WASHINGTON — The death toll of American troops and Iraqi civilians is rising almost daily. American troops are feeling more vulnerable, while Iraqis grow more fearful. The fatal bomb blast at the UN headquarters in Baghdad on Tuesday is the latestincident in an unintended cycle of American-Iraqi violence.
At the heart of this cycle of fear and response are two different views of military occupation: What officials in Washington call the Coalition Provisional Authority, the people in Iraq see as an American military occupation.
Even so, the US view of military occupation is understandably positive. The American occupation of Japan and Germany after World War II helped transform both former US enemies into strong democracies and economic and political powerhouses.
But analogies between the US military occupation of Germany or Japan and that of Iraq, while reassuring, may prove counterproductive.
It's one thing to be the occupier; it's another to be occupied. In the Arab world, foreign armies signal invasion and conquest. For Iraqis, in particular, their historical experience with foreign armies runs for several millenniums up to the British colonial rule in the first part of the 20th century.
"Anyone who understands our culture will know that in this war Iraqis will fight and die, not to save President Saddam Hussein, but to protect their home, land, dignity, and self-respect," Burhan al-Chalabi, chairman of the British Iraqi Foundation and a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, told The Guardian earlier this year. "We are an enormously proud people."
The memory of colonization by Western powers is still fresh in the minds of many Arabs. From Algeria, Lebanon, and Syria, to Egypt and Iraq, the legacy of foreign military presence led not to economic and political growth on par with the foreign power, but rather its opposite. The people were subjugated to foreign rule and puppet rulers. Nationalistic leaders were silenced or exiled. Territory was divided and new and seemingly arbitrary boundaries created. Natural resources were exploited and markets were cultivated to foster dependency rather than development.
Added to this shared historical experience is the ongoing Israeli military occupation in the West Bank. What is happening to the Palestinians has been a collective experience shared throughout the Arab world, first through personal stories, then in poetry and song, and now by satellite TV.
The immediacy of the Palestinian experience with military occupation reverberates throughout Iraq, and by extension the Arab world. Parallels are already being made between the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and the Iraqis under American occupation. The images of military checkpoints, raids, and suicide bombings are strikingly similar. The more entrenched these comparisons become, the harder they will be to dispel.
Further, the irony of an American occupation is perhaps not lost on the Iraqis. When Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990, the US put together an international coalition to end the occupation. Now, the Iraqis find themselves under occupation by the US as it tries to forge an international contingent to sustain its own occupation. And, unlike the Japanese and Germans, who had declared war on the US, the Iraqi people may be wondering what they did to forfeit their national sovereignty. They were neither defeated nor victorious. And why, they ask, with more than 5,000 years of history behind them as the birthplace of civilization, are they now not capable of governing themselves?
American officials say the need for America's continued presence is a security issue. Restoring law and order is a prerequisite to democracy. From the Iraqi perspective, however, continued foreign military presence is a political issue.
What the US sees as steps to freedom and independence, most Iraqis may view as the denial of just that. When America's security concerns are pitted against Iraqi nationalist political concerns, the stage is set for self-perpetuating violence: Iraqis carry out attacks against US troops because of the occupation, and the US prolongs the occupation because of the attacks. One seeks to restore national sovereignty, the other, law and order.
While it may be obvious, sometimes the obvious bears repeating: The Middle East is not Europe; Iraq is not Germany. And the world of 2003 is not that of 1945. America needs to take steps either to end or to internationalize its military presence in Iraq before an unstoppable American-Iraqi cycle of violence takes root.
• R.S. Zaharna is assistant professor at American University and a Foreign Policy In Focus scholar. She has written extensively on American public diplomacy in the Arab world.