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Why Are We Fighting in Southern Iraq?

The resistance in the south explained.

12:35 PM, Mar 25, 2003 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Near the Iraqi Border

AMONG THE MAJOR QUESTIONS five days into Operation Iraqi Freedom is this one: why so much resistance? If the Iraqi people are yearning to be liberated, why are American troops engaged in fights throughout the south of Iraq?

Three reasons: Iraqis loyal to Saddam, outside groups supporting the regime, and the Revenge of 1991.

Everyone expected Saddam's most loyal fighters, those whose fate is directly tied to the survival of the regime, to fight. These forces include the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, the Fedayeen, the Special Security Operation, and civilian Baath party loyalists. With the exception of that last group, these forces are centered in Baghdad, and are preparing to fight there. The numbers of Baath party loyalists--Saddam's henchman who have carried out the regime's atrocities--are thought to be small. Many of them are accomplished in the ways of torture, but are thought to be cowards. They fight because they have to. The Pentagon has compiled a "black list" of Baath party criminals, and these officials are on it. If American soldiers don't kill them, the Iraqis they have tormented for years will.

Iraqis working with the U.S. military here point to several outside groups taking up arms for Saddam's regime. They include: the Mujahideen al-Khalq, a terrorist group long supported by the Iraqi dictator; "Palestinian camps," whose cooperation Saddam has courted by financing suicide operations in Israel at $25,000 per bomber; and the Ahwaz Liberation Forces, an Iranian separatist group based in Iraq that has had friendly relations with the Iraqi regime for two decades.

Together, these groups may account for the numerous media reports of civilians fighting U.S. troops. Estimates of the numbers of these fighters vary wildly, but the Ahwaz Liberation Forces (ALF) alone is believed to number between 15,000 and 40,000. Several Arabic radio stations have reported that the Ahwaz group is actively fighting American forces in southern Iraq. That shouldn't be surprising. Uday Hussein met with a leader from the Ahwaz group last July in Baghdad. Ahwaz officials have appeared from time to time on Iraqi television and radio to condemn American and British "aggression" in the no-fly zones and to denounce Kuwaitis and Saudis for supporting it. Three years ago the al-Iraq newspaper praised the group on its 75th anniversary. And the feelings at the occasion were mutual: "The songs performed, poems recited and other art functions on the occasion expressed love for Iraq and its leader, President Saddam Hussein, may God be with him."

The ALF fighters may prove particularly difficult for U.S. troops working in places like Basra and Nasiriyah. "Those people are trained in street fighting," says Saib, a member of the Free Iraqi Forces, who is working with U.S. troops. "They supported Saddam Hussein in 1991 against the uprising." If Saddam falls, the Iraqis here say, the resistance will collapse.

Then there's the Revenge of 1991 factor. The 1991 uprising, which Iraqis point to as a betrayal, came up at a meeting in the Roosevelt Room at the White House earlier this month. Condoleezza Rice met with a group of two-dozen Iraqi-Americans and talked about the coming war. "Saddam Hussein will be defeated," she promised. She meant this remark to be reassuring. It wasn't.

One of those present, Dr. Maha Hussein, a professor of medicine from the University of Michigan, challenged the National Security Adviser. "Saddam Hussein was defeated in the Iran-Iraq war, and he survived. Saddam Hussein was defeated in the Gulf War, and he survived. How can we know that he will not be defeated once again and still survive?"

"He will not survive this time," Dr. Rice responded crisply.

The distinction between being defeated and surviving is crucial in the context of the current war. Saddam himself tried to shade that difference in his interview with Dan Rather last month, when he claimed that he had not been defeated in the first Gulf War.

Following the Gulf War, the first Bush administration encouraged Iraqi citizens to rise up and overthrow their dictator. The White House promised to back those efforts and, when the Iraqis did in fact revolt in both the north and the south, the Bush administration failed to provide the support they needed. The uprising was brutally put down, and the result was tens of thousands of dead Iraqis.

Those who survived remember this failure. Many Iraqis who participated in the uprisings had to flee the country to avoid execution. Their relatives were harassed, beaten, tortured, and sometimes killed by Saddam's regime.