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Rebuilding Iraq


Tipping points

How military occupations go sour

By Neil Swidey, 4/27/2003

RICE AND FLOWERS. That's how the Shi'ite Muslims of southern Lebanon greeted Israel Defense Forces as they steamed into their villages in June of 1982.

Throughout that summer, As'ad AbuKhalil, a 22-year-old graduate student in the village of Al-Qulaylah, saw his relatives and neighbors cheering the Israeli troops. He saw them helping the Israelis uncover arms caches hidden by the fedayeen, the Palestinian militias. He even saw one village elder name his newborn niece Salaam, the Arabic word for peace, after the code-name of the Israeli invasion, Operation Peace for Galilee.

AbuKhalil understood why his neighbors were acting this way. For years, they had felt victimized by the Palestinian commandos who had set up shop in the villages of the South to wage guerrilla warfare against Israel. ''They thought the Israelis would get rid of all the thugs and end the bombing, the misery, the mess,'' he says. But he refused to go along with them. ''By the next season when you go to pick your oranges,'' he warned his neighbors, ''your feelings about the Israelis will have changed.''

But nobody-not even AbuKhalil, the grad-student Cassandra-could have predicted the stunning turn the occupation would take. The flower-tossing Shi'ites were pleased to see Israel quickly accomplish its initial goals for the invasion, but that didn't stop them from eventually emerging as its most potent enemy. Over 18 years, the Shi'ites turned Lebanon into Israel's Vietnam.

As American soldiers in Iraq encounter occasional smiles and frequent denunciations, the question of how occupations succeed or fail looms large. The answers may have less to do with big, implacable forces than with the smallest incidents of everyday life.

After all, if you want to know the moment when things changed for the Shi'ites of Lebanon-and, by extension, for the Israelis-don't look for the high-profile incidents that figure prominently in every timeline of Lebanon's war years. It was not the suicide bombing that killed 241 US Marines, or the assassination of the pro-Israeli Christian president-elect Bashir Gemayel, or the massacres of hundreds in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps.

Instead, the tipping point was an incident that didn't claim many lives and never got much attention outside the Shi'ite community.

On Oct. 16, 1983, an Israeli convoy tried to make its way through the village of Al-Nabatiya while the local Shi'ites were commemorating Ashura, the most sacred day on their calendar. The emotionally charged holiday recalls the martyrdom of the prophet Muhammad's grandson Husain, and his courageous resistance against a far superior army. The Israeli troops clearly did not understand any of this, and started honking their horns for the locals to get out of their way. The locals threw rocks at them and tried to turn over some of their jeeps. The Israelis panicked and fired their guns. When the dust settled, two Shi'ites were dead and a lethal Shi'ite resistance had been born.

''Nabatiya,'' says AbuKhalil, now a professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, ''is the marking date of the beginning of the end.''

In nearly every occupation, there is a tipping point-a defining incident that crystallizes the popular reception of the occupier. Right now, the views of many Iraqis toward the US occupation force are extremely fluid, changing depending on the circumstances of the day-or hour. They cheer US forces for bringing down a despised regime and delight in their newfound freedom to talk frankly or celebrate long-forbidden religious rituals. They curse the US forces for the darkness, for the lack of water, and for the looting.

These are temporary reactions to temporary conditions. At some point-no one knows when-the views of Iraqis toward Americans will become more fixed. As in Lebanon, the views of different communities may coalesce at different times. But those tipping points, say scholars, are what US leaders need to be most concerned about, even now, before the US transition civilian administration is fully in gear in Baghdad.

A tipping point is a concept drawn from epidemiology, where it describes the moment at which an infectious disease becomes a public health crisis. The idea is that small changes will have little or no effect on a system until a critical mass is reached. Then just one additional small change ''tips'' the system, producing dramatic consequences. The concept has been applied to human behavior to describe everything from the breakout of bestsellers to the spread of buzzwords.

Tipping points can favor the occupying forces. Akira Iriye, who was a 10-year-old boy living in western Tokyo in 1945, recalls that when he and his friends spotted a GI walking into a jewelry store, they all pressed their faces against the store window to watch his every move. ''I was very curious to see what an American looked like. This GI picked up a watch, and then he paid for it. I thought he was just going to take it.'' For a Japanese population that had been fed only propaganda about how bad the Americans were, ''these first impressions were very significant and people began to talk about them,'' says Iriye, now chairman of the history department at Harvard University.

But tipping points are more likely to disfavor the occupier. Ian S. Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that as different and unpredictable as occupations can be, there are remarkably consistent patterns evident in most of them. And none of these patterns, he says, augurs particularly well for the United States in Iraq.

