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Is America facing an Iraqi intifadah?

FIREFIGHTS in half a dozen cities, insurgents putting aside their religious and political differences to resist occupation, helicopter gunships firing away into urban areas, fiery clerics shouting their defiance, casualties mounting on both sides, and civilians caught in the middle: Has the Iraqi intifadah begun? The parallels with Israel's struggle against its occupied peoples grows more striking every day, with American helicopters and weapons being used in both conflicts to put down Arab revolts.


American officials in Baghdad insist this is not a general uprising, that the militant mullah Moqtada al-Sadr does not represent the opinion of most Shi'ites, that events in Fallujah were carried out by thugs and miscreants, not mainstream Sunnis -- and one hopes they are right. But the American insistence that their troubles stem only from Saddam's bitter-enders and foreign fanatics is no longer believable.

Both the Israeli government and the American administration like to say that it isn't occupation that's the problem. It is simply terrorism, they say, which both need to fight. And there is real terrorism involved, no doubt. But the central issue in the territories that Israel occupies is the Israeli occupation and always has been.

The vast majority of Arabs see little difference between the two struggles. Whether it be Americans or Israelis supported by Americans, it is Arabs who are living and dying under the occupations, and the twin inflammations are weakening America's position in the Middle East.

However, the two occupations are different. The Americans are trying to get out as quickly as they can and turn the country over to its inhabitants -- an endgame the Palestinians would die for, are dying for. The present Israeli government, however, hopes to keep as much of the occupied territories as it can.

There are no fortified towns for American settlers contemplated for Iraq, although there may be hopes in the Pentagon for permanent military bases. In the West Bank, the Israeli settlements keep on ballooning.

For all their mistakes, and there have been so many, Americans want to leave the Iraqis with hope for a better future, while Israel's Ariel Sharon said this week that he is taking steps that will "harm the Palestinians severely. It will bring their dreams to an end."

Whereas Americans desperately want Iraqis they can deal with, the government of Ariel Sharon has done everything in its power to destroy the Palestinian Authority and the symbols of Palestinian nationalism, and then he says he has no negotiating partner.

It is curious, given Israel's failure to bring peace and stability to the West Bank and Gaza, that the US military would seek to emulate Israeli tactics. Yet, although the Pentagon tried to keep it a secret, Israelis are training Americans in counterinsurgency work. "The American-Israeli liaison on Iraq amounts to a tutorial on how to dismantle an insurgency," wrote investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, including "targeted killings." Yet the Iraqi insurgency grows ever worse.

Sharon sees a need to sear into the consciousness of the Palestinians that they are a defeated people. An American adviser in Baghdad told Hersh, "We've got to scare the Iraqis into submission." It doesn't seem to be working in either conflict.

General David Patraeus of the 101st Airborne got it right when he told Newsweek: "You don't defeat an insurgency solely with military forces. . . . You win by getting the people to believe they have a stake in the success of the new Iraq," which is precisely what the Israeli military has so spectacularly failed to do on the West Bank and Gaza and is a major reason why the Oslo peace agreement failed.

If and when occupation becomes the central issue in Iraq, if simple nationalism and resistance to foreign rule, even among people who hated Saddam Hussein, takes hold, then America and its allies will indeed be fighting a West Bank-style intifadah with all that entails for the future of the Middle East. This is the nightmare that has haunted the American effort, the race against time to give enough Iraqis enough hope to tide them through the difficult days of occupation until self-rule and democracy can prevail.

One is haunted, however, by the words of President Bush's father, who, after expelling the Iraqis from Kuwait, wrote: "Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations' mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different -- and perhaps barren -- outcome."

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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