by Zafar Bangash (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 3, Muharram, 1424)
Iraq was supposed to be a walk-over: its oppressed people were going to greet American soldiers as "liberators," in the manner of the Kuwaitis in 1991, welcoming them with garlands. This was the rosy picture painted by Richard Perle, the superhawk in US president George W. Bush’s government who, together with fellow zionist Paul Wolfowitz, is the architect of such notions as "pre-emptive strikes" and "total war." These concepts were articulated long before Iraq was invaded. Perle even repeated the mantra of the "welcoming Iraqis" to a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington on March 21. The western media, led by CNN and Britain’s BBC, acting as cheerleaders for American propaganda, simply parroted these lines. For the first two days of the war (March 19 and 20) as news trickled out from the tightly-controlled US war department–the Pentagon–it appeared that the "coalition forces" could not drive fast enough to Baghdad. Reality began to emerge after the third day, and although US and British planners were aware of it, the western media refused to tell the public the truth.
Lyse Doucet of the BBC, in Amman, Jordan, told viewers in her customary authoritarian style that Um al-Qasr, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, had fallen to coalition forces without a fight; Basra was next, and as the Americans raced north to Nasiriya the people of Iraq were coming out to "welcome" them. On the first night of the air war (March 19/20), when America poured cruise missiles on Baghdad, there were claims that Iraqi president Saddam Husain had been killed or seriously wounded, that deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz had either been injured or, even more fantastically, that he had defected. All this, we were told, was based on good CIA intelligence. CNN, other American channels and the BBC repeated these stories endlessly. Tariq Aziz held a press conference within two hours to deny such claims. The western media were undeterred; even if the Iraqi deputy prime minister was alive, Saddam was surely dead, otherwise he would have made a televised address, they said. This happened the next day, but conspiracy theories and wild speculations continued to dominate the air waves: he was not the real Saddam but a "double," we were told; he looked "different," claimed one commentator. This obsession with Saddam’s death was an attempt to conceal their nervousness because the military campaign was not going according to their plans.
The reality of war started to catch up on the third and fourth days. Ben Brown, the BBC correspondent outside Um al-Qasr, confirmed that no forces had entered the town of 1,500 because it was too risky; only the port area had been taken over. He explained that the coalition forces were determined to avoid Iraqi civilian casualties. Such sanctimonious claims might have sounded more credible had it not been for the twelve years of economic sanctions that have cost the lives of more than 1.5 million Iraqis. Nor was there any such concern when Baghdad was subjected to a barrage of 1,000 cruise missiles on the second night of the war. Entire buildings were set ablaze, also destroying nearby houses and shops belonging to civilians. If there were civilian casualties, well, they were unintended, and dismissed as "collateral damage," although this expression was not actually used this time: it had caused consternation during the second Gulf war (1991), when Colin Powell, then chairman joint chiefs of staff, dismissed the number of Iraqi casualties as "one statistic I am not terribly interested in."
It was on the fourth day (March 23) that the truth about Iraqi resistance started to emerge; a group of about 120 Iraqi soldiers put up a stiff fight in tiny Um al-Qasr. In Nasiriya about 500 gave the Americans a bloody nose. Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf declared on Baghdad television that a large number of Americans had been killed and 12 captured. He also said that the captured soldiers would be shown on television. He claimed that an American plane had been shot down over Baghdad and that the Iraqis were searching for the pilot in and around the Tigris river. Two days earlier Saddam had announced a reward of US$40,000 for anyone who captured an American soldier alive; those killing an American would get the equivalent of $18,000. Suddenly there seemed to be a lot of Iraqi claimants to these fantastic amounts. An Apache helicopter was brought down by a farmer near Karbala on March 24; both pilots were captured alive and shown on Iraqi television. There is at least one rich farmer in Karbala now.
Meanwhile in Doha, Qatar, where US Central Command (Centcom) has put up a Hollywood-style briefing-centre, the mood became less upbeat. Instead of the Centcom commander, general Tommy Franks, it was general John Abazaid who addressed the press conference on March 23 and admitted that a number of Americans had been killed in fighting with the Iraqis in Nasiriya, and that a dozen were "missing." The Iraqis were not supposed to fight; they were expected to surrender or even welcome the Americans, according to Perle’s line.
When al-Jazeera showed pictures of dead and captured American soldiers, this was immediately denounced by the Americans. A much more sombre Bush, who had arrogantly declared on the eve of war that Saddam had lost the opportunity to go into exile, suddenly discovered the Geneva Convention, and insisted that Iraq must treat all prisoners of war accordingly. He also said that all Iraqi prisoners were being treated humanely, although he and his fellows have had no such concern for the more than 600 people confined in cages in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since January 2002. These people have been declared non-persons, beyond any law, with no rights, and certainly not covered by the Geneva Convention. Nor did Bush care for international law or the UN charter when he attacked Iraq. Even the western media, which had gloated about American/British military prowess, suddenly realized the importance of the Geneva Convention, but only as far as US/British prisoners of war in Iraq were concerned.
