Thursday, 30 October 2003

One, two, three, what are they fighting for?

The worst problem facing US forces in Iraq may not be armed resistance but a crisis of morale. Robert Fisk reports on a near-epidemic of indiscipline, suicides and loose talk

by Robert Fisk


click here to visit his website I was in the police station in the town of Fallujah when I realised the extent of the schizophrenia. Captain Christopher Cirino of the 82nd Airborne was trying to explain to me the nature of the attacks so regularly carried out against American forces in the Sunni Muslim Iraqi town. His men were billeted in a former presidential rest home down the road - "Dreamland", the Americans call it - but this was not the extent of his soldiers' disorientation. "The men we are being attacked by," he said, "are Syrian-trained terrorists and local freedom fighters." Come again? "Freedom fighters." But that's what Captain Cirino called them - and rightly so.

Here's the reason. All American soldiers are supposed to believe - indeed have to believe, along with their President and his Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld - that Osama bin Laden's "al-Qa'ida" guerrillas, pouring over Iraq's borders from Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia (note how those close allies and neighbours of Iraq, Kuwait and Turkey are always left out of the equation), are assaulting United States forces as part of the "war on terror". Special forces soldiers are now being told by their officers that the "war on terror" has been transferred from America to Iraq, as if in some miraculous way, 11 September 2001 is now Iraq 2003. Note too how the Americans always leave the Iraqis out of the culpability bracket - unless they can be described as "Baath party remnants", "diehards" or "deadenders" by the US proconsul, Paul Bremer.

Captain Cirino's problem, of course, is that he knows part of the truth. Ordinary Iraqis - many of them long-term enemies of Saddam Hussein - are attacking the American occupation army 35 times a day in the Baghdad area alone. And Captain Cirino works in Fallujah's local police station, where America's newly hired Iraqi policemen are the brothers and uncles and - no doubt - fathers of some of those now waging guerrilla war against American soldiers in Fallujah. Some of them, I suspect, are indeed themselves the "terrorists". So if he calls the bad guys "terrorists", the local cops - his first line of defence - would be very angry indeed.

No wonder morale is low. No wonder the American soldiers I meet on the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities don't mince their words about their own government. US troops have been given orders not to bad-mouth their President or Secretary of Defence in front of Iraqis or reporters (who have about the same status in the eyes of the occupation authorities). But when I suggested to a group of US military police near Abu Ghurayb they would be voting Republican at the next election, they fell about laughing. "We shouldn't be here and we should never have been sent here," one of them told me with astonishing candour. "And maybe you can tell me: why were we sent here?"

Little wonder, then, that Stars and Stripes, the American military's own newspaper, reported this month that one third of the soldiers in Iraq suffered from low morale. And is it any wonder, that being the case, that US forces in Iraq are shooting down the innocent, kicking and brutalising prisoners, trashing homes and - eyewitness testimony is coming from hundreds of Iraqis - stealing money from houses they are raiding? No, this is not Vietnam - where the Americans sometimes lost 3,000 men in a month - nor is the US army in Iraq turning into a rabble. Not yet. And they remain light years away from the butchery of Saddam's henchmen. But human-rights monitors, civilian occupation officials and journalists - not to mention Iraqis themselves - are increasingly appalled at the behaviour of the American military occupiers.

Iraqis who fail to see US military checkpoints, who overtake convoys under attack - or who merely pass the scene of an American raid - are being gunned down with abandon. US official "inquiries" into these killings routinely result in either silence or claims that the soldiers "obeyed their rules of engagement" - rules that the Americans will not disclose to the public.

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