What kind of a Plain-Jane Victory is this?

On Wednesday, April 9, Saddam Hussein and his sons, aides, and generals pulled off the biggest and most spectacular disappearing act in history. All 55 of them simply vanished in the dead of night under the watchful noses of the all-seeing night-visioned US Marines. Was this the “unconventional” and “very nice” surprise that Al-Sahaf, the ever-smiling upbeat Iraqi information minister, was beaming about just a few days before their Houdini-style disappearance?

It might well be so. In technical terms, it means that Saddam Hussein’s regime has not acknowledged surrender to US forces, like Japan and Germany after World War II. Their disappearance is not only an embarrassment for the US; it is also hindering Bush from proclaiming “complete and final victory.” But because this great escape seems so incredible, many in the Arab world insist that the Iraqi tyrant and his so called “filthy fifty” were actually spirited away by American forces – just so Bush could conveniently bomb and destroy another Arab country accused of harboring them. Many Arabs will tell you that Saddam and his Baath ministers are all Mossad/CIA operatives working to destroy the people of Iraq and to steal their ancient land and their oil fields. Why else would the British select a former general in the Iraqi Army, Muzahim Al-Tameemi, and other senior members of Saddam’s Baath regime to head the interim administration in Basra.

In short, almost everyone in the region believes that the Americans helped Saddam Hussein and his cronies flee the battlefield. Now, we can all sit back and watch US forces hunt for Iraqi terrorists all over the neighboring Arab and Islamic countries, just as they did after Osama Bin Laden and Mulla Omar vanished in Afghanistan. Fifty-five more faces have now been added to Bush’s hit list, which he keeps locked away in his desk, waiting for the moment when he can draw crosses over all of them and gloat over their capture or death.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks added a new twist to Bush’s war games when he announced at command headquarters in Qatar that to aide in the manhunt, US soldiers were being given decks of playing cards bearing the photographs of Saddam and his 54 aides (some already reportedly captured or surrendered), with the aces naturally reserved for Saddam and his sons. No doubt, these sinister playing cards must have been Bush’s own mundane and graceless contribution to the war effort, meant to remind everyone of his previous threats to UN Security Council members when he alluded to the Old West “poker” game and dared members to “show their cards”.

In the world of Bush and Co., what is important is “winning” at any cost. Tragically, this violent message is being promoted by the US president all over America and people are basking in the joy of brutal force and of winning a lop-sided war against an ill-equipped sanction-ridden country the size of California. Last week, at the Boeing aircraft factory where F-18 fighter jets are assembled, a bellicose Bush told workers: “The war goes on. And we’re winning.”

Now that Iraq has effectively been eliminated, the first destination on Bush’s hit list is Syria of course – Israel’s staunchest enemy. This Arab country has now become the new sitting duck in the region. In the last few days, Bush, Rumsfeld and Powell have leveled a number of charges against Syria, including harboring terrorists, aiding the Iraqi regime, and developing chemical weapons. A senior US military officer said that one of Iraq’s top nuclear scientists had taken refuge in Syria. The latest theory is that the Iraqis have actually moved their weapons out of the country and into Syria – meaning of course that we must now turn to Syria for the elusive 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin and 500 tons of sarin, mustard and nerve gas. Powell, the so-called dove in the administration, threatened to impose political and economic sanctions, which we all know is no more than a “softening up” of the Syrian population before the final kill. One Arab country down, how many more to go?

Still, I would opt for the first scenario, the Houdini disappearing act. Not because I believe in the honor and integrity of the American president or because I believe he could never stoop to such diabolical schemes. On the contrary, I believe that he is capable of committing the most heinous of crimes in cold and calculated arrogance. But it is his obsession with decapitation and his gruesome “head-in-a-box” fixation that makes one firmly believe that he could never be made to forgo the thrill of watching the actual decapitation of Saddam Hussein. It seems impossible that he would agree to let him go and settle instead for toppling his statue. Watching the decapitated bronze head of Saddam Hussein being dragged through the streets of Baghdad by Iraqi looters, beggars and street bums from the slums of the newly liberated Saddam City is definitely not the exciting moment of conquest President Bush had in mind. What kind of a plain-Jane victory is this?

“I will never forget the image of the statue of Saddam Hussein falling,” a deadpan grim-faced Bush told a crowd of overexcited journalists on the day US Marines poured into the capital. This was definitely not the language of Armageddon that has become a trademark of Bush and his administration. You could just tell that there was no jubilation here – no medieval joy of conquest, no thrill at the success of “Operation Decapitation,” simply because the prized severed head had not been found.

We know from a BBC interview with Bob Woodward, American author of “Bush at War”, that Bush had personally asked his commanders before they left for Afghanistan to get him Bin Laden’s “head in a box.” And sure enough, the troops, as Woodward recounts, were trying desperately to fulfill their promise to their commander-in-chief and to get him Bin Laden’s head at any cost. Apparently, they became so consumed with the idea that they even started scavenging newly-dug graves in the villages of Afghanistan, frantically searching for Bin Laden DNA. The poor villagers of Afghanistan have long since stopped directing American troops to the burial sites of their loved-ones lest these overenthusiastic Marines desecrate their graves. Till today, US troops are doling out dollars to dubious Afghani informants and callously bombing villages and hamlets and even targeting wedding guests at the mere hint that Bin Laden might be among the crowds. But alas, Bin Laden was nowhere to be found. And now a double blow for President Bush. Now the Marines must find two heads-in-a-box.

