Scenes from a quagmire

Thursday, April 15th, 2004

Our justifications for invading and occupying Iraq have traveled a weird course, from self-defense (WMDs) to altruism (topple a tyrant, install democracy) to oops, sorry (you break it, you bought it).

In other words, while we had no business throwing our military might at this unthreatening but oil-rich and strategically situated country, wrecking its infrastructure and creating a leadership void, it’s too late now and we’re stuck. We’ve got to see it through, whatever “it” is.

At least this justification doesn’t reek of feel-good moralism and Bush administration whoppers, but it’s only halfway to the truth. No, we can’t leave without repairing the damage we’ve done and protecting the Iraqis who have thrown in their lot with us (ultimately this may mean opening our borders to them), but neither can we stay and keep doing what we’re doing.

Neither our mission nor our tactical presence in Iraq is benign. The longer we stay, the more damage we inflict and the more we unite the country against us. The “enemy” that reaches American TV screens as crazed fanatics or dead-end Baathists still loyal to Saddam is in fact a whole lot of ordinary people putting aside deep differences and coalescing into a patriotic resistance movement.

Consider this: Shia and Sunni civilians are lining up together to donate blood for the wounded of Fallujah, where as many as 600 Iraqis have so far died in our retaliation for the grisly slaying of four U.S. mercenaries. The dead, writes Rahul Mahajan on the Common Dreams Web site, include some 200 women and more than 100 children.

Oh, lucky us, that our media don’t rub such atrocities in our faces. You have to scour the Internet for eyewitness accounts of what it’s really like in Iraq. Here, for instance, is Jonathan Steele, writing recently in London’s The Guardian:

“I wish the prime minister had sat with the congregation of 200,000 ordinary Sunnis and Shias at Baghdad’s Umm al-Qura mosque (on April 9), which pulsated with anger over the agony of Fallujah.”

As Americans sleep, a crime against humanity is under way, in our name, with our money ($121 billion and counting), at the cost of our young men and women. Yes, our troops are brave, and deserve the prayers we send them, but how we are wasting their lives, and how cravenly they are served by the majority of our elected leaders.

“Senators have once again been cowed into silence and support,” cried Sen. Robert Byrd last week on the Senate floor. Cowed! Afraid to risk re-election chances, while young people must risk their lives and dissipate their health in the toxic horror of an unnecessary war.

Meanwhile, the world’s hatred of us grows, as the gruesome and stupid details of occupation continue to make headlines. Paul Bremer, the pompous and bitterly hated administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, shuts down a tiny Shia newspaper because it called him rude names and turns its publisher, mullah Muqtada al-Sadr, into an instant national hero.

Bremer passes Order 39 and other laws, throwing open Iraq to foreign ownership, “privatizing everything from health care to prisons,” Mark LeVine writes for Asia Times, and giving global entrepreneurs unrestricted “opportunity to profit from Iraq’s misery.” There are billions to be made in the wreckage.

But what stops me cold are the tiny details: the broken doors and middle-of-the-night arrests, the menacing cruelty to Iraqi civilians, the grim surveillance of funerals and demonstrations, the shoot-to-kill sniping at ambulances.

More than one eyewitness has talked about this. Naomi Klein, in the Los Angeles Times, recounts her meeting with an ambulance driver in Sadr City who was shot in the abdomen, and said 12 bullets were fired at his vehicle from a Humvee.

And Mahajan describes, chillingly, “two neat, precise bullet-holes in the windshield on the driver’s side (of an ambulance), pointing down at an angle that indicated they would have hit the driver’s chest. … These were deliberate shots designed to kill the drivers.” Who issued such orders?

“Questions,” said Byrd, “that ought to be stated loudly in this chamber are instead whispered in the halls.”

How dare such cowards purport to bring democracy to Iraq?