News and opinions on situation in Iraq
26/11/04 Abu Hanifa and its terrorists by Omar Khan
** Dahr Jamail's Iraq Dispatches **
** **

Another brilliant analysis from Omar Khan…

November 26, 2004

What gives violence legitimacy? Last Friday, in Baghdad, Iraqis attending mosque were interrupted by a US-led military assault. Several accounts of the event circulated in the hours following. Among them I would like to briefly compare two: one by an independent journalist and a second by a major newspaper.

*Of organizations and operations*

As US Forces Raided a Mosque” opens with the statement that “U.S. soldiers raided the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad during Friday prayers, killing at least four and wounding up to 20 worshippers.” As a sequence of events, the episode is explained with an onset (”about 50 U.S. soldiers with 20 Iraqi National Guardsmen entered the mosque”) at a specified time (”12:30 pm”). A witness describes what follows: “Everyone starting yelling 'Allah u Akbar' (God is great) because they were frightened. Then the soldiers started shooting the people praying!” He continues, saying “they are holding our heads to the ground”; as this witness and others were collected, he recounts that he was able to escape detention when a young boy claimed to be of his relation. Testimony from two further witnesses corroborates this account, as does the extended audio version of this report that includes a recording of gunfire inside the mosque. In both versions of the report, it is noted that the US military prevented medical personnel from entering the mosque to treat the wounded. Then “about 30 men were led out with hoods over their heads and their hands tied behind them. Soldiers loaded them into a military vehicle and took them away around 3.15 pm.” After almost three hours, Red Crescent officials were able to attend to those inside the mosque, confirming nine wounded and four dead.

GI’s and Iraqis Raid Mosque, Killing 3,” though similarly titled, provides a different account. The article begins by amplifying its explicit subject (”American and Iraqi troops raided a prominent Sunni mosque in Baghdad on Friday”) for which a possible cause is given (it “may have been aimed at a cleric said to have incited insurgent violence”). This cause is then visited, substantiated: “In Mosul, in the north, Iraqi commanders staged numerous raids in search of rebel hideouts as up to a dozen decapitated bodies were found strewn about the city.” Returning 200 miles to the south, the article describes a “chaotic raid” following a “melee”; “blood splattered on the floor” (whose is unsaid) follows from the actions of “enraged worshipers” rather than that of those who opened fire on them. Note the Iraqi agency implicated, in contrast to the previous article: Iraqi rather than American soldiers are said to have opened fire, and it is Iraqis rather than Americans who supply the rationale. Such rationale is at once given at the highest level, “Ayad Allawi said imams who incited violence would be arrested,” and by an ordinary Iraqi: “Louay Ibrahim, an Iraqi police officer who was praying” recounts that “the imam at the mosque was giving a sermon that urged his audience to make Mosul and other Iraqi cities into embattled places.” US-appointed authorities appear representative (the perspective of the Prime minister is that of the praying police officer) as their account substantiates a cause: acts of violence of the sort discovered in Mosul—which it is suggested, finds their origin in Abu Hanifa. That is to say the assault on Abu Hanifa is represented first as a response to murderousness elsewhere in Iraq, and upon a second, more studied look, as a necessary preventative to such murderousness. The killings in Abu Hanifa—the subject of the report—appear a slight cost, relatively benign (however unfortunate) beside the evils unearthed in Mosul.

The account follows this course. The “enraged worshipers” of Abu Hanifa are further implicated by their association with Saddam Hussein, who outside the mosque “stood atop a car to greet supporters” during his last public appearance. Several more paragraphs are devoted to grisly violence of Mosul, further underscoring the necessity of military action taken at the mosque. Indeed, the “swirl of violence” continues south to Baghdad, where Abu Hanifa is revisited after nine and a half paragraphs with descriptions that “worshipers had resisted,” causing shootings and similar “rough treatment.”

Whereas the first article represents violence merely as such, the second contains it within a larger, grander narrative of an American mission in Iraq. Thus, in the latter account, there is little or no place for more mundane details—the denial of medical care to those wounded inside the mosque, and that men were afterward bound, hooded, and detained. That those subject to the shootings were civilians likewise did not suit the heroism of mission, heroism that is depicted in the print edition of the article by an adjacent photo of two US soldiers, steadily converging on a Mosul mosque, their long shadows following them. This second article, moreover, depicts the shootings as part of an immediate response to “resistance” on the part of frenzied worshipers (‘worshiper’ itself being a word which suggests a certain measure of zeal beyond what we would expect of, for instance, a ‘churchgoer’). In this account, Iraqi soldiers do all of the shooting—there is but passing mention that American soldiers even entered the mosque. And most fundamentally, the second article is a departure from the first and a literal departure from Abu Hanifa in the view it offers of the episode: the attack on a house of worship is no more than a frame for expounding on “the militants’ organization” and operations in Mosul and elsewhere—operations whose organization, it is suggested, comes in part from prayer services of the sort that US military interrupted. This account—falling under the heading “Insurgents” in its print version—thereby gives legitimacy to the violence represented therein.

