American and British claims that Iraq was calm except for limited resistance by a few pro-Saddam stragglers were blown away on June 24, when six British soldiers were killed by angry people in Majar al-Kabbir, a small town north of Basra, in response to aggressive and intrusive anti-resistance operations. Four local people were also reported killed.
Although British authorities described the deaths as unprovoked murder, local sources said that they were in retaliation for the troops breaching a written agreement that they would give notice and behave with greater courtesy before searching homes for hidden weapons. There had earlier been anger that dogs had been used in the searches, and that women and girls had been treated with disrespect.
Salah Mohammad, a local community leader, told the BBC that local people had protested against the searches in front of the police station where the soldiers were based. "Hundreds of people protested in front of the police station," he said. "The soldiers fired shots and the people fired back. They then stormed the building."
Earlier the same day, two British soldiers had been wounded when their vehicles were attacked in the town. British journalists who visited the town in the aftermath of the incidents confirmed that the soldiers were extremely unpopular. "It is difficult to adequately describe the level of resentment which exists in this town towards coalition troops — the British in particular," one BBCcorrespondent wrote.
The incident has caused deep soul-searching in Britain about the presence of its troops in Iraq, as it becomes increasingly clear that they are very unpopular, despite the government’s official line that they have been welcomed as liberators. There is also increasing questioning of the fact that Britain appears committed to unquestioningly following the US’s lead in all foreign affairs. On the day this incident took place, Alistair Campbell, prime minister Tony Blair’s closest political advisor, appeared before a parliamentary committee to deny that the government had fabricated evidence of Iraqi WMDs in order to support the US’s decision to invade Iraq.
Although the Majar al-Kabir incident was unusual in its scale, and in the fact that it happened against British soldiers, who previously liked to think of themselves as more popular than the American soldiers, it was by no means isolated. Rather it was the latest episode of what has become a sustained resistance to Western occupation, and against it a sustained counter-insurgency operation by coalition troops.
Almost two months after US president George W. Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared an end to the war, US troops have been killed by Iraqis at a rate of nearly one a day. During the same period, several hundred Iraqis have been killed, at least. US officials do not report or acknowledge incidents unless an American soldier is killed or seriously injured. Numerous incidents in which Iraqis are killed by Western troops are never reported. Iraqi sources say that even some incidents in which Western troops were killed have been denied.
US troops responded to this situation in mid-June with two major counter-insurgency operations codenamed "Operation Peninsula" and "Operation Desert Scorpion". The first of these took place in north-western Iraq and involved some 4,000 US troops attacking what they said were ‘terrorist’ camps containing pro-Saddam Hussain forces. At least 100 Iraqis were killed as the US troops stormed villages and encampments, and over 400 reportedly arrested for interrogation. All but 60 of these were later released.
Operation Desert Scorpion involved a wave of US military sweeps through Iraqi towns and cities by US troops backed by helicopter gunships, aircraft and armoured vehicles. On June 15, 1,300 troops sealed off the town of Fallujah, which has been a major centre of anti-American feeling and the scene of a massacre of Iraqi demonstrators by American troops in April.
Although US authorities said that their only concern was to arrest "Ba’ath Party loyalists, terrorist organizations and criminal elements", the reality on the ground was very different. The Washington Post quoted one local US commander as saying that the strategy was to "go in with overwhelming force, to squash everything before putting a soldier in harm’s way."
Soldiers were described as kicking in doors, forcing Iraqis to the ground before handcuffing them, taping their mouth and blindfolding them, before taking them for interrogation. Women and children as young as six were reportedly arrested in this way and held for hours before being released.
In a separate incident, US forces reportedly slaughtered a family of five shepherds on June 13, when they fired indiscriminately on targets north of Baghdad in retaliation for an ambush in which a tank was damaged.
On the same day, over 10,000 Iraqis were reported to have gathered in the centre of Basra after Friday prayers, in an impromptu demonstration against British forces occupying that part of the country. British soldiers, military vehicles and checkpoints were reportedly stoned.
Beyond the US and British operations, and Iraqi opposition to them, there are numerous other signs that all is not going well for the West’s plans in the country. Robert Fisk, writing in the Independent, a British newspaper, said on June 16 that aircraft seeking to land at Baghdad airport regularly come under fire from snipers hiding in the area. There has also been a spate of anti-American protests in Iraqi prisons, where men suspected of resistance or anti-Western activities have been held in harsh conditions. Several prisoners have reportedly been shot dead in prison uprisings at the Abu Gharib prison west of Baghdad. In some cases, US authorities have said the men were killed "while trying to escape".