Meanwhile, for all of us – neighbors of Iraq – the sight of Saddam’s statue falling in Al-Firdaus Square was indeed a defining moment in Arab history – not because it signaled the end of a brutal Arab dictator but because it marked the start of American occupation of Iraq. To us, another Arab country is now in the grips of Zionists and the right-wing extremists of America. To us, the real war had just begun. We hated Saddam, but we now hate him more for allowing the Americans to invade his country. During Bush’s 20-day bombing campaign, there were just three epithets on the lips of every man, woman, and child: Murderers, criminals, villains. This is how the US is perceived in Arab world and this is how it will always be perceived till the day US troops leave Iraq. One Iraqi had this to say about the US Marines now occupying Tikrit: “This is an occupation. Nothing else. We will keep quiet for a year and if they have not gone we will kill them.” Last Friday after prayer, tens of thousands of Sunni and Shiite worshipers marched through the streets of Baghdad calling on the US to leave. Just days after the occupation, two Shiite leaders brought to Iraq by the CIA were cut to pieces because they were perceived to be American “stooges.”

Two weeks into liberation and already the Iraqis are beginning to chafe under occupation. According to the French wire service AFP, there is bitter resentment at the US presence and every day there is some kind of anti-US protest in front of the Palestine Hotel. It’s no wonder. There is no water, no electricity, no sanitation, no food, no medicine, no security, no jobs, no salaries, no school, no basic services, no garbage collection; and in addition to all of this, rats are now appearing in every building and there is a deadly outbreak of diarrhea and other infectious diseases. Many people are dying and ten percent of the dead are children. According to a recent Unicef report, “mountains of refuse have piled up in front of hospitals including bloody bandages and even amputated limbs.” And as if this gruesome situation wasn’t enough, Baghdad University has now become a US military base, off limits to Iraqi citizens. Opposition leaders and religious scholars have also been kidnapped and detained, among them Sheikh Mohammad Al-Furtasi and Ayattollah Mohammad Taqi Al-Madrasi.

In Mosul, on two consecutive days last week, US troops fired into crowds of protesters killing 18 civilians and injuring another 17. In a show of force aimed at intimidating Iraqi resistance, five thousand soldiers of the 101 Airborne Division rumbled into the bustling streets of Mosul in tanks and armed trucks with attack helicopters hovering overhead.

At the roadblocks of Basra, the British forces have been busy detaining all young Iraqi men of fighting age who look like they might be persuaded to resist occupation. Thousands of able-bodies Iraqis are held in detention camps with no access to lawyers or family and no charges being leveled against them. Another Guantanamo Bay right in the heart of Iraq.

Throughout the bombing campaign, many young Iraqis were seen being led away in a line with green canvas bags pulled over their heads, one man’s arm on the shoulder of the man in front, to a wrecked compound taken over by the British Army. Till now, Iraqi civilians are humiliatingly being forced to squat with both hands on their heads at military checkpoints in Southern Iraq. People’s life savings have been systematically confiscated on the pretext that it might be used to help terrorists.

In another sinister development, Jay Garner, the pro-Likud, pro-Sharon American viceroy of Iraq, arrived in Baghdad and went straight to Yarmuk Hospital to visit patients, or should I say victims of US terror. Let’s just hope he visits the children’s ward where mutilated and heavily bandaged children lie crying to be comforted by anguished parents and where deaths from US missiles and a range of hitherto unseen cancers are common. Would he care to see the bodies of children maimed by the explosion of cluster bombs and other unexploded munitions that litter the cities? Let’s just remember that each round fired by US tanks contains 4,500 grams of solid uranium whose particles, breathed or digested, can cause cancer. Let’s just hope Jay Garner knows these facts the next time he makes his rounds of Iraqi hospitals. Let us remind him that according to the World Health Organization, Baghdad hospitals were seeing 100 combat casualties per hour after the initial US thrust into the city, and that amputations were being performed without sufficient anesthesia or morphine.

Unlike Bush, what we will never forget is not the image of Saddam Hussein’s statue falling, but rather the countless images of dead and injured children littering the streets and highways and hospitals of Iraq, images that have been likened to scenes from the Crimean War. What can ever erase the sight of severed heads, incinerated corpses, scattered brains on bloody pavements, and the horror of a woman and her three children being burned alive inside their car in front of stricken pedestrians and motorists? What can ever blot out the screams of a three-year-old Iraqi girl desperately trying to endure the agonizing pain of the surgeon’s needle as he sewed up the rest of her disfigured stitched-up face?

How can we forget missiles slamming into crowded apartment complexes, into family homes, market places, restaurants, roadside cafes and hospitals in Al-Mansour, Al-Shaab, Al-Nasr, and Al-Dora? How can we forget the grizzly scenes in Hilla, 160 kilometers from Baghdad, where TV footage showed an angry father piling a burned and mangled infant onto a truckload of dismembered women and children? Roland Huguenin, one of the six International Red Cross workers in Iraq, described the horrific scene at Hilla Hospital to Canadian TV: “In the case of Hilla, everybody had very serious wounds and many, many of them small kids and women. We had small toddlers of two or three years of age who had lost their legs, their arms. We have called this a horror.”

Nothing can ever obliterate or justify this barbarism – certainly not images of Jay Garner visiting Iraqi hospitals, or British soldiers handing out candy to starved Iraqi children, or US Marines shaking hands with the villagers of the newly “liberated” dirt-poor villages of the South, too hungry, illiterate and naéve to know better than to shake hands with their Christian-Zionist invaders. And the horror of all horrors is that Washington and London are now distributing Purple Hearts and Victoria Crosses to soldiers for their bravery in Operation Decapitation, for their courage in dropping uranium-headed missiles, bunker-busters and cluster bombs on residential areas and market places, massacring and maiming thousands of Iraqi women and children in their mad search for Saddam Hussein’s decapitated head.

Afnan Fatani is a Saudi professor of English language and style. She has published several papers on Arabic linguistics. She is based in Jeddah. Above article, republished here with permission, was first published in the Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.