Occupational Hazards

The gruesome scenes from Fallujah--the corpses of four U.S. civilians being burned, mutilated, dragged behind vehicles and hanged from a bridge by jubilant Iraqis--are grimly familiar. Most Americans remember Mogadishu in 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers died after the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters, and triumphant Somalis dragged the body of an American soldier through the streets. The image triggered revulsion and outrage among Americans--and hastened the U.S. military pullout from Somalia.

In terms of sheer imagery, of course, Fallujah was a horrifying "Mogadishu moment," says Malcolm Nance, a former U.S. special-operations intelligence officer currently working as a security consultant in Iraq. Actually the carnage in Fallujah had begun earlier in the day, when an improvised explosive device exploded under a U.S. Humvee, killing five soldiers. Not long afterward, in the middle of town, gunmen opened fire on several four-wheel-drive vehicles with Western passengers inside.

The insurgent tactics were unexpectedly robust. First they apparently attacked the last vehicle in a convoy of SUVs with grenades or RPGs. Then, when one vehicle made a U-turn to assist the crippled SUV, the attackers tore into both with small-arms fire until all four Americans inside were dead. "This ambush was no amateur operation by any stretch of the imagination," observes Nance. The civilians worked for Blackwater Security Consulting, a North Carolina-based company contracted by the Coalition Provisional Authority to provide personal security for CPA head L. Paul Bremer III and for foodstuffs being transported in the Fallujah area. As far as expertise goes, the firm is "as good as they get in this business," says Nance; its personnel include highly trained former Special Forces troops.

The attackers left the scene quickly. Then a mob of ordinary Iraqis, some of them no more than kids, swarmed over the wreckage, poured gasoline on the vehicles and burned them with the bodies inside. The charred corpses were dismembered and dragged through the marketplace. A blackened arm was tied to a brick and then strung on a telephone pole; two bodies were hung from the upper struts of a metal suspension bridge over the Euphrates River and left dangling over a crowd of celebrating Iraqis.

The Mogadishu metaphor is visceral, and immediate. But from my jittery Baghdad vantage point, Iraq today feels quite different from Somalia. The U.S. intervention in that African nation was launched for a limited, humanitarian mission. No overwhelming national-security issues prevented Washington from hastily ending the 15-month-long Somalia campaign. It doesn't have the huge oil reserves with which Iraq is blessed (or cursed); no one had committed to planting the seeds of democracy in the mean streets of Mogadishu.

Iraq is much more important to the United States than Somalia was, or ever could be. Too important for Washington to even contemplate simply walking away. The White House and Coalition officials reiterated that America would stay the course, despite yesterday's carnage. The United States "will not buckle under to a bunch of insurgents," declared Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt at a somber Wednesday CPA briefing. He said the incidents would have "negligible impact" on CPA efforts to reconstruct Iraq and transfer sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30.

The ghastly news out of Fallujah actually reminded me of Afghanistan. Not the Kabul of recent times, but rather Afghanistan in the 1980s, as it felt during the Soviet occupation. I remember Russian soldiers talking in hushed tones about what happened to comrades who had fallen into the hands of anti-Soviet rebels. Some were imprisoned in grim conditions as POWs--but others were skinned alive, roasted over coals or slowly dismembered.

Then, as now, images of one's compatriots being mutilated or humiliated were potent weapons in the hands of a shadowy and anonymous enemy. And the anti-Soviet Muslim rebels, or mujahedin, knew how to play the game. They distributed photographs of desecrated Russian corpses or of pathetically young Soviet prisoners of war. The rebels bragged of Soviet Muslims from Central Asia defecting to mujahedin ranks. And they knew the public-relations value of an especially spectacular attack, such as their hits on overextended Russian military convoys lumbering through the Salang tunnel, which was the Red Army's lifeline north to the Soviet Union.

It's not easy for me, as an American, to compare Iraq's U.S. occupation to Afghanistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion. After all, Yanks are supposed to be the good guys. Surely helping democracy sprout in the Mideast is far more admirable a cause than Moscow's aim, back then, to make Central Asia safe for communism. Shouldn't the toppling of a ruthless Iraqi dictator who apparently wanted to have weapons of mass destruction--even if it turns out he might not really have had any--seem vastly more reasonable than ousting one Marxist Afghan strongman in favor of another even more slavishly pro-Soviet one?

Still, the analogy holds true in one big and basic way: occupation is occupation. And no matter what the ideologies involved, occupiers are doomed to be resented, at the very least, and blamed for everything that goes wrong. U.S. authorities have applied a bit of psychoanalysis to this phenomenon. At a briefing to mark the first anniversary of the Iraq war earlier this month, one senior Coalition official said it had to do "with the psychological mindset of the average Iraqi. For 35 years everything that happened in this country--good or bad, and it was mostly bad--was attributable to the government. [So now] if something's wrong, it's the government's fault."

