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The Iraq War, Tonight On Serbia TV

by Terence Sheridan

"American generals should have watched the movie"
(PNS) BELGRADE -- As soon as the television war Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Darko the Lawyer, an exuberant Serbian bear of a man, rushed to my apartment. He speaks fluent French and Russian, but his English is weak and he wanted to make sure he wasn't missing anything on CNN.

"This "embedded," what does it mean exactly?" he asked.

"It's another way of saying that reporters traveling with Coalition forces are gagged and manipulated," I said. "It's kind of like turning reporters into spokespersons for the military."

"Ah," he nodded. "I see."

But most important, he wanted to know if it was true that a Yugoslav war movie was shown on Iraqi TV the day the war commenced.

True, I told him. Iraqis watched an old movie about the Partisans, about how the Communist-led Partisans battled an overwhelming force of Germans before retreating across the River Neretva in Bosnia-Herzegovina and melted away into the mountains of Montenegro in March 1943.

Then we settled in to watch the first four days of the war, how a small band of tenacious Iraqis continued to fight in a port city three days after it was reportedly "secured," how 140 Iraqis stopped an immense tank force south of Baghdad, and how 500 Iraqis bloodied a Coalition force of 5,000 at a place called Nasiriyah.

"Just like the Partisans!" exclaimed Darko, the son of a Partisan officer. "Hold and then withdraw. Melt away. Hit and run, and hit again from behind. American generals should have watched the movie."

Before Communist Yugoslavia came apart at its ethnic seams in 1991, Yugoslavs made large sums of money building bridges, dams, roads, and other infrastructure in Iraq.

All the same, Darko wasn't precisely rooting for Iraq, even though this city was bombed by U.S.-led NATO warplanes, a 78-day campaign beginning in March 1999.

"It's hard to root for a man like Saddam," he said. "You want to be on the side of Americans, but why do Americans think it's perfectly acceptable to bomb you if they want to? They have nothing else to spend their money on?"

In Belgrade there was negligible public reaction to the war, perhaps 200 well-mannered anti-war protesters the day the war began.

This is a weary, pauperized city, beaten down by years of autocratic rule under Slobodan Milosevic, a decade of ethnic wars, a high-tech bombing campaign and crime.

And just as things seemed to be looking up, Serbia's U.S.-backed prime minister, a "reformer" with alleged ties to organized crime, was assassinated in the center of Belgrade on March 12.

Zoran Djindjic's murder prompted an immediate "state of emergency" in which media and union activities were restricted, public gatherings banned and privacy laws and legal rights suspended.

Within hours, some 800 persons were arrested, scores of them to be held, it was announced, for up to 30 days without access to legal counsel. One of them was Darko's client, a small-time peddler of illegal cigarettes who was beaten black and blue by police.

The client has been selling black-market cigarettes for 10 years. He used to be a drill-press operator, but there hasn't been any demand for drill-press operators in Serbia-Montenegro, former Yugoslavia, for a long time.

A judge, a friend of Darko's, told him: "Ordinarily I would fine your client and let him go. But I can't do that now. In this hysteria it would mean my head. He's going to have to stay in jail for 30 days."

The judge pointed out that the slain prime minister's handpicked successors were being strongly backed by the U.S. Embassy. "I can't go against that," he said.

Nevertheless, he allowed Darko to bring in some food, four sandwiches, for the client, who wolfed them down, only slightly troubled by truncheon-battered fingers, one of them broken and bent and looking like bird's foot.

On television we watched America's outraged reaction to U.S. soldiers, prisoners of war, being "paraded" on Iraqi television, and Darko pounded his knees. He had just thought of something.

"Remember, in 1999, during the bombing, and the Serbs captured three American soldiers, those young boys? Jesse Jackson came here with all those church people and talked to Milosevic, and Milosevic let them go. Well, maybe, before the Americans crush Baghdad, Jackson could go there and talk to Saddam and Saddam would let these soldiers go home."

"And then," added Darko the Lawyer, "on his way home, maybe Jesse Jackson could stop off here, talk to the U.S. Embassy, and help me get my client out of jail."

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Albion Monitor March 25, 2003 (

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