Humanising the Resistance in Iraq

Rahul Mahajan

Speaking at the Iraq Occupation Focus Teach In (London, November 2005)

Rahul is an American journalist who witnessed and reported on the onslaught in Fallujah in April 2004. He is publisher of the blog:


I wish to speak less exactly about who is in the resistance, and more about how to think about it.

Let me start by saying that there are basically three wars we need to take cognisance of. There is obviously the war of the coalition forces, against - well they say it is against the insurgents, but it is partly that and partly against the population of a significant chunk of Iraq. And of course there is also the opposite case to the first war, which is the armed resistance to the occupation, who want the forces out.

There is the terrorist war of groups like Zaqarwi’s, who are killing innocent people, but it is not because as George Bush would like to tell you, that they are simply people who hate innocent life, and enjoy murdering. They have a larger agenda, and as far as I can tell at least part of that wider agenda is that though of course they are killing people they see themselves as opposing the crusaders, the occupying American forces. And as far as they have a strategy they want the United States to stay.

Bush is always justifying the war by saying we are fighting them there so that we don’t have to fight them in the United States. And after the July 7th bombs, people are saying that doesn’t hold up, but I think Bush’s response to that if he responded candidly would be, well that still isn’t really here, it’s still far away.

The third war, and in a way this is the most impressionable one, in terms of exactly how far it has gotten, and how far is it going to go, is the emerging sectarian clash. Although initially we thought it was very clear the most serious divide was between Arabs and Kurds, and we thought there was the real question. And if you remember in the interim constitution it says that any three provinces can veto the final constitution, that was done in defence of the Kurd’s interests. But now what has happened instead, is that there is a Shia Arab and Sunni Arab clash, and primarily not an Arab versus Kurd clash.

So these are the three different wars going on, and when you talk about the resistance, or do you support the resistance, or what kind of attitude should you take towards the resistance, then you have to understand that there is a broad multiplicity of forces, all engaging in very complicated ways. And when I say there are three wars, I am not saying that there are three distinct wars: they all tend to blur ands merge in with other, and they are all being fought in the same place and effecting the same people. And so that very much affects the character and identity of the various groups that are fighting.

I am going to say that most of what has been said or even published about the various groups, their names and who they are and what they stand for is very speculative, and there is only so far we can get. You know anybody can found an insurgent group and make up a name, and you don’t have any clear sense. Somebody could say right now that Saddam was the greatest ruler we ever had, but they could have been a ferociously anti-Saddam person before the regime change. I have talked to any number of Iraqis who said basically exactly that about Saddam; they are for Saddam, but who were against him when he was in power. In terms of understanding, Ba’athists, Islamists, pure nationalists without very much politics or something else, again you have to understand there are a multiplicity of reasons why people come into the resistance. Some of them started right from day one, many of them not even from the military, saying I am against a foreign occupation, period, pure nationalist. Saddam obviously had his own plans for how to get some of his Ba'athists, or people who had some sort of control over, involved. Many people get involved because their house was raided, or a family member was killed or a tribe member was killed, because of course they have much broader links of solidarity than we. Any given person who is fighting with arms in Iraq may contain within himself (and of course it is overwhelmingly men) all of these possibilities, or reasons, or politics, and they all get merged together. 

One thing is you cannot distinguish the Islamist resistance from the nationalists, in a context where almost any Iraqi will tell you, look this is an assault upon Islam by a crusading force in Iraq. Islam is the obvious and natural language of resistance in Iraq. One of the things that the right deplores is this rise in Islamism, and they say we must stay to prevent the rise of Islamism, well excuse me, but it is a well known and historically documented idea that this sort of rise of religious extremism is a natural concomitant of occupation and domination by people of a foreign religion.

So a lot of these attempts to categorise who is doing what are very difficult. There are some broad analytical questions that you need to try and ask, but which are very difficult to answer. There are people committing pure acts of terrorism, simply going and killing a bunch of Shia civilians. These have very little direct support in terms of people saying this is what I want to do. Even the foreign fighters who come, and again there may be as few as 5% of the fighters from outside of Iraq (Not including the coalition forces, who are never described as foreign fighters). But even the foreign fighters who come, it stretches the imagination to think, even if they are being used as suicide bombers against civilians, that some guy sitting in Algeria thinks I really hate Iraqi Shias, and I am going to travel thousands of miles and put my life on the line to kill them. They come because Iraq is an historical centre of a great deal of Arab culture and civilisation that people look to as a representative of a zenith of Moslem power and culture and knowledge, and it is now under occupation by a crusader force. And of course then some people in Iraq make the switch on these people, they come in for that reason, and then they end up being essentially used. They are in a foreign country very disoriented and they get used in a sectarian war.

