Baghdad - a second Beirut?

It now appears that in many parts of Baghdad the Iraqi military forces seem to have collapsed as a viable force of resistance. There is still fighting in some areas and the "coalition" forces are wary of declaring that the war is over. There may still be some surprises in the next few days, but it is clear that we are on the verge of an important turning point. Here Roberto Sarti compares the experience of the siege of Beirut in 1982 by the Israeli army with what is happening today in Baghdad. As US-led troops tighten their grip over Baghdad, memories of the last time an Arab capital, Beirut (Lebanon), came under siege lead us to make some interesting parallels.

Yesterday the English language section of the Al Jazeera website published an interview with Elias Atallah, the man who organised the resistance groups defending Beirut against the Israeli invasion. They quote him as saying, "Almost the same thing that happened 21 years ago here in Beirut is happening now in Baghdad."

In 1982, Israel invaded the Lebanon to eradicate the bases of the Palestine Liberation Organisation operating there. The Israeli military staged ferocious air strikes that were followed by a ground offensive with tanks and bombardment from the sea. They advanced rapidly into the Lebanon, until they reached the gates of Beirut.

"The first area which Ariel Sharon (who was Israel's defence minister at the time) seized in Beirut was the airport," he said drawing comparisons with US attempts to take full control of Saddam International Airport, 20 km to the southwest of Baghdad.

"From Beirut airport Israel deployed its troops to other semi-residential areas until they tightened their grip on the capital, besieging it as bombardment intensified from the air, ground and sea," he said.

Unlike Baghdad, the Lebanese capital had already been divided along ethnic lines as a result of the civil war. The airport was located in the southern outskirts of west Beirut, which was then under the control of Palestinian and Lebanese Muslim and leftist militias.

Israeli forces deployed in areas under control of their Lebanese Christian militia allies in the east and the north of the city before they were able to enter west Beirut on September 15, more than three months after its war on the Lebanon had begun. But fierce resistance forced Israel to pull out its troops after only 11 days of occupation.

Atallah, who led some of the leftist resistance groups that played a major role in ousting Israeli forces, said that the tactics used by Iraqi fighters in Umm Qasr resembled those used by the Lebanese resistance in 1982.

"In the first assault on Umm Qasr, the Iraqi fighters kept out of sight only to emerge later and surprise the Americans," he continued, "and that was to avoid a confrontation with the highly sophisticated technology at the Americans' disposal."

That's why, Atallah explained, the US-led troops initially announced that they had captured Umm Qasr.

"During the Israeli invasion, we used to get very close to the Israeli tanks, sometimes with only one building separating us so that the Israeli aircraft would not be able to bomb us," he said.

"I am almost certain that is what had happened in Umm Qasr," Atallah said, adding: "The Iraqis cannot win over the huge technology used in this war, but they can deceive it."

Baghdad could become a second Beirut, but on a larger scale, this time with no friendly militia helping the imperialists. As we have already explained many times, the US troops will inevitably take the whole of Baghdad, but the price would be that of destabilizing the entire area.

Even if they succeed in killing Saddam Hussein, this will not stop the resistance of the Iraqi people. Initially some sections of the population may have illusions that with the Americans will come the dollars and a period of reconstruction that will lead to "prosperity". But the American imperialists have not gone into Baghdad to help the Iraqi people. They are there for their own economic and strategic interests. Whole layers of the population will remain poor, and therefore resentment will be on the increase. The more the days pass, the more the people will realise this, and a desire to resist and throw out the imperialists will grow.

There are however big differences between the situation that existed in the Lebanon in the 1980s and the situation today on a world scale, and especially in the Arab world. In the 1980s although there was widespread opposition to the brutality of the Israeli army in the Lebanon, the opposition movement internationally was not at the level that it has reached now. As we have reported over the past few weeks, mass demonstrations have shaken all the already weakened and rotten regimes in Syria, the Yemen and Egypt.

In Egypt the demonstrations have been the largest since the seventies. Undoubtedly the religious fundamentalists played a role in organising them. But the western media could not hide from our TV screens the fact that the students in Cairo were marching behind several Che Guevara banners.

On Monday (April 7) violent clashes broke out in front of the British Embassy in Teheran between thousands of students and the Iranian police. The British Embassy in Teheran has in fact become the traditional rallying point of the antiwar protesters.

The live TV broadcasts of the images of hundreds of civilians killed under US and British bombings and the thousands of injured, are a completely new phenomenon, something which has never been seen before in any war and this will have deep and profound effects on the consciousness of workers and youth all over the world, and particularly in the Arab countries.

At first, the Arabs reacted with dismay and disbelief at the television images of US tanks in the heart of Baghdad, with some dismissing the news as American propaganda and others signing up for the jihad, according to the reports of Arab newspapers. News of US troops in central Baghdad left many shocked and wondering whether President Saddam had been bluffing when he promised to slaughter the invading troops at the gates of Baghdad. One man in Cairo was reported in the Jordan Times as saying, "We had hoped Saddam would inflict as many casualties on the invaders as possible to teach them a lesson and make them think twice before striking another Arab country." This was a man in his early 30s who was too worried about government repression to give his name.

The Iraqi regime has crumbled. It has proved incapable of putting up the resistance it had promised, in spite of moments of incredible determination and courage of the Iraqi soldiers in the face of a much more powerful force. In spite of this, the war in Iraq will leave an imprint on the Arab masses all over the Middle East.

This war has been and will continue to be a painful and terrible experience for the Arab masses. From this experience their anger and opposition to US imperialism will inevitably grow. They have witnessed how their own reactionary leaders have stood by and allowed thousands of Iraqis to be slaughtered. These reactionary regimes will pay a price for this in the coming period. The masses have been politicised more than ever. They will be looking for an alternative. It is the task of the Marxists to provide them with a viable revolutionary perspective and programme.