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Ignited Iraq

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Speaker after speaker alternated religious chants with exhortations to resist the American occupation. There was special condemnation of the sweeps conducted by US forces. "The invaders are false, and when they make their raids on our homes they spread their destruction and corruption everywhere," an imam said. "They should save their blood and their money and go home. Shia or Sunni, we don't care, but whoever governs us must be an Arab." Loud cheers interrupted him. "The UN Security Council does not deny the right of resistance to occupiers. It is the right of Iraqis to fight the American and British invaders." One of the imams emphasized national reconciliation. "Do not be vengeful toward the Baathists," he said, "but instead let the courts do their work. We must not let the occupation be an excuse for revenge. The occupation will end, a weak shadow never lasts."

Peter Davis was on assignment in Iraq this summer for The

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Peter Davis
Peter Davis received an Academy Award in 1975 for his documentary on the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds. His novel...

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In the early part of the twentieth century, women’s creative talent was far more widely recognized and valued in the filmmaking community.

El Salvador today is an Exhibit A casualty of the American imperium.

A speaker sounding like a cheerleader at a political rally yelled out "no to ethnic and religious division, yes to the liberation of iraq!" The crowd responded with "yes!" I wandered among the demonstrators and saw that many were praying or fingering their prayer beads at the same time as they were responding to the speakers. There was no division, as the imams had told me, between their politics and their faith. A particularly impassioned sheik focused on women and Iraqis working with the Americans. "The occupier humiliates and searches women. A man should sacrifice himself so no one puts a hand on his woman. And you translator agents who work with the occupier, you should know we can issue a fatwa on whoever works with the Americans and you will be killed. We prefer to negotiate, to restrain our anger, but when a man restrains his anger a long time and then releases it, the result will be overwhelming." (This imam had read his Freud along with his Koran that morning.) "Now we are only speaking, but if the occupier keeps on provoking us, we will use the other option."

Before we had entered the mosque grounds, Abu Mustafa told us, in a rare burst of English, "If what anything happens, you come quick to my car." Izzi thought the moment had arrived after the last speaker as the crowd began surging toward the buses and cars. "It's not that anyone is necessarily violent," he said, "but when a demonstration ends things can happen."

When we were back in Abu Mustafa's car, Izzi said the speakers we had heard were only moderates. I asked what was his definition of a moderate. "The moderates say it's your duty to resist the occupation," he said. "The extremists come right out and say kill the infidel. Now." Izzi believed the crowd at the mosque represented only a minority of Iraqis, but it was a growing minority. I asked how he himself felt. "No one wants his country invaded," he said, "but imagine if you had leukemia. You can't get rid of it with surgery, so you have to have chemotherapy, which is hateful and kills your immune system and is even more hateful because it makes you ugly. But it keeps you alive. Once it's over and you're recovered, though, you don't want any more chemo. Saddam was leukemia. Iraq looks ugly after the American chemo, which makes us weak and vulnerable to other diseases, yet the chemo was needed to keep us going and give us a chance. Now the US occupation is a chemo we don't want." Did that mean Izzi was ready for the Americans to leave? "Actually, no," he said. "You created this mess. You put the mud in the muddle we now have. You have to clean this up before you leave."

But don't expect thanks. When I was in the Middle East the first time, in Egypt in early 1958, the streets of Cairo were thronged with revelers rejoicing in the proclamation of the United Arab Republic formed by Egypt and Syria. The force behind the merger was Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was hoping to initiate an expanded Greater Arabia that could defy the West and be the scourge of Israel. Because President Eisenhower had prevented Great Britain, France and Israel from reversing Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal two years earlier, Americans were greeted in a very friendly manner. An Egyptian at the Pyramids told me the United States was pretty good, then added, unforgettably, "I hate the British and French like I love my eyes." Nearby was an American from the Ford Foundation, who was in Egypt to teach scientific farming methods that would allow Egyptian cotton and other crops to compete successfully on the world market because they would be grown so much more efficiently. I said I guessed that between Eisenhower's intervention on Egypt's behalf and the work of people like himself, Egyptians must really like Americans. "I think you'll find," said the agricultural specialist, who had been working abroad since the end of World War II, "that gratitude is a difficult emotion to bear for very long. After a while, it turns to resentment."

The larger point from the United Arab Republic, which was shortly joined--or rivaled--by Jordan and Iraq, forming the Arab Union, is that the vision of pan-Arabism in 1958 remained just that. Arab nationalism, which looked to me both hopeful and frightening when I watched it celebrating itself in Cairo, stumbled over disagreements, contending interests and tribal vendettas going back centuries. Both earlier and later attempts to coalesce the Arab world have ended ingloriously, abetted by Western ruses, with the vision remaining a rainbow. In Iraq, despite feuds between sects, factions and tribes, pan-Arabism has so far not competed successfully with the resolute nationalism expressed in every province, even in the north by the Kurds.

The Jewish question. At a significant number of stops along my journey Jews and Israel were identified as major problems. Jews were once estimated to constitute almost 20 percent of Baghdad; they've been gone for decades. Iraqis have worked for the cause of Palestine since the 1930s, when they tried to mediate between the Arabs, the British authorities and what was then the Jewish Agency. In the 1948 war that followed the establishment of Israel, and in the Six Day War of 1967, Iraq fought somewhat desultorily against Israel's existence. What I found this summer was something like an article of faith that Israel equals belligerent Zionism equals Jews.

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