[News] Juan Cole: The Hidden War

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Fri Oct 15 12:06:51 EDT 2004


The Hidden War
By Juan Cole
Incredibly, American warplanes still routinely bomb Baghdad, the capital of 
the country the U.S. conquered in April of 2003. Indeed, they blast any 
city where a significant guerrilla resistance emerges, whether in the Sunni 
Arab northwest or in the Shiite south. Although the interim president of 
Iraq, Ghazi al-Yawir, recently denounced these tactics, the issue has 
passed virtually without remark on the American political scene.

  Al-Yawir's outburst suggests that the behavior of the U.S. military in 
Iraq may be emerging as a campaign issue within Iraq, as elections loom in 
January of 2005. The bombing raids are mentioned only in passing in the 
U.S. press, and U.S. television viewers seldom see footage of the strikes 
or of the civilian casualties they produce. In contrast, Arab satellite 
television channels frequently show wounded children in hospital beds after 
the bombardment.

  The Bush administration has represented itself as fighting a handful of 
foreign terrorists and local criminals or dead-enders. Arab viewers know 
that most of the guerrilla opposition to the US is Iraqi, and that many of 
the victims of U.S. attempts to destroy it are civilians. A recent report 
by the Iraqi health ministry, revealed by Knight Ridder, found that between 
April and September of this year, U.S. military operations had killed twice 
as many civilians as had the bombings and shootings carried out by the 

  President al-Yawir said the images of wounded and dead women and children 
being dragged from rubble after the U.S. raids reminded him of scenes from 
Israeli-occupied Gaza. Any such comparison of Washington and Tel Aviv by an 
Iraqi politician is highly inflammatory. Israeli military actions in Gaza 
against the Palestinians are about as popular in the Muslim world as Santa 
Ana's assault on the Alamo was in nineteenth-century America.

  Al-Yawir implied that when you bomb a city repeatedly to get at a 
guerrilla group hiding out there, you are implicitly punishing the civilian 
population for the actions of the militants. Collective punishment is an 
ugly tactic, famously practiced by the Nazis in Europe to keep their 
conquered populations in line. It is forbidden by the Fourth Geneva 
Convention of 1949.

  Nor is al-Yawir the only such voice. A British Muslim delegation called 
on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to pressure President Bush to halt the 
bombing of Iraqi cities, saying that it was hindering the release of 
hostages. One member of the delegation called the bombings an 
"indiscriminate" killing of Iraqi civilians, and said that many Iraqis felt 
these were no less innocent victims than were the hostages.

  On a single day in August, U.S. warplanes bombed the southern city of 
Kut, killing 84 persons and wounding 176, according to the al-Zahra 
Hospital. Its spokesman said that many of these were women and children. 
The U.S. military explained that they had targeted the city quarter of 
Sharqia because of intelligence that Mahdi Army fighters had congregated in 
it. I watched U.S. television news all day on August 12, and never heard 
Kut mentioned.

  You cannot bomb a densely settled city without killing civilians. 
Military spokesmen speak of "clean" "precision strikes" on "terrorist" 
"safehouses." This antiseptic language misleads and covers up the reality. 
Even with very good technology, not all bombs or missiles hit their targets 
with precision. Even where that is possible, the military is dependent on 
intelligence to know where guerrillas are congregating, intelligence that 
is inevitably murky and of varying quality. Worse, even precision strikes 
kill noncombatants, sometimes in fair numbers. When a five hundred pound 
bomb hits a building, it turns the building itself into shrapnel. Glass, 
stone and adobe fragments fly out, into eyes and into hearts, killing and 
maiming for hundreds of feet around. Iraqis are organized in clans, and are 
fiercely protective of their kin. Each innocent Iraqi death produced by an 
American bomb creates another clan feud with the U.S.

  That the president of an Iraqi government more or less installed by the 
United States should be so bluntly condemning his patrons over this issue 
is remarkable, and alarming. Like many Iraqi politicians, al-Yawir is 
positioning himself for the elections scheduled for January 2005. He may 
well be a bellwether here, signaling that most Iraqi candidates will run 
against the U.S..

  The Bush administration and the Pentagon have signaled that they plan a 
major campaign against recalcitrant cities like Fallujah and Ramadi in 
November, after the U.S. elections. Al-Yawir is unlikely to sit quietly 
through a Dresden-like assault on his Sunni Arab constituents. In the 
aftermath of such an attack, and a possible diplomatic rift with the 
president and other high officials, the U.S. may find it is the real loser 
in the January elections.

------------------------------ Juan Cole teaches history at the University 
of Michigan, is the author of Sacred Space and Holy War (IB Tauris, 2002) 
and the daily web log, www.juancole.com

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