RUWEISHED, eastern Jordan – Saddam Hussein has called on Iraqi television for a jihad against the Anglo-American invasion of his country. And the jihad is already on. Saddam’s complex amalgam of militantly secular Arab leader, devout believer and bold warrior of Islam is now total. From the depths of his bunker-cum-television studio, Saddam is promising to deliver hell: widespread jihad, urban guerrilla, man-to-man fighting in each and every Iraqi city. The Pentagon may underestimate Saddam at its own peril.
George W. Bush personalized this war. Saddam played along, taking it to the battleground of the world, and especially Arab public opinion. Saddam has seized on his unique chance to be seen in many parts of the world, even though he might be detested, to be fighting a neocolonialist war, and to be seen in the Arab world as the only leader with enough courage to stand up to the superpower. Carefully calibrating his latest speech, drawing from a wealth of poetic resources in the Arabic language, and tapping on deep Arab and Muslim resentment against the United States, Saddam is also increasingly sounding like Osama bin Laden – who ironically despised the Iraqi leader as an infidel.
Saddam’s guerrilla tactics have already proved to be somewhat effective. What for the Pentagon is a breakdown of central control is in fact the result of Saddam dividing Iraq into four largely autonomous military zones. The regime can count on support among three different forces: the Republican and Special Republican Guards; the paramilitary Fedayeen Saddam (Saddam’s Men of Sacrifice), which has a total strength reportedly between 30,000 and 40,000 troops; and the complex alliances with Bedouin tribes, clans and sub-clans. The Guards, with two divisions already being bombed to oblivion on the outskirts of Baghdad, will be instrumental in the fierce, looming battle of Baghdad. The very mobile Fedayeen are resisting in the southern cities of Umm Qasr, Basra and Nasiriyah. And the tribes will be fighting in central Mesopotamia and the north to defend Arab honor, pride and most of all their own privileges, fully guaranteed as they are by the Ba’ath Party. Saddam is placing all his bets on an extremely brutal and much protracted war that will turn him into a Muslim hero with even wider appeal than bin Laden.
A single powerful image is haunting the Arab world: a closeup, taken from footage shot by the television station al-Jazeera, of a beautiful boy in Basra with half of his head blown away. The photo has already become a screensaver on many a computer. Mustafa Hamarneh, from the Strategic Studies Institute at the University of Jordan, says, “Iraq has won Round 1 big, very big.” Hamarneh estimates that opposition to war in the Middle East is practically 100 percent. “Iraq is seen as truthful and America is seen as a liar.” He confirms what can be easily attested to in any Jordanian cafe – Saddam is now being regarded as the underdog Arab brother, “a hero.”
Tomahawks may have pulverized the Ansar al-Islam enclave in the mountains of eastern Kurdistan, near the Iranian border. But hundreds of warriors of the Islamist sub-group that have been linked to al-Qaeda have survived, and have vowed to engage in a jihad against the Anglo-American invasion. Pakistani and Afghan sources tell Asia Times Online that thousands of Arab-Afghan mujahideen have already deployed around Baghdad and Mosul preparing suicide commando – or “martyrdom” – operations against the invasion, as well as 2,500 Hezbollah from Lebanon. About 700 Algerian volunteers who received weapons training in Iraqi camps are also at hand. The mujahideen will fight to the death because they are all convinced that the occupation of Iraq is the springboard for further occupation of other Arab and Muslim nations. But it is impossible to confirm for the time being assertions by different sources that key al-Qaeda operatives have also entered Iraq through Iranian Kurdistan.
All mujahideen are given official approval from the regime to enter Iraqi territory. They are “unilaterals” – not linked with the Ba’ath Party structure – and are developing their own independent strategies. These separate commandos of Ansar al-Islam, Hezbollah, Algerians and Afghan-Arabs will be instrumental in boosting Saddam’s master plan of a protracted jihad-cum-guerrilla war. As the scholars of the al-Azhar Islamic University in Cairo – the Vatican of the Sunni Muslim world and the leading university in the Islamic world – have already made clear, this is a defensive jihad, and absolutely legal from the point of view of Islamic jurisprudence. About 12,000 students at al-Azhar have been chanting “Baghdad don’t surrender” for two days now.
Observers in the region see increasing signs that the Pentagon war is not developing according to script. No flowers. No applause. The latest developments in the field have conclusively buried the Washington-hawk idea of a “clean,” aseptic, mechanized parade fought over a green-lit video-game screen. Only the presumption of Pentagon civilians such as Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, and Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, would see the proud heirs of the Assyrians and the Babylonians resigning themselves to be bombed and then patiently wait for the invaders-liberators to cover them with fruit, flowers and kisses. Ba’ath Party war rhetoric aside, the message from the still intact leadership in Baghdad is very direct: the invaders may roll and control the desert, but they will suffer in the cities; and they will not be received with flowers, but with bullets.
Washington wonders why there has not been an uprising in the Shi’ite south. It’s because Arabs, Sunni or Shi’ite, are carefully scrutinizing all the symbolism of this war. Where the Americans see only an open desert littered with charred Iraqi bodies and smoldering, gutted vehicles, the Shi’ites watch in horror a roll of invading tanks desecrating the holy city of Najaf, 160 kilometers south of Baghdad – the city where the revered 14th century Imam Ali is buried.
Shi’ites praise the symbolic value of Ali Obeid, an aged peasant from the Hindiyah tribe credited with shooting down an Apache helicopter with his bolt-action rifle near the holy city of Karbala, 110km southwest of Baghdad and at the site of the key 7th-century battle where Imam Hussein was killed. Americans can’t understand the mindset of a Fedayeen in his hideout with only a filthy blanket to protect him from the cold desert nights and just a plastic bag of raw meat for food, resisting like a madman and then fleeing for another position, leaving behind a photo of his two children.
After the Tomahawks erupting from aircraft carriers, after tanks rolling in the desert as if they were in the Paris-Dakar rally, after the apocalyptic first night of Shock and Awe in Baghdad, the next image in the Pentagon screenplay would be flowers and applause for the liberators. But nobody can shoot the scene because the actors refuse to act.
American military strategist Harlan Ullman is the conceptual father of Shock and Awe. As he describes it, “You have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but minutes.” In its carefully orchestrated ongoing bombing lesson for a global audience, the Pentagon was adamant to shatter Iraq “physically, emotionally and psychologically.” It hasn’t. At least not yet.
The daily news conference in the US Central Command in Doha barely disguises how the Pentagon is so obviously desperate for Iraqi surrender. But sources tell Asia Times Online that absolutely no American high-level contacts have been made with the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council – apart from Pentagon disinformation saying that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz has defected or that Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan has been killed. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself has admitted that defections are being encouraged only at a lower level.