Published on Monday, April 5, 2004 by the Globe and Mail / Canada
The U.S. is Sabotaging Stability in Iraq
by Naomi Klein
BAGHDAD -- I heard the sound of freedom yesterday in Baghdad's Firdos Square, the famous plaza where the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled one year ago. It sounds like machine-gun fire.
On Sunday, Iraqi soldiers, trained and controlled by coalition forces, opened fire on demonstrators here, forcing the emergency evacuation of the nearby Sheraton and Palestine hotels. As demonstrators returned to their homes in the poor neighborhood of Sadr City, the U.S. army followed with tanks and helicopters. As night fell, there were unconfirmed reports of dozens of casualties. In Najaf, the day was equally bloody: 19 demonstrators dead, more than 150 injured.
But make no mistake: This is not the "civil war" that Washington has been predicting will break out between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Rather, it is a war provoked by the U.S. occupation authority and waged by its forces against the growing number of Shiites who support Muqtada al-Sadr.
Mr. al-Sadr is the younger, more radical rival of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, portrayed by his adoring supporters as a kind of cross between Ayatollah Khomaini and Che Guevara. He blames the U.S. for attacks on civilians, compares U.S. occupation chief Paul Bremer to Saddam Hussein, aligns himself with Hamas and Hezbollah and has called for a jihad against the controversial interim constitution. His Iraq might look a lot like Iran.
And it's a message with a market. With Ayatollah al-Sistani concentrating on lobbying the United Nations rather than on confronting the U.S.-led occupation in the streets, many Shiites are growing restless, and are turning to the more militant tactics preached by Mr. al-Sadr. Some have joined the Mahdi, Muqtada's black-clad army, which claims hundreds of thousands of members.
At first, Mr. Bremer responded to Mr. al-Sadr's growing strength by ignoring him; now he is attempting to provoke him into all-out battle.
The trouble began when Mr. Bremer closed down Mr. al-Sadr's newspaper last week, sparking a wave of peaceful demonstrations. On Saturday, Mr. Bremer raised the stakes further by sending coalition forces to surround Mr. al-Sadr's house near Najaf and arrest his communications officer.
Predictably, the arrest sparked immediate demonstrations in Baghdad, which the Iraqi army responded to by opening fire and allegedly killing three people. It was these deaths that provoked yesterday's bloody demonstrations.
At the end of the day on Sunday, Mr. al-Sadr issued a statement calling on his supporters to stop staging demonstrations "because your enemy prefers terrorism and detests that way of expressing opinion" and instead urged them to employ unnamed "other ways" to resist the occupation, a statement many interpret as a call to arms.
On the surface, this chain of events is mystifying. With the so-called Sunni triangle in flames after the gruesome Fallujah attacks, why is Mr. Bremer pushing the comparatively calm Shia south into battle? Here's one possible answer: Washington has given up on its plans to hand over power to an interim Iraqi government on June 30, and is now creating the chaos it needs to declare the handover impossible.
A continued occupation will be bad news for George Bush on the campaign trail, but not as bad as if the handover happens and the country erupts, an increasingly likely scenario given the widespread rejection of the legitimacy of the interim constitution and the U.S.-appointed government.
It's a plan that might make sense in meetings in Washington, but here in Baghdad it looks like pure madness. By sending the new Iraqi army to fire on the people it is supposed to be protecting, Mr. Bremer has destroyed what slim hope it had of gaining credibility with an already highly mistrustful population. On Sunday, before storming the unarmed demonstrators, the soldiers could be seen pulling on ski masks, so they wouldn't be recognized when they returned to their neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, Mr. al-Sadr is having his hero status amplified by the hour.
Yesterday afternoon, thousands of demonstrators filled Firdos Square. On one side of the plaza, a couple of kids climbed to the top of a building and took a knife to a billboard advertising Iraq's new army. On the other side, U.S. forces pointed tanks at the crowd while a loudspeaker told them that "demonstrations are an important part of democracy, but blocking traffic will not be permitted."
At the front of the square was the new statue that the Americans put in place of the toppled one of Mr. Hussein. The faceless figures of the new statue are supposed to represent the liberation of the Iraqi people. Today they are plastered with photographs of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Naomi Klein is the author of 'No Logo' and 'Fences and Windows'.