Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Iraq, a living wound for Muslims, still presages disaster

By Salim Lone

Before Iraq had unraveled, Tony Blair last November delivered one of his most impassioned defences of the war at the Lord Mayor's banquet, hoping to undercut domestic critics before President Bush's state visit. Iraq, he said, was "the battle of seminal importance for the early 21st century. It will define relations between the Muslim world and the West. It will influence profoundly the development of Arab States and the Middle East."

The Prime Minister had it exactly right, except he was a decade late in understanding the centrality of Iraq in the current world order - yet another reflection of how little those who decided to wage war in 2003 understood the region. It was in fact the first Gulf war in 1991, waged ironically with the strong urging of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which was "the battle of seminal importance" and which directly gave rise to the age of global terror as we now know it, beginning with the first World Trade Centre bombing in 1993.

To say this is in no way to underestimate the impact of the current Iraq war and occupation, which have made the US a reviled power in the Arab and Muslim world, created powerful new hatreds globally and driven thousands of new terrorist recruits to the anti-US battle. It was the fear of precisely this outcome which had led most of the world to clamorously oppose this war, but everyone now feels powerless to influence the US in the face of its determination to "stay the course."

But blaming President Bush for this sorry mess is an unfair, and ultimately short-sighted, view if we are to ever set about healing the ever-deepening cleavages between Muslims and the west. The groundwork for the current crisis was in fact laid by the first President Bush and his European and Arab partners who in 1990 had gone along with his decision to mete out severe punishment to Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. Many had warned there would be unprecedented Muslim fury and violence if Iraq was attacked, since the United Nations had never before approved the use of force to counter an invasion. More importantly, Israel had for years been allowed to occupy Palestine and parts of Syria and Lebanon with impunity. The UN's approval for the war generated intense Arab hostility towards the UN, which Boutros-Ghalis's selection as Secretary General partly but temporarily alleviated.

But the US, wanting to send the message that as the now sole superpower it would not hesitate to use force in the Middle East to advance its interests, was not to be deterred, and prosecuted the war ruthlessly. Then UN Under-Secretary-General and later Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari told the General Assembly after visiting Iraq that "nothing we had seen or read had quite prepared us for this particular form of devastation. The conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results and most means of modern life have been destroyed." Worse was to follow, with the most punitive sanctions in modern history ravaging Iraqi society, and claiming the lives of at least half a million children, the latter carnage immortalized in Clinton administration cabinet member Madeline Albright's telling Leslie Stahl in a 60 Minutes interview that US strategic interests could possibly justify that price. And the American troop presence in Saudi Arabia was unleashing fatwas describing them as desecrating holy soil.

There was glee in the nascent neoconservative movement when predicted upheavals in Arab countries failed to materialize, but no one cared to see the more seminally destructive phenomenon unfolding: the profound alienation developing among Muslims world-wide, which would facilitate the establishment of a vast terrorist network.

In a reprise, the US again seems to be focused on its ideological and force-driven agenda with no discussions on how to arrest the exponential growth of anti-western sentiment, confident in the ability of its raw power to prevent what could be an even more cataclysmic replay of the 9/11 scenario.

There is no graver challenge the world faces than stemming the growth of terrorism practiced by aggrieved Muslims. The rise of such militancy is driven by specific US policies and cannot be glossed over with incendiary, self-righteous assertions that "they" hate western freedoms and are inherently barbaric and uncivilized. Beheading the innocent is indeed so, but so is the killing of over 600 innocent Fallujans in a week of aerial bombing and the death of 500,000 children through sanctions.

The depth of this anti-US animus is recent. Muslims and Arabs gravitated towards the US for decades until the 1980s, and the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan sought American support. But with even the most moderate Muslims now seeing the US as bent on crushing them, the reforms the Islamic world is aching for will remain a mirage.

Terrorism will only be curbed when Muslims themselves forcefully challenge it. But that will not happen unless the US addresses the many legitimate grievances that drive young men to terror. Merely rolling back the excessively aggressive Bush administration policies will not be sufficient to win Muslim trust; many more far-reaching changes than are part of current American, and indeed western, political discourse are needed.

In the quest for winning Muslim support, justice for the long-serving Palestinians remains a vital priority, but it is Iraq which has for millions replaced Palestine as the touchstone of Muslim pain over the last 14 years. Despite the current western demonization of its entire Ba'athist history, Iraq was the pride of Muslims not only for its storied past in providing a civilizing model for the world and for its many holy sites but also for having achieved levels of development, secularism and equality (including for women) still unknown in any Middle East nation. Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, his brutality against the Kurds and other opponents, and the unprovoked invasion of Iran posed no problems for the west, until he invaded Kuwait.

The unprecedented devastations visited upon Iraq's people twice in 12 years have made it a compelling, living wound for Muslims. Unless there is peace there, world instability will grow. But there is seemingly no end to the trauma in sight as the US-appointed government seems determined to intensify the occupation's heavy reliance on the use of force. Prime Minister Allawi now has the right to declare emergency rule and he has already indicated a possible delay in elections, while his defence minister astonishingly threatens "to cut off their [insurgents'] hands and behead them." So this is what the glorious drive to bring democracy to Iraq was all about: the installation of a new Iraqi dictatorship -but one that it is "ours."

All of us will pay the price.

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Salim Lone writes on Muslim relations with the West. His last assignment with the United Nations was as Director of Communications for the UN mission in Iraq headed by the late Sergio Vieira de Mello last year. A shorter version of this piece, titled "Iraq is now another Palestine", appeared in UK's Guardian newspaper on 7 July 2004

Courtesy - http://electroniciraq.net/news/1570.shtml


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