Iraq: April 9, 2004


Fighting continues in Fallujah and Shia neighborhoods in three southern cities. The biggest disappointment has been the failure of police, or their commanders, to confront the anti-government militias. This was not unexpected, however. The Iraqi police, even under Saddam, were not a powerful force. Even before Saddam, the police directed traffic and chased burglars, and got out of the way when large groups of armed men came by. Saddam used secret police, criminal gangs and militias to maintain control of the population. However, all the training given to members of the new police (two thirds of the 77,000 Iraqi police have had at least a few weeks instruction on modern police techniques and police responsibilities) has produced some that can be depended on. But few competent police commanders are available, and this also causes problems in organizing units of reliable police. Coalition authorities are combing the country to get police volunteers for work in the areas of unrest, as the local police there have largely deserted their posts. 

The police, and the even more numerous (and less dependable) Iraqi security forces are particularly needed because both Sunni and Shia fighters use tactics that take advantage of the reluctance of coalition troops to fire at civilians or into mosques. As German statesman Otto von Bismarck put it over a century ago, We live in a time when the strong grows weak because of his scruples, and the weak grows strong because of his audacity. But coalition troops will fire at gunmen firing from behind civilians or from mosques, they just aren't quick to do so until it's clear that the opponent is using these tactics deliberately. However, the Sunni and Shia gunmen want to get civilians and mosques shot at in order to inflame the population. They know that many Iraqis are reluctant to accept personal responsibility for their actions and quick to blame all misfortune on forces beyond their control. Saddam, and earlier dictators, took advantage of this character flaw to dominate the population. But now, as democracy, and personal responsibility, looms, there are many who would fight and die to prevent these alien concepts in. Arab media like al Jazeera take advantage of this, as is very obvious, spinning every event to absolve Arabs and blame external forces.

What are the armed Iraqis fighting and dying for? The Sunni Arabs want to somehow avoid the retribution for crimes committed during Saddams rule. They know that, once the Shia and Kurds are in charge, that many Shia and Kurd families who lost loved ones to Saddams thugs know who did it. And many of the guilty men are from Fallujah and nearby Sunni Arab towns. There are also some powerful criminal gangs in Fallujah and the Sunni Triangle that see a "law and order" government putting them out of business. For the Shias who are fighting, it's to establish an Islamic Republic and protect their leader, al Sadr, from getting prosecuted for killing other Shia clergy who opposed him. There are also Shia and Sunni who are out there fighting because it's fashionable, in the Arab world these days, to hate Americans. And then there's the Iranian connection. Since 1979, Iranian Islamic conservatives have preached that the United States, with all its democracy and freedoms, is the Great Satan and enemy of Islam, especially Shias. This hatred springs largely from the religious freedom practiced in America, instead of a police that recognizes Islam as the one true religion. While Iraqi Shias fought for Saddam against Iran in the 1980s war, you still have a generation of Shias who were raised on anti-American propaganda. To many Iraqis, it was stupid propaganda, but it got through to many. And if you can get a few thousand people with guns to die for you, as al Sadr has, you can make a mess. Iranian Islamic conservatives appear to be directly involved in working with Sadrs fighters. Yesterday, Sadr's men began kidnapping foreigners, and demanding that foreign governments withdraw their troops. In one case, three Japanese civilians were taken, and the Shia gunmen who captured them demanded that Japan get it's 550 soldiers (all support troops working on rebuilding projects) within three days, or the captives would be burned alive. The Japanese refused to withdraw its troops. But such barbaric tactics were used frequently by Iranian Shia radicals in Iran itself (where the American embassy staff was held captive for over a year) and in Lebanon (where it is used to this day.) The Iranian government denies any involvement, but they can say that with a straight face because the Iranian constitution allows the Islamic conservatives to run a parallel government, control the police and military and build atomic bombs. 

How are American troops going to deal with the uprising? The army and marines have new tactics and equipment to deal with street fighting. The tactics keep American casualties down to unheard of low levels for urban combat. But the fighting takes time. It may be weeks before the last of the resisting Iraqis are killed or captured. Meanwhile, American troops in the process of leaving, are being held back for three or four more months of duty in Iraq. Just in case. The original plan was to withdraw most coalition troops from Iraqi towns and let the Iraqi police maintain order. That was working, except in areas where large criminal, political or religious gangs were growing bolder, more heavily armed and more aggressive. Now the gangs are at war, and have to be destroyed. No one knows exactly how many troops that will take. But as any combat commander knows, in situations like this, too much ain't enough. 

But a more important campaign is how well the coalition plays the Information War angle (with the Iraqi population) and how much cooperation they get from the Iraqi leadership (official and unofficial, who have a lot to lose if the Sunni Arabs and radical Islamic Shia like Sadr gain more power) is not used properly. Most Iraqis are not up in arms against the coalition, but this is not considered news and thus rarely gets reported. Most Iraqis understand what their situation really is (a coalition, led by the United States, deposed the tyrant Saddam and is now pouring billions of dollars into the reconstruction of their country). In a country where personal responsibility often does not extend beyond second or third cousins, everyone is constantly calculating what's in it for their clan or tribe. Most Iraqis see no future in having the thugs of Fallujah running things again, and the Islamic Republic of Iran has no broad appeal either. But few Iraqis are willing to "get involved." That would involve risk, and risk is to be avoided, or shoved onto someone else. It's easier to shout anti-American slogans, make deals with the Americans in the back room, and wait for the dust to settle. Western politicians must love this, because it makes their often morally suspect methods look pristine by comparison.


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