Lustick, a specialist in occupations, says this is how they generally work: The occupying power has to rely on a band of locals to help navigate the foreign terrain. The choice of local agents can make or break an occupation, but it's never an easy decision. It often comes down to choosing agents who will do what you want but don't have much popular support or choosing those who will be less pliable but have a bigger base. ''The ones who want to work with you the most are generally the ones you shouldn't deal with,'' he says.

From the start, the occupier is at a disadvantage. The locals know a lot more than the occupier about what's likely to happen and who can pull the strings. So the local agents can manipulate the occupying powers, assuring them that they can deliver for them when they can't, and using the occupier's military strength to help settle old scores.

This happened to the Israelis in Lebanon, when their Christian militia allies would direct them to shell an area where they said Palestinian fedayeen were, only to find out later that the place was in fact a stronghold of one of their rival sects. US forces occasionally fell into the same trap in Afghanistan when warlords fed false information to get the Americans to attack rival warlords rather than the Taliban.

AbuKhalil says that one of his distant cousins, who had been a nobody in their Lebanese village, became a Shi'ite agent for the Israelis and made the most of it. ''I remember he would yell at people, `In the name of the IDF I will not allow this to happen!' If people gave him trouble, he would make a call and two Israeli jeeps would show up.''

But if resistance to the occupation grows, opposition groups start to go after the local agents. A year into the occupation, AbuKhalil's detested relative was killed as he shopped in a grocery store.

If the risks of cooperating with the foreign power begin to outweigh the perks, the local agents hang back. And the occupier is then forced to walk more blindly through increasingly hostile territory. It becomes more prone to missteps, which then add fuel to the resistance's fire.

In the early 1980s, Augustus Richard Norton was a US Army officer working with the Shi'ite community in southern Lebanon as a United Nations truce observer. He notes that most Shi'ite leaders, including those with the dominant political group Amal, initially took no position on the Israeli invasion.

But things began to change when it became clear that the Israelis were not planning to leave any time soon and the daily humiliations associated with being occupied-security checkpoints, for instance-began to accumulate.

In his book, ''Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon,'' Norton writes that the Nabatiya incident ''dripped with evocative symbolism, and the obvious connections between the commemoration of Husain's martyrdom, and the Israeli transgression were quickly noted by Shi'i religious leaders.''

Nabatiya made fence-sitting impossible. The next day, a leading Shi'ite cleric issued a fatwa, warning that ''those who trafficked with the Israelis would go to hell.'' Amal leaders realized they were going to lose their popular following if they didn't take a tough stand against the Israelis. The Shi'ite community became increasingly radicalized, making way for the emergence of Hezbollah. Norton, now a professor of international relations at Boston University, says, ''Nabatiya sealed the Israeli failure in Lebanon.'' Hezbollah's leader even invoked Nabatiya last week, predicting the United States would meet a similar fate in Iraq.

So how can the United States avoid that?

''A tipping point is a reflection of a set of structural conditions that allow any match that's lit to set off a grass fire,'' says Lustick. A pigeon-hunting fracas between a few British soldiers and some peasants midwifed the Egyptian independence movement. A traffic accident between Israeli soldiers and a couple of Palestinians sparked the first Intifada. In both cases, the occupier was caught off-guard. Being alert to the underlying conditions requires solid, on-the-ground information about how people are feeling, and an awareness of the cultural codes and networks connecting various parts of society. That's hard to come by for an occupying power.

So far, US forces seem reasonably well attuned to the many religious and cultural sensitivities around them, and have wisely refrained from going into the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala during important religious observances by the Shi'ites last week. But as the ''No to America'' chants grew louder, and Shi'ite clerics vying for power grew more strident in their calls for an immediate American exit last week, some American officials began to wonder if a hands-off approach was the right one.

Oddly, the absence of widespread applause from Iraqis for US forces may turn out to be a good thing. That kind of reception is always temporary in occupations, and it can lead the occupier to dangerously complacent assumptions on how strong his support is.

Yet the most consequential step may well be when US leaders decide which local agents it will join with, and how much of Saddam Hussein's old Ba'ath Party administration it allows to stay on. Right now there appear to be few good options.

And then, even under the best circumstances, an occupation's most significant consequences may not be known for years. ''The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan gave us the Taliban,'' AbuKhalil says. ''The American occupation of Saudi Arabia gave us bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The Israeli occupation of Lebanon gave us Hezbollah. Let us see what the American occupation of Iraq is going to give us.''

Neil Swidey writes about Middle Eastern affairs for the Globe and is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. He can be reached at

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