Iraq on the brink of anarchy

By Robert Fisk in Fallujah

06 April 2004

Not content with surrounding the largest Sunni city west of Baghdad with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and heavy machine guns, US forces used Apache helicopters to attack the Shia Muslim slums of Shoula yesterday, sent dozens of their main battle tanks into the hovels of Sadr City and then slapped an arrest warrant on the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr ­ who must dearly have wanted the United States to do just that.

Gun battles in Sadr City overnight had cost the lives of up to 40 Iraqis and at least eight Americans, but in the sewage-damp streets yesterday, they were handing out letters, allegedly written by the Sunni townspeople of Fallujah, newly surrounded by 1,200 marines. "We support you, our brothers, in your struggle," the letters said. If they are authentic, it should be enough to make the US proconsul, Paul Bremer, wonder if he can ever extricate Washington from Iraq. The British took three years to turn both the Sunnis and the Shias into their enemies in 1920. The Americans are achieving it in just under a year.

Anarchy has been a condition of our occupation from the very first days when we let the looters and arsonists destroy Iraq's infrastructure and history. But that lawlessness is now coming back to haunt us. Anarchy is what we are now being plunged into in Iraq, among a people with whom we share no common language, no common religion and no common culture.

Officially, Mr Bremer and his president are standing tall, claiming they will not "tolerate" violence and those who oppose democracy, but occupation officials ­ in anticipation of a far more violent insurrection ­ have been privately discussing the legalities of martial law. And although Mr Bremer and President George Bush are publicly insisting that the notional "handover" of Iraq's "sovereignty" will still take place on 30 June, legal experts attached to the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council have also been considering a delay of further months. Many Iraqis are now asking if the Americans want disaster in Iraq. Surely not, but yesterday's violence told its own story of blundering military operations and political provocations that will undoubtedly add to the support for the charmless and provocative Shia cleric whom Mr Bremer now wants to lock up ­ allegedly for plotting the murder of a pro-Western Shia cleric, Abdul-Majid el-Khoi. Sadr was surrounded by his militiamen yesterday, in a mosque in Kufa from where he issues regular denunciations of the occupation.

Dan Senor, a spokesman for the occupying power, would not tell anyone exactly what the evidence against Sadr was ­ even though it has supposedly existed since an Iraqi judge issued the warrant some months ago.

The US military response to the atrocities committed against four American mercenaries in Fallujah last week has been to surround the entire city and to announce the cutting off of the neighbouring international highway link between Baghdad, Amman and Damascus ­ thus bringing to a halt almost all economic trade between Iraq and its two western neighbours.

What good this will do "new" Iraq is anyone's guess. Vast concrete walls have been lowered across the road and military vehicles have been used to chase away civilians trying to bypass them. A prolonged series of Israeli-style house raids are now apparently planned for the people of Fallujah to seek out the gunmen who first attacked the four Americans. The corpses were stripped, mutilated and hanged.

The helicopter attacks in Shoula ­ by ghastly coincidence the very same Shoula suburb in which civilians were slaughtered by an American aircraft during last year's invasion ­ looked like a copy of every Israeli raid on the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, Iraqis are well aware that the US military asked for ­ and received ­ Israel's "rules of engagement" from Ariel Sharon's government.

America's losses over the past 48 hours ­ at least 12 soldiers killed and many wounded ­ come nowhere near the number of Iraqi victims over the same period.

US forces in Sadr City believe they were fighting up to 500 militia men from Sadr's black-uniformed Army of Mehdi early yesterday. Even so, using Apache helicopters in a heavily populated district to hunt for gunmen raises new questions about the rules to which occupation troops are supposed to adhere.

The British fared less badly in Basra, Iraq's second city, where they avoided violence with militiamen who had taken over the town hall and wounded no one in a brief gun battle. Spanish troops were again involved in shooting with militiamen in Najaf. The grim truth, however, is that the occupying powers are now facing insurrection of various strengths in almost every big city in Iraq.

Yet they are still not confronting that truth. For the past nine nights, for example, the main US base close to Baghdad airport ­ and the area around the terminals ­ has come under mortar fire.

But the occupying powers have kept this secret. "Things are getting very bad and they're going to get worse," a special forces officer said close to the airport yesterday. "But no one is saying that ­ either because they don't know or because they don't want you to know."

As for Sadr, he will, no doubt, try to surround himself with squads of gunmen and supporters in the hope that the Americans will not dare to shoot their way in to him.

Or he will go underground and we'll have another "enemy of democracy" to bestialise in the approach to the American elections. Or ­ much more serious perhaps ­ his capture may unleash far more violence from his supporters.

And all this because Mr Bremer decided to ban Sadr's trashy 10,000-circulation weekly newspaper for "inciting violence."

The Mehdi army

By Anne Penketh

"WE HAVE one single goal, which is to remove the occupiers from the country." That is the stated goal of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his several thousand armed supporters.

But beyond Mr Sadr's broad strategic goal, details of his political programme remain unclear. Accused by the Americans of attempting to replace the legitimate authorities, he has repeatedly said that he does not seek political power, but wants an "honest and responsible" government.

He also insists that he will not resort to force, and has stopped short of a call for a holy war against the invaders. But thousands of people have answered his call to join a militia that would help rid the county of the hated Americans. They call themselves the Mehdi Army - named after the prophet Mehdi, the "awaited one" who Shias believe will return one day as a messiah.

Mr Sadr had faded from the forefront of Shia politics since October, while the spotlight focused on the leading moderate cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and his objections to US transition policies.

But the Mehdi Army has said for months it is ready to challenge the Americans if the order comes, and their reappearance has highlighted the deep splits within Iraq's Shia majority.