*”Terrorism is a modern barbarism that we call terrorism.” —George Shutlz, as United States Secretary of State, 1984 [1] *

The first article was published by Dahr Jamail, [2] the second by the New York Times. [3] This second account—as an article from the Times, and as such a source of countless derivations in regional and local media—might be called the authoritative, or if you like, official account of last Friday’s episode at Abu Hanifa. Like so many other authoritative or official accounts of violence, this contained within it the word “terrorist.” In this instance, “terrorist financiers” are referred to passingly as part of the rationale for the United States to deploy violence against those in the Abu Hanifa mosque and elsewhere. But the subjects of violence in Abu Hanifa were civilians; why is it that the attack on them is not described as terrorist?

Eqbal Ahmad has said of the word terrorism that “inconsistency necessarily evades definition. If you are not going to be consistent, you’re not going to define.” [4] This is true of public discussion of the past week’s discussion of violence in Iraq as it is of public discussion generally. There are, however, official definitions of terrorism that have been published if rarely discussed. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff, a panel of the highest-ranking members of each branch of the armed forces, defines terrorism as “the calculated use of violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” [5] The US State Department has used another definition of terrorism, that which is contained in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d): “The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant^* targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. The term ‘international terrorism’ means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country. The term ‘terrorist group’ means any group practicing, or that has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.” [6]

Both definitions are reminders of the most recent invasion of Fallujah—which Richard Myers, current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called “very, very successful”—in which the exit of male and the entry of medical personnel were denied, and the use of unconventional weapons reported to be widespread. On the number of Fallujans killed in the past few days, Lieutenant General John Sattler assured that “a number of 1,200 has been thrown out multiple times. I would say that that's probably a safe number,” at least 800 of whom are thought to be civilian. Mr. Sattler described such success as the result of vigilance in the face of “the tactic that the enemy has been using is at nighttime the enemy tries to go to ground and hide”: “we have no intention of letting the enemy sleep at night because our technology permits us to own the night “ [7] In the second definition of terrorism given above, the asterisk beside “noncombatant” has a corresponding footnote: “for purposes of this definition, the term ‘noncombatant’ is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty.” Operations of the sort explained by Mr. Sattler in Fallujah (and on a smaller scale, in the Abu Hanifa mosque) would be terrorist according to the criteria of the State Department as they target those unengaged in armed conflict—regardless of their political affiliations—as is implied in the previous definition, which characterizes terrorism as attack on “societies.” These operations, moreover, ably fit the psychological objective common to both definitions—that terrorism is used to “intimidate” and is “intended to influence an audience”: these collective punishments, like many others in Iraq, are designed to send “a very powerful message that we are serious.” [8]

However, there is a stipulation in the State Department definition of terrorism that exempts the actions of the US military in Fallujah and Abu Hanifa: such actions are terrorist provided that they are undertaken by “subnational groups or clandestine agents.” This condition disqualifies the actions of US armed forces as terrorist, even though such actions would qualify as “attack directed against a civilian population” and the “deportation or forcible transfer of population “—crimes against humanity as considered by the International Criminal Court. [9] The assumption that terrorism cannot come from a state, explicit in at least one definition, tacitly circumscribes public discussion of terrorism, and accordingly of what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence. It seems that such legitimacy depends less on the violence deployed than on who deploys it.

Max Weber has defined the state as a “human community that successfully claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical violence within a given territory.” It then should be of little surprise that the language of terrorism is language of the state. But this is today both less true and more true than would seem: the language of terrorism is unavailable to some states while it has been used by the United States against fellow states. The US government has extended its monopoly on violence from “a given territory” to every territory [10] , doing so under the rubric of legitimate violence deployed by a state under international conventions (war) against an illegitimate use of violence (terrorism). The first violence of “The War on Terrorism,” it appears, is its violence unto language.

(1) In “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours,” a lecture delivered at the University of Colorado, Eqbal Ahmad, October 12, 1998.

(2) Dahr Jamail, November 19, 2004.

(3) “GI’s and Iraqis Raid Mosque, Killing 3,” New York Times, James Glanz and Richard A. Oppel, Jr., November 20, 2004.

(4) “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours.”

(5) In A Primer on Homeland Security, Institute for Homeland Security. This is called the “institute preferred definition.”

(6) In Patterns of Global Terrorism, US State Department, where it is said that “the US Government has employed this definition of terrorism for statistical and analytical purposes since 1983.”

(7) Defense Department Operational Update Briefing, Lieutenant General John Sattler, November 18, 2004. “We own the night” was also the expression of the plainclothes unit of the New York Police Department that in 1999 shot 41 bullets at unarmed 22 year old Amadou Diallo in his home.

(8) “U.S. forces storm into western Fallujah,” Associated Press, Jim Krane, November 7, 2004.

(9) See articles 7(1) and 7(2) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court: “Deportation or forcible transfer of population” means forced displacement of the persons concerned by expulsion or other coercive acts from the area in which they are lawfully present, without grounds permitted under international law; “Attack directed against any civilian population” means a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts referred to in paragraph 1 against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack.

(10) As George Bush said on November 6, 2001, “all nations, if they want to fight terror, must do something…Over time it's going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity. You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” reported by “Bush says it is time for action,” CNN, November 6, 2001. Iraqi law has been rewritten accordingly; in Executive Order number 91, for instance, the designation “terrorist” is applied to prohibit all violence uninitiated by the US military or the Iraqi Armed Forces that act on its behalf.

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