Exclusive: The Fourth World War

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M.J. Akbar

Published — Monday 7 April 2003

Last Update 7 April 2003 3:00 am

Events make questions irrelevant and answers unnecessary. Last winter, on the eve of the crucial vote in the US Congress authorizing George Bush to go to war if he considered it necessary, George Tenet briefed senators on a matter of the highest sensitivity. He informed them that Iraq had ordered, illegally, 500 tons of uranium from Niger. The implication was that Saddam Hussein was ready to produce nuclear weapons. That charge went into arguably the most important speech made by a President of the United States in any given year, his State of the Union address to the American Congress. Nothing reaches that speech without the most careful consideration. This year George Bush repeated that charge, and thanked the British government for having passed on such intelligence to the Americans. Iraq and Niger denied this, but wouldn’t they?

By the first week of March, the accusation was in tatters, proved untrue and based on forgeries which any respectable intelligence agency would be embarrassed to be duped by. While that accusation reverberated it created the conditions by which institutions and even nations offered their support for the Bush-Blair war policy. Does anyone ask any questions about this error now that it has served its purpose?

What answer will George Bush give if the Anglo-American forces do not find what they have formally gone in search of, weapons of mass destruction? Nothing more belligerent than a smirk I guess. Already the question has begun to fade as the invading forces (surely no one calls them liberators any more?) reach the gates of Baghdad.

The object of this invasion was not to find weapons, but to find Saddam Hussein. Bush and Blair want to possess Iraq and control its natural resources. They are ready to pay what it takes to do so. When possession is the aim, reasons become flexible. There is justification for everything. Civilian casualties? Saddam killed far more civilians. No celebratory uprising? There is still fear of Saddam. The celebrations will begin after he is dead. What fear of Saddam can there now be in Basra, a city that was supposed to fall in 48 hours and continues to fight on the 15th day of the war? Was it fear of Saddam that made the people of Najaf lie down in front of their holy shrines and dare the marines to cross this non-violent picket? Was it fear of Saddam that made young men chant in jubilation before the western cameras after an American warplane had crashed? Was it fear of Saddam that sent suicide missions?

This is a war between the mightiest armies ever assembled and the human will. In 15 days over 23,000 sorties have been flown over defenseless skies. Cities have been bombed at will. But only empty country fell easily. If there were people there was a fight. The Anglo-American forces have suffered more casualties than they will ever admit, and the figures could rise as they concentrate on Baghdad and thin out elsewhere. But there are no prizes for guessing who will prevail. It would require a miracle for Saddam Hussein to survive. Miracles are possible, but it is sensible never to bank upon them.

Saddam Hussein will be dead the moment he is defeated, although Iraq may not be defeated even if Saddam Hussein is dead. Do not expect Nuremberg-type trials. Saddam knows too much, including the support he received from the CIA when he organized the coup that brought him to power. Note the witticism wandering across the world through SMS and e-mail: “President Chirac asks President Bush, how can you be so sure that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction? Bush answers, we kept the receipts.”

This is an old-fashioned conquest. After sentiment has been punished, and morality shown its marginal place, reality will seize its moment. Gen. Tommy Franks will rule. Journalists covering the war from Baghdad, recently moved out of the best hotel in the city, Rashid, because the Americans have declared it to be a legitimate war target. The journalists believe that Gen. Franks is really saving the hotel to become his headquarters. In the House of Commons on Thursday, an MP stood up during the prime minister’s question hour and asked if it was true that America planned to place the head of a defense company, and a declared Israel partisan, as the civilian face of the post-conflict government. Blair had a clever answer, but no reply. He said that the coalition wanted Iraqis to run their own country, but could not specify when that blessed day would come. Those who want the United Nations rather than the United States to administer post-war Iraq have been told not to fool themselves. Washington did not expend so much political and economic capital in order to hand over its colony to the Germans and the French.

