Vicious circle: The dynamics of occupation and resistance in Iraq

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Part One. Patterns of Popular Discontent

Project on Defense Alternatives Research Monograph -10

1. Introduction: Iraqi public sentiments regarding the occupation

The occupation of Iraq is today less about rolling back Iraqi military power, dislodging a tyrant, or building a stable democracy than it is about fighting an insurgency -- an insurgency that is now driven substantially by the occupation, its practices, and policies. We can take a first step toward understanding the insurgency by locating it within the broader field of popular Iraqi opposition to the occupation, which is widespread. Iraqi public opinion has been polled repeatedly since the beginning of the occupation by a variety of firms. Their findings leave no doubt about the main contours of Iraqi sentiment regarding the occupation:

- On balance, Iraqis oppose the US presence in Iraq, and those who strongly oppose it greatly outnumber those who strongly support it.

- US troops in Iraq are viewed broadly as an occupying force, not peacekeepers or liberators.

- On balance, Iraqis do not trust US troops, think they have behaved badly, and -- one way or another -- hold them responsible for much of the violence in the nation.

- There is significant popular support for attacks on US forces, and this support probably grew larger during the course of 2004, at least among Sunni Arabs.

- A majority of Iraqis want coalition forces to leave within a year or less. Formation of a permanent government early in 2006 is the "tipping point" after which a very large majority of Iraqis may desire immediate withdrawal.

Although disconcerting, these results provide the most reliable view of Iraqi attitudes available. The fact that they have played little role in the public discourse on the Iraqi mission imperils US policy and contributes to the present impasse. (The footnotes for each of the summary propositions provide greater detail on the opinion survey questions from which they are drawn.)

2. What drives popular oppositional sentiment?

Opposition to the occupation runs the gamut from simple discontent, to strong anti-Coalition sentiments, to "rejectionist" or "abstentionist" views (which shun the political process established by the Coalition), to pro-insurgency sentiments and activities. The intensity, character, and spectrum of popular opposition varies across Iraq's main ethno-religious groups and also has changed over time. As a first approximation, however, we might understand popular opposition in terms of two dynamics:

- A typical nationalist or patriotic response to foreign control, amplified by differences of culture, religion, and language; and

- A reaction to the coercive practices of the occupation, including military, policing, and penal operations.

2.1 The power of nationalism

Although the power of nationalistic feelings is universally recognized, occupiers often resist the conclusion that their behavior is implicated by these feelings - especially if the ostensible goals of occupation are humanitarian or paternalistic.

Even Napoleon Bonaparte expected during his 1799 campaign in Egypt and Syria that his army would "increase with the discontented" and "armed masses" of the region because, in accord with the principles of the French revolution, he sought "the abolition of slavery and of the tyrannical government of the pashas." As it turned out, the oppressed masses did not flock to Napoleon's standard. Eight years later he was similarly disappointed in Spain. He entered the country proclaiming that "With my banner bearing the words 'Liberty and Emancipation from Superstition, I shall be regarded as the liberator of Spain." Instead, the Spanish resistance tied down hundreds of thousands of French troops for 5 years, sapping the empire and exposing it to easy attack by the British. (Not incidently, the Spanish war popularized the term guerilla or "small war" among the British.) It mattered not one wit that the French political and economic system were in many ways preferable to both that of the Ottomans and that of the Spanish. What decided the popular response to Napoleon was his means of engagement: war, conquest, and occupation.

The Bush administration is not entirely immune to the idea that foreign military occupation tends inherently to invite nationalist opposition, regardless of what other benefits it might bring. As President Bush observed in April 2004:

[T]he attitude of the Iraqis toward the American people [is] an interesting question. They're really pleased we got rid of Saddam Hussein... [But] they're not happy they're occupied. I wouldn't be happy if I were occupied either.

The essential logic of nationalism is well expressed by a 47-year old mother who left her family in Baghdad to join the Mahdi army in Najaf: "We are going to fight them until we throw them out of Iraq. Our country is our country." Here, the effort to exorcize foreign control is experienced as a self-evident corollary of having a country. One simply follows from the other without qualification - that is: opposition to occupation is not contingent on the rationale for an occupation or how the occupiers behave.

Insofar as self-identity becomes tied to national identity and the latter is associated with a territory, incursions on that territory or on the control of it can invoke emotional responses that exceed the bounds of instrumental politics. This is reflected in the recollections of a former Iraqi major:

Losing the war is one thing, but losing Baghdad is another. Baghdad is like losing the thing you hold dearest to you. Losing your country is bigger even than losing the men who fought with you to defend it.

And, for many Iraqis, such feelings are reinforced by a strong faith-based obligation to expel invaders from "Dar es Islam" - the House of Islam. As a young preacher in Falluja explained with quiet conviction to Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post in June 2003: "If the situation stays as it is, we'll declare jihad... This is what God commands of us."

