After the brutality of Fallujah, the Americans need to change their image

No elected Iraqi government can afford to be seen as the stooges of foreign forces associated with the destruction of their cities

Anthony Sampson

The Independent

13 November 2004

It is hard to remember, in the midst of all the brutal, fierce imagery of war and destruction in Fallujah, that the real contest in Iraq is about offering its people peace and dignity.

The footage from the American side has been as unrelenting as a macho Hollywood war movie: marines shouting "we'll give 'em hell", constant gunfire, glimpses of corpses and fleeing civilians against a constant background of explosions and rubble.

The onslaught on Fallujah was called "Phantom Fury", which, like the original attack on Baghdad, "Shock and Awe", was designed to instil fear, even terror. There were still more pictures of the humiliation of the enemy - with more images of prisoners tied up and blindfolded on the ground.

There have been few compensating pictures of soldiers befriending helpless civilians, or Americans working alongside Iraqi troops: the bang-bang script, as in so many war movies, has obliterated the human interest. The story-line is the defeat of evil terrorists, and there is no time for sentimental sub-plots.

Most of the images from Iraq have been like that from the beginning, and images have never been more important, in the age of CNN and al-Jazeera, of videotapes and soundbites.

Each side has been competing to show that they are fighting a just war for democracy, and can promise a lasting peace. Yet the coalition media, carefully controlled by the military, have been largely caught up in the military propaganda machine.

The image of the Americans in the Muslim world was ineradicably worsened by the publication of pictures of torture, with dogs, chains, black hoods and leering torturers which could have been designed to present a picture of Christian brutality - like Goya etchings of the Inquisition.

Little was done to present contrary images, of American or British occupation forces making common ground with ordinary Iraqis. Even after the interim government took over in July, and the coalition was no longer technically an army of occupation, there was little attempt to present the Iraqi ministers as a dignified government worthy of respect. Anyone watching the Western media had to remind themselves that the Iraqis were now supposed to be ruling themselves.

The question of individual dignity is always crucial in the Arab world: it is what the whole competition with Islam was all about. Anyone who has travelled through Muslim countries becomes aware of the ability of Islam, with all its comforting rituals and rhetoric, to confer a sense of quiet dignity on its followers, even in conditions of abject poverty.

Travelling through the poorest Muslim countries of Africa or the Middle East, I have been constantly struck by the stately pride and self-respect of people - women as well as men - who have no possessions, no proper home, who find their reassurance and sense of unity when the voices call them to prayer from the minarets.

It is a dignity which can even be seen in the faces of refugees evicted from their villages or territories in the war-torn regions. As they walk serene and upright through the desert they can still look like princes, who have some secret confidence denied to others.

For religious Iraqis, whether Sunnis or Shias, who have suffered under the harsh secular government of Saddam Hussein, this sense of dignity has been specially precious: they look to their Ayatollahs to give them the self-respect and sense of belonging from which they have been deprived.

Yet when the coalition forces arrived in Iraq 18 months ago, with all their promises of bringing democracy and peace, the hopes of respect and self-determination were soon extinguished. Middle-class Iraqi professionals were put out of work because they belonged to the Baathist party, which they had been compelled to join. The disciplined army was disbanded to join the ranks of the unemployed. The moderate Iraqis who looked to rebuild their nation were constantly confused with terrorists. The occupation army was too small and too fearful to have much time to cultivate civilians, and the American administrators were as protected and separated as Saddam's minions, behind the fortifications of the Green Zone in Baghdad.

There were hardly any American Arabic-speakers or Middle East experts who could make easy contacts with Iraqis and understand their history: the framework of policy was set by the Pentagon and the generals in the field, not by the state department.

The first promises of reconstruction and preparing for democracy gave way to the growing emphasis on the war against terrorism - which dominated the headlines and imagery in the media. And Americans became so disliked by moderate Iraqis that they found it hard to find effective intelligence sources who could warn them about the real leaders of resistance.

British senior soldiers as well as diplomats, with all their past experience of the need to capture hearts and minds, watched the American tactics with growing unease and a sense of helplessness. Many of them hoped they would have more chance of influencing the Americans if British soldiers became involved in American operations centred on Baghdad. But the British military had little influence on the planning of the attack on Fallujah, and there is little evidence of any British influence on the overall American policy.

Now, in the wake of the casualties in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq, there is little time to change the whole image of the coalition before the elections scheduled for January. Yet it is crucial that the Americans - and the British who are now more closely implicated - are seen as peacemakers rather than as warmongers, if they are not to become the bogeys of Iraqi politicians seeking election.

The growing body of Iraqi nationalists, as well as the relatively small terrorist groups, will inevitably present American and British troops as the enemies, not the friends, of their emerging democracy. And no elected Iraqi government can afford to be seen as the stooges of foreign forces which have been associated with the destruction of their cities.

So it is desperately urgent that the coalition should present a different face to the Iraqis in the next few weeks to offset the bleak military images with which they have been bombarded, to show themselves not simply as the relentless pursuers of terrorists, however necessary that may be, but as the agents of reconstruction and regeneration of a new Iraq.

The British army cannot be only as an adjunct to American forces preoccupied with showing their superior military strength. They must have full opportunity to do what they are uniquely qualified for - to engage with the hearts of minds of Iraqis in the streets - while British intelligence agents must make the most of their experience in Arab countries.

The British Government, however much it is committed to President Bush's policies, must ensure that its own voice is heard, if necessary in public, to make make clear that it has a broader interest in the future of the Iraqi people than the war on terrorism; that it genuinely wishes to give them their autonomy - and above all their sense of dignity and self-respect.