by Steve Connors & Molly Bingham
From the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 to the elections held on January 30, 2005 and again in 2006, the world has waited expectantly to see whether these events would herald the beginning of the end to the "insurgency". Would the capture of the "leader" decapitate the organization and render it incapable of action? Would the final assault on Falluja - described as the heart of the insurgency - in November 2004 deliver it a crippling blow? What about the formal transfer of sovereignty or democratic elections? What about the 'clear, hold and build' strategy and the surge? Would these events turn the tide? Before the trumpet calls fade into history hopes are dashed as the bloodshed continues unabated, and often with a renewed ferocity. The world asks why, and the answer seems as elusive as ever.
For the most part we place our dependence for understanding the situation in Iraq on the views of Western experts, analyzing from the sidelines and basing their assessments on government and military statements. Beyond the telling vox-pop quote in a news article, we only rarely get to hear the voices of the Iraqis themselves. Even less common is to hear directly from the people who are behind the violence. Meeting Resistance - relying on first hand accounts of the conflict from those involved on the 'other side' - is an effort to redress that imbalance, seeking to understand the factors underlying the carnage that has become characteristic of daily life in Iraq.
On May 1 2003, President Bush triumphantly stood on the deck of an American aircraft carrier and declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. Behind him fluttered a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished". Even as the President made his speech, men and women in Iraq were in the early stages of organizing themselves for a guerrilla war and some of that preparation was already translating into action. Small incidents - described by one American general as "militarily insignificant"- were already taking place. Despite their amateurish and ad hoc nature these incidents were being written off by the US military as "mopping-up operations" against remnants of the Iraqi military. These attacks were harbingers for the future. Through the summer of 2003 the attacks against American troops increased in both frequency and ferocity and, when asked about them by reporters, President Bush replied with the words "Bring 'em on". There were people in Iraq who were listening to the President's words and were prepared to rise to the challenge.
To make Meeting Resistance we traveled to the Al Adhamiya district of northern Baghdad hoping to find some of the people actively engaged in the fight. Adhamiya had its fifteen minutes of fame when, in April 2003, Saddam Hussein made his final public appearance there before being toppled from power. The district was also the scene of the last stand in Baghdad; local militia and foreign volunteers battled it out with American armor around the Abu Hanifeh mosque at least a day after the rest of the city had capitulated. Those who were involved in the fighting told us that Saddam fought alongside them, escaping only at the very end. Although a predominantly Sunni neighborhood, Adhamiyah was never favored by the Ba'athist regime and attitudes towards both the President and the party were, at best, ambivalent. Years of infrastructural neglect have taken their toll on this traditional, middle class area of the capital and its inhabitants have suffered just as much as anyone else from the privations wrought by the wars and sanctions the regime brought upon them.
In the teashops and alleyways of Adhamiya we found people who - within days of the fall of Baghdad - were organizing themselves into resistance cells, finding the money and weapons to fight against the American military. We discovered that before retired general Jay Garner had even managed to board an aircraft in Kuwait, phase two of the Iraq war was being planned in places like Adhamiya.
By repeatedly interviewing a number of individuals over a period of ten months we were able to learn about the people themselves, how they organize themselves, why they have decided to violently oppose the occupation of the country, what are the underlying ideological foundations to their fight and how and why those have changed over time. We discovered, from those involved, the real timeline of developments - both structural and tactical - that have led to the present methodology and targeting policies by the different groups who gather under the heading of the Iraqi resistance. We came to know who funds them - broadly speaking - and where they get their weapons, who and how they recruit and what effect US counter-insurgency operations have on their will and effectiveness to fight.
By spending so long reporting for this film we were able to note trends and track them by cross-referencing them between individuals from different groups. Two good examples of this are first, being told of the preparation to use IED's two months before they came into broad use and why. And second, being told about the use of dogs and electricity as torture techniques in Abu Ghraib prison, information that was related to us in December of 2003, five months before the story broke in The New Yorker.
Of the utmost importance to us was learning how Iraq's social and religious characteristics made the violent resistance to occupation inevitable. We struggled to understand these forces and sought out Iraqi experts in those fields in an attempt to provide explanations to an audience which is - like us - largely of a secular Christian tradition that values social individualism.
We didn't set out to challenge the official narrative of the war in Iraq, but by going out and seeking the stories on the other side of the conflict that has happened. As a result Meeting Resistance calls into question many of the myths that have established themselves as fact in both the journalistic and public consciousness.
If we take the testimony of these individuals as being credible - and there is little reason not to do so - then we must re-examine such notions as the role of administrative incompetence on the part of the occupying civil authorities, in either inspiring or fueling the violence. Other issues, such as the seeming predominance of foreign fighters or of a violent Ba'ath party revanchism, no longer seem so certain and the timeline as we have come to know it all but eliminates the current received wisdom that the insurgency existed and began as a pre-planned operation. Some of the people we interviewed were Shia - fighting alongside their Sunni colleagues - and the idea that has recently become common currency, that Iraq is a country riven by ancient sectarian hatreds, is a claim for which we found little evidence. In fact we found several of the individuals engaged in the resistance that we spoke to were in mixed marriages or were from mixed families. What was clear through these people was the terrible price all Iraqi society would pay should sectarian conflict take center stage. Indeed, the research we did for Meeting Resistance indicates that any existing fissures in Iraqi society at the time of the 2003 invasion were exploited and exacerbated by coalition forces and administrators in order to enable the success of the occupation.
Department of Defense quarterly reports to congress reveal that from April 2004 through the end of 2007 (the latest statistics available upon this writing) an average of 74% of all significant attacks target the U.S. led coalition forces in Iraq. 16% of significant attacks target the Iraqi Army and Police - who are viewed by some groups as collaborators with the U.S. troops and hence legitimate targets. That 90% of the attacks makes up the major conflict in Iraq - the resistance to occupation.
The second conflict in Iraq is the civil war, which reveals itself through attacks on civilians, making up 10% of the significant attacks in Iraq. Of course, many more civilians die in those attacks than do U.S. soldiers in the attacks on them because the civilians are physically completely unprotected from them and because they also do not enjoy the exceptional medical care U.S. troops receive on the ground in Iraq. But to put the civil war violence down to 'ancient sectarian hatreds' is to miss the fact that while some attacks are of a sectarian nature the force driving the civil war is a political one - a fight for the future of Iraq and whether the country will continue to be held together by the nationalists, or divided up by the partitionists. There are Sunni and Shia on each side of that political and social struggle, and the stakes are high.
We filmed Meeting Resistance around the streets and alleyways and ubiquitous teashops of Adhamiya. Much of the look and feel of the film derives from the necessity of working within the challenges and security issues inherent to the project itself. We used in-camera techniques to conceal the identities of the individuals we interviewed - more for our own protection than theirs - and attempted to do so in a way that didn't eliminate the body language and attitude of character that is so important to understanding the human condition. We are grateful to the people of Adhamiya who unfailingly received us with warmth and their own particular brand of generous hospitality.
While Meeting Resistance is clearly a film about Iraq - it is shaped, colored and textured by the history, culture and faith of the country - if you take a step back it is on a larger scale a current study of the human condition under occupation. There have been occupations around the world and throughout history and there have been resistances to those occupations. Putting Iraq and the conflict into that historical perspective may help viewers think a little differently about what some of the underlying forces are in the conflict and how they might be resolved.
Ultimately we feel Meeting Resistance raises as many questions as it answers but in doing so it makes a vital contribution and informs the debate on Iraq. We hope this film inspires others to ask those questions.