In this context, even symbols of national identity from the Hussein era can be jealously guarded. Thus, the attempt to replace the old Iraqi flag inflamed opposition. Notably, the new design excluded the phrase "God is Great", which had been on the original. For some, however, the principal issue was not the new design, but the fact that it was associated with foreign occupation. As a young student told Patrick Cockburn of the Independent: "The main reason I don't like it is that it comes from the Americans."

Although such nationalist reflexes might be considered arcane, irrational, or even petty, they are not uncommon. Their extent is suggested by a June 2004 poll conducted by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies. The poll found that 66 percent of respondents opposed the occupation. Asked why, forty-three percent of those who opposed the Coalition presence did so simply because "It is an occupation force and must leave immediately." (An additional 3.6 percent opposed it because they felt the force lacked respect for Iraq's religion and culture; 29.4 percent opposed the presence because they associated it with death, destruction, or abuse; 8.7 percent opposed it because they thought the foreign presence aimed to exploit Iraqi natural resources; and 2.1 percent opposed it because they saw it as linked to Israeli domination).

2.2 War-related fatalities: their extent and significance

Ongoing military operations and other coercive activities further complicate the challenge inherent to conducting a foreign occupation. These acts embody the fact that sovereignty has been lost or compromised and that power resides in the hands of foreigners; they make the fact of occupation palpable. Moreover, the military occupation of Iraq did not begin with a blank slate. The forces occupying Iraq are those that conquered it. Regardless of the rationale for the war and subsequent occupation, these have imposed a significant blood price on Iraqis:

- Perhaps 30,000 Iraqis have died due to military action by all sides in the course of the war and occupation (as of May 2005). Approximately half of these were killed during the conventional combat phase of the war, which ended 1 May 2003.

- Probably three-quarters of the total 30,000 were killed by coalition troops. Although a majority of these were probably Iraqi military personnel or insurgents, all the dead have families and friends. In an interview conducted by the International Crisis Group, a former Iraqi officer and tribal leader estimated that 10-20 percent of the soldiers killed in the war had strong tribal ties.

- The number injured is much higher; if historical ratios of dead to wounded pertain, the total number of Iraqi casualties due to military action and terrorism is probably in the range of 100,000 to 120,000 people.

Thus, today there are many tens of thousands of families who may bear a grudge against the Coalition -- and their reach is amplified by wider village, tribal, and friendship ties.

Of course, the Iraqi insurgents -- or at least many of them -- are less discriminate than

Americans in their killing of Iraqis. Indeed, the anti-Shia bombers purposefully target civilians. But this has not rebounded to the favor of the coalition. This was evident in the aftermath of the 29 August 2003 bombing in Najaf that killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim and 80 other Shiite faithful. Although the bombing was probably the work of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, mourners quickly apportioned principal blame to the United States -- for having failed to protect the leader or bring the paroxysm of violence under control.

The fact is: many Iraqis tend to blame the occupation for eliciting insurgent violence, or for failing to prevent it, or both. The same is true of violent crime: Iraqis fault the coalition and the appointed Iraqi governments for failing to contain it. Under pressure, some appointed officials, such as Iraq's first interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer, also point toward the United States as ultimately culpable:

We blame the United States 100 percent for the security in Iraq. They occupied the country, disbanded the security agencies and for 10 months left Iraq's borders open for anyone to come in without a visa or even a passport.

Assistant US Defense Secretary Peter Rodman described this dynamic in testimony before the US Congress: "When difficulties persist, it is natural for people to express resentment at those in authority -- especially when the latter are foreign powers exercising authority as an occupier." The dynamic is reflected broadly in responses to a June poll conducted for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA):

- Sixty-seven percent of Iraqis said that violent attacks had increased in the country because "people have lost faith in the Coalition forces." Eighty percent said that they themselves had no faith in the forces. While only one percent said that Coalition forces were the most important factor contributing to their safety, a majority said they would feel safer if US troops left immediately.

The post-war surge in violent crime is as onerous as the toll of military-related violence. Baghdad morgue records for the period 1 May 2003 through the end of 2004 indicate a total of more than 12,000 unexplained deaths in a city that constitutes about 22 percent of the nation's population. Most of the dead are considered victims of crime, not accident, terrorism, or military action. (Those killed in military incidents and bombings are not usually referred to the morgues.) Based on pre-war experience, the rate of crime-related death has increased four fold. Samples from other provinces suggest lower increases outside the capital - much lower in the Kurdish regions and much of the Shiite south - making for a probable national toll of 20,000 for the period. A reasonable national estimate for excess crime-related deaths is 12,000 for the occupation period through the end of 2004.

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