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Echoes of a War: Book Reviews of “In The Belly Of The Green Bird” and “The American Military Adventure in Iraq”

A.K Gupta Oct 12, 2006

When history looks back on the Iraq War, the greatest tragedy may be the failure of Sunnis and Shia to forge a national resistance against the U.S. occupation. If the tactically adept Sunni Arab resistance, based mainly in Baghdad and western Iraq, had been able to combine forces with religious Shia groups in the South that are anti-imperialist but lack military training, then the occupation might have become untenable.

The Achilles’ heel of the U.S. war is its supply lines. Patrick Lang, a military analyst, recently noted, “All but a small amount of our soldiers’ supplies… pass through the Shiitedominated south of Iraq.” The roads have remained largely unmolested, but a tenacious insurgency could turn them into a “shooting gallery” more than 400 miles long.

This is not just an abstract fear. Thomas Ricks writes in Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq that in April 2004 U.S. commanders were so worried about their supply lines that they ordered the Green Zone to go on food rationing and “thought they’d have to evacuate Baghdad.”

While the U.S. military is bogged down and bloodied, the resistance, fragmented largely along religious lines, has been unable to dislodge it and has instead helped plunge Iraq into a civil war. Internecine warfare is a theme central to Nir Rosen’s In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq.

Arriving days after the fall of Baghdad, Rosen’s reporting from the mosque, street and marketplace illuminates the forces unleashed by the toppling of Iraq’s regime. All “that remained was the mosque. Old authorities were destroyed and angry young clerics replaced them, arrogating to themselves the power to represent, to mobilize, to govern.”

While it was Sunni Arabs who first picked up the gun, it was Shia clerics who denounced the occupation most harshly and demanded an Islamic state. It wasn’t just Moqtada al-Sadr, the scion of the revered Sadr family. Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who has been trying to form a breakaway oil-rich region in the South that he and his party would control, took an oppositional stance at first: “There are no more excuses for the U.S. presence and it is not accepted by the Iraqi people.”

Another, Sheikh Muhammad a l -Yaqubi (later a self-anointed Ayatollah), held a conference during the first month of the occupation in Najaf to found his Fudala party, at which he announced, “We are at war with the West… represented by American imperialism.”

As for Moqtada al-Sadr, Rosen notes his fondness for street slang, unusual for a Shia cleric, that was a mark of his appeal, underestimated by both the United States and Shia establishment: “No other leader in Iraq had such a personal relationship with his followers.”

Sunni clergy, meanwhile, counseled restraint at first. There is little evidence to support the idea that Hussein’s regime planned the insurgency. During a six-week period from April to May of 2003, only five U.S. troops were killed by hostile fire. The Pentagon itself concluded in The Iraqi Perspectives Report (2006, Naval Institute Press) that “there were no national plans to embark on a guerrilla war in the event of military defeat.”

It was a heavy-handed occupation – house raids, mass arrests, checkpoint killings – that sparked the resistance. The fuel was throwing hundreds of thousands of bread-winners out of work by disbanding the army and issuing a blanket de-Baathification.

By the spring of 2004, Rosen argues, Sunnis and Shia “hated each other.” This is at odds with the standard history that the national resistance peaked in April after the first U.S. attack on Fallujah coincided with the uprising of the Mahdi Army. Rosen may be right that sectarianism was growing, but his analysis would have benefited from specific evidence instead of generalities like “Sunni and Shia newspapers grew more brazen in their attacks on each other,” and “Mosques were attacked every night and clerics killed, leading to retaliations against the opposite sect.” Interestingly, his initial reporting, which is more extensive than the book and is available through the Asia Times website, was more sanguine about Sunni-Shia solidarity at the time.

Like Rosen, Thomas Ricks speculates on a potential civil war and breakup. Curiously, Ricks ends his book by imagining a “worst-case scenario:” a new Saladin, someone who unites not just Iraq but the Arab world “combining popular support with huge oil revenues” and potentially nuclear weapons.

It’s a feverish fantasy that defies the modern history of the Middle East and points to the failings of a book that is at times masterful. Fiasco is an impressive tome, marshalling reams of evidence and hundreds of interviews with U.S. military and political figures to describe an ideological crusade that has ended in disaster. But for all its rich detail it repeatedly misses the broader historical context and has almost nothing to say about regional politics, the reconstruction disaster or the role of petro-politics in the invasion and occupation.

Ricks’ work is full of gems, like the fact that Rumsfeld, to prove his new military doctrine that speed, information and high-tech weapons could largely replace ground forces, wanted to launch the invasion with a minuscule 10,000 troops. What he doesn’t discuss is that the desire to launch an invasion-lite was probably linked to Bush administration plans to keep the juggernaut rolling into Syria and Iran.

At times his narrative takes ludicrous turns, setting up monumental decisions as a clash between villains and heroes. The first villain we meet is Paul Wolfowitz. Ricks would have us believe that an undersecretary with a few allies on Cheney’s staff was able to push the United States to war with Iraq. (The hero in this case is Gen. Anthony Zinni, who oversaw a four-day bombing campaign of Iraq in 1998.)

Later in the book he suggests that Ahmed Chalabi maneuvered Paul Bremer into dissolving the Iraqi army and de-Baathifying the state. Ricks doesn’t consider that there were a lot of other political and economic interests eager to see the old order swept out.

He is insightful with the details – invaluable interpreters being used “to buy chickens and soft drinks” for troops or U.S. trainers so distrustful of their Iraqi charges they carry “loaded pistols at a graduation ceremony in case of a mutiny” – while often missing the historical picture.

He recognizes that Abu Ghraib was symptomatic of a larger problem with the whole U.S. prison system in Iraq but falls back on platitudes that the United States has a “proud heritage of treating its prisoners better than most” – something patently untrue about the U.S. treatment of POWs during the Vietnam War.

Again and again he suggests the biggest problem was a lack of U.S. troops, and only occasionally acknowledges that perhaps it was their presence and actions that were stoking the resistance. While Fiasco has it flaws, like In the Belly of the Green Bird it is a welcome contribution to the growing body of literature of a war that will reverberate for decades to come.