Z Magazine Book Reviews
Z Magazine November 2006
In the Belly of the Green Bird
The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq
By Nir Rosen
Free Press, 2006, 288 pp.
Al Zarqawi and the New Generation
By Loretta Napoleoni
Seven Stories Press, 2005, 288 pp.
The American Military Adventure in Iraq
By Thomas E. Ricks
Penguin Press, 2006, 496 pp.
The Age of War
The United States Confronts the World
By Gabriel Kolko
Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006, 199 pp.
Reviews by A.K. Gupta
When history looks back on the Iraq war, the greatest tragedy might have
been the inability of Sunni and Shia groups to unite early on against the
U.S. occupation. If the tactically adept Sunni Arab resistance, based
mainly in 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
pass through the Shiite-dominated 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. Other
supply routes such as through northern or western Iraqare far more
dangerous and lack the needed storage infrastructure while aerial
transport is incapable of sating the gargantuan appetite for supplies.
This is not just an abstract fear. At one point in April 2004, as noted
by Thomas Ricks in Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, U.S.
commanders were so worried about their supply lines that they ordered the
Green Zone to go on food rationing and thought theyd have to evacuate
The failure to forge a national resistance has allowed the U.S. military
to sustain the occupation and simultaneously helped plunge Iraq into a
civil war. While the U.S. occupation, obviously, benefits from the
discord, so do some actively fighting the U.S. presence.
Internecine warfare in Iraq is a theme central to two recent works: In
the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq by Nir
Rosen and Insurgent Iraq: Al Zarqawi and the New Generation by Loretta
Born of an Iranian father and speaking Iraqi-accented Arabic, Rosen was
able to blend into Iraqi society better than any other U.S. reporter. He
arrives in Baghdad days after it fell on April 9, 2003. The orthodox
history states that it was U.S. decisions during this periodnot to stop
looting, to delay forming a government, to disband Iraqi security forces,
and to engage in de-Baathificationthat created the insurgency.
This is only half the story, however. Iraqis were not just objects to be
acted upon, but actors in their own right. Rosens reporting from the
mosque, street, and marketplace illuminates the forces unleashed after
the toppling of Iraqs 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 and demanded an Islamic state. It wasnt
just Moqtada al-Sadr, the scion of the revered Sadr family. Abdel Aziz
al-Hakim, who is currently 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 al-Yaqubi (later a self-anointed Ayatollah),
held a conference during the first month of the occupation in Najaf for
the founding of his Fudala party where he announced, We are at war with
represented by American imperialism. While Yaqubi is a
follower of Sadrs martyred father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, his
forces have clashed with Sadrs Mahdi Army in the south and he opposes
Hakims push for a nineprovince autonomous region in southern Iraq,
underlining the complex and deadly politics of the new Iraq.
As for Moqtada al-Sadr, he capitalized on his fathers network of
mosques and social services, which gave him a leg up in the post-war
chaos, looting, and collapse of social services. Rosen notes his fondness
for street slang, unusual for a Shia clergy, that was a mark of his broad
appeal, underestimated by both the United States and Shia establishment:
No other leader in Iraq had such a personal relationship with his
Sunni clergy, meanwhile, counseled restraint at first, and for the first
two months there is little evidence of a coordinated resistance. During a
six-week period from April to May 2003, only five U.S. troops were killed
by hostile fire. This undercuts the argument that Husseins regime
planned the insurgency. The Pentagon 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 occupationhouse raids, mass arrests, checkpoint
killingsthat provided the spark. The fuel was throwing hundreds of
thousands of breadwinners out of work by disbanding the army and issuing
a blanket deBaathification.
What followed was predictable. Resistance attacks led to harsher
counter-insurgency tactics that alienated more Iraqis. Some of Rosens
most valuable work centers on his reporting from the Al Qaim region
bordering Syria. There he embeds with U.S. troops and rides along for a
raid meant to roll up resistance cells in the area. Instead, he watches
as tanks smash through walls, families are terrorized, and over 100 men
are rounded up, barely 20 percent of whom are on a target list that he
At times, U.S. troops recognized that their tactics were
counterproductive. One sergeant, observing the prisoners in Al Qaim,
wondered, if We just made another three hundred people hate us. A
captain asked how he would feel if someone is breaking down my door. A
lieutenant-colonel said, If the Chinese occupied the U.S
we would hate
By the spring of 2004, Rosen argues, Sunnis and Shia hated each other.
This is also 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 well be right
that sectarianism was bubbling up even as public solidarity peaked, 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, much of which is more extensive
than the book and is available through the Asia Times website, is much
more sanguine about Sunni-Shia solidarity.
