Turning against the "liberators"

As they roast in the Baghdad summer, Iraqis who had learned to survive under Saddam find the American juggernaut incomprehensible -- and increasingly oppressive.

Published July 10, 2003 12:00AM (EDT)

For Iraqis, July 4 was just another lethargic summer day. Most stores were closed, and at 1 p.m. the devout strolled to the mosques to listen to Friday's sermon. Attacks against Americans and their Iraqi allies continued unabated, and most Iraqis sat in the shade, avoiding the heat and longing for independence from occupation. All the while, independence celebrations were underway, but hidden from Iraqis' view.

Within the sprawling Republican Palace compound, male and female American soldiers splashed in a pool and grilled meat as country music blasted from a radio. Within the lavish accommodations Saddam built for his cohorts, they enjoyed a respite from their roles as liberators or occupiers and probably did not reflect on the possible ironies of marking their forefathers' rebellion against a British monarchy that had become a foreign occupier for colonists who resented the distant potentate and rejected taxation without representation.

But like the American colonists in the 18th century, Iraqis today are grumbling about their invisible ruler, U.S. proconsul L. Paul Bremer III, who until this week had rejected representation for them, declaring them not mature enough to decide their own fate. Iraqis have had three unelected regimes in three months -- Saddam was replaced by the bucolic retired Gen. Jay Garner, who was in turn replaced by the urbane Bremer. Meanwhile Gen. Tommy Franks and President George W. Bush issue edicts that affect Iraqis' daily lives and Arnold Schwarzenegger visits the troops but doesn't greet his local fans. Even the name of the government has changed three times before settling, for now, on Office of the Coalition Provisional Authority. In his "freedom message to the Iraqi people," Gen. Franks, then commander of the coalition forces in Iraq, announced that the U.S. and the U.K. "have come as liberators, not occupiers," adding that they have come "to enforce U.N. resolutions requiring the destruction of weapons of mass destruction" (that so far do not seem to exist). Iraqis assumed a liberator would bring liberty, not chaos, anarchy and insecurity.

The most common refrain one hears from Iraqis these days is: "They came as liberators and now they are occupiers." The significance of the liberation vs. occupation debate can get lost in translation here, but its immense political implications were evident in a June 2 meeting, hosted by the Coalition Provisional Authority, for nearly 300 tribal leaders of all religions and ethnic groups. Hume Horan, a political advisor to Bremer, also was present. Horan, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and fluent Arabic speaker, addressed the audience in Arabic about the coalition's efforts and its need for Iraqi support.

After Horan finished speaking, Sheik Munther Abood from Amarra thanked President Bush for removing the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein and stated that he had seen the mass graves full of dead Shias in the south and was firmly opposed to Saddam. He then asked Horan if the coalition forces in Iraq were liberators or occupiers. Horan responded that they were "somewhere in between occupier and liberator."

This was not well received by the audience. Sheik Abood stated that if America was a liberator, then the coalition forces were welcome indefinitely as guests, but that if they were occupiers, then he and his descendants would "die resisting" them. This met with energetic applause from the audience. Several other sheiks echoed the same sentiment. Then the meeting deteriorated and a third of the audience stood up and walked out, despite efforts by Horan and other organizers to encourage them to stay. At which point the meeting ended. It was not a public relations success.

Lawyers working for the Coalition Provisional Authority readily acknowledge that the American presence is an occupation and it is their task to apply international law to what they perceive as a legal occupation and the obligations resulting from it. "There is no liberation law," said one colonel, only "occupation law." International law does not recognize the concept of liberator, only occupier, and the holder of this status assumes certain responsibilities. A major working in civil affairs offers a nuanced rationalization: "It's a legal occupation, but a moral liberation."

For Americans, "occupation" conjures images of occupied Germany or Japan and the repair of damaged societies. In Arabic, "tahrir," or "liberation," and "ihtilal," or "occupation," have much greater moral and emotional significance. "Ihtilal" means the Roman Catholic crusaders who slaughtered Muslims, Jews and Orthodox Christians, it means the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the 13th century, it means the British imperialists who divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire with the French, and it means the Israelis who oppressed southern Lebanon and imposed their will brutally on the Palestinians.

