Four Million Dead or Displaced

The fall guy in Iraq
By Pepe Escobar

The Bush administration has perfected the art of fall-guy selection. The more convoluted the plot, the more credible the fall guy must be. As Lewis “Scooter” Libby was the fall guy in Washington, Premier Nuri al-Maliki will be the fall guy in Baghdad.

The Baghdad conference on Saturday was a derivative talk-fest setting up three committees to prepare the way for another meeting at the foreign-minister level next month in Istanbul. The subtext, though never explicit, is more glaring: it is the absolute

US impotence to guarantee security or stability in Iraq, and the desperate search for a way out, now pitting the “axis of fear” (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates) against the “axis of evil” (Iran and Syria).

The spiraling equation in Iraq is stark. The more that a lone Sunni Arab mujahid with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher can take down a US$25 million Apache helicopter, the more Pentagon counterinsurgency tactics will include “surgical strikes” with minimal “collateral damage” on occupied civilians.

The more President George W Bush displays brute force in the non-stop surge, and the more Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army lies low, even in a monster slum like Sadr City (whose “street” name is Madinat al-Thawra, “City of the Revolution”), and the more Sunni guerrillas wreak havoc over unprotected Shi’ites (114 dead and more than 150 wounded pilgrims to Karbala last Tuesday; 31 pilgrims coming back from Karbala on Sunday – the day after the Baghdad conference).

The everyday safety of scores of Shi’ites used to be guaranteed by the Mehdi Army. The Jaish al-Mehdi’s main tasks are socio-economic, with a heavy focus on education and charity, but they also involve security, most of all in impoverished Baghdad. The Mehdi Army was already splintered into at least three factions. But now, as a consequence of the surge, neighborhood associations as well as commanders not totally faithful to Muqtada have decided not to lie low anymore – and in effect to reorganize Shi’ite civilian defense.

If a US Army base, rather a Fort Apache, is set up in the “City of the Revolution” – as is taken for granted in Baghdad – it won’t fall in the short term. But it will fall eventually – when the Mehdi Army totally unmelts from the civilian population. For the moment, the US Cavalry is bombing their houses (in Karbala) or raiding them (in Najaf) just to find nothing.

Munthir al-Kewther, born in Najaf, holding a PhD in Islamic philosophy from Kufa University and currently dean of a Dutch journalism faculty, has been adamant in denouncing a systematic US assassination spree targeting key Mehdi Army and Sadrist leaders. The best example, according to Dr Kewther, “was the assassination last December of Sahib al-Ameri in front of his wife and children in his house in Najaf. Al-Ameri was the secretary general of the Shahidollah Institute, a charitable organization that helps poor and displaced people. He had no connections whatsoever to the Mehdi Army” (see The Sadr movement ‘will eventually triumph’, Asia Times Online, March 7).

This fits in a much bigger picture – the apocalyptic devastation of a whole country directly or indirectly engineered by the Bush administration. No fewer than 4 million Iraqis have been killed directly or indirectly, or been forced into exile.

The more the surge expands, the more Iraq dissolves into a horrific degree zero of culture – as in the bombing of al-Mutanabbi, Baghdad’s great book street named after a poet of the Abassid era. And this happened after the massacre of students at Mustansiriya University, older than the Sorbonne. Even books in Iraq “are being assassinated”, a librarian told pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, comparing the tragedy to the destruction of the library of Baghdad by the Mongol hordes of Hulagu, Genghis Khan’s grandson, in the 13th century. In the words of Hodja Ali, the owner of the ultra-atmospheric Chahbandar cafe – where writers, poets and journalists used to gather – the street was the embodiment of “conscience opposed to violence”.

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