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The Battle Of Baghdad

The fact that the city may have avoided this grim fate is reason enough for jubilation in Baghdad, and reason for us to be glad as well.

The Battle Of Baghdad
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The fall of Baghdad has been proclaimed, though there is still fighting in various parts of the city. At this point, one can't tell how long resistance will continue. Historically there have often been cases of foreign occupiers defeating large scale enemy forces, only to face years of low-level combat. The Israelis were at first welcomed in southern Lebanon for eliminating an overbearing Palestinian presence. But for nearly two decades, until Israel chose to withdraw its troops, resistance and casualties continued.

The relative ease of the US victory military confirms how little threat Saddam Hussein's regime posed beyond its borders. Where in 1990 Iraq had substantial armed forces, it was clear well before the start of this war that the Iraqi military was no longer a formidable force, even by Middle Eastern standards. The Bush administration claim that Saddam in 2003 was a danger to his neighbors was not taken seriously in the region, and has now been shown to have been baseless.

Despite Bush's constant repetition that there was no doubt that Iraq had massive supplies of chemical and biological weapons, no such weapons, or even prohibited missiles, were used by the Iraqi forces. Indeed, it seems the only time US-UK troops needed to wear their chemical warfare suits was when recovering a body from a friendly fire incident to protect themselves from the radiation given off by US depleted uranium ordnance[1] -- which, of course, the Pentagon claims is absolutely harmless.

Nor, despite many fevered media reports, have any hidden stores of Iraqi proscribed weapons come to light. Since Iraq's alleged possession of banned weapons was the official explanation for the war, their absence is rather embarrassing for the administration. But even if such weapons are later found (and confirmed not just by the Pentagon, but by independent experts), this will not vindicate the war. The issue has never been whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but whether any such weapons constituted a significant and undeterrable military threat to other nations, which threat could not be neutralized by the inspections process.

The TV screens are full of celebrations in Baghdad at Saddam's fall. Saddam was a brutal tyrant and his fall is welcome. But it would be wrong to read too much into the televised cheering. There is no way to know how representative the cheering crowds are of the Iraqi population as a whole.

Several thousands of celebrants in a city of millions is hardly decisive, and we can assume that no one is going to organize counter-demonstrations, whatever their views.

Pro-war columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times on April 9 that "even here in the anti-Saddam Shia heartland of southern Iraq, no one is giving U.S. troops a standing ovation. Applause? When I asked Lt. Col. Richard Murphy, part of the U.S. relief operation, how Iraqis were greeting his men, he answered bluntly and honestly: 'I have not detected any overt hostility.'

"Overt hostility? We've gone from expecting applause to being relieved that there is no overt hostility. And we've been here only 20 days."[2]

Nor does the cheering tell us to what extent people who are glad to see Saddam gone supported the war. Friedman asked Dr. Safaa Khalaf at Umm Qasr Hospital why the reception for U.S. forces had been so muted; Khalaf answered: "Many people here have sons who were soldiers. They were forced to join the army. Many people lost their sons. They are angry from the war. Since the war, no water, no food, no electricity. . . . We have not had water for washing or drinking for five days. . . ."

Compared to the area bombing of World War II or the free drop zones of Vietnam, this war has been extremely sparing of civilians. But it has been far from a humanitarian endeavor. The weapons used in this war that have been condemned by international human rights groups are not Saddam's, but the cluster bombs used by US and UK forces, which leave unexploded bomblets as potential landmines targeting the civilian population for months to come.[3] Food shortages, lack of water, under-supplied and under-staffed hospitals are everywhere, with disease spreading in a population already weakened from 12 years of US-UK sanctions.[4] A US sergeant killed a civilian woman near an Iraqi soldier. "I'm sorry," the sergeant said. "But the chick was in the way."[5]

Such killings cannot be chalked up to a few over-zealous soldiers.

Indifference is a policy approved at the highest levels. When a US tank fired a shell into the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, killing two foreign journalists, Pentagon officials were asked:

"There are reports that a tank took small arms and perhaps RPG fire from the direction of the hotel, although journalists say that they saw no sign of it. Do you think that's reason enough for a tank to fire a round at the hotel, where you know there are unarmed journalists?"

Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal replied that when troops receive fire, "regardless of how specific they can be of where it came from," they "have the inherent right of self-defense."

And Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke added that "a war zone is a dangerous place. Baghdad in particular.... And we were saying it is not a safe place, you should not be there."[6] But of course five million residents of Baghdad did not have a choice as to whether to be there. One can only hope that as mopping up operations continue in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country, not too many other civilians find themselves in "a dangerous place."

There is reason to hope that the people of Baghdad have been spared the consequences of door-to-door fighting. With the US military getting pointers on urban combat from the Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp[7], we can only imagine what this would have entailed. Indeed, the fact that the city may have avoided this grim fate is reason enough for jubilation in Baghdad, and reason for us to be glad as well.

At the same time, however, it must be acknowledged that the good fortune of Iraqis has an unfortunate upshot. The relative ease of the US victory will no doubt embolden the fanatics in the Bush administration on to further acts of aggression around the world.

"Iraq is not just about Iraq," explained one senior administration official. And Assistant Secretary of State John Bolton has declared on several occasions that the war against Iraq should be an object lesson for other nations with weapons of mass destruction programs.[8] Bolton is correct, but the lesson that will be learned is likely to be that only weapons of mass destruction offer any prospect of deterring a US "preventive" attack.

One can't be certain that military deterrence by the target states alone will be able to prevent endless wars initiated by Washington. Some of the responsibility will have to be taken up by the global anti-war movement.

That movement has grown to unprecedented size and strength, though that still wasn't enough to stop the war on Iraq. But just as the Bush administration sees the Iraq war as simply one battle in its effort to extend US global hegemony, we in the antiwar movement need to see our unsuccessful efforts to prevent the Iraq war as just one battle in a larger struggle to change US foreign policy. Victory will require a movement that is even larger and stronger than it is now. So instead of despairing at our inability to win this early contest, let us redouble our efforts to prevail in the long-term struggle.


[1] Audrey Gillian, "'I never want to hear that sound again': Five British soldiers have died under 'friendly fire'" Guardian, 3/31/03, p. 3.

[2] "Hold Your Applause," NYT, 4/9/03, p. A19.

[3] See Amnesty International, "Iraq: Use of cluster bombs -- Civilians pay the price," 4/2/03,

[4] Patrick Jackson, "Iraqi civilians face crisis," BBC News Online, 4/7/03.

[5] Dexter Filkins, "Either Take a Shot Or Take a Chance," NYT, 3/29/03, p. A1.

[6] DoD News Briefing, 04/08/03.

[7] James Bennet, "U.S. Military Studied Israel's Experience in Close-Quarter Fighting in Refugee Camps," NYT, 4/1/03, p. B10. One Israeli analyst suggests that the lesson of Jenin is not to be so solicitous of civilian casualties. (Yagil Henkin, "The Best Way Into Baghdad," NYT, 4/3/03, p. A21.) For what actually occurred, see Amnesty International's report, Israel and the Occupied Territories: Shielded from scrutiny: IDF violations in Jenin and Nablus, Nov. 4, 2002.

[8] David E. Sanger, " Viewing the War as a Lesson to the World," NYT, 4/6/03, p. B1.


Courtesy: Znet Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Patterson University in New Jersey. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently Which Side Are You On? (Longman), a political science text book.

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