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[casi] Flags in the dust / Brian Whitaker

>From the Guardian:,2763,920806,00.html

Flags in the dust

Although coalition forces may be winning the military
battle on land and in the air, political incompetence
means that Iraq is winning the battle of hearts and
minds, writes Brian Whitaker

Monday March 24, 2003

One of the finest war photographs ever taken shows the
raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima in
February, 1945. The battle for this tiny island in the
Pacific, just five miles long and two miles wide,
lasted 31 days and cost 6,821 American lives.
In the picture, six helmeted figures grapple with a
pole, attempting to plant it on a rock-strewn mountain
top. At the end of the pole, the Stars and Stripes
flutters in the wind against a vast open sky.

The symbolism of this picture, taken by Associated
Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, was clear to
everyone at the time. The huddle of human figures
represented heroic endeavour, while the flag and the
sky signalled hope and freedom.

As an artistic composition, the photograph was so
brilliant that ever since the day it appeared there
have been people who claimed it was specially posed -
though there is ample evidence that it was not. In
just 1/400th of a second, Rosenthal's camera captured
the spirit of the time.

Maybe this was what someone had in mind early last
Friday when invading American marines removed an Iraqi
flag from a building in Umm Qasr, just across the
border from Kuwait, and raised the Stars and Stripes.
But what might have seemed a noble gesture in 1945 is
open to different interpretations 58 years later.

In Britain, even supporters of the war denounced the
flag-raising as a stupid act, undermining claims that
the goal is to liberate Iraq, not to conquer it - and
by nightfall the Iraqi flag was back.

In the midst of more dramatic events, this was a very
minor incident, but a telling one nonetheless: it
highlighted a credibility gap that may yet become a
catastrophic flaw in America's war strategy.

Most wars start by accident or with a flourish of
misplaced jingoism. But this war is unique. It is hard
to recall any conflict in history that aroused so much
opposition even before it began. At best its
legitimacy and purpose is in serious doubt. At worst,
millions regard it as illegal and/or immoral.

Besides that, it is led by a president for whom few
outside the United States have any respect. Just as
the onus was placed on Iraq, during the period of
inspections, to prove that it had no weapons of mass
destruction, the onus now is on the invasion forces to
convince a sceptical world of their bona fides. This
is probably impossible to do, since the official and
unofficial aims of the war cannot be reconciled.

One example of confused messages came on the first day
with the attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein. Apart
from looking hasty and opportunistic, it conflicted
with argument made during the UN inspection process
that the main goal was to disarm Iraq.

That might not have been so bad if, after Saddam had
appeared on television to show that he was still
alive, US officials had quashed speculation that he
might be dead. Whatever private doubts they might have
harboured (about the use of lookalikes, etc), joining
in the guesswork merely cast doubt on their
credibility as sources of authoritative information.

The Centcom command centre in Qatar, with its hugely
expensive press facilities, has also been slow to get
its case across. It was not until Saturday that
General Tommy Franks got round to speaking to the
world's media, with a polished performance that said
almost nothing. In the meantime, other officials made
all sorts of statements that were contradictory in
some cases and downright wrong in others.

The battle for Umm Qasr, the small port near the
border with Kuwait has been won and un-won so many
times that by now most people have lost count. It's no
excuse to attribute these failures to the "fog of war"
or "psychological operations" against the Baghdad

Iraqi spokesmen, on the other hand, have been
remarkably forthcoming and, if we disregard the usual
rhetoric, the factual content of their statements has
often been more accurate than that of the invasion
forces. Their figures for Iraqi casualties have also
been low enough to sound plausible.

Friday brought the appalling "Shock n' Awe Show"
which, in its visual effects, resembled something that
might have been conceived by a big-budget Hollywood
director. Its military purpose, if any, is still far
from clear, and those shocked by it were mainly TV
viewers outside Iraq.

After decades of wars, sanctions and repression,
Iraqis themselves have become inured to almost
anything. As the attack was ending, some of the Arab
TV channels lingered for a few seconds on a bizarre
scene in flickering night-vision green: Iraqi
spectators standing in open parkland on the opposite
side of the river, watching the fireworks.

Though this attack was meant to terrify the Baghdad
regime into submission, nobody in Washington seems to
have anticipated its effect on the rest of the world.
To some in the Arab and Muslim countries, Shock and
Awe is terrorism by another name; to others, a crime
that compares unfavourably with September 11.

To the homespun folks in Middletown, California -
recorded by the BBC the other day singing patriotic
songs around their dinner table - such perceptions may
be utterly incomprehensible, but they are real and
cannot be ignored. They explain why the American flag
has become a liability and why westerners in Yemen,
for example, have taken to flying the blue-and-gold
European flag from their cars to discourage attackers.

General Franks, of course, is at pains to point out
that modern American missiles are extremely accurate
and that every target is carefully selected to
minimise civilian casualties. This may be, but it
takes only a few exceptions to persuade people
otherwise - as happened at the weekend when al-Jazeera
television showed millions of Arab viewers the picture
of a child with a shattered head.

As the invasion forces move closer to Baghdad, it is
still an open question as to whether ordinary Iraqis
will view them as conquerors or liberators. The omens
so far are not particularly good. When they arrived in
Safwan last Friday, one Iraqi greeted them by saying:
"What took you so long? God help you to become

Possibly he meant it, though it's not hard to imagine
similar words being addressed to anyone who arrived in
town with a conspicuous display of weaponry. Two
Reuters correspondents, travelling independently of
the military, told a different story:

"One group of Iraqi boys on the side of the road
smiled and waved as a convoy of British tanks and
trucks rolled by. But once it had passed, leaving a
trail of dust and grit in its wake, their smiles
turned to scowls. 'We don't want them here,' said
17-year-old Fouad, looking angrily up at the plumes of
grey smoke rising from Basra. 'Saddam is our leader,'
he said defiantly. 'Saddam is good'."

All these effects were easily foreseeable, though not
easily avoided once a decision was made to go to war.
With less than a week gone, the invasion forces may be
slowly winning the battle on land and in the air but
Iraq is winning the battle of hearts and minds.

To have reached such a position against an adversary
who is demonstrably one of the world's most disgusting
tyrants, to have transformed him into a hero figure,
and to have transformed the American flag into a
symbol of oppression, is not only unfortunate but
reeks of political incompetence.

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