Is Washington prepared for the consequences of victory? Has America bargained for the suspicion, anger and even hatred that it has generated? No one wants a single country to rule the world. This sentiment is not restricted to the famous, or infamous, Muslim street. Millions who were positive, or indifferent, toward America now view it as a greedy bully. This is unfortunate, for democratic and open America does not deserve the reputation that Bush has thrust upon his country. As Hosni Mubarak pointed out, who knows how many Osama Bin Ladens have been born in the last fortnight.

International relations, in the post-Second World War era, have been conducted like a chess game. The process is slow, the attitude deliberate, and the rules are carefully framed. The powerful are given a special status, and they win, but they have to play the game. Bush and Blair have picked up this chessboard, and thrown it into the air. No one really knows where the pieces will fall, and whether pawns will become knights and queens in the process. Or whether kings will slip and fall after shooting into the sky.

The fall of Baghdad, if, or when, it comes, may not be the end of the war either. James Woolsey, a former head of CIA, was giving testimony before Congress this week. He predicted that what he called, aptly, the fourth world war, would last longer than any of the last three. The first world war lasted four years, the second five. The third, the Cold War, lasted forty years. The fourth, which we are witnessing now, could last longer than that.

Preparing for a lecture on Islam and democracy, I was looking for a list of Muslim countries. I found it in a remarkable place, a graphic about a document prepared by the United States Committee for Refugees. This committee has prepared a roster of countries whose nationals will be taken automatically into custody if they seek to apply for asylum in the United States. They are, reading from west to east: Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, UAE, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. Take three exceptions out, and you have the Islamic world.

Baghdad is the symbol of both life and death in Arab history. Its glory is resplendent in literature, poetry, science, polity, governance and civilization; and pain is etched in the memory of Hulagu Khan, heir of Chingez, who destroyed the city in the middle of the thirteenth century. The waters of the Tigris, it is said, became black and red: red from the blood of those who were butchered, and black from the ink of books that were destroyed by the illiterate Mongols. The story of Baghdad is apocryphal for every Arab.

Shamsuddin Ibn Batuta was 21 in 1325 when he set out from his native Tangier for his pilgrimage to Makkah: It took him 29 years to return, during which he traveled up to the Volga in the north, Tanzania in the south, and India, Indonesia and China in the east (he heard Sadi being recited on a river in China, and met Indians in Granada). His narrative was recorded on his return to Morocco as the Rihlah of Ibn Batuta.

He writes of Baghdad: She is the Abode of Peace and the capital of Al-Islam, of illustrious rank and supreme pre-eminence, abode of caliphs and residence of scholars. Abul Hasan Ibn Jubair (God be pleased with him) has said: And this illustrious city, although she still remains the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, and center of allegiance to the Imams of Quraish, yet her outward lineaments have departed and nothing remains of her but the name. By comparison with her former state, before the assault of misfortunes upon her and the fixing of the eyes of calamities in her direction, she is as the vanishing trace of an encampment or the image of the departing dream-visitant. There is no beauty in her that arrests the eye, or summons the busy passer-by to forget his business and to gaze — except at the Tigris, which lies between her eastern and western quarters like a mirror set off between two panels, or a necklace ranged between two breasts; she goes down to drink of it and never suffers thirst, and views herself by it in a polished mirror that never suffers rust; and between her air and her water feminine beauty is brought to a flowering.

And then Ibn Batuta recalls the celebrated Arab poet Abu Tammam’s verse on Baghdad:

Over Baghdad is stationed death’s loud herald

Weep for her, then, weep for time’s rapine there!

Erstwhile, upon her stream by war imperiled

When in her streets its flames were briefly bated,

Men hoped her happy fortunes reinstated.

Now all their hopes have turned to dull despair!

But the dream was not condemned to eternal despair. Within fifty years of the destruction of Baghdad, and the simultaneous march of Crusader armies from the West across the Arab world till Egypt, Syria and Palestine seemed lost, a historical miracle occurred.

The Turks appeared from seemingly nowhere, the Mamluks and the Ottomans defeated the Mongols and the Crusaders, restored the independence of Islamic centers of power and gave back Baghdad her pride.

As James Woolsey predicted, it could be a long fourth world war.

Arab News Opinion 7 April 2003

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