Imagining Iraq

March 30, 2003

IT IS TOO SOON to start debating the fortunes of war, in a military sense. The conflict has barely begun. American and British forces have driven deep into Iraq, have run into some resistance, have paused. More soldiers are on their way in. It's not at all clear whether this is a momentary catching of breath, or the edges of the bog.

But in just the first week, the nature of this war has revealed itself, and that's not likely to change. Iraqis have greeted American troops with what seems like studied ambiguity. They line up for aid distributions while chanting the praises of Saddam Hussein. Women by the roadside smile, and then spit. Some Iraqis have been greeting the Americans with open arms; others, with small arms.

This was intended as a stroke of liberation, but the intended beneficiaries don't always seem to see it that way. British forces have been sent in to secure the cities because of their long experience in Northern Ireland. But how many Catholics in Northern Ireland have spent the past 30 years thinking of the British Army as a liberating force? (Quite a few did, in the very beginning, but it didn't last.) British paratroopers are good at going after the hard men, and that's a valuable talent in a place like Iraq. But they don't win any hearts and minds in the process.

No. This is shaping up as a war between the United States and Britain on one side, and Iraq on the other. The Iraqi armed forces are overmatched and commanded by a despot little loved in his own country. Once the military tide begins flowing strongly against Saddam Hussein, ordinary Iraqis may yet turn on him. People under occupation - in all or part of Iraq - are likely to reach an accommodation with the foreign soldiers on their soil, because that's what people generally do. But this is the future in Iraq - an occupation.

When NATO forces poured into Kosovo in 1999, people bombarded them with flowers. Rose petals had a particular way of clinging to the coils of barbed wire on the back of personnel carriers. American planners in the months before this war broke out seemed to have that image in mind, and their policy was marked by a large dollop of wishful thinking.

Reality is already setting in, and it includes a large number of Iraqis who are willing to commit violent acts against U.S. and British forces, and probably an even larger number who offer them passive support. Military commanders, to their credit, are already adapting to this, recognizing that theirs is an invading army. How long will that Iraqi willingness to fight sustain itself? Will the Iraqi fedayeen prove as tenacious and crafty as, say, Chechen guerrillas? No one can be sure; the Pentagon better be thinking about it.

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