December 10, 2003 | Front Page Magazine

Iraqis for the “Occupation”

Yesterday's demonstrations in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities were a benchmark: Iraq's resistance to terrorism has begun. Ironically, the first TV station to report such a revolutionary development was none other than al-Jazeera, the jihad channel across the Arab world. But the exclusive airing of such footages was not so innocent. The Qatar-based media understood much faster than Western networks the real dimensions of these marches. Therefore it decided to report it first, and, through condescending coverage, demean it in the eyes of Iraqi and Arab viewers, a traditional-yet-efficient subversive tactic. But whatever were the desperate attempts to pre-empt the unfolding realities, the latter rolled on.

Almost 20,000 men and women – twice the number reported by al-Jazeera – marched across central Baghdad, while others repeated the move in different cities of Mesopotamia yesterday. The demonstrators, from all walks of life and from all religions and ethnicities of Iraq, shouted one slogan in Arabic: “La' la' lil irhab. Na'am, na'am lil dimucratiya.” That is: “No, no to terrorism. Yes, yes to Democracy!”

Taking the streets of the former capital of the Ba'athist prison, Iraqi Shiite, Sunni, Kurds and Christians bonded together against the “enemies of peace.” Responding to the call of the newly formed “Popular Committee against Terrorism,” tens of thousands of citizens slapped Saddam and his former regime in the face. Speakers at a central square declared clearly:

“We will resist the return of the dictatorship to power. With or without the Americans, we are now a resistance against the Baath and the foreign Terrorists.”

The masses, finally taking their courage in their hands, have exposed their deepest feelings. Many intellectuals, writers, women activists, students were seen in the front lines of the demonstration. “We will not allow the remnant of the intelligence service of Saddam destroy this new experiment of democracy and freedom,” said one leader live on al-Jazeera television. The scene was more reminiscent of Prague and Budapest than any other recent battlefield.

More significant yet was the open participation of labor unions. Unexpectedly, Iraqi workers were the most excited participants in the march against Wahabi and Baathist Terror. “We need factories, we need peace, no fascists, no fanatics,” sang the laborites, as though they were in Manchester or Detroit. But there was even a more significant element in the marches. Cadres from the “Hizb al-Dawa al Islamiya” – a rather conservative Islamic “movement” whose members were walking under the same banners of resistance to terrorism. Why? Well, we need to understand the Shi'a drama. By the day, mass graves are being uncovered with thousands of bodies of men, women and children, all massacred by the Saddam security. How on Earth would the Shiite majority ever accept the return to power of the Sunni-controlled Ba'ath Party?

Let's note two matters about these demonstrations. First, they were almost not reported in much of the Western media. Until late last night in Europe and the Western Hemisphere, news focused on the operations against Coalition forces. But the Iraqi people's genuine calls for democracy were not heard, not seen, and not factored in the game. The BBC and CNN downplayed the events, while al-Jazeera mislead the Arab world about them. The jihad network spent more editorial energy undermining the objectives and the credibility of the event than reporting it.

The anchors, to the disbelief of many viewers in the Arab world, said the marchers were “expressing views against what they call terrorism” (emphasis added). Al-Jazeera evidently reserves to itself the definition of terrorism. Since September 11, the network has systematically added “what they call terrorism” to each sentence reporting terror attacks by al-Qaeda, other jihadist factions and the Saddam. In sum, that is not terrorism, but a Western view of what is legitimate violence. But al-Jazeera's sour surprise with the first steps of popular resistance to jihadism in Baghdad took the network by surprise. As it was airing the segment, its anchors lost linguistic balance and added this time: “The demonstrators are criticizing what they call violence!” Hence, the editors in Qatar were trapped ideologically. They couldn't even accept the idea that Arabs could be marching against violence, so they described tens of massacres and bombings as “alleged violence,” (ma yusamma bil unf). The al-Jazeera debacle was probably the most important victory of the demonstration.

But two others ironies were also hanging over Baghdad last night. One was the link between President Bush's drive to push for democracy in Iraq and the region, and the other was the silence of those who were supposed to drive that wagon around the world. Observers drew my attention to the fact that yesterday's march came after another smaller one, which took place the day after the U.S. President visited their city. They also noted that many of the banners were pasted from Bush's speeches to the Arab world last month. I was invited to make a link. Eventually I saw it. The workers, women and students in Iraq didn't mention the name of the Presidential visitor, but they heavily quoted his words. What's the message here? You can read it on the mushrooming underground websites in the region. People want freedom and democracy, even at the hands of aliens (what the Left calls “occupation” and the Iraqis call “liberation”).

This leads us to the second irony. While the underdogs are barking freely in the streets of Baghdad, challenging the Ba'athist shadows and the jihadist terrorists, human rights and democracy groups in the West lack the courage to come to the rescue of their fellow progressive forces in the Middle East. As a group of Iraqi students told me, “Isn't it terrible to see that Western elites came here to demonstrate in support of Saddam against the Coalition, and when we took the streets to demonstrate against the Saddam war crimes, they didn't show up?”

Yesterday was a benchmark in Iraq. Maybe a small step in the long journey toward human dignity, but all genuine marches for freedom are of eternal value.

Walid Phares is a Professor of Middle East Studies and Religious Conflict, a Terrorism expert with MSNBC, and an FDD Senior Fellow.