ANKARA - Almost four months have passed since the conclusion of the "big" battles in Iraq, and the start of small, exhausting skirmishes. What appeared at first to be a tremendous show of American and British might, a conclusive blow which toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, is liable to become a foray into a lethal beehive, which waited for its prey to come. There is a constellation of powerful forces in Iraq: Shi'ites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Turkmen, and various other tribal, religious and secular leaders, who all want a piece of the country, present and future. Their ambitions are fairly well-known: they want a democratic, independent Iraq which enjoys economic prosperity due to its huge reserves of oil (the second largest in the world).
"The problem isn't strategy: it's tactics.... Responses in neighborhoods in Baghdad and Basra to the daily indignities [caused by American soldiers], to the vulgarity and humiliation, are liable to damage the most enlightened, prudent strategy." The Turkish government official who made this statement brought up several examples of mistaken tactics, which instantly evoke a well-known analogy.
Last week, an American helicopter uprooted a Shi'ite flag from a high antenna in a Baghdad neighborhood. What the helicopter pilot intended remains unclear. In any case, the response on the street was a stormy demonstration in which one person was killed, and several were injured. The Shi'ites demanded an apology and compensation; the Americans admitted they made a mistake.
Two weeks earlier, the head of an important Iraqi tribe was detained at a U.S. roadblock, and a woman soldier conducted a body search in front of his fellow tribesmen. The response: a public outcry from the elders of all the tribes whose cooperation the Americans covet.
Soldiers walk around the streets aiming their rifles at pedestrians. Sometimes women are searched by male soldiers who make vulgar jokes.
"There is total ignorance about Iraqi culture among the soldiers," said the Turkish government official. "In many cases, the soldiers don't even know where they are, what city they're next to, what distinguishes Shi'ites from Sunnis, how women are to be treated, or what they're supposed to look for."
The Americans look ugly not only to Iraqis. Three weeks ago, U.S. soldiers arrested a group of 11 Turkish soldiers in Sulaymaniyah, in Northern Iraq, on suspicion that they intended to kill the governor of Kirkuk. The incident threatened to disrupt relations between Turkey and the U.S., and it ignited a huge storm of protests in Turkey.
"This was an act of personal revenge, and nothing else," the Turkish government official said. "The American soldiers who detained the Turks were ones who waited for a long time before the war on the Mediterranean Sea, and were later transferred to Rumania in the hope that the Turkish government would agree to let American troops pass through Turkey. These are frustrated soldiers who nursed anger. How can you wage a serious war when personal grievances govern the army's behavior? How can you allow a solitary soldier at a roadblock or on a patrol to set policies which influence America's status in Iraq?"
"Mutual hatred between the Americans and Iraqis is starting to develop in an almost natural fashion, and it exacts a price each day. Soldiers are being killed, and the day of Iraq's liberation seems far away," the Turkish official continued. "We know in our ministries how to plan major moves, but reality changes every minute in Iraq." Out of nowhere, it seems, Al-Qaida operatives turn up, or groups from the fundamentalist Ansar Al-Islam group penetrate regions in Iraq; also, Iranian operatives are setting up support cells in southern Iraq, and various hoodlums control entire regions and branches of trade in Baghdad. Each group cites some sort of rationale: they purport to be fighting against the American conquest, and when large population clusters in cities have no access to American-backed forces, they depend on the support of local strongmen.
Saddam Hussein's responsibility for the tragedy of Iraq is eroding rapidly. Saddam is being replaced by the American soldier, who is viewed by a large segment of the population as being to blame for the evolving chaos. While Iraqi citizens pay the price for this renewed tragedy, America's Middle East strategy now faces its greatest test.
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