The problem with Iraq: Is it faulty US perception?

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President Bush insists that the current violence in Iraq is the work of "a few people" and "violent groups." If this is the situation, it should be relatively easy to control, and US actions should have broad Iraqi support. Neither appears to be the case.

Members of Iraq's Governing Council have objected to the assault on Fallujah and have urged talks. Many in the new Iraqi Army and police refuse to confront fellow Iraqis. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a significant Shiite Muslim leader, is taking a soft line toward rival cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Is the US once more acting abroad on the basis of perceptions less related to realities on the ground than to American objectives and hopes?

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The US attacks on Fallujah, in reprisal for the death and mutilation of the four civilian contractors, are understandable in an American context. Those responsible must be brought to justice; failure to react would have been seen as weakness. Although the US insists that it is applying force in a discriminating way, casualties among noncombatants cannot be avoided. In a land of tribes and extended families, each Iraqi killed increases the numbers who hate the US.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) closed Mr. Sadr's newspaper, has threatened his arrest, and now confronts his Mehdi army militia. The working assumption of the CPA has been that Sadr is not broadly popular and represents only a fringe of majority Shiites. If Sadr is of such marginal importance, why did the authority take the highly risky step of closing his newspaper? Sadr is Iraqi - as is his militia - and whatever the views of other Iraqis may be, it is difficult for them openly to oppose fellow countrymen challenging an occupying power.

The coalition is talking tough: Sadr and his fighters are "thugs." They may be, but when only Americans are using such terms and even Sadr's Iraqi enemies are silent, the words have little credibility.

Language employed in such a situation can be tricky. The Bush administration learned early on not to use the term "crusade." But is President Bush aware, in his constant reference to "freedom," that for many Iraqis, "freedom" may not refer to individual liberties but to freedom from the occupying power? And has he considered how most Iraqis react to reports that the US is planning 14 "enduring bases" in Iraq?

It is not easy to determine exactly how Iraqis react to a given circumstance. Iraqi Arabs, both Sunni and Shiite, have lived under occupation for generations. They have learned either to oppose, with varying degrees of risk, or to adapt. In adapting, they often hide their true feelings and tell the occupiers what they want to hear. Tribal and national pride and the humiliation of occupation have bred an instinctive resentment of its symbols and actions - most dramatically manifested against outside military forces.

The US has done many good things for Iraq in the past year. Without doubt, many Iraqis who've benefited deplore the violence and privately resent those resisting the Americans. But such Iraqis, facing the reality of popular feeling, back away from open cooperation with the coalition and any endorsement of forceful actions against other Iraqis.

If the transition to an established and legitimate Iraqi regime is to be successful, the time between now and the June 30 handover must be one of maximum restraint. Pressures will continue to mount within the coalition leadership and in Washington to confront troublesome anti-American elements and to rein in militias. But for such actions to have credibility in Iraq, they must be seen to originate from, and be explained by, respected Iraqis.

The US may believe its objectives parallel those of most Iraqis; much in that country today suggests this may not be the case.

David Newsom is a retired US ambassador who in 1951-'55 served as public affairs officer in the US Embassy in Baghdad. His most recent book is 'The Imperial Mantle: The United States, Decolonization, and the Third World.'

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