Saturday, April 03, 2004

El Salvador and the Iraqi Quagmire

It hasn’t been a good week for the U.S. in Iraq, and it might soon start turning ugly for Salvadoran troops stationed there as well.

On the heels of the Mogadishu-like slaying this weekof four American contractors (civilian, with security duties), on Thursday a patrol of the Salvadoran Cuscatlán Batallion in Iraq exchanged fire with some 10-15 men near the southern Iraqi town of Kufa; three Salvadorans were slightly injured. These are the first casualties of the second contingent of some 380 troops sent in February, which relieved the first contingent of 360 troops that had been in Najaf and Kufa since last August as part of the Spanish-led Plus Ultra Brigade. Not to worry, though, because the head of the Salvadoran Batallion told La Prensa Gráfica: “Here it is very peaceful, the biggest thing here is the religious problem.


This "religious problem," however, may have dire consequences for occupying forces. On Friday, according to a report in today’s Washington Post, Moqtada Sadr said in a sermon in Kufa: "I and my followers of the believers have come under attack from the occupiers, imperialism and the appointees. Be on the utmost readiness, and strike them where you meet them." Sadr is the 30-year-old radical Shiite and junior cleric whose newspaper, al-Hawza, was shut down this week by the US occupation force. He is important in this context because the Salvadorans suspect that it was his militia, known as the Mahdi Army, that clashed with their troops on patrol.

Sadr also said in his sermon: "From here, I declare my solidarity with the solidarity between Hezbollah and Hamas. May they consider me their striking hand in Iraq, whenever necessity requires it." And it is Islamic support for Hamas, in fact, according to University of Michigan historian and Middle East expert Juan Cole, which may have been behind the killing of four U.S. privatized military contractors this week. He writes in his blog, Informed Comment:

"There is increasing evidence that the brutal attack on the American security guards in Fallujah, and the desecration of their bodies, was the work of Islamists seeking vengeance for the Israeli murder of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Leaflets found at the scene said the operation was in the name of Yassin. al-Hayat reports in its Friday edition that responsibility for the attack has been taken by a group called Phalanges of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The group said the deaths were a "gift to the Palestinian people."

Meanwhile, Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald reports today that “thousands of supporters of a young Shiite cleric Friday staged the largest protest march since the fall of Baghdad nearly a year ago, gathering near the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition to decry the closure last week of their newspaper. The huge turnout -- estimated at 20,000 -- was a disciplined flexing of muscle by the followers of Sheik Muqtada al Sadr and followed six straight days of growing protests against U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer's order shutting down the paper.”


So that tranquil little patch of Southern Iraq where Salvadorans are stationed may be in for a few surprises in future months.

As E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post noted, the attacks this week “suggest that the [June 30] deadline [for handing things over to the Iraqis] -- prompted more by the American electoral calendar than by circumstances in Iraq -- may be encouraging Iraqi insurgents to step up their efforts to create chaos.”

A more ominous analysis about Iraq’s future was offered by John F. Burns in the April 1 New York Times. He wrote: “Several Iraqis interviewed on Wednesday, including middle-class professionals, merchants and former members of Mr. Hussein's army, suggested that that the United States might be facing a war in which the common bonds of Iraqi nationalism and Arab sensibility have transcended other differences, fostering a war of national resistance that could pose still greater challenges to the Americans in the months, and perhaps years, ahead.”


Of course, look on the bright side. The Salvadoran contingent is largely made up of Special Forces—although they made sure to get a few drivers this time, since the only death thus far was the result of a driving accident—and who’s to say that these guys can’t join the outsourced forces of Blackwater and company after their stint in Iraq. Blackwater is one of many outfits known as Privatized Military Firms (PMFs), which is a $100 billion a dollar industry operating in over 50 countries worldwide.

After all, Blackwater has already hired 60 Chilean former commandos for security-related tasks in Iraq. According to a report in the Guardian, these guys make “up to $4,000 a month.” Hmmm. That’s funny, because the Washington Post article yesterday about Blackwater says their employees make up to $1000 a day.

What do you want to bet that Blackwater is billing at $1000 a day, and paying these Chilean footsoldiers… let's see, what would that be, 12% of their overall take?


Naomi Klein reports this week in The Nation about a visit with Hamid Jassim Khamis, the Baghdad Soft Drinks Company's managing director. As the local producers of Pepsi-Cola, she expected to find herself in an oasis of pro-Americanism. She was wrong:

"All the trouble in Iraq is because of Bremer," Khamis told me, flanked by a line-up of thirty Pepsi and 7-Up bottles. "He didn't listen to Iraqis. He doesn't know anything about Iraq. He destroyed the country and tried to rebuild it again, and now we are in chaos."

Klein notes that it is the profound sense of betrayal expressed by a pro-US businessman running a Pepsi plant that attests to the depths of the US-created disaster here. ‘I'm disappointed, not because I hate the Americans,’ Khamis tells me, ‘but because I like them. And when you love someone and they hurt you, it hurts even more.’”


On Privatized Military Firms (PMFs), of which Blackwater is one of many, see this story by Barry Yeoman, originally published in Mother Jones, May/June 2003

Also, this really amazing interview with P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, whose recent book, Corporate Warriors, examines the proliferation of (PMFs) and notes that the profit motive in warfare raises troubling questions for democracy, ethics, human rights, and national security.

And finally this article in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor.

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