US miscalculation changes Saddam from devil to hero
Abdel Bari Atwan
Sunday March 30, 2003
President George Bush has at least one achievement to his credit in his war against Saddam Hussein. He has transformed Saddam into a heroic champion in the eyes of many in the region and might elevate his status into that of a mythological figure if he succeeds in killing or capturing more British and American soldiers and in turning Baghdad into an Arab and Islamic Stalingrad.
It is now clear that events are not going according to the plans prepared in Washington and London and that Saddam's strength and the Iraqi people's reaction to the war were misjudged. Saddam has outfoxed his enemies. He has managed to surprise all in Washington, London and Arab capitals with his ability to absorb the strikes of the first days of confrontation, to turn the psychological war directed against him into a source of self-confidence, and to manipulate America's overwhelming military superiority in his favour.
An Iraqi official told me that, while the British and Americans listened to inaccurate information supplied by the Iraqi opposition on the supposed weakness of the Iraqi regime and the great willingness of the population and army to rebel, Saddam and his military officers were busy studying the defence tactics adopted during the Second World War and Vietnam, and planning similar tactics to counter US strategies that were implemented in Afghanistan and in the first Gulf war in 1991.
Saddam is betting on prolonging the war and on being aided both by weather and a shift in world opinion to his benefit.
The timing of the launch of the war has worked in his favour. The past five days have witnessed sandstorms that have impeded the allied troops' progress towards Baghdad, while recent plentiful agricultural crops have protected Iraqis from hunger.
The coming months will bring a rise in temperatures that can reach 50C. Underneath American and British combat gear and chemical and biological weapons masks, the temperatures may well reach 70C, and this will restrict the troops' ability to fight. Increasing the number of American troops by an additional 100,000 soldiers will be presented by Saddam to his people and to the Arab and Islamic worlds as proof of his victory.
Perhaps the most outstanding of Saddam's psychological and moral victories has been the shift in his image from evil tyrant to hero in both the Arab and Muslim worlds. His picture and his country's flag are now raised in the region's capitals in demonstrations to support him.
Saddam sees his steadfastness as a victory and believes his chances of survival to have improved significantly since the beginning of the war. Shia clerics in Najaf, Beirut and Qum in Iran have all issued fatwas prohibiting co-operation with British and American forces, which they describe as acts of treason. The fatwas also regard actively fighting the allied forces as a moral and religious duty. In practical terms, this will prevent a split in the ranks of the Iraqi military and prevent the mass surrender of troops.
The fatwas will also guarantee against the revolt of the Shias of Iraq, who have been considered so far as Saddam's most dedicated enemies, and will mean that the Shias will not dance in the streets at the sight of American troops.
The allies committed a dangerous mistake when they relied on information supplied by the Iraqi opposition regarding the state of affairs within Iraq.
They made an even bigger mistake when they spoke of installing a US military governor over Iraq, as this will serve only to stir up patriotic feelings among Iraqis and encourage them to bury their differences with Saddam and unite forces to repel an American occupation. Raising the American flag over Umm Qasr, albeit only briefly, convinced Iraqis that the war was one of occupation and not liberation.
All evidence points to the frightening possibility that a post-Saddam Iraq will not be a model of stability and security, but a country ruled by chaos. The allied forces have allowed Turkish troops to enter Iraq from the north and the Kurds of northern Iraq might see this as a betrayal on the part of the US. The Kurds were let down twice before by the Americans; a third time might push some of the Kurds into supporting Saddam and fighting the Turks and Americans together.
Saddam's increased popularity in the Arab world might encourage volunteers from neighbouring Arab countries to steal through the borders to fight alongside the Iraqi militias, as happened during the Afghan war against Russia. Perhaps the most dangerous outcome of the war on Iraq would be the possibility of al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, relocating to Iraq if the country descends into pandemonium after the fall of its central government. There is convincing evidence that dozens of Islamic radical volunteers from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries sympathetic to al-Qaeda and bin Laden have begun entering Iraq through its borders with Syria, Iran and Jordan.
The post-Saddam war in Iraq might be even more difficult than the present one and incur heavier damage. The overthrow of Saddam could turn all Iraqis and Arabs against the US and Britain, and subject the allies to a long and bloody war.
The Iraqi victories thus far, though small, have given Iraqis and Arabs a great moral boost and have helped to restore the sense of dignity they lost when they were defeated in their wars with Israel and with the US during the 1991 Gulf war. They have also succeeded in forging a historical marriage between the secularism of Saddam's regime and the fundamentalism of bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
· Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the London-based Arab newspaper, al Quds