Sat, 05 Apr 2003

Words and Meanings

Gwynne Dyer Columnist London

The first casualty of war is not truth, which generally dies well before hostilities begin. It is language. Consider how Iraqi resistance fighters belonging to the Fedayeen organization and the Baath Party militia have been renamed in only a week.

At first American spokespersons referred to them using neutral words like "irregulars" and "guerrillas", for even if they are not wearing uniforms their actions are legal so long as they are clearly armed and not pretending to be civilians. But after the first suicide bomb attack the Pentagon started calling Iraqi militiamen "terrorists" even if they are fighting in the open against American and British soldiers -- and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld began to talk about "death squads".

This change of terms helps to buttress the fiction, now believed by 55 percent of Americans, that Saddam has links with the Islamist terrorists of al-Qaeda. Indeed, 42 percent of Americans have been tricked into believing that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11 thanks to the relentless juxtaposition of the two in President George W. Bush's speeches (though he never lies outright by actually saying so). But this cynical manipulation of language pales by comparison with Saddam's latest change of skin.

Saddam Hussein joined the Arab Socialist Baath (Rebirth) Party as a teenager, and has shared its secular and even anti-religious views all of his life. But last Monday, he wrote this in an appeal to the Iraqis and the broader Arab and Muslim worlds: "The aggression ... against the stronghold of faith is an aggression on religion ... and on the land of Islam. Jihad is a duty. Whoever dies will be rewarded by heaven ..."

Iraq the stronghold of faith? Jihad as a duty? Iraq's Baath Party is modeled on the Eastern European Communist parties of the 1950s (including party militias, torture chambers, and hostility to religion). Saddam's hero is Joseph Stalin, not Osama bin Laden. But just as Stalin enlisted the Russian Orthodox Church in his struggle against the German invasion in 1941, Saddam is willing to ally himself with popular Islamic sentiment in his moment of supreme crisis.

He's actually done it before, praying in the great Shia mosque in Kerbala (though he himself is of Sunni stock) at the height of the war against Iran in 1985. As a highly politicized and radical interpretation of Islam gained ground across the Arab world during the 1990s, Saddam tried to preempt it with public displays of devotion and a lavish program of mosque-building. But Islamist enthusiasm continued to be a career-killer in Baathist circles, and Iraq remained the most secular of Arab states.

Now the Iraqi regime faces its gravest crisis, and suddenly it's all about jihad and the "land of Islam". And the Islamists of the Arab world, every bit as cynical as Saddam, are willing to let bygones be bygones.

Iraqi military spokesman Hazim al-Rawi declared on Sunday that "martyrdom (suicide) operations will continue not only by Iraqis but by thousands of Arabs who are coming to Iraq," and sure enough the Palestinian rejectionist group Islamic Jihad promptly announced "the arrival of its first martyrdom attackers in Baghdad ... to fulfill the holy duty of defending Arab and Muslim land." They still privately despise Saddam, but as anger builds across the Arab world, Palestinian extremists are not going to miss out in a chance to associate their cause with Iraq's.

Everybody in this conflict is sailing under false colors -- and that certainly includes the "coalition forces". The U.S. and Britain always use this phrase because it links their enterprise, at least verbally, to the legitimate, UN-backed coalition that drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in the1991 Gulf War. That was a genuine coalition of 28 countries, 13 of them Arab, most of them with significant numbers of troops on the ground.

Bush's "coalition" has no UN authority because the overwhelming majority of UN members, including a large majority of Security Council members, saw an invasion of Iraq before the arms inspectors had time to finish their work as a wanton act of aggression. It includes no Arab or Muslim countries except Kuwait. Indeed, not one of the non-Western countries that did enlist in this coalition of the bullied and the bribed has actually sent combat troops.

Several of the European countries that the White House claimed as members of the "coalition" turned out not to be. Slovenia strenuously protested against its inclusion (the State Department confused it with Slovakia), Croatia denied that opening its airspace to U.S. planes made it a member, and the Czech Republic still denies that it supports the war even though former president Vaclav Havel sent some Czech chemical warfare specialists to Kuwait. The right-wing governments of Italy and Spain publicly back the U.S., but faced with 90 percent-plus popular disapproval for the war can make no concrete gesture of support.

Poland, Rumania and Bulgaria sent a couple of hundred troops each, but dare not commit them to combat because their own voters so strongly opposed. The Antiguas, Angolas and the Marshall Islands in the "coalition" stay bought, but do nothing. The reality of the "coalition" this time is two and a bit English- speaking armies -- American, British, and around 2,000 Australians -- attacking an Arab country all on their own.

The independent Arabic-language television network al-Jazeera started out calling the U.S. and British troops by their own preferred title, "coalition forces", but now it just refers to them as the "invaders" or "occupiers". Its viewers got fed up with the hypocrisy.