AMMAN – American tanks are now ripping at the heart of Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers” and the cradle of civilization; the US 5th Corps is already engaging the Medina division of the Republican Guards as B52s increase their bombing raids of the “red line” in the outer ring of defenses of Baghdad, over which hangs a surreal, dust-induced dark orange cloud.
For 280 million Arabs, the symbolic effect of the tanks in the country is as devastating as a lethal sandstorm. But Saddam Hussein seems to be one step ahead. It doesn’t matter that Iraqi TV was silenced by a showering of Tomahawks (although domestic broadcasts, as well as the international signal, have been restored). Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV will be on hand to record the ultimate image that Saddam knows is capable of igniting the Arab world into an ocean of fire: an American tank in the streets of Baghdad juxtaposed with an American tank in the streets of Gaza.
To date, an estimated 5,200 Iraqis have crossed the Jordanian-Iraqi border, going back “to defend their homeland” as they invariably put it. In already one week of a war that was marketed by the Pentagon as “clean” and “quick” and which is revealing itself to be bloody and protracted, not a single Iraqi refugee has crossed the al-Karama border point into eastern Jordan.
Beyond Iraq, the most crucial development in the Middle East for decades is the fact that from Amman to Cairo, from Beirut to Riyadh, the bulk of the Arab nation is now “Palestinized.” Marwan Muasher, the suave Jordanian foreign minister, insists that King Abdullah and his government are doing everything to end the war and “to try to help the Iraqi people” – basically through frantic telephone diplomacy with Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Arab League has meekly called for an end to the war. Washington didn’t even register it. And the Arab street is not buying excuses any more.
The widespread anger directed at Arab leaders is overwhelming – from taxi drivers to art students, from construction workers to businessmen. For around half a century, the anger in a way channeled by the Palestinians – who by practical experience have learned not to trust Arab leaders. Now the loss of legitimacy is total – a long decaying process that originated in the early 1990s. The street knows that all Arab regimes – from reactionary Saudi Arabia to relatively progressive Jordan – have failed. They have been incapable of achieving Arab unity and independence. They have been incapable of providing social, economic and technological development. They have been impotent in their promises to try to help liberate Gaza and the West Bank. And they have been shamefully incapable of uniting against what their populations unanimously consider a neocolonialist war in Iraq.
One of the most extraordinary developments of the war so far is how the resistance of the Iraqi population against a foreign invasion has galvanized this sentiment of anger in the Arab world. “We are all Palestinians now,” as a Bedouin taxi driver puts it. One of the first things anyone mentions in Jordan – be it a Jordanian, an Egyptian, a Lebanese or a Somali refugee – is their happiness about the way the Iraqi people are resisting the “invaders” (never qualified as “liberators”). Their intuition also tells them that every extra day in this war is further humiliation to the Pentagon – especially because the real war, and not the US version, is being followed by the whole Arab world, in Arabic, through Arab satellite channels.
In a cramped office in downtown Amman near the Roman amphitheater, answering dozens of phone calls, surfing the Internet and zapping incessantly between al-Jazeera and CNN, a Jordanian intelligence source muses on how the Americans will play the war. “They are going to encircle the big cities, Basra, Mosul and Baghdad. But the elite Republican Guard divisions are digging in. The Americans will be forced to attack the best Iraqi soldiers, and thousands, dozens of thousands are now inside Baghdad. The Americans can’t occupy Baghdad, they don’t have enough soldiers, the city has more people than the whole of Lebanon. They could stay outside and keep bombing. But for how long? They cannot afford a war lasting many months. They will go crazy.”
The Pentagon plan for Baghdad is to encircle the huge, sprawling city of 6 million and then calibrate a series of urban attacks. But Baghdad is not Ramallah on the West Bank. The Jordanian intelligence source swears the still non-decapitated regime can survive a siege for months. Saddam – a huge admirer of Josef Stalin – is placing all his bets on the Stalingrad scenario. Of the six Republican Guard divisions, three of them, armored and with around 12,000 soldiers each, are firmly entrenched in Baghdad’s inner defensive ring. The key elite Medina division is in the south of the city – ready to face the Americans and already under B52 bombing.
Behind the Republican Guards there are still four brigades of the Special Republican Guards, with at least 10,000 and as many as 25,000 soldiers either placed inside Baghdad or back in Tikrit, Saddam’s birthplace 160 kilometers to the north. They are disposed in four motorized infantry brigades and are very well trained in urban guerrilla. This is of course Saddam’s Praetorian guard, coming overwhelmingly from the Albu Nasr tribe in Tikrit, from Baiji and from villages near Baghdad and west of Mosul. Asia Times Online has already reported how Saddam can count on the support of a complex network of tribes, clans and sub-clans in the Sunni center of Iraq (What is the US really up against?, February 21) Saddam is rallying his troops non-stop: “Inflict damage on them, and although it may not be big, you’ll see how they will flee because they are away from home and because they are aggressors.” He has made another jihad call on TV to the tribal and clan chiefs, encouraging them on the guerrilla war path: “Fight them in pockets, and when their columns move, hit their front and rear. Those of you who have been reluctant to fight and are waiting for the order, consider this to be the command of faith and jihad and fight them.” Much of the resistance encountered by the Americans and the British in the Shi’ite south was by tribesmen and clansmen, some equipped with very sophisticated weapons.
A mix of Republican and Special Republican Guards, civilian and military security, secret police and civilian militias will offer fierce resistance to the Americans. A well as Saddam, the 8,000 men of the Mudiriyah al-Am al-Amma (the secret police) all come from Tikrit: this is largely an extended family affair. Civilian militias – composed of five competing security forces – will be decisive in urban guerrilla warfare. These forces include the 5,000 men of the al-Amn al-Khas (the Special Forces) and the 4,000 men of the al-Mukhabasad al-Amma (intelligence services), which are spread out all over the country.
There are also the 6,000 men from the al-Idakhard al Askkariyya (military intelligence) and the 5,000 men of Amm al-Askariyya (military security) – a secret police that answers directly to the Ministry of Defense and controls the key central district of Baghdad (their headquarters has already been bombed). There are still the 8,000 men of the Mudiriyah al-Am al-Amma, the secret police which directly depends on the Ministry of the Interior (all of these men also come from Tikrit).
Thousands of Arab-Afghan mujahideen have also been 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.
Finally, around this dizzying web, we find what the Americans would call “combatants” – at least 150,000 men and women of the Jaysh al-Shaabi, a civilian militia that even includes elderly Shi’ite women in black brandishing their World War I-era rifles. The task of the militia is basically to corral the civilian population.
All these special and not-so-special forces have been strategically positioned by the regime among civilians. They will thus be deadly in a guerrilla scenario. This would be the ultimate nightmare for the Pentagon, barring the unthinkable – chemical, biological and even nuclear warfare.