'God, I hate these people,' says the sergeant. Some utter the V-word: Vietnam

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The Independent Online

"Up yours, asshole," mutters Sergeant Ronald Black to an Iraqi youth who waves from the back of a passing motor scooter. The tedium is palpable as the sun beats down on Fallujah, a sweltering city of 200,000 mostly Sunni Muslim inhabitants 35 miles west of Baghdad which has become a flashpoint of local resistance to the coalition's occupation of Iraq. "God, I hate these people," he says.

But the sergeant reserves his most blistering remarks for US commanders, who recently announced that his Third Infantry Division will remain in Iraq until the autumn, several months beyond its originally scheduled departure. "We're being told to stay by commanders who just got here a month ago," he complains. "They haven't been here since fucking September like we have."

Even as Tony Blair and President George Bush vow to "stay the course" in Iraq, soldiers like Sgt Black betray the difficulty of the task ahead. Coalition forces rolled over Saddam Hussein's army in three weeks, but winning the peace is proving to be a far more vexing task.

In places like Fallujah, war and the subsequent occupation have brought industry to a standstill, leaving the workforce idle, fuelling resentment and providing cover among a restive populace for the emergence of an active guerrilla resistance.

It is a grim scenario that has some people uttering the dreaded "V-word" ­ Vietnam. On Friday, an influential Sunni imam, speaking outside a mosque in north-west Baghdad, could not resist the Vietnam comparison.

"Both wars ­ Vietnam and Iraq ­ were illegal under international law," the imam said. "And in both, the enemy is the same ­ the United States." He predicted that Islam would provide the same sort of ideological underpinning for Iraqi resistance that Ho Chi Minh's nationalistic Communism did for the Vietnamese four decades ago.

US commanders tend to dismiss the comparison as gratuitous, with some reason. The coalition forces scattered across Iraq are facing nothing like the organised and dedicated resistance of the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, nor, for that matter, of the formidable North Vietnamese army, which dispatched men into South Vietnam to die by the tens of thousands in the face of relentless pounding by B-52s.

Saddam's corrupt and brutal regime lacked an ideological core that could motivate a similar response from Iraqi partisans, say the occupiers. And while some trigger-happy GIs have turned their guns on Iraqi civilians with tragic results in the weeks since the occupation began, the coalition's rules of engagement stress that deadly force may be used only in response to a clear and present danger. There have been complaints of heavy-handed tactics, especially around Fallujah and other villages in the "Sunni Triangle" north and west of Baghdad, where resistance has been strongest. But while the ambushes and bombings by the Iraqi resistance remain sporadic, they are unlikely to cause the kind of vengeful bloodletting that came to be a hallmark of America's misadventure in Indochina.

"Embedded" and largely pliant during the rush to Baghdad, the press has become more critical since. While Iraq is still very much a war zone, Baghdad does not feel as dangerous as it appears through the prism of the daily news reports.

The daily trickle of American deaths is less a military problem than one of perceptions: having been assured that coalition forces would be welcomed in Iraq as liberators, the fact that there is any resistance at all is an unwelcome surprise to the US public.

And therein may lie one of the most salient comparisons of Iraq today with Vietnam 40 years ago. US officials voice bitter frustration that reports of violent confrontations and grumbling among the ranks may undermine support for President Bush's Iraq gamble among constituents and legislators back home.

There still exists a school of thought ­ especially well represented among hawks in the Bush administration and the Pentagon ­ that it was the mass media, not the failure of US policy, that sapped American resolve and ultimately lost the war in Vietnam.

It may be only a matter of time before a similar schism opens over press coverage here, as departure dates for homesick troops and deadlines for stamping out the resistance ar pushed back indefinitely.

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