As American troops seized the center of Baghdad on April 9, looting, guerrilla warfare, and chaos continued across Iraq. In 21 days, U.S. forces had driven to the capital of Saddam’s Iraq, though arguably Washington had been making war on this long-suffering country for over a decade—a war of economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, propaganda, occupation by proxy (in the Kurdish north), and repeated air strikes. Saddam’s “war machine,” the bogeyman of the war hawks, had been hollowed out long ago. The reception has been mixed, with some hailing U.S. and British troops as liberators (though freedom for some may simply mean freedom to loot), while others have either resisted or remained wary of the occupiers. So far, American media have struck a note of triumph and, apart from a few perceptive commentators, have failed to see the Palestinianization of the Arab world that has resulted from the Iraq conflict, something many foreign observers have noted since the early days of the war.
In the second week of the war, for instance, Asia Times commentator Pepe Escobar gauged the reaction of the Arab world to the American attack on Iraq. The unexpected resistance of many Iraqis had, Escobar wrote, “galvanized the sentiment of anger” among Arabs. Reporting from Jordan, Escobar noted that the “first thing” anyone (whether Jordanian, Egyptian, Lebanese, or Somali refugee) he encountered mentioned was his elation that the “invaders” (not “liberators”) were encountering resistance. Along with the anger and elation was a growing sense of the weakness and vulnerability of the Arab states’ leaders, many of whom had collaborated with or only meekly protested the war. And the images of American tanks on the streets of Baghdad could easily be juxtaposed with images of U.S.-made tanks “in the streets of Gaza.” “We are all Palestinians now,” one Bedouin taxi driver told Escobar.
The fact of Iraqi resistance, however futile, had turned humiliation into anger, rage into action: Across the Arab world, tens of thousands took to the streets demanding an end to the attack, unnerving such Arab leaders as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who warned that the Iraq war would generate a “hundred Bin Ladiens.” Soon after, a tape, purportedly of Osama himself, surfaced, calling on Arabs to overthrow those regimes that had quietly supported the American war on Iraq. An article posted on Muslim-media.com followed suit, urging Muslims to unite against the elites who had “colonized our lands and societies on the West’s behalf.” The article maintained that “Islamic movements offer the only road to the true liberation of the Moslem societies and—eventually—of non-Moslem victims of Western imperialism.”
Meanwhile, reports of volunteers heading for Iraq, heeding an earlier call by Bin Laden (made in February before the war even began) to mount suicide attacks on the Anglo-American forces, showed up in media across the world. On April 8, Agence France Presse, reported that Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis, and Syrians were among the irregulars fighting American troops in and around Baghdad. An officer with the 1st Marine Division reported that, a few days earlier, U.S. troops had fought a ten-hour battle with the irregulars southeast of Baghdad. “We were ambushed twice, and there were four suicide car bombings against tanks,” the officer said. Another Marine officer characterized the attacks as “jihad”: “They were given a rifle and told to become a martyr.” Even “moderate” Muslim clerics called for holy war. One Egyptian observer told an AP correspondent, “Now we have many calls to jihad, and those calls aren’t only coming from what we usually call radicals or extremists.” Many Iraqi exiles were also hostile to the U.S.-led assault on their homeland: One Iraqi woman living in Iran “tearfully” told the AP, “We Iraqis in exile don’t want Americans to come liberate our country. They are coming to occupy our land.” Even Christian Arabs united with Muslims in their anger at the United States. A Jordanian Christian called President Bush a “terrorist,” maintaining that “we” now “hate Americans more than we hate Saddam.”
Though many American media observers did not yet get it, their foreign counterparts did: The United States had lost the information war before the first bomb fell. One Russian commentator noted that Al Jazeera had encroached on “CNN’s information space” across the globe and was playing a major role in shaping the world’s perception of what was happening in Iraq. Britain’s Independent wrote that Al Jazeera was “pumping out” images of a “third World country trying vainly to fight back against a hyper power of infinite technological superiority.” Compared to the version offered by the U.S. media and CentCom headquarters, there was “no doubt which version most of the world believes.”
Media reports on comments by U.S. military personnel probably did not help the situation. One Arab commentator, writing in the London-based Dar al-hayat, claimed that the “worst comment” he had heard regarding Iraqi resistance was from CentCom’s media center: The Iraqis, journalists were told, were still not receiving the American “message.” (The coalition did, of course, recognize the importance of media in the war, which is why their air attacks targeted Iraqi TV.) The Guardian, which maintained that the Americans were “aggrieved” that the Iraqis had not been “more grateful,” quoted one U.S. Marine, who had passed within a few miles of the 8,000-year-old ruins of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, as saying that “I’ve been all the way through this desert from Basra to here and I ain’t seen one shopping mall or fast food restaurant.” “These people,” he continued, “got nothing.”
Even such relatively friendly sources as the London Times published articles interpreting American actions as arrogant and describing the U.S. leadership as shallow, immature, and ignorant. Anatole Kaletsky, who supported Tony Blair’s decision to back the war as a means of ending Saddam’s “reign of terror,” did not, for instance, buy the White House’s attempts to link Saddam to Bin Laden. Kaletsky wrote that an “irrational, self-indulgent rage” among the American populace was “encouraged” by American politicians as a means of achieving “national catharsis” after September 11. Another Times commentator, in an analysis of Arab and Muslim reaction to the war, claimed that President Bush has “at least one credit” in the war against Iraq: By focusing on Saddam Hussein, the President has helped to “transform” the Iraqi strongman into an “heroic champion” of the Arab cause. Saddam might even rise to the status of a “mythological figure” in the eyes of the Arab world.
Judging from media reporting and commentary on the war from across the world, the military victory of the coalition was never in doubt. When it became apparent that the regime in Baghdad was crumbling, however, the Arab world was dismayed: The “Arab street” had wanted the Americans to pay a bloodier price for so great an Arab city. Some Arabs cursed those Iraqis who welcomed the Americans, but hatred of America is apparently stronger than ever: The AP reported that the scenes of U.S. troops in the heart of Baghdad had made many Arabs “even more determined to join a jihad . . . alongside the Iraqis.” In Cairo, an AP correspondent noted that a recruitment center for would-be mujahideen began filling up shortly after the news broke that U.S. forces had reached the heart of Baghdad.
So Saddam has fallen. The other, unintended, consequences of the conflict, however, have not yet been acknowledged in Washington: Operation Iraqi Freedom has united the Arab world in a way that Saddam and others had failed to do; Iraq, as an observer for the Guardian maintained, has become a “yearned for symbol of resistance for the Arab world, superseding even Palestine, and may yet leave a lasting legacy”; “moderate” Arab regimes are probably shakier than ever, as the “Arab street” rages at what it sees as collaboration with the enemy; Osama bin Laden appears to be succeeding, courtesy of the war, in radicalizing the Muslim world, likely boosting his recruitment efforts for years to come; Islamic terrorism is now a greater threat to U.S. national security than it was before the war; and the United States and her British ally are, as one pundit put it, “losing the peace, and it is probably too late to save it.” The occupying forces have an obligation to set up a provisional Iraqi government, but the longer U.S. troops remain in Iraq, the harder it will be to salvage anything positive from the chaos.