He went on to explain the resentment that many Iraqis display toward Americans these days: "Underneath it all is an unhappiness at being occupied. They feel somewhat guilty that they weren't able to liberate themselves. There's a perverse resentment that we liberated them." Still, the fury in Fallujah that shocked us all is a lot more intense than resentment. It feels like hatred, as if many Iraqis who hated Saddam Hussein have now transferred their animosity to Uncle Sam.

CPA officials have long predicted an "uptick" in anti-U.S. insurgent activity as they prepare for the June 30 transfer of sovereignty to Iraqi institutions. March 2003 has the dubious honor of being the second-deadliest month for U.S. troops since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations on May 1 of last year. In all, 50 American soldiers died in March. (The most deaths in a single month was 82 killed last November when a number of aircraft were downed.) Meanwhile the number of foreign civilians targeted by insurgents--including the four Western military contractors whose corpses were desecrated in Fallujah--continues to climb.

As long as the security situation remains so dire--and the state of Iraqi security forces so fragile--the Coalition's military presence here must remain muscular and visible. That, in turn, will continue to trigger anger and despair from those Iraqis who cannot tolerate being occupied or dominated by a foreign power. It's a Catch-22. Coalition authorities are no doubt correct when they say the number of Iraqis who've taken up arms against the U.S. occupation represents "a very very small minority." Still these guys--many of them Saddam's former army or intelligence officers--are armed, professionally trained and highly motivated. And their ability to make high-profile hits against Coalition targets, both military and civilian, makes them potent beyond their numbers.

On Wednesday, the residents of Fallujah shouted slogans such as "Fallujah is the cemetery for Americans" and "We sacrifice our blood for Islam." If you simply change the proper names, their war cries sound like something right out of 1980s Afghanistan.

Moscow had rationalized its invasion by arguing that the Afghan people had made an appeal for Soviet intervention; the government had hinted that troops wouldn't stay long. But the Soviet occupation lasted nine grueling years, its troop presence maxed out at around 115,000 (about the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq today), and an estimated 1 million Afghans were killed before the last jittery Soviet tank crew trundled back home over the border on February 1989. Little more than three years later, the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime was ousted by a fractious coalition of seven guerrilla groups who immediately set about fighting over the spoils.

There are many ways that Baghdad today evokes a queasy sense of deja vu. There are the car bombs and rockets that injure and kill civilians on a daily basis; the tight spirals that arriving planes make at the airport to avoid being hit by rebel missiles; the incessant targeting of local police and security personnel labeled "collaborators" with the occupying force. There's the bunker mentality of the occupiers who, as the Soviets did back then in Kabul, have retreated behind fortifications in places such as the airport and military camps, because every convoy that ventures out is fair game for insurgents.

I looked up headlines from a forgotten Afghanistan that, with just a few transmogrified words, sound eerily current. A DEATH THREAT: AFGHAN WOMEN FEARFUL FOR RIGHTS IN THE FUTURE. CAN CIVIL WAR BE AVERTED? AFGHAN REBELS SHOOT DOWN TROOP TRANSPORT PLANE, KILLING 39. And there was the news flash out of an Afghanistan past that mirrors almost exactly Iraq's current political and bureaucratic scramble to prepare for June 30: NEUTRAL CARETAKER ADMINISTRATION TO RUN THE COUNTRY FOR A SHORT PERIOD WHILE A NEW POLITICAL LEADERSHIP IS AGREED UPON; IRAN-BASED RESISTANCE GROUPS CALL FOR ELECTIONS WITHIN SIX MONTHS.

Of course, There's one huge difference between working in Baghdad today and reporting in Kabul so many years ago. Back then, we American journalists resented the access and the privilege afforded to Soviet journalists. They got to report on Russian soldiers at the front line while we were mostly restricted to a couple of major cities and spoon-fed bland official propaganda by the Kabul regime. Many of us secretly rooted for the rebel mujahedin, who were backed by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China. We were usually treated with suspicion by pro-Moscow Afghan government officials, or even accused of being spies.

And, let's admit it: often we were appalled by reports of atrocities committed against Soviet soldiers by mujahedin insurgents, or moved by the photographs of cowering Russian POWs. But sometimes we reasoned that the Soviets had it coming. After all, they'd invaded another country, and there was a price to pay. Only now, after watching the furies in Fallujah, am I beginning to appreciate what it must've been like for the Soviets in Afghanistan. "The only thing worse than being the occupier is being occupied," the senior CPA official had commented in his briefing a couple weeks ago. If things felt bad then, they feel even worse today.