Meanwhile, Iraqis are struggling to survive in appalling conditions created by the destruction of the Western war and the subsequent disorder and lawlessness. Early last month, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that the number of children suffering from diarrhea, the number one killer of infants, has more than doubled since the US occupation. Fully 72 percent of the children surveyed by the agency were suffering from the disease, the result of the destruction of the country’s water filtration and sewage treatment facilities. The number of cases of acute malnutrition among children under five in Baghdad has also doubled since the war, the UN agency said.
At the same time, the adult population faces mass unemployment and deepening poverty. One of the first edicts issued by the new US colonial administrator, Paul Bremer, was the disbanding of the 400,000-man Iraqi army. This action has left an estimated 2.5 million people–10 percent of the population–without any means of support. Upwards of another 100,000 are blacklisted as former members of the Ba’ath Party under another order issued by Bremer (in reversal of an earlier policy which aimed to use them as the basis of the US’s new order).
The country is also plagued by huge numbers of unexploded cluster bombs and other dangerous western weapons. Although both the US and Britain said during the war that they were avoiding the use of weapons that would be a danger in postwar Iraq, particularly cluster bombs, the Observer newspaper revealed on June 1 that humanitarian agencies have recorded heavy concentrations of cluster bombs in Baghdad, Basra and on the road connecting Iraq’s two largest cities.
In a report published on June 7, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action said that "Anti-personnel mines, remains from ‘cluster bombs’ and other non-exploded ordnance and ammunition kill and mutilate dozens of civilian Iraqis daily." Another non-governmental organization, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), reports that 77 percent of all serious injuries to children results from youngsters playing or tampering with unexploded mines and bombs.
The unexploded cluster bombs are especially dangerous and destructive. Each bomb contains hundreds of small bomblets, of which anywhere from 5 to 25 percent fail to explode on impact. Their bright yellow or orange colour and interesting shape attract small children, and they look similar to food ration packages distributed by the occupation authorities. When set off, they erupt with enough force to destroy a tank, killing anyone within 10 to 20 metres. In the months following the end of the 1991 Gulf War, some 1,600 civilians were killed and another 2,500 injured by unexploded cluster bomblets, according to non-governmental agencies.
At the same time, the West’s political plans for Iraq are in disarray. An election for the position of mayor of the southern town of Najaf, which was due to take place on June 21, arranged by the town’s US military authorities, was cancelled when it became clear that a candidate opposed to the US military occupation would win.
The Najaf poll was to have been the country’s first open election, a showpiece for the democracy Paul Bremer was committed to bringing to the country. It was announced live on television by the local US marine commander, Lt Col Christopher Conlin, 18 candidates were permitted to begin campaigning, and local schools prepared for the registration of voters and the holding of the polls.
Conlin was overruled by Bremer, however, on the grounds that it was premature and the town was not yet ready for democratic elections. Locals have no doubt that the real reason was that Asad Sultan Abu Gilal, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Ayatullah Baqir al-Hakim, had quickly emerged at the popular favourite for the post. Thousands of people took to the streets in Najaf to protest the cancellation of the elections, which they had hoped would give them an opportunity to show their rejection of US occupation.
The Najaf situation is symptomatic of the US’s political problems in Iraq. Since taking over in Baghdad, Bremer has cancelled plans for a gathering of Iraqi leaders to set up an ‘interim administration’, saying instead that he will personally appoint an advisory council of 25-30 Iraqis.
At the same time, he has also moved against Baghdad’s media, which had been burgeoning in the post-Ba’athist period. A new edict on "Prohibited Media Activity" was issued in mid-June, outlawing the expression of anti-occupation sentiments in print. Even before that, however, the Sadda al-Auma newspaper in Najaf had been raided by US troops, and its staff arrested and held bound, hooded and incomunicado for four days before being released.
These anti-media measures also provoked widespread Iraqi anger. Baghdad’s popular As’saahnewspaper put it well in an editorial headlined "Bremer is a Ba’athist". It said: "Only four months ago, the easiest accusation to make against us was that we were American agents. Today, with the same ease, they put sacks on our heads, tie our arms, and accuse us of being agents for Saddam Hussain and the Ba’ath Party.