HANOI – The red line has been crossed in Iraq. Now it is another kind of war: total war, carefully programmed, following a precise, overall strategy set by a clandestine Iraqi joint chiefs of staff.
The bombing of the United Nations headquarters, a bloody attack on the “soldiers of peace” who work under the sky-blue flag, is the culmination of a coherent sequence: sabotage of water pipelines, sabotage of oil pipelines, and now sabotage of humanitarian aid. Water, oil and the UN are the targets in a perverse scorched-earth policy designed to prevent any possibility of normalization in Iraq. In the minds of the attackers, as the American occupying force has organized and installed a durable chaos, now it’s the time to tell the Americans: you don’t, and you can’t, control anything.
More than an attack on the representatives of the international community as a whole, the bombing was a stark warning to any nation that might even contemplate sending peacekeepers to Iraq, and thus internationalize the American occupation. And compounding the perverse logic, the UN was all but used as a means to an end: once again, to hurt the American occupation force.
The cold, clinical, almost simultaneous headlines, in their eerie resemblance, tell the whole story. “Truck blast at UN’s Iraq HQ kills 20”. “Suicide blast kills 18 on Jerusalem bus”. There’s no denying that the majority of the Arab world will read this as Iraq-Palestine, the same struggle: to get Israel out of occupied Palestine, to get America out of occupied Iraq, to get the West out of occupied Muslim land.
But who might possibly profit from such a slaughter of the lambs? The attack on the UN may have been organized by any among myriad Sunni Iraqi resistance groups; by former army and Ba’ath Party officials; by Afghan-Arabs directly connected or not with Ansar al-Islam; by foreign al-Qaeda fighters recently infiltrated into Iraq; or even by a combination of all of the above. It may have answered Saddam Hussein’s recent audiotape incitements (if indeed it was him) toward a jihad against the American invaders. Or it may have completely bypassed the old Iraqi order and be a quintessential product of global jihad.
During the 1990s, the UN was associated in the minds of the Saddam regime with a ruthless embargo and sanctions – but not necessarily by ordinary Iraqis, many of whom managed to survive thanks to the UN oil for food program. Snubbed and bypassed by the Bush administration’s war adventure, the UN in post-Saddam Iraq was fulfilling basically a humanitarian mission. This included a concerted effort to demonstrate to long-suffering Iraqis that the UN was independent – and not part of the occupation force. But in this framework the mission of the UN special representative to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was in itself much broader and ambitious. Although without any formal power, the 55-year-old Brazilian diplomat who is arguably the UN’s number one troubleshooter – he was also UN under secretary general and a UN high commissioner for human rights – was acting as a de facto privileged go-between, squeezed by the American proconsular regime under L Paul Bremer on one side and Iraqi political and religious leaders on the other. As the only player trusted by both sides, he was trying to bridge the gap between the unbridgeable – the American-imposed agenda for normalization and the Iraqi desire of “democracy now.”
Vieira de Mello was the ultimate pacifier in the extremely complex Iraqi puzzle, and that’s why his death under the rubble at the UN HQ is so tragic, not only for the UN, but for the whole Iraqi nation. The perfect global civil servant, Vieira de Mello had experience in Rwanda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, among other places. His success in helping democratize the former Portuguese colony and Indonesian province was so great that locals made him an honorary Timorese.
He was widely favored to become Kofi Annan’s successor as UN secretary general. When Annan appointed him as special representative to Iraq, Vieira de Mello’s reaction was typical, “My whole life has been a minefield.”
According to Ghassam Salame, a Lebanese former minister and one of his top advisers in Iraq, Vieira de Mello survived the blast for more than two hours with an iron bar over both his legs preventing any movement, until he succumbed to his wounds. Salame says that they even spoke by cellphone several times. Now one thing is clear: there will be no more interlocutors between American proconsul Bremer, touted as a counter-terrorism expert, and increasingly angry Sunni and Shi’ite clerics and political leaders.
It may be instructive to examine those who probably did not bomb the UN offices in the Canal Hotel.
The Pentagon script, as enunciated by anybody from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the average GI, is that the Americans are facing no more than local, sporadic “remnants of the Ba’athist regime.” But this is just not true. As Asia Times Online has demonstrated (Why the lessons of Vietnam do matter , Aug 20) there’s a “popular war,” in the Vietnamese sense, going on in Iraq.
