Saturday, February 3, 2007

Half-century on, some see Iraq parallels in Algerian war

A Good Article

"ALGIERS, Algeria — First the Pentagon plugged the movie, now President Bush is reading the book. The subject is Algeria's war of independence against France, in which a Western power struggled with an insurgency and international opposition.

Some see disturbing parallels between Algeria in 1957 to Iraq in 2007. Others say they are different, but that there are lessons to be learned from the war that hastened the end of France's empire.

Bush says he is reading A Savage War of Peace, British historian Alistair Horne's celebrated 1977 account of the war. And shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon was recommending its commanders see Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 movie, The Battle of Algiers.

A key difference between the two wars, historians agree, is that the Algerians did not have Iraq's sectarian divisions. Another difference is that France treated Algeria as an integral part of its territory, with almost a million European settlers, most of whom vigorously opposed any French withdrawal.

Parallels start with the urban terror campaign launched by the FLN, Algeria's National Liberation Front. As in Iraq, local police and administrators made easier targets. "After the first month of the war the FLN realized they couldn't beat the French army so they concentrated on soft targets," said author Horne in a telephone interview. "It meant the French army, instead of going on the offensive, had to protect the police, and both of them — the army and the police — were to some extent neutralized. And I think this is exactly what's happening in Iraq."

Zohra Drif Bitat, now 70 and a member of the Algerian Senate, planted bombs for the independence movement in the capital, Algiers. But that, she insists, did not make her a terrorist. Instead, she regards herself and her former comrades as freedom fighters — and so she fails to see what U.S. officials fighting terrorism in Iraq can learn from the Algerian experience. "They want to understand how one becomes a terrorist," Drif Bitat said. "But that's the fundamental mistake they have made because we were combatants on the same level as the GIs in the American army. We were members of the National Liberation Army."

Drif Bitat joined the FLN's underground Algiers network as a 20-year-old law student in 1955. The group was led by Saadi Yacef from the Casbah, then the densely populated Arab quarter of Algiers.

On Sept. 30, 1956, Yacef sent Drif Bitat with two other women to place bombs in places frequented by Europeans. The event is depicted in Pontecorvo's movie, in which Yacef starred as himself. "They were reluctant at first, saying to us that civilians are going to die," Yacef, 79 and also a senator, recalled. He then reminded the women of an attack claimed by settlers which left more than 70 Algerians dead. "At that point they agreed to plant the bombs."

Drif Bitat's bomb did the most damage, killing three and wounding more than 50. "What was unfortunate, what troubled me at the end of it all, was to see a boy or a girl with a severed leg or arm," said Yacef. "But blood calls for blood ... I told myself that the French landed in Algeria by force and they must be pushed out by force."

As the rebellion gathered pace, France sent paratroopers into the capital on Jan. 7, 1957, and the Battle of Algiers began.

Yacef continued to direct attacks from hiding until he and Drif Bitat were finally arrested in September 1957, near the battle's end. But the French army's claim of victory was to prove premature. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the World War II hero who became France's president in 1958, decided that his country's time in Algeria was up, and in 1962 it withdrew. But not fast enough, says Horne. "De Gaulle got out with nothing. He lost everything because he let it drag on too long and this to my mind is the big danger in Iraq," said Horne. "I just don't see how the Americans can get out now because the effect of total chaos would be devastating. On the other hand they can't stay too long."

Then, as now, the stakes were regarded as bigger than just one country. The Soviet Union was vying with the West for influence in North African states, and oil had been discovered in the Algerian Sahara in 1956. Today, the fear is that a withdrawal from Iraq will destabilize the entire Middle East.

The French security forces' use of torture caused an international outcry, echoed when the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq became public. The legacy of the Algerian war continued to poison French politics. Pontecorvo's acclaimed documentary-style movie did not appear until 1966 and was banned for years in France, in part because of its graphic torture scenes. "Certainly the use of torture helped them win the battle of Algiers but I think it cost them the war," said Horne.

Drif Bitat says that because of the brutal French tactics, "those who could have hesitated or collaborated with the French said to themselves, 'I'm returning to my own people."' "We had will and determination," she said. "You kill us but I know that my brother and sister will arrive and continue the fight. That is what is happening in Iraq."

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who recommended A Savage War of Peace to Bush, said recently on PBS' Charlie Rose Show that he did not believe "that the French experience could be applied precisely to the United States."

"But I thought there were enough similarities and enough complexities and enough tragedy for the president to gain a perspective on his own period.""

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