In Fallujah during the summer of 2004, Rosen finds a city run by the
Iraqi resistance, divided against itself. The U.S. bombing makes the
city a symbol in the Arab world, drawing in many different resistance
groups. But one local described the result as the rule of gangs and
mafias and the Taliban. The local leadership tries to exert control, at
one point expelling about 25 fighters from other countries. But the die
is cast. It is at this time that the United States begins spreading the
myth of Abu Musab al Zarqawi as the ruler of Fallujah and the resistance
as a whole.
Dissecting the myth of Zarqawi is the subject of Napoleonis work,
Insurgent Iraq, which is an invaluable contribution. This book will make
some antiwar activists uncomfortable, particularly those who think
Zarqawi never even existed (an opinion Ive encountered frequently).
Napoleoni makes clear that Zarqawi and his ideology of revolutionary
jihad was very real, but that, There are hundreds of men like al Zarqawi
among the jihadists, committed fighters with leadership qualities.
Zarqawi was singled out by the U.S. because, There was a need to create
a connection between the Saddam regime and terrorism and al Qaeda in
particular. Thus, The Americans themselves transformed a minor jihadist
leader into a figure of global importance.
Zarqawi did not just fall from the sky. Napoleoni and Rosen both provide
critical historical context. The defeat of the PLO during Black
September in Jordan in 1970 was followed by King Hussein rewarding the
Muslim Brotherhood, which backed him, with the Education Ministry. This
shaped an entire generation of youngsters, preparing the way for
radical Islamist groups a decade later, writes Napoleoni.
After the Gulf War in 1991, notes Rosen, many of the nearly 300,000
Palestinians expelled from Kuwait found their way to Al Zarqa, Zarqawis
home town. Many were Salafi Muslims, meaning those who want to return to
the time of the Prophet and live as his companions did.
A similar process occurred in Iraq, according to Napoleoni. Throughout
the 1990s, modern Salafism swept Iraq thanks to the process of
Islamization launched by Saddam. She extends the analysis to note how
jihadists operate with a timeless frame of reference. For them,
historical forces are essentially static. Iraqi Salafis, for example,
justify their armed opposition to U.S. forces because they are the new
Mongols, like those who sacked Baghdad in 1258. (The jihadis also
possess a Manichean world view that finds a kindred spirit in the
Christian Right, as described in the works of Ester Kaplan and Michelle
Napoleoni argues convincingly that Zarqawi targeted the Shia on religious
grounds but won over many Baath loyalists as well as
Islamo-nationalists on political grounds by arguing they would be the
losers in a Shia state that was taking form. He claimed the Shia
conspired with the Americans in their conquest, comparing them to those
who collaborated with the Mongols. What Zarqawi feared, argues Napoleoni,
is Shiites and Sunnis fighting together in a national resistance that
would necessarily be secular, leaving out jihadists like himself.
Much of her evidence for Zarqawis plan comes from his correspondence
with Osama bin Laden from August 2003 to December 2004, when bin Laden
awarded him the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq. Zarqawis solution to the
threat of a national resistance, according to these exchanges, was to
stop the Shiites by triggering a civil war on the grounds that they had
pledged loyalty to the Americans, and by so doing, declared war on the
Sunni population. This is inaccurate, of course, as Napoleoni points
out. The only ones who initially embraced the occupation were exiles, and
even now, U.S. forces continue to target al-Sadrs followers with arrests
In terms of Fallujah, Zarqawi was not there either during the first
battle or afterward, as revealed in translated excerpts from The Memoirs
of Fallujah that are included in the appendix of Insurgent Iraq. Turning
him into a superman of the global jihad did pay a handsome dividend for
the U.S. and its Iraqi allies. It allowed them to personalize the enemy,
downplay the fact that the resistance was overwhelmingly Iraqi, and sell
the occupation as bringing freedom and democracy in contrast to Zarqawis
kidnappings and beheadings.
While groups like al Qaeda often seem to follow a script provided by
their enemies, they also benefited. No longer irrelevant, hiding in
caves, bin Laden and his lieutenants could recast themselves as major
players in the Iraqi insurgency. The U.S.-created myth of Zarqawi became
a self-fulfilling prophecy, drawing recruits and money from radical
Sunnis across the Arab world.
There is a nagging doubt, however. Napoleonis argument is solid and
well-reasoned, but many sources are exclusive interviews, the authors
own unique archives, or web pages that are no longer accessible. Not
being able to verify sources doesnt necessarily cast doubt on her
argument. What does is a wildly mistaken claim, made numerous times, that
the Shia, specifically the Mahdi Army, first launched the anti-U.S.
There is no evidence of this nor does she provide any. She even
contradicts herself, noting correctly that the Mahdi Army began
organizing in the summer of 2003, but then one page later wrongly
attributes the killing of a pro-American Shia cleric the previous April
to the militiabefore it even existed. The organized, armed Shia
resistance did not begin until the following April as all the best
English-language reporters in Iraq have discussed (Patrick Cockburn, Dahr
Jamail, Christian Parenti, Nir Rosen, Anthony Shadid).