Tribal chiefs organize it, Baghdad and Mosul businessmen finance it, the average neighborhood mom and dad protect it. It is a complex guerrilla resistance movement, controlled by a shadowy joint chiefs of staff, fueled by patriotism – as it was in Vietnam – and Iraqi nationalism: the difference is that instead of the Communist Party, the vanguard is with sheikhs in mosques. The discipline does not come from the teachings of Vladimir Lenin: it comes from Allah. And the banned Ba’ath Party and its remnants are just minor players in this equation: Iraqi patriots simply don’t trust them.
The Iraqi resistance was born in front of the Sunni Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad’s Aadamiyah district on April 18, during the first, historic anti-American demonstration of post-Saddam Iraq (and the first democratic protest in Iraq for decades). Asia Times Online has established that the Iraqi resistance works in classic guerrilla mode through small, mobile, well-armed cells, with hardly more than 30 members each. The cells generally conduct an operation with teams of four or five mujahideen: two operate a RPG rocket launcher and two or three others give them cover. Most of the time they don’t know each other’s identities.
Some cells make their names known – like the Army of Mohammed or the Army of Right. Virtually everybody has a tribal background. There’s no electronic communication among them: only through couriers. As virtually any Iraqi male under Saddam’s rule was militarized, they have hands-on experience, now expanded by know-how in bomb-making and remote-control detonation obtained from manuals abandoned by the demobilized Iraqi army. Iraq is flooded with weapons of the non-mass-destruction-kind: millions of AK-47s, RPGs and mortars are hidden everywhere or buried in graveyards. A hand grenade costs US$2 in the black market. A Romanian AK-47 goes for $20 while an RPG costs not more than $100. You can call them jihadis, you can call them mujahideen – but the main fact is that their leadership is now unified and national. There is indeed an influx of mujahideen from Palestine, Syria and Saudi Arabia, but these fighters are not in control of the resistance. Immediately after the UN Baghdad bombing, American neo-conservative hawks started pointing fingers at the usual suspects, accusing Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia of sending “international terrorists” to Iraq.
The Palestinian, Syrian and Saudi mujahideen – no Iranians – who are now fighting in Iraq are doing so out of a sense of pan-Arab patriotism, and also responding to calls by Islamic clerics for jihad against a foreign invader. They are not being protected by any Middle Eastern government. On the other hand, scores of wealthy private Arab individuals are contributing with money, mujahideen, weapons and even intelligence.
The rationale of the Iraqi resistance is clear, and follows the anti-American graffiti found on countless walls around Baghdad. There’s no nostalgia at all for Saddam, but he is considered to be a lesser evil than the Americans, who are regarded as not treating Iraqis with even an inch of respect. Americans are simply incapable of understanding how deep is the average Iraqi’s anger and resentment. With the Americans bunkered in a “circle the wagons” mentality, there’s simply no possibility of winning any hearts and minds. So, contrary to Washington’s argument, the liberation struggle has nothing to do with bringing Saddam’s regime back, but with having Iraq ruled by Islam and not by a foreign invader.
Perhaps a clue to the UN Baghdad bombing can be found in a communique by the Abu Hafs al-Misri Brigades, posted last Friday on the Arabic online Global Islamic Media – which has already published many al-Qaeda statements – but unconfirmed by any other source. The communique claims responsibility for the recent power blackouts in eastern North America, and lists a dozen “benefits of this strike” which, according to them, cost “only US$7,000.” The fifth benefit is described as “a message delivered to the United Nations against Islam, whose headquarters is in New York.” The communique becomes even more interesting when cross-referenced with an audiotape broadcast by Abu Dhabi-based al-Arabiyah on Sunday and again on Monday, in which an Afghan-based, so-called al-Qaeda spokesman, Abdul Rahman al-Nadji, says that bin Laden and former Taliban supremo Mullah Omar are alive and urging all Muslims to fight a jihad against the Americans in Iraq.
Al-Nadji – who has never been identified before as an al-Qaeda spokesman – congratulates “our brothers in Iraq for their valiant struggle against the occupation, which we support and urge them to continue.” If the tape is authentic, this would confirm that al-Qaeda is indeed supporting the Iraqi resistance, but not controlling it.
If the al-Misri Brigades communique is authentic, this would mean that al-Qaeda might have been involved in delivering a “message” to the UN in Iraq. Wherever lies the responsibility for what happened in Baghdad – indigenous Iraqi guerrillas, global jihad, or an alliance of both – the fact is that the US way out of the quagmire via the UN now lies under the rubble.