BAGHDAD – The latest round of fighting in Iraq is the first real test for the country’s new government after it took over from the U.S. and British-led occupation authority in the last days of June. The initial relative calm that greeted the handover has been slowly disintegrating across the country. The opposition against the new authorities has been powerful from the start.
"This government will fail. We do not accept them because they are the puppets of the Americans. Nothing has changed, we are still occupied." For Abdel Jabbar Kubaisi this is relatively mild, compared to the language he often reserves for the Americans and their allies.
He is the editor and publisher of Nidaa al-Watan, the Call of the Nation, a weekly publication that openly identifies itself with the insurgents. Kubaisi is a Sunni from Fallujah, the epicenter of the resistance against the Americans until the recent fighting broke out in the south of Iraq, in Najaf in particular.
"Iraq will stay but the occupation will disappear," proclaims the masthead of Nidaa al-Watan. The paper presents itself as "the voice of the opposition against the occupation."
Its pages are filled every week with virulent attacks on the Americans, their allies and any Iraqi politician who is not in Kubaisi’s camp.
Because above all, Kubaisi is a politician. He leads the Iraqi Patriotic Union, a small party that was opposed to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and 1990s. Two of his brothers were killed by the regime.
Even so, in late 2002 Kubaisi was among the handful of opposition politicians who accepted an invitation from Saddam Hussein to return from exile to hold talks on democratization. It was widely seen as a last-ditch effort to avert the American-led invasion, and it may have cost Kubaisi a say in the new Iraqi order.
"We were for removing Saddam Hussein," Kubaisi now explains in the garden of his large villa in the Baghdad neighborhood of al-Amariya. "But we were against an invasion by foreign troops. The only option that we have as the Iraqi people is to fight the occupation," he says in English, which he speaks animatedly.
"The invasion has destroyed our infrastructure, our culture, our heritage and our dignity," he says. When he talks about the insurgency, he sounds as if he is part of it. "We will succeed in our armed struggle, they are on our ground."
He seems to be intimately familiar with the thinking of the fighters and even their military strategy. In April, on the Arab satellite television station al-Jazeera he criticized a cease-fire that the insurgents had agreed to in Fallujah, saying it weakened their cause.
He is delighted that the Shia firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army have joined battle again. "He is a true Iraqi patriot," says Kubaisi. He understands Sadr’s need for periodic cease-fires, but says "he really wants the Americans out."
Kubaisi comes across as a Sunni Iraqi nationalist of the old school, not very different from the people who have governed the country since Ottoman times. He vehemently opposes "sectarianism." He condemns the Kurds in particular and some Shia groups for putting their cause before the nationalist Iraqi course.
"Iraq is one nation. There are no Sunni, Shia and Kurds, everybody should first of all be a citizen of a democratic Iraqi state," he argues.
Sadr’s obvious pursuit of Shia political and religious interests leaves him unmoved for now. "That is for later. Now we are fighting together to kick out the Americans. After we do that we will have democratic elections."
He displays a disregard for the political realities in Iraq that is common amongst members of the Sunni minority. "Sunni and Shia are about 50-50 in Iraq," says Kubaisi.
Most estimates suggest Shias are about 60 percent of the population, with Sunni Arabs less than 20 percent and the Kurds, who are also Sunnis, about the same. But Kurds and the Sunni Arabs do not form a united front.
Still, Kubaisi insists that Sadr "represents a broad stream in Iraq, not just the religious elements." He accuses other Shia leaders, whom he declines to name, of being "bourgeois" and "agents of Iran."
Kubaisi predicts "two busy months" in Iraq and "a present" for President George W. Bush before the U.S. elections. The resistance has proven that it can hold cities, he says, and it will eventually overrun Baghdad and evict the American forces. "The next step for the resistance is to take part of Baghdad and then give the Americans the choice whether to leave or to be driven out."
The handover of sovereignty in June was a farce, says Kubaisi, and it will not end the insurgency. "We will continue the resistance. This process will only lead to another form of occupation, the Americans have no intention to leave."
The elections scheduled for the beginning of next year will not end the conflict either. "How can elections be free if they are carried out under the occupation?"
Kubaisi says he understands that the United States has interests in the oil-rich Middle East. "But now I first have to care about my own country. After we end the occupation we can sit down with the Americans as equals, not as slaves."
He says the members of the resistance are all local Iraqis and that tales of foreign fighters are vastly exaggerated by the U.S. Army.