Iraq’s Forgotten War

A.K. Gupta Jun 9, 2006

It was the type of incident that garners little attention anymore. On May 20, in the Western Iraq town of Husaybah, a police officer in uniform detonated a suicide vest in front of a new police station, killing five cops and injuring 10.

The episode was a footnote to Iraq’s daily carnage; the sole mainstream media account was one line in an AP report. But in many ways the Husaybah attack reveals even more about the U.S. occupation than the atrocity du jour: the documented massacre of civilians in Haditha.

Husaybah and the surrounding Al Qaim region, which borders on Syria, are Iraq’s forgotten war. Like Haditha, the towns and villages of Al Qaim are located in the resistance’s heartland, Al Anbar Province. The suicide bombing showed how more than three years after the invasion, the U.S. government is still pursuing a military solution to a political conflict, stoking the very insurgency it’s trying to quash.

The U.S. strategy in Al Anbar is to depopulate urban areas and turn them into “freefire zones.” Many of the province’s cities and towns have become synonymous with 20th century war crimes: Fallujah is Iraq’s Guernica; Ramadi, a bomb-blasted Grozny; and Haditha, My Lai. Al Qaim, meanwhile, is a laboratory of counterinsurgency warfare marked by urban warfare, collective punishment, large-scale roundups, massive displacement and deadly militias, all of which culminated in a “mini-Fallujah” last November, within days of the Haditha massacre that took place Nov. 19.

On the eve of the attack on Husaybah and the rest of Al Qaim, codenamed “Operation Steel Curtain,” Lindsey Hilsum of the New Statesman described the area around the U.S. base as “a wasteland of broken buildings,” and observed “the marines will destroy much Husaybah, as they did Fallujah, in order to kill or drive out the insurgents and consolidate U.S. control.”

When the attack came, some 90 percent of the town’s estimated 50,000 residents had long since fled. The region had been subjected to a wave of U.S. assaults in 2005 – eight from February to June alone. By November, the anger was widespread among Iraqis. Omar Obaidi, who fled Husaybah with his family during the assault by 2,500 U.S. troops, told the Washington Post, “Let Bush see how he created a generation that hates the Americans.”

How did the U.S. military spawn such hatred, not just in Husaybah but throughout much of Iraq? Answers can be found from the first months of the occupation in Al Qaim, in a revealing five-part series by journalist Nir Rosen and published in October 2003.

Rosen spoke to Ayman Aftam, a customs office manager in Husaybah, about the American soldiers: “‘They are occupying forces. We haven’t seen anything good from them, only an occupation.’ He conceals his resentment from the American soldiers he cooperates with, but in Arabic he demands, ‘Why do they come with their Bradleys in front of our houses, and put their boots on our people’s heads? Why don’t they wave back when our children wave to them? They just keep their guns pointed at us.’”

The same issues come up repeatedly: humiliations, searches, curfews and killings with impunity. Rosen writes of a man who is shot to death solely because he was spotted on a Jawa motorcycle. The model is often used by resistance fighters, but it was also “available in every market in Iraq that sold scooters and motorcycles.”

While going out with troops on a “decapitation raid,” Rosen describes tanks breaking through walls, sledgehammers busting down doors, houses being ransacked, and any and all men present being arrested, not just “high-value targets” on a list (derived from questionable intelligence).

U.S. troops were aware of the enmity they were creating. Surveying the “high number of prisoners” taken in the raid, one non-commissioned officer wondered if “we just made another 300 people hate us.”

Even the commander of the regiment Rosen embedded with recognized that it was the occupation – not tribalism, not Al Qaeda, not Saddam loyalists – that fueled the resistance. Lt. Col. Greg Reilly said, “No culture likes to have an army in their neighborhood. If the Chinese occupied the U.S. we would react the same way, we would hate them too.”

In November 2003, the U.S.-appointed mayor told a Voice of America reporter, “Of course, there is action and reaction… many people are arrested. Many families have lost a son. Some people have been killed by a mistake.”

This was the beginning of the end for the occupation. By the spring of 2004 the attacks began to take a toll, with at least nine U.S. soldiers being killed. This set off the inevitable reaction of harsher tactics and a fiercer resistance.

The Iraq War is a classic counterinsurgency, with U.S. forces trying to depopulate civilian areas, while guerrillas respond by shifting their operations. By last November, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society “said it was caring for 12,000 people who had fled the towns close to the Syrian border.”

After being re-occupied, Husaybah residents Said there had been “no food here for four months and there is no electricity.” The denial of services went hand-in-hand with destruction of commerce. U.S. troops shut down the border crossing with Syria in November 2004 and they destroyed a bridge in August 2005 over the Euphrates that connected the town. Both are still out of operation. The excuse was to hamper foreign fighters and Al Qaeda elements said to be active there.

Few were to be found, however. Days after the operation kicked off on Nov. 5, Time Magazine reported that of “200 men detained, only one was a foreigner: a Kuwaiti.”

Turning conquered areas over to Iraqi forces is the centerpiece of the Pentagon’s “inkpot strategy” to use U.S. troops to “clear, hold and build” guerrilla hotbeds and move on after six to 12 months. Six months after U.S. troops retook Husaybah, a May 24 report in the military daily Stars and Stripes noted that the Iraqi police have yet to begin patrolling. They have no vehicles, and another report states they are not even being paid.

There is no sign that the GIs will leave anytime soon.

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