British Are Announcing That They Have

*The British are announcing that they have taken an important suburb of Basra, al-Qassib, after a fierce firefight with Iraqi military forces. This is said to have been the biggest battle of the war so far for the British troops. They have been infiltrating commandoes into the city for days to establish forward posts from which they can direct air strikes on the Republican Guards and Fedayeen Saddam. A couple of nights ago a team destroyed two statues of Saddam Hussein. Although the signs of progress at Basra are heartening for our side, one has to remember that two weeks ago the Pentagon was hoping to have the city in three days so that cheering crowds of liberated Shiites could be shown on television.

*What about hearts and minds? Andrew Buncombe is reporting in The Independent on interviews with Basrans at British checkpoints and he finds enormous anger against the British for besieging and bombing the city. One man said that it was “an occupation” and if Saddam’s forces would give the citizenry weapons they would rise up to fight the invaders. One cannot know if this is a minority or majority view, of course. Another report suggests that the British are penetrating farther into Basra with the help of local civilians, though. And there was after all a neighborhood uprising against the Baath in one Basra neighborhood last week. But every indication is that a fair proportion of the populace is greeting this invasion rather sullenly. I have to say I am a little surprised that the Shiite South feels this way, if it does. They have been brutalized by the Baath. But Shiite Iraqis were always the most devoted to specifically Iraqi nationalism, and an imperialist invasion may be a hard thing for them to swallow, even if it does remove their tormentor.

*A further irony: Muslims in the Indian city of Lucknow demonstrated yesterday against the war, and the press interviews they gave show that some at least are Shiites. In the 1980s the Lucknow Sunnis and Shiites used to fight among themselves because the Sunnis were supporting Saddam and the Shiites were supporting Iran. Bush has managed to promote pan-Islamic sentiments of solidarity even in Lucknow!

*On the other hand, I have for a long time tried to warn that the Sunni Arabs, including the Republican Guard, would make a strong stand against the invaders. They are like the white farmers of Rhodesia–if the system falls, they are likely to lose everything to the majority Shiites and the newly autonomous Kurds, and they know it very well. The idea the Pentagon apparently had that a few bombs would make them hand over Saddam and give in was always unlikely.

*Iraq says 4000 Arab volunteers have arrived, planning to carry out suicide and other operations against the US. This number seems plausible to me. There have been reports of Saudi young men slipping across the border to help Iraq against the Americans, and the Pakistani fundamentalists have called for volunteers to go, as well. Some 500 fighters are alleged to have gone to Iraq from Lebanon’s Baalbak region (which has a big Shiite/ Hizbullah population). The borders are porous, and the road from Amman to Baghdad is apparently still open, if awfully dangerous. Such volunteers do not pose a serious threat to Bradley tanks, but as Beirut demonstrated, they are a threat to sleeping Marines in their barracks. And, the psychological impact of such tactics can be profound. A recent poll finds that a majority of Americans oppose the war if US war dead reaches 5,000, and the same is true if 5,000 Iraqi civilians are killed. The lowness of the numbers at which Americans flip over to opposing the war suggests that the Pentagon would be well advised to spend some time figuring out how to prevent any more suicide bombings of our troops. (As for the number of Iraqi civilian deaths, it is likely to be rather more than 5000 if the Republican Guards withdraw into the residential neighborhoods; they are said to have watched the film Blackhawk Down a lot as their training manual.)

*It is not good news for the US that the Saudis have closed their airspace to US Tomahawk cruise missiles. These had been being fired at Iraq from US subs in the Red Sea. It is desirable for the US to be able to fire on targets from a variety of directions–too narrow an approach corridor for the missiles makes them less effective.

*Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi says Iran will not accept a US-installed government in Iraq. He also said that fears of Kurdish autonomy were shared by Iran, Turkey and Syria. There have been small government-backed demonstrations against the war in Tehran. President Khatami has criticized the US for acting like a big brother to the rest of the world.