Although the U.S. military’s moves into downtown Baghdad seem to portend the end of war in Iraq, the rage the invasion has engendered in neighboring Arab and Muslim nations seems likely to inspire continuing guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces.
It's Monday morning, Baghdad time, and we’re following the rapid-fire developments at the center of the Iraqi regime along with the rest of the world. American tanks and troops are at the main presidential palace, at the Al Rashid Hotel, at the Information Ministry headquarters — wherever, it seems, they want to be. The war proper, the outcome of which was never in doubt, seems almost over.
But over the weekend, even in what seemed clearly to be the final days of that war, grim young men still filed onto old buses at a depot in downtown Amman, Jordan. Some were Iraqi exiles but others, a significant percentage, told us they were from Egypt, the Sudan, Syria and Jordan.
They all told us they were going into Iraq, carrying no-questions-asked temporary visas and passports, to join the fight against U.S. forces even as the regime of Saddam Hussein teetered on the brink.
One member of our NBC News team, a Jordanian named Ghazi Balkiz, took one of the long, halting bus rides to the Iraqi side of no-man’s land at the border. There was some exuberant cheering for Ghazi’s camera but it was short-lived. When they talked to him, they talked about dying.
“I am ready to be a suicide bomber,” a 19-year-old said. His father, sitting beside him, said, “That makes me proud.”
Another man said, to a chorus of agreement, that he would “fight the Americans with any method, any way that is possible.” Some used the word “jihad,” or holy war, to describe their mission.
A FATWAH ON ‘INVADERS’
In Monday morning’s Al-Rai, Jordan’s major Arab-language daily, the cleric who heads the Islamic Action Front said a “fatwah,” or edict, had been formally declared against the United States and all who cooperate with the invaders. This has happened before, but now Arabs in the region are responding to the call.
At his Central Command briefing on Sunday, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said American troops had encountered many foreign fighters. “Some come from Sudan, Egypt, other places,” Brooks said.
“We have killed a number of them and captured a number of them,” he said, adding that there was evidence of “military training activities” inside Iraq that suggested links between Iraq and “terrorist organizations.”
MEMORIES OF KABUL
“Afghanistan,” an official source in Jordan told me. “That’s the analogy to think of.”
He reviewed some history: how the Soviets under Leonid Brezhnev decided in 1978 that the Afghani government had to be changed because it was leaning too far toward the West; how Brezhnev’s military planners envisioned a relatively simple three-week war followed by a short occupation; how that invasion of a Muslim country triggered a relentless flow of fighters
into Afghanistan — encouraged in that instance by the United States; and how, 12 years later, the Soviet Army and its occupation government withdrew in humiliation and defeat, the Soviet goals for a country and a region in ruins.
“It’s not an exact analogy of course,” the source said. “It will depend on what the U.S. does after the war. But throughout the Arab and Muslim world, anti-American feeling has never been more pronounced, or dangerous.”
We have seen and reported on that phenomenon. In a story for NBC “Nightly News” this week, we explored the contrasting ways the war was chronicled by Western and Arab-language TV and how the coverage was affecting the dynamics of our news team, which includes both Westerners and Arab nationals.
“We get along,” our report concluded. “In spare moments we play a little soccer, toss a football around, share a meal, talk around a barrel fire. But we’re being urged to different conclusions about why men in the desert next door are killing each other, and the things that connect us … connect us less every day.” Even within our own team, tensions, at some moments, were at the flashpoint.
COMPLICATING A CEASE-FIRE
On the Arab side, the divide between “us and them” seems impossibly wide, and certain to grow by the vow of more violence.
At the end of our cameraman Ghazi’s bus ride, at two in the morning at the Iraqi residence house at border control, the would-be fighters stepped quietly into the dark to await another bus that would take them to Baghdad and to an uncertain future. They would not be factors in the outcome of the “war proper.” But they promised to be complications in whatever cease-fire or peace is forged.
In Monday’s edition of Al-Rai, there was another small item: a report from a U.S. Marines spokesman that his unit had been engaged in hand-to-hand combat south of Baghdad with
“Jordanian, Egyptian and Sudanese volunteers.” At the tail end of a stunning high-tech war, the “volunteers” had attacked the Marines with knives and bayonets.
No casualty figures were given.
(NBC News correspondent Mike Taibbi is reporting from the Iraq-Jordan border.)