Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Luxury of Protest
...Yet, as I was driving around Baghdad on March 20, the eerie quiet felt like a sign of something else: that symbolic anniversaries are an unaffordable luxury when the war they are supposed to be marking is still being waged. Several demonstrations were planned for the 20th in Baghdad but were cancelled at the last minute, a response to three days of rapid-fire attacks on Iraqi and foreign civilians.

On March 19, an anti-occupation march designed as a show of unity between Sunni and Shia Muslims was much smaller than organizers had hoped, and no wonder: Less than three weeks ago, 70 people were killed in a horrific attack on the same Shia mosque where demonstrators were meant to gather. To underscore the threat, U.S. occupation chief Paul Bremer chose the day of the planned protests to predict that more such major attacks were likely 'when you have masses of Shia together.' Those who dared to show up despite the warnings glanced around nervously, while men armed with Kalashnikovs lined the streets and rooftops, looking for signs of trouble.

It's worth remembering that just two months ago, the mood here was distinctly less tentative. In January, more than 100,000 Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad and Basra to reject the U.S. plan to appoint an interim government through a complicated system of regional caucuses, and to demand direct elections instead. Under intense pressure, Mr. Bremer was forced to scrap the caucus plan entirely. For a brief moment, it looked as if U.S. President George W. Bush's empty talk of bringing democracy to Iraq might just become a reality, not because the occupiers were serious about giving Iraqis self-determination, but because Iraqis seemed determined to seize that power despite their occupiers' best efforts.

Now, after a month of terror and steady assertions from 'experts' that Iraq is on the verge of civil war, much of that boldness has retreated. Which is precisely why they call it terrorism: It sends people from the streets into their homes, replacing courage with fear, self-reliance with dependency.

There are rare exceptions, such as the recent Spanish elections, when populations seem to collectively decide to try something else— to respond to horror with defiance. But more often than not, terrorism simply terrorizes.

But if terrorism sows fear, an obvious point, the obvious question is: Who benefits most from the spreading fear in Iraq? According to President Bush, the winners are faceless evildoers bent on undermining Iraq's future democracy. "They understand that a free Iraq will be a devastating setback to their ambitions of tyranny over the Middle East," he explained on the anniversary. According to Mr. Bremer, that means that the attacks will likely continue as the June 30 handover approaches.

It's a nice theory, but it's not the one gaining currency on the streets of Baghdad. Just 20 minutes after the devastating bombing of the Mount Lebanon hotel last Wednesday, the rumours began to fly: It was the Americans, the Pentagon, the CIA, the British. If these conspiracy theories have traction, maybe it's because the occupying forces have so brazenly taken advantage of the attacks to do precisely what they accuse foreign terrorists of doing: interfering with the prospect of genuine democracy in Iraq.


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