"We removed Saddam and we brought one thing to the people, the freedom to talk," said a dejected staff sergeant with the Free Iraqi Forces, Iraqi exiles who volunteered to return to Iraq with the American forces. His wife accuses him of being an occupier when he calls her back in America. "We warned them," he says of the Americans, "but they didn't listen. They are turning a thousand friends into enemies every day."

The foreign troops have become an onerous presence, as if the burden of Saddam was removed only to be replaced by a new burden. Iraqis now have to suffer the numerous intrusive checkpoints, the traffic jams they cause, the many roadblocks, the tanks, the lines for gasoline. They are awakened by the rumbling of tanks through streets, or the sounds of gunfire. Many Iraqis wonder what are these words "fuck" and "shit" that Americans use all the time. Frustrated young soldiers point their machine guns at grandmothers and sometimes tease unarmed Iraqi youths about how easily they could kill them.

Iraqis are lost and confused before the American juggernaut. There used to be ministries, ways of getting things done; now they have to march through long paths carved out with barbed wire and stand in the sun, with gun barrels facing them, as they are searched, patted down, questioned, their I.D.s declared unsuitable, told they cannot be helped, sent elsewhere. Tempers are lost; Americans scream in English and Iraqis scream back in Arabic, neither understanding the other. American soldiers do not sympathize with the inconvenience. "We stand in the sun all day," said one soldier, looking at hundreds of Iraqi men standing or squatting, and waiting.

They continue waiting at night, without electricity, living in darkness by gas lanterns, listening to the sounds of gunfire all night, suffering from heat without air conditioning, sleeping outside to escape the saunas in their homes, sitting on the curbs or standing in clusters, living in boredom, fear, frustration and futility. There is no security. Saddam's regime had a monopoly on violence. It was possible to accommodate oneself to life under Saddam, and to live without arousing the state's ire or incurring its wrath. The present violence is random, collaboration with it impossible.

Meanwhile, coalition soldiers live removed from Iraqis, hiding in palaces that once belonged to Saddam. They are increasingly vulnerable and nervous after an epidemic of successful attacks on Americans, and the high security that accompanied the first weeks after the war is being restored. Some attackers are indeed the lingering remnants of Saddam's regime. Nihilistically they shoot power stations with rocket-propelled grenades and blow up water pipes, damaging Iraqi communities for the sake of propaganda.

Two frustrated U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say that many of those who attack Americans are not former Republican Guards or members of Fedayeen Saddam or the Baath Party, as has been widely assumed, but instead are men who opposed Saddam and welcomed the Americans. Suffering wounded pride and humiliation from the treatment they receive from U.S. military personnel, they need to restore their self-esteem. It is a view repeatedly reinforced during conversations with Iraqis themselves. They feel shame for their country's quick capitulation after predictions of last stands and blood baths and boasts that American soldiers would not be able to deal with the heat. These successful attacks demonstrate their virility and the American vulnerability and gratify most Iraqis subconsciously, as evidenced by how fast detailed and accurate rumors of the attacks spread throughout the country.

Some American soldiers wonder why anybody would want to attack them, since they are, in the end, liberators. Others are cynical and question why they were sent to Iraq at all. One enlisted Marine wanted to know what it was like back home during the war, if Americans supported them, and if they knew why the war had been fought. When asked why he thought he was in Iraq, he responded: "It's obvious -- for oil. The first thing we did was secure the oil field in Basra." And then he scoffed: "Americans are blind! There were no weapons of mass destruction. We barely even took any fire." Other soldiers complain that they were sent to do a job they were not trained for. How long will their patience last?

Most Iraqi clerics have told their congregations to be patient, that the time is not right to attack Americans and they should give them six months or a year to fulfill their promises. And perhaps such patience will pay off. Bremer in May had rejected earlier plans to give substantial power to an Iraqi provisional government. But in an apparent concession to Iraqi pressure, Bremer has announced that a temporary governing council will be established later this month, and Iraqi political leaders agreed this week to join it.

Still, the clerics say, if the Americans fail, or if they remain in Iraq too long, it is legitimate to attack them. "All good people of the world reject foreign occupation," Imam Muayad, the leader of Iraq's most important Sunni mosque, said last Saturday. "Whether they are Muslim or not. Americans rejected British imperialism, so why do they deny other people the right to do what they did? We as Muslims reject any foreign occupation because Muslims do not recognize slavery to anyone but God."

By Nir Rosen

Nir Rosen is a freelance writer in Iraq.


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Arnold Schwarzenegger George W. Bush Iraq War