Z Magazine Book Reviews

by A.K. Gupta

Z Magazine November 2006
Book Reviews

In the Belly of the Green Bird
The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq

By Nir Rosen
Free Press, 2006, 288 pp.

Insurgent Iraq
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 soldiers’ supplies…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 Iraq—are 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 they’d have to evacuate Baghdad.”

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 Napoleoni.

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 period—not to stop looting, to delay forming a government, to disband Iraqi security forces, and to engage in “de-Baathification”—that 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. Rosen’s reporting from the mosque, street, and marketplace illuminates the forces unleashed after 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 and demanded an Islamic state. It wasn’t 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 the West …represented by American imperialism.” While Yaqubi is a follower of Sadr’s martyred father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, his forces have clashed with Sadr’s Mahdi Army in the south and he opposes Hakim’s 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 father’s “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 followers.”

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 Hussein’s 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 occupation—house raids, mass arrests, checkpoint killings—that 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 Rosen’s 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 calls suspect.

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 them too.”

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 Napoleoni’s 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 I’ve 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, Zarqawi’s 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 Goldberg.)

Napoleoni argues convincingly that Zarqawi targeted the Shia on religious grounds but won over many “Ba’ath 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 “Shi’ites and Sunnis fighting together in a national resistance that would necessarily be secular,” leaving out jihadists like himself.

Much of her evidence for Zarqawi’s 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. Zarqawi’s solution to the threat of a national resistance, according to these exchanges, “was to stop the Shi’ites 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-Sadr’s followers with arrests and killings.

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 Zarqawi’s 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. Napoleoni’s argument is solid and well-reasoned, but many sources are exclusive interviews, the author’s own unique archives, or web pages that are no longer accessible. Not being able to verify sources doesn’t 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. insurgency.

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 militia—before 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.

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.

The first quarter of Fiasco covers the lead-up to the war and the various forces at play—the 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 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 miniscule 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 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 Cheney’s 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 O’Neill said the Bush administration came into office determined to invade Iraq (Ricks quotes a neo-con, Patrick Clawson, to dismiss O’Neill). Ricks mentions the Project for a New American Century and its infamous letter to Clinton calling for regime change in Iraq, but apparently doesn’t 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 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. His section on the looting of Baghdad makes an important point that it wasn’t 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 and occupation.

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… shoot 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 doesn’t 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 Kolko’s The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World. While his section on Iraq doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 process.

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 destabilization.

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 publications.