So that is one thing to consider, another thing to consider is that a lot of people say it is not up to us to criticise the tactics of the insurgency or the resistance, or whatever you want to call it. I think this is the wrong way to look at it. If you see pure terrorist tactics, I think they should be criticised. They certainly aren’t advancing any nationalist, anti-occupation cause. They are horrible and immoral, but the more important question in a sense is not the tactics but the strategy. You have to look first at the strategy: what are all these things in aid of? Every national, anti-colonial resistance has committed acts which could strictly be described as terrorism. The FLN did it in Algeria; the NLF did it in Vietnam. Most of the time, frankly, a lot of it was justified: they killed a lot of horribly oppressive politicians and local officials but they sometimes were not justified, and they were accommodating to the local tactical situation they were in.

In this case however, it is not that. And there are some who claim that Zaqarwi in particular has been trying to forestall the emergence of a unified, national, anti-occupation resistance. Obviously there is no unification; one thing to understand is that the anti-occupation fight is being carried almost purely by Sunni insurgents. There may be Shia working in some of those groups, but it is happening entirely in the Sunni areas. If you look at the pattern of attacks, there are basically no attacks on Coalition forces in the South, and none in the Kurdish areas in the North, although more and more in the highly Arabised semi-North, places like Mosul and Kirkuk. So it is very much a Sunni thing. The most important thing to understand about the Shia Mehdi Army is that they retain arms, and retain an anti-occupation focus but they have never, in my analysis, fought except when they were first attacked themselves, or when Moqtada Al Sadr himself was not in danger, or did not feel in danger. And he has a persecution complex – he believes that the United States is the new incarnation of Saddam, and will do to him what Saddam did to his father and grand uncle and several others. And so they have not fought unless they were attacked themselves.

So it is very much a Sunni resistance, and Zaqarwi is preventing it growing into anything else. 

It is clear to say that you cannot condone terrorist acts, and it is also clear to say that the sectarian warfare is not a good idea. In fact it holds far more dangers for Iraq than the occupation itself. Because one thing we now about occupations is they always end. Once the troops are gone, then even if everyone in Iraq hates the Americans the focus of hatred is gone, there is no one to fight any more. But sectarian warfare from people who live in Iraq is a potential permanent danger, and the dynamic is driving things towards that.

In terms of the attitude we adopt in general, I want to say two things.

First of all is that we should not try to over analyse the resistance, instead we should try to have a general sense, and uphold that there is a right of armed resistance against an occupying force, and that sometimes there will be things done that are wrong. And armed resistance should be self–correcting. Just like the United States, if it is in there illegally it can still abide by the Geneva Convention. Armed resistance should also be self-correcting in its worst atrocities and should start abiding by some rules of its own.

And frankly if they had the political sense to make a declaration, like the Zapatistas when they rose up: we are a national resistance and we will abide by the Geneva conventions, and we expect that the other forces will abide by them with respect to us. I think they would score an important propaganda point, and actually get a great deal of support.

And the other groups who are committing terrorism which is unacceptable or who are fighting a sectarian war, which is also unacceptable, condemning them is perhaps not the primary thing we should be doing, but it is not something we should support.

And second, and I think this is most important, our primary task in terms of the resistance and in terms of public opinion about the occupation is not to from a line, and say this is right and must be defended and this is wrong must not be defended; but to try and humanise the people who are doing it before the public. To try and explain how it is. The hardest things for the Americans, and for the British I think, is to put themselves in their shoes. You know we had 9/11 and there was a chance for Americans to say My God this is what happens to some people every day, they didn’t say that, instead they said we are victimised , we are the eternal victims and we will fight back and crush it.

To put them in the shoes of people who are constantly victimised, of people who are subject to different kind of oppression, demeaning and humiliation every day, who have interlocking and intersecting kinds of oppression every day. That is not something people can understand. Not only the legitimate armed resistance, but even some of the other people committing terror in Iraq are human beings too. They have understandable reasons for what they do. During the siege of Fallujah there was an Iraqi reporter who wrote a piece in the Washington Post and the Guardian, where he interviewed some of the real, genuine foreign fighters. They are all Islamic extremists, there is no doubt about it, but they are not all terrorists, they are not all people who just want to kill: some of them were actually people who felt by their rights they were moral and they had come to help the Iraqis, and gave their lives for that. Now you don’t condone their behaviour, but it is important to explain that these are human beings who acted according to understandable motives.

Right now it is easy for people, even in the anti-war movement to say, we look at the soldiers from Britain and the United States – they are doing awful things they are committing atrocities, they are torturing people, sometimes to gain intelligence, but sometimes out of pure frustration and anger. They are killing Iraqis sometimes simply because of racism or pure contempt, and not thinking that their lives are worth as much as those of an American or Brit. And we understand them and we say yes it is bad, we don’t condone but we understand that they are human beings and they are under all these pressures and these things are happening. We never try to do that ourselves for the people who are fighting back, let alone trying to project that. And I think in the long term we shouldn’t just be thinking of ending the occupation, but building a genuine understanding of imperialism and the effect it has. I think that human focus is one of the most important things we should be doing.




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