing the will of the majority in Iraq (not to mention their own countries), as illustrated by poll after poll after poll after poll after poll after poll. Numerous polls also demonstrate that insurgents who attack Coalition forces do so with widespread popular support. Only two conclusions can be drawn from Blair’s insistence that the Iraqi resistance is not backed by the Iraqi people: he’s either living in a fantasy world, or he’s bullshitting again.
Another frequent technique used to demonise the Iraqi resistance is to insinuate (or state outright) that it is composed entirely of terrorists who target and murder innocent civilians. Once again, this simply isn’t the case. While it is true that Iraqi insurgents occasionally target civilians, the vast majority of insurgent attacks target Coalition or Iraqi Security forces. Suicide bombings in crowded markets, and other atrocities like them, are usually either sectarian in nature (the insurgency is separate from the sectarian conflict, despite the deliberate conflation of the two by the media and government officials) or are perpetrated by the few foreign jihadis that are operating in Iraq (for example, Al-Qaeda). According to an August 2006 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, of 1,666 bombs exploded in Iraq in July, 90% were aimed at U.S.-led forces. Fred Kaplan, writing for Slate in February 2006, reported that,
"New data reveal, surprisingly, that the vast majority of the Iraqi insurgents’ attacks are still aimed not at Iraqi security forces or at civilians, but rather at U.S. and coalition troops. In other words, as much as was the case a year or two ago, the Iraqi insurgency is primarily an anti-occupation insurgency".
The "new data" he was referring to was a report (.pdf) compiled by the multinational military command in Iraq, which contained the following graph:
It clearly shows that the vast majority of insurgent attacks have targeted Coalition forces, not civilians.
To summarise, then: the resistance to the occupation of Iraq is legitimate. It has the support of the majority of the Iraqi people, and by and large it does not target civilians.
It is in this light that we should examine the Bush administration’s attempts to vilify alleged Iranian support for Iraqi insurgents, possibly with a view to providing a pretext for a war with Iran. In Bush’s words,
"My job is to protect our troops, and when we find devices that are in that country that are hurting our troops, we’re going to do something about it, pure and simple."
Many analysts - Milan Rai and Media Lens, to name two - have done an excellent job in demolishing the "evidence" provided by the Bush administration blaming Iran for insurgent attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. As Juan Cole has pointed out, the charge against Iran is nonsensical in and of itself, since the only Iraqi groups Iran could plausibly be supporting are Shi’ite militias, whereas the vast majority of attacks on U.S. troops are perpetrated by Sunnis. Moreover, the groups Iran is being accused of supporting are the very same ones being supported by the U.S.
However, it is certainly conceivable that at some point in the future, the Bush administration will be able to provide genuine evidence of Iranian aid to militant groups in Iraq. Will it then follow that an attack on Iran is justified? The question is an interesting one: should we despise Iran for aiding the insurgent attacks that are killing our troops, or should we respect them for it? Certainly, it is taken as a given across the board that American aid to resistance movements is noble and just. As Noam Chomsky explains,
"There’s a somber debate underway about whether Washington really has evidence about Iranian support for anti-occupation forces, or whether it’s a replay of the deceit preceding the Iraq invasion. Strikingly, there is no debate about whether support for anti-occupation forces would be justified — particularly when US-run polls show that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis want them out, either immediately (2/3 in Baghdad according to US-polls) or soon. The debate is intriguing.
There was no debate in the 1980s about whether the US had the right to provide support to anti-occupation forces in Afghanistan (there was some debate about whether it would be costly to us, but not about the right). It was taken for granted that the US had the right to support resistance to aggression. In Pravda there wouldn’t have been a debate about whether the US and its allies (Britain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia,...) were in fact providing support for the resistance to the Soviet occupation, because there was no doubt about it. The US was proudly proclaiming it. True, the cases are not identical, only analogous. The Soviet invasion, though criminal, was based on real security concerns on its borders, while the US invasion had no credible pretext. And there are other differences. But the point is that the right of the US to use force and violence and the illegitimacy of any resistance to it is a Holy Doctrine, which cannot be questioned in polite society, even thought about.
Therefore debate is confined to the marginal question of whether Iran is in fact providing support to forces opposing the US occupation. Similarly, the debate over US tactics is restricted to the question of what is likely to work. That was not the debate over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan — though I presume it was in Moscow."
Michael Perry, writing for Antiwar.com, says similar things:
"But let’s go even further and say, for the sake of argument, that the Iraqi insurgents are receiving officially authorized aid from the Iranian state. It is true that having a neighboring nation in chaos does not generally benefit any country, but the Iranians have been under the gun from the U.S. for a very long time – decades, in fact. The recent threats and provocations from the Bush administration make it clear that Iran is an imminent target. I’m quite sure the Iranians realize that the quagmire in Iraq is the primary impediment to an American invasion of Iran. Troubles for U.S. forces in Iraq may buy the Iranians more time. Could the Iranians be so blind to their own self-interests?
Beyond the practical justifications for Iranian involvement in Iraq, there are also moral rationales. If Russia were to invade Mexico, at least some in the U.S. government would support the Mexican insurgents against the Russian occupiers. And most Americans would back such assistance. Aiding one’s neighbors against an unwelcome occupation is not only reasonable, it is generally considered worthy of respect."
Throughout mainstream commentary, there is an unspoken assumption that if it were true that Iran is helping Iraqis to attack Coalition troops, the U.S. would be justified in retaliating. There is certainly no suggestion from any "respectable" publication that the resistance in Iraq is justified, and that therefore Iran should be praised for supporting it. That such an obvious argument has been totally excluded from the mainstream debate tells us a lot about the honesty of our intellectual culture and the integrity of our "free press".
The issue of "supporting the troops" is a sensitive one - families who have sons or daughters serving in Iraq do not want to hear that attacks on them may be justified. That is completely understandable - the soldiers serving in Iraq are just kids, often from a deprived background, who trusted and were let down by their governments who sent them into an illegal and immoral war of choice. Indeed, the wish to shield the troops from further harm is a major factor in the movement to bring them home. But we must not let the Bush administration’s hijack of our strong, emotional desire to protect the troops convince us that an attack on Iran would be justified in order to defend them.
Cross-posted at The Heathlander