On Weds

*On Weds., Iraqi guerrillas killed one US soldier and wounded another near Tikrit with an improvised road bomb, over which their armored personnel carrier drove. Snipers fired on US troops at Rashidiya and Balad, both north of Baghdad. The Rashidiya shooter was killed by return fire. A running gun battle was fought in Baghdad itself between US troops and guerrillas claiming to be al-Qaeda. Reuters reports: “The attackers left large calling cards at the scene before driving off, witnesses said. The cards read: “Death to the collaborators of America – Al Qaida.” The tracts were thrown out of a car by the fleeing attackers, said one witness, Majid Ahmed Shehab.” On Tuesday in Taji north of Baghdad, a road bomb killed one 4th Infantry Division soldier and wounded two. This was on top of the road bomb at Ramadi that I mentioned yesterday, so three US soldiers died in 24 hours. Also near Taji, and oil pipeline fire broke out, probably as a result of sabotage (less fuel means less money for the IGC or less fuel for people, and more anti-US riots).

*A big riot broke out in the slums of East Baghdad (al-Thawra or Sadr City) on Weds. Apparently some US troops in a blackhawk helicopter were trying to tear down a Shiite banner that had been flown from on top of a telecommunications tower. Some 3,000 demonstrators gathered to protest, and when an army humvee came by they pelted it with stones. The US Army says someone also fired a rocket propelled grenade. The US troops shot into the crowd, killing one civilian and wounding four. The Army at first tried to maintain that the banner was blown down by the rotors of the helicopter, accidentally. But an Iraqi with a video camera caught the soldier’s hand coming out of the helicopter to tear off the banner.

I saw the demonstrators’ banners on CNN, and they may be highly significant. One said, “Ya Qa’im Al Muhammad.” (O Messiah of the House of Muhammad). The crowd was waving another one that said “Unsurna Ya Qa’im Al Muhammad.” (Help us, O Messiah of the House of Muhammad.) The Shiites are especially given to millenarian ideas, rather like US evangelicals who think Christ is coming back any minute. Shiites believe that the 12th Imam, a lineal descendant of Muhammad, supernaturally disappeared in the ninth century and will one day come back to restore justice in the world. The Safavid state in Iran was founded in 1501 by Shiite tribes who believed that Shah Ismail was divine, and perhaps that he was the herald of the Shiite Mahdi or messiah. In the 19th century, Iran and Iraq were roiled by the Babi movement, which asserted that Ali Muhammad Shirazi was the Mahdi or Qa’im. Some followers of Ayatollah Khomeini believed he was the Mahdi. And, it has been alleged that some Sadrists believe that Muqtada al-Sadr is the Shiite Promised One.

It was certainly Sadrists who put that banner on the tower and who rioted against its removal. And, whether they believe that Muqtada is the Mahdi or only a harbinger of the Mahdi, they seem to have strong millenarian beliefs. The coming of the Mahdi will turn the world upside down, and the oppressed Shiites will finally see justice. Mahdism can be highly militant. (In mainstream Shiism, you can’t have offensive jihad because only the Mahdi can declare it. But if he comes back . . .) If the Sadrists are millenarians, they might be even more dangerous than they first appeared.

*The al-Da`wa web site transmits an al-Quds al-`Arabi report of riots in the southern Shiite city of al-Diwaniyya against the US-appointed mayor. Some 12 automobiles have been burned, and part of city hall. One man has been killed and several wounded. The news is so similar to that reported about Nasiriya two days ago that I wondered if the al-Quds al-`Arabi reporter just got the name of the town wrong. But it is also entirely possible that people in al-Diwaniya took heart from the Nasiriya protests, to launch their own. If so, you’ve had almost a solid week of major demonstrations in southern cities, beginning in Basra and moving to Nasiriya and Diwaniya. The Shiite south isn’t as quiet as some US spokesmen have suggested. The US media (and pro-US Iraqi media) have been studiously ignoring these urban protests against US-appointed municipal officials. The Sadr City event got covered because US troops are directly involved.

*More demonstrations by Shiites in Baquba against the US arrest of the city’s major Shiite clergyman. – al-Sharq al-Awsat.

*US civil administrator Paul Bremer said rather defensively on Weds. that the US troops “are not sitting ducks” but added that they might be in Iraq even after a new Iraqi government is elected (presumably in summer or fall of 2004). I don’t think the American public will put up with the casualty rate the US is currently sustaining for that long. Although at this rate one is probably looking at 230 combat deaths per year, the deaths from heat exhaustion, crashes and so forth will not be discounted by the public as unrelated to the troops’ presence in Iraq. And, the media is beginning to discover the wounded, whose numbers are much greater. There was a flurry of articles on Weds. about the families of the US military personnel stationed in Iraq beginning a political campaign to get them out. See e.g. http://www.wilmingtonstar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20030814/APA/308140552&cachetime=5 ; also today’s Washington Post. The Bush administration hopes it can find enough troops among allies of convenience to offset its embarrassing failure to convince India, Egypt, Jordan and (so far) Pakistan, much less France, to send troops. So far the results are not promising. Spain, a major backer of the war, only sent 1300, and the US is having to pay for the Poles to be there; so much for the devotion of the New Europe to US policy goals. The likelihood is that US troops will form the backbone of the security force in the country for a long time to come.

*Likewise, a very interesting CBS poll found that 43% of Americans thought that the US is not in control of the situation in Iraq, while 45% think it is. That is, the public is evenly split in its perception of the issue. And, if you ask Americans if the war was worth it to produce the current results, 45% say “no,” while 46% say yes. The poll gives strong evidence of attitudes being very different among Republicans and Democrats. See http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/08/13/opinion/polls/main568108.shtml

I’d say from observing the situation as intensely as I can through the press in several languages for 4 months, that the US is definitely not “in control” of the situation in Iraq. At best, people are giving it a honeymoon while they decide what to do. At worst they are waging guerrilla war. No one likes the humiliation of being occupied, and the high-handedness of Bremer’s style (not to mention Bush’s) infuriates almost everyone. That last part just isn’t necessary.

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