Mon, Dec 29, 2003 - Page 9 News List

In 2003, the muddle in the Middle East only grew murkier

It has been a crucial year for the Middle East, with war in Iraq and the continuing 'intifada' in Israel. Just what happened in the region in 2003, and what does it mean for the year ahead as well as for the rest of the world?

By David Hirst  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

This was the year the Middle East became the undisputed, tumultuous centre of global politics.

When, at dawn on Mar. 20 the US and its British ally went to war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, they were intervening in the region on such a scale that Arabs everywhere compared the invasion, in its potential geopolitical significance, to that seminal upheaval of the last century: the collapse of the Ottoman empire. That led to the arbitrary carve-up of its former Arab provinces by the European colonial powers and, in 1948, to the loss of one of them, Palestine, to the Israeli settler-state.

In Arab eyes, it was a final mortal blow to the so-called "Arab system" through which the component parts of the greater Arab "nation" collectively strove to protect the territorial integrity and basic security of the whole. To the disgust and shame of the Arab peoples, it was not merely incapable of preventing the conquest and occupation of what, properly governed, would have been one of the most powerful and prosperous Arab lands, but was largely complicit in it.

It simply stood and watched as the world's only superpower embarked on its hugely ambitious, neo-colonial enterprise: to make Iraq the fulcrum for reshaping the entire region and, with regime change and "democratization," cure it of those sicknesses -- political and social oppression, religious extremism, corruption, tribalism and economic stagnation -- that had turned it into the main threat to the existing world order. It did not formally envisage a full-scale redrawing of state frontiers, but it looked as though by an inexorable momentum that might come to pass.

It was seen as a second Palestine, not so much because of the foreign conquest of another Arab country, but because, via the neoconservative hawks in the administration of US President George W. Bush, it was at least as much Israeli in inspiration and purpose as it was American. The mighty blow struck in Baghdad would so weaken other Arab regimes that the Palestinians, more than ever bereft of Arab support, would submit to that full-scale Israeli subjugation and dispossession of all but a last pitiful fragment of their original homeland.

This grandiose enterprise began well enough. The rottenest regime of a rotten Arab order collapsed swiftly as expected. Within three weeks the Americans were in Baghdad and a US tank teamed up with a jubilant crowd in the symbolic act of toppling Saddam's statue in Firdaous Square. On May 1, a triumphant, flight-suited George Bush strutted aboard an aircraft carrier to declare major combat operations at an end.

But the US was to find no weapons of mass destruction, demolishing the prime official war aim. More seriously, the goodwill it had earned from most Iraqis for overthrowing the despot soon began to dissipate amid the evidence of just how ill-equipped the US was for the "nation-building" that was to follow. There developed a competition, fateful for the success or failure of the whole enterprise, between a majority of Iraqis, who for all their growing exasperation with the occupation wanted it to remain until a heathy, independent Iraqi order could take its place, and a minority who wanted to end it by any means.

By June the first American soldiers began to die. The resistance begun by Saddam loyalists widened to other groups, overwhelmingly Sunni, until by October the CIA concluded that 50,000 people were active in it. The US military responded with drastic methods -- collective punishments, massive firepower, demolitions and razings -- that could not but incite a greater militancy.

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