Like both Rosen and Napoleoni, Thomas Ricks in Fiasco: The American
Military Adventure in Iraq speculates on a potential civil war and
breakup. At this point, civil war has already begun with an official
death rate of about 100 a day, with the real toll probably much higher.
While al-Sadr remains the sole force able to prevent a breakup, it
appears increasingly likely, as does a regional war. 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.
Its 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.
The first quarter of Fiasco covers the lead-up to the war and the various
forces at playthe notso-bright generals in charge, the neo-cons driving
the war train, the irrelevance of a Congress cowed by the Bush
administration, and a media cheerleading for invasion. Ricks covers all
the bases and his work is full of gems, like the fact that Rumsfeldto
prove his new military doctrine that speed, information and high-tech
weapons could largely replace ground forces wanted to launch the
invasion with a miniscule 10,000 troops. What he doesnt discuss is that
the desire to launch an invasion-lite was probably linked to Bush
administration plans to not wear out the military so as 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 Cheneys staff was able to push the
U.S. to war with Iraq. (The hero in this case is Gen. Anthony Zinni, who
oversaw a four-day bombing campaign of Iraq in 1998.)
Never mind that former Treasury Secretary Paul ONeill said the Bush
administration came into office determined to invade Iraq (Ricks quotes a
neo-con, Patrick Clawson, to dismiss ONeill). Ricks mentions the Project
for a New American Century and its infamous letter to Clinton calling for
regime change in Iraq, but apparently doesnt think it significant enough
to mention all the planning or discussion that went on before 9/11 or
that Rumsfeld, mere hours after the attacks, suggested attacking Iraq.
Facts that are inconvenient to this story are dismissed or ignored.
Later in the book Ricks returns to the history-as-individuals-sparring
approach, suggesting that the unctuous Ahmed Chalabi maneuvered Paul
Bremer into his decrees dissolving the Iraqi army and de-Baathifying the
state. Ricks doesnt 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 detailsinvaluable 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 mutinywhile often missing the historical picture.
His section on the looting of Baghdad makes an important point that it
wasnt just the image of chaos that damaged the U.S. presence from the
beginning, but also the stripping of government offices that left them
unable to function once the occupation was up and running.
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 of 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. For such a long book, almost
500 pages, there is almost no discussion of the broader regional context,
the reconstruction disaster or the role of petro-politics in the invasion
The low point of Fiasco is his discussion of two incidents in Fallujah in
April 2003 when U.S. troops killed up to 20 unarmed protesters, wounding
almost 100 more. He dishonestly concludes that Iraqi provocateurs
at U.S. troops [to] trick them into firing into the crowds. I say
dishonest because Ricks references a Human Rights Watch report on the
incident that he has clearly read. He doesnt offer its findings,
however, that in the first episode there was no forensic evidence that
U.S. troops were shot at in the school where they took up residence, but
plenty of evidence of unaimed fire at the protesters, or that all 20
Iraqi eyewitnesses and participants interviewed agreed there was no
gunfire coming from the crowd, or that the hospital had names and ages
for most of the dead. Instead, Ricks absolves U.S. forces of wrongdoing
by relying solely on interviews with soldiers who have an obvious motive
to cover up what appears to be war crimes. He concludes, The differing
accounts remain irreconcilable, whereas he spends the whole book teasing
out the real story of the war from similarly differing accounts.
A much more valuable contribution in terms of historical context that
Ricks lacks is Gabriel Kolkos The Age of War: The United States
Confronts the World. While his section on Iraq doesnt offer much that is
new, his overview of U.S. foreign policy since World War Two does allow
one to better understand the dilemmas of power now confronting the U.S.
He explains the U.S. can win wars easily, but it doesnt understand how
to transform military victories into political ones, or how it unleashes
social, economic, and political forces beyond its control in conquering a
nation. There is also an excellent discussion of the Vietnam War and the
war on terror that point to the historical parallels in the war-making
Kolko also analyzes the irrational faith that U.S. leaders have in the
power of technology to transform war and hence resolve political
dilemmas. Instead, the two easy battlefield victories in Afghanistan and
Iraq have turned into political failures that have crippled the
occupations. Because U.S. foreign policy is often determined by domestic
political concerns, as Kolko notes, particularly as part of the electoral
process, the U.S. answer to political failure is to rely more heavily on
military solutions that produce more resistance and widen the regional
While Fiasco has it flaws, it does add a lot of new information. Like The
Age of War, Insurgent Iraq and 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.
A.K. Gupta is a freelance writer and an editor for the Indypendent in New
York city. His articles have appeared in Z Magazine and other