Samarra Killings Spark Questions, Outrage

By William O. Beeman Pacific News Service
Friday December 05, 2003

U.S. commanders say their troops killed at least 54 Iraqis in the northern city of Samarra on Nov. 30. Townspeople say far fewer died, but that they were mostly civilians. Either way, it was a massacre, and the shocking surprise for Americans is that the organized Iraqi troops who provoked the attack are being hailed as heroes. 

Of all the places to incur a military attack in the area that has quixotically become known as the “Sunni triangle,” Samarra was the worst. It is not only a Sunni Arab stronghold, it is also a shrine city sacred to the Shi’a population of Iraq. In its action, the U.S. military has thus offended almost everyone in Iraq at one fell swoop.  

The U.S. troops were provoked into attack, but in retaliation they not only fired on a kindergarten and a mosque, they also fired on those trying to evacuate the wounded. 

Such actions make the hearts of Middle East specialists sink, because they create such long-lasting resentment -- the kind that breeds terrorists. Eventually such events lead to perpetual cycles of revenge. Already the residents of Samarra are vowing retribution. 

The U.S. government has made much of the fact that the battle was instigated by members of the Fedayeen, the elite guards loyal to Saddam Hussein, who appeared in uniform to bait the U.S. troops. It appeared that they were trying to attack a U.S. military convoy carrying new Iraqi bank notes designed to replace those bearing Saddam Hussein’s portrait. Radio Free Europe, in reporting the battle, claimed that the Fedayeen (whose name means sacrificers) were wearing their uniforms on purpose in order “to send a message to the local population that the Fedayeen remains a fighting force able to carry out complex operations.” 

The black uniforms of the Fedayeen have additional symbolic value. They are reminiscent of the Black Flags of the Abbassid Empire, the great Persian-Arab empire founded in 750 C.E. in Baghdad that ushered in the Golden Age of Islamic civilization. No one in Iraq can see the solid black color without having this association. Because the founders of the Abbassid Empire usurped the weaker Umayyids, conquerors from outside, the symbolic message is clear to the residents of the region. 

The U.S. Army clearly sent another message. For the Shi’a population of Iraq an event such as this calls up images of martyrdom, such as that suffered by the central religious figure of Shiism, Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammad. Hussein was killed by illegitimate external forces in 680 C.E. Two of Hussein’s most important descendants—the 10th and 11th Shi’a Imams—were martyred and buried in Samarra. The mystical, messianic 12th Imam disappeared there in 878 C.E. He will reappear at the Day of Judgment according to Shia tradition. Thus the Fedayeen become representatives of perfect heroes and perfect martyrs in one fell swoop. 

Events such as this highlight the degree to which the Bush administration fails to appreciate the impact of cultural symbolism on the Iraqi population. As hard as American troops try to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi population, a massacre like this wipes out huge swaths of good will, establishing the hometown fighters—whatever crimes they may have committed in the past—as the true heroes. An American “victory” is tough to eke out under these circumstances. 

The solution is to internationalize the military operation in Iraq as soon as possible, and reconstitute the Iraqi army, giving Iraqis some other local body of fighters than the Fedayeen to identify with. The Bush administration, eager to claim personal credit for anything positive that might happen, is loath to turn over control to an international or a local Iraqi force for fear that the administration might be seen as having given up, and not “staying the course.” 

However, this prideful attitude will only hurt U.S. efforts in Iraq. As long as the United States can be personalized as the outside enemy, a negative relationship will continue to exist between the local Iraqis and the U.S. troops. It is frustrating for Americans to realize that as many times as they shout the mantra, “We liberated you from a dictator!” the message will fall on deaf Iraqi ears. Americans are usurpers. They have been defined as the enemy, and when the heroes in black show up, the Iraqis are going to root for the home team.  


William O. Beeman teaches anthropology and directs Middle East Studies at Brown University. He is author of the forthcoming book, Iraq: State in Search of a Nation.