In the past three days, some 30 American troops and over 130 Iraqi attackers have been killed. The fighting has been taking place west of Baghdad, around Fallujah and nearby Ramadi, where U.S. Marines are fighting Sunni Arabs. Yesterday, over fifty Iraqis attacked marines guarding the governors palace in Ramadi, leaving a dozen marines, and several dozen Iraqis, dead. The Ramadi attack was not expected, as the area had been generally quiet, as had most of Iraq for the past year. Several thousand marines fought their way into Fallujah, raiding specific locations and capturing several armed foreigners in an improvised weapons factory. In one case, marines were fired on from a Mosque. When the marines attacked the Mosque, they found it full of weapons and ammunition.
Both Falljah and Ramadi are in the Sunni Arab areas, where Saddam recruited his secret police, torturers and Republican Guard, and where many are concerned about war crimes trials by a vengeful Shia and Kurd government once the national elections are held. The coalition plan was to keep these areas as quiet as possible (via Iraqi police and negotiations with various religious and tribal leaders) until the Iraqi police and judiciary were strong enough to disarm the whatever anti-government groups. But the Baath Party had a plan for regaining power if the country were occupied, by using terror against other Iraqis, and raising a heavily armed Sunni militia to protect Sunni population centers. The Sunni gunmen in Fallujah could not restrain themselves, especially since the main road from Jordan to Baghdad, and all its truck traffic, runs right through Fallujah. Last weeks attack and mutilation of four American security supervisors, who protected trucks traffic going through Fallujah, created a media firestorm that forced a major military operation to diminish the gangs of Fallujah. That operation will kill dozens of Americans, and hundreds of Iraqis, and will weaken some of the armed Sunni Arab groups. Many Saddam era thugs will thus no longer be available for war crimes trials.
Meanwhile, in the Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad, and Shia cities down south, members of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr's militia fought coalition troops for control of government buildings and police stations. Sadr was another problem the coalition hoped to leave for the Iraqis to sort out. A young, and somewhat despised (by more senior Shia clerics) Shia preacher, Sadr wanted an Islamic republic, as exists in Iran next door. Surveys indicate only about 30 percent of the population are in any way disposed towards a theocratic government, and there is no agreement on what kind (Shia?, Sunni?, how much popular participation?) Fewer than ten percent support Sadr. Last year, rumors that Sadr had formed death squads to kill Shia clerics who opposed him forced the coalition to launch an investigation. It turned out that Sadr was murdering his religious rivals, and the Shia leaders demanded that he be stopped. So last week coalition troops and Iraqi police began arresting members of Sadr's death squads. Sadr saw this as a threat to his power and ordered his armed followers to attack Iraqi police and coalition troops. Sadr fled to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, the holiest Shia mosque. Representatives of the senior Shia clergy went to meet with him and demand that he stop preaching violence. Sadr refused. His followers are not numerous, and can be killed or disarmed by coalition and Iraqi troops. But Sadr himself, occupying the Imam Ali shrine with hundreds of armed followers, will be a purely Shia Iraqi problem.
Both the Sunni Arab and Sadr thugs have terrorized the police and government officials in areas they operate in. This is an ancient Iraqi tradition, and Iraqis have known little else for as long as anyone can remember. Add in a few anti-American slogans, and you have yourself a patriotic movement. But these armed gangs are out to dominate and exploit other Iraqis, and Iraqis have not yet accepted the fact that they can unite and protect all Iraqis. It's called democratic government and the United States is being criticized the world over for imposing such an alien notion on the oppressed Iraqi people.
Leaving so many Iraqis armed, after Saddam's government was destroyed, is a calculated risk. To disarm a population, that has long been accustomed to using weapons against hostile neighbors, was seen as too expensive in terms of coalition and Iraqi lives. Better to let a democratically elected Iraqi government do it.