Iraqi officials, however, were quick to jump on this. Saddam and al-Sahaf, his information minister, declared that prisoners would be treated according to law. They clearly were not unmindful that one day they themselves might be taken prisoner. While that day may have receded somewhat, because of the dismal performance of American and British troops, despite their overwhelming air superiority, and because of the better-than-expected performance of the Iraqis, it cannot be ruled out entirely.
In the meantime, there were a number of troubling questions being raised for the US military command. While the entire US and much of Britain’s media did not even broach the subject, German and Russian commentators speculated that general Franks might be downgraded or lose his job altogether because of the disastrous military campaign. Perle and his fellow warriors who got America into this mess are not likely to lose their jobs, although Bush’s re-election prospects will be affected. The American warriors’ purpose, in which they have been singularly successful, was to push the US into a war on behalf of Israel. This is probably the first time in history that a puppet has forced its financier and backer to fight on its behalf.
America’s strategy in Iraq has been a whimpering failure so far. This, however, is not evident from reports coming from western journalists "embedded" with American and British units: a strategy devised by the Americans to control the news that the outside world gets. News stories are not only vetted by US military personnel; they are also delayed by several hours. American and British journalists have declared that their abdication of journalistic responsibility is patriotism. The American journalists, as usual, have gone overboard; most of them have donned military uniforms, complete with helmets and flak jackets. The result is a sanitized version of events that has little or no resemblance to the true situation. Attacks on British and American forces from the rear are seldom reported. There have been occasional admissions by US army personnel that they are facing "fanatical" Iraqi fedayeen who are not afraid to die.
To get an accurate picture of what is really happening, one must turn to al-Jazeera, which has correspondents in almost all Iraqi cities, including several in Baghdad, and to Russian commentators, many of them former military officers. They can hardly conceal their glee at the Americans’ discomfiture. In the nineteen-eighties Americans gloated over Russian losses in Afghanistan; the Russians are now returning the favour. Russian commentators piece together their stories from intercepts of radio communications between soldiers in the field and their command headquarters in the rear. Whenever soldiers ask for air support because they are under fire, they have to explain what problems they are facing; the kind of weapons being fired at them, and the number of casualties they have suffered. From these intercepts a far better picture of the war is coming out. In fighting around Nasiriya on the night of March 23/24, the US forces suffered 40 killed, 12 captured and up to 200 wounded. One attack helicopter and up to 40 armoured vehicles, including 10 tanks, were also destroyed, although al-Sahaf had claimed during his press conference in Baghdad on March 23 that five tanks were destroyed. Several intercepted reports from US field commanders stated that their troops were unable to advance because of soldiers being demoralized by the Iraqis’ fierce resistance and by their own heavy losses.
The Iraqis’ tactics have also become clear: they have allowed the US/British forces to roam around freely in the desert for as long as they like; but when the invaders try to enter cities and towns, they face stiff resistance. The Iraqis have learnt from 1991, when their forces were like sitting ducks in the desert. This time they have concentrated their forces in the cities. The Americans thought that Iraqi civilians would stage an uprising the moment they heard about the invading force; this has been a complete let-down. Saddam has been far more successful in wooing his people, especially the tribal chiefs, to whom he has given vast powers and resources. He has also convinced his own people that their suffering has been caused by the US/British-led economic sanctions, and that the same foreigners now want to grab their oil as well.
Even in Basra, a very poor city, predominantly Shi’ah, the people have not risen against the regime; instead, the British were forced to declare on March 25 that it was a "military objective" to be pacified. On the third day of the war the western media, again led by the BBC and CNN, had reported the surrender of an entire Iraqi division–the 51st Infantry–in Basra. There was wild speculation about numbers; were there 25,000 or 20,000 men in this division? They finally settled for 8,000, but could not show even a hundred Iraqi soldiers. Two days later it turned out to be a complete fabrication, but neither the BBC, nor CNN, nor any other western media source has apologised for the fantastic lie. In fact, the number of Iraqi troops that allegedly surrendered in the first two days–2,000–was quietly reduced to 1,000 by the sixth day. Presumably, the other 1,000 just disappeared. As one American officer put it: "If they surrender and go home, we are quite happy." Not any more, it seems, because even Iraqi civilians are fighting the invaders of their homeland.
How could the "strongest military power in the world", backed by the British and Australians, get things so horribly wrong? The US has certainly been the victim of its own propaganda. The western media and all their so-called experts in the numerous thinktanks have also been proved completely wrong. They were able to get away with their lies at first because there was no way for anyone to verify their claims against another source. Once the war started and other sources started to provide an alternative perspective, a different picture began to emerge. What the reporting from Iraq has proved yet again is that the western press and media are essentially part of the establishments in their various countries; they all rally around their governments and peddle the official line because this is what they are expected to do. Telling the truth is considered unpatriotic; that is a charge nobody wishes to face, especially during a war.
For the rest of the world, however, the western media’s true face has once again been exposed. Some of this has to do with the internet, where the flow of information, relatively free of official ‘spin’, is able to inform people far better than either CNN or the BBC ever could.