The last fortnight or so has seen much jeering of the anti-war movement in the right-wing press in the West. As armed resistance evaporated with the disappearance of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, a mood of crowing triumphalism took hold among western hawks.
However, the sight of the surging crowds of hundreds of thousands of Shias at Karbala chanting anti-Saddam and anti-American slogans has given even these armchair warriors a cause to reflect on what lies ahead. Slowly, the truth of what a number of us had been saying since the beginning of the invasion is sinking in: winning the peace will be far more difficult than winning the war.
The problem with ideologues of any stripe is that they are so caught up with their own narrow vision of the way the world should be run that they tend to overlook or minimize the fact that other people might resist falling in with their preconceptions.
The neo-conservative cabal surrounding Bush and doing his thinking for him was so convinced that 'liberated' Iraqis would be so grateful to their benefactors that they would be automatically pro-American and would therefore welcome Washington's proconsul as well as his plans to bring a new political and economic dispensation to the conquered nation.
But from day one of the invasion, Iraqis have refused to follow this script: instead of welcoming the coalition forces, they have made it clear that glad as they are of getting rid of their brutal dictator, they would like the Americans and Brits to leave as quickly as they had come. To be sure, the invaders have done little to endear themselves to the local population: by their callous indifference to the suffering of the Iraqi people, they have dragged their feet over restoring essential services like water and electricity after having destroyed or disabled power plants and pumping stations; they have permitted the looting and arson of key elements of the infrastructure like government buildings, hospitals and schools that will be essential in the rebuilding of Iraq; and they have been unnecessarily trigger-happy, killing and wounding many innocent Iraqi civilians.
One result of this smoldering resentment of the American presence is that many of the grandiose plans floated by the Washington neo-cons have had to be quietly shelved or publicly denied. Thus, Rumsfeld has said that he has no knowledge of any plans for a long-term American military presence in Iraq. And yet, this is precisely what people like Wolfowitz have long advocated. Then there was talk of an oil pipeline from North Iraq to Israel; that, too, seems to be a non-starter.
At nearly $700 million, the largest contract for the 'reconstruction of Iraq' has been awarded to Bechtel, a giant construction company that has a profitable tradition of inviting ex-cabinet members to sit on its board. The contract calls for repairs of essential infrastructure like roads, schools, water supply and so on. Needless to say, only American firms were invited to bid. Imagine hundreds of American civilians working unprotected across Iraq: for many Iraqis who are passionately anti-American, these would represent soft targets.
A key calculation in the neo-con plans for the Middle East was that the defeat of Iraq would strengthen Israel by demonstrating the fate of governments that opposed the American will. This may be true for Arab states in the region; however, the majority of ordinary Muslims across the world are strengthened in their belief that Israel is an American outpost in the Middle East, and its increasing repression of the Palestinian people is a continuing cause of outrage.
The appointment of retired general Jay Garner as American proconsul in Baghdad is in keeping with the neo-con vision of a pro-American, pro-Israel Iraq, and was greeted in the Jewish weekly Forward with this headline: "Pro-Israel general will oversee reconstruction of Iraq".
Few westerners have grasped the concept of a Muslim ummah, a nation of believers that stretches from Indonesia to Turkey. In a perceptive essay that appeared in a recent weekly Guardian Review, Jonathan Raban writes: "...Ummah is sometimes defined as the community, sometimes the nation, sometimes the body of Muslim believers around the globe, and it has a physical reality, without parallel in any other religion ... [it] has a corporeal substance that is in dramatic contrast to the airy, arbitrary, dissolving and reconstituting nations of Arabia. To see the invasion of Iraq as a brutal assault on the Ummah, and therefore on one's own person, is not the far-fetched thought in the Islamic world that it would be in the West ..."
Another American preconception that will be sorely tested in the coming weeks and months is the notion that democracy is the panacea for all ills. In point of fact, Iraq has never been a democracy, and can hardly be turned into one overnight. But if an election were to be organized there tomorrow, the Shias, with their 60 per cent population would win a clear majority in parliament and would thus form the government. Already, there are manifest signs of Iranian influence, and many Shia leaders have announced their intention of establishing an Islamic government. Are the Americans ready to live with this reality?
Indeed, American neo-conservatives and liberals are united in wanting 'regime change' in all the autocratic Arab states in the region and usher in democracy. However, the stark truth is that in most of these countries, given the corrupt and inefficient nature of these governments, the leaders and parties that would replace them in free and fair elections would be mostly fundamentalists. Again, are the Americans ready to live with this reality?
Since the events of 9/11, Bush and his administration have made their distrust and dislike of Muslims very clear. Apart from their increased support for Israel and their invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, they have mounted pressure on Syria and Iran. Internally, they have subjected Muslims to a virtual witch-hunt through the new INS registration requirements that have caused a wave of unrest and insecurity among Muslims from all over the world who have been living and working in the US as law-abiding citizens or aspiring citizens for years.
Across the globe, Muslims view this onslaught on the ummah as a continuation of the crusades. Even educated, liberal and well-to-do believers are beginning to feel that Osama bin Laden might be right, and that jihad is the only way to defend themselves.
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