Attacks on American troops in Iraq are not letting up. The Bush administration blames “Saddam Hussein Loyalists,” and has launched a military offensive, Operation Sidewinder, to root out these supposed American enemies. But Sidewinder so far has been a bust, as an organized body of Saddam Loyalists is proving to be as difficult to find as weapons of mass destruction.
The White House must now face up to the uncomfortable fact that troubles related to the occupation are coming from almost every quarter of the Iraqi population, particularly the Shiites, who never supported Saddam. Moreover, these difficulties spring not from some organized opposition, but from public dissatisfaction with the incompetent and disorganized management of the occupation.
Some remnants of Saddam’s elite troupes may be doing some of the sniping, but one would not know it from the results of Operation Sidewinder thus far. To date, more than 300 persons have been arrested in house-to-house searches, yet it is not at all clear that the bulk of those arrested were guilty of anything. On June 30, Amnesty International questioned the arrests and the conditions under which the detainees are being held.
The U.S. Central Command claims to have apprehended 11 people on a “targeted” list, but none of the remaining regime members presented on the ubiquitous “villains” playing cards have been found. In short, no one in any position of authority in Saddam's circle has been located or shown to be behind the attacks.
Ordinary Iraqis, meanwhile, have plenty to be upset about. Conditions in occupied Iraq are desperate.
Basic utilities have not been restored. There is no drinking water. Food spoils in the scorching heat with no electricity to run refrigerators. There is no cooking fuel. The Americans’ decisions to fire public officials associated with the Baath Party, including those who could help turn the electricity back on, was deeply unpopular.
Basic nutrition is also a desperate concern. “Today, the lives of 100 percent of the Iraqi population, 27 million people, depend on the provision of monthly food rations,” UNICEF chief representative in Iraq Carel de Roy declared on July 1. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) chief representative in Baghdad, Torben Due, says the crisis is unprecedented. “To avoid a food crisis in the country we have initiated the largest emergency operation in the 40-year history of the WFP,” he told the InterPress News Service on July 2.
Religion continues to be a source of strife.
In the town of Fallujah, an explosion in a mosque resulted in the death of Sheikh Laith Khalil, the prayer leader, on July 1. The details of the explosion were confused. Some residents claimed it was the result of a U.S. military attack; American troops claimed that the occupants of the mosque were trying to make a bomb. In any case, the explosion was not created by Saddam loyalists, and it resulted in greater hostility toward American forces.
Insensitive, heavy-handed tactics by U.S. and British soldiers have done little to win hearts and minds. Broadcast images of a male American officer physically searching an Iraqi woman inflamed sensibilities in religiously conservative regions of Iraq. British troops searching homes with dogs -- considered by pious Muslims to be polluting -- further demonstrated disrespect. Many of these offenses could be avoided with minimal cultural sensitivity training.
Occupation administrator Paul Bremer’s plan to appoint a committee of his own choosing to write a new Iraqi constitution has met formidable opposition from the most revered Shiite religious leader in the nation, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf.
In a fatwa, or religious decree, issued on July 1 and translated by Iraqi Shia expert Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, Sistani declared, “The occupation officials do not enjoy the authority to appoint the members of a council that would write the constitution.” The ayatollah insisted, “General elections must be held so that every eligible Iraqi can choose someone to represent him at the constitutional convention that will write the constitution.”
Sistani’s opposition to the Bremer's autocratic plans will likely generate further public opposition to the activities of the occupation. If Bremer continues to ignore Sistani's authority, religious zealots will be tempted to attack the American troops.
For now, portraying Saddam Hussein as a kind of Bogeyman responsible for all that is going wrong in Iraq may help the White House with the American public. At some point, however, the administration must stop alienating Iraqi citizenry. If not, the epithets for the occupation Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been trying to reject—“quagmire,” “guerrilla war” and "Vietnam"—will become reality.
William O. Beeman (William_beeman@brown.edu) teaches anthropology and is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is author of "Language, Status and Power in Iran," and two forthcoming books: "Double Demons: Cultural Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Understanding," and "Iraq: State in Search of a Nation."