Iraq: April 13, 2004


The coalition forces are still operating nearly 2,000 convoys and patrols a day in Iraq, and the vast majority of them encounter no opposition, armed for otherwise. But what has become a problem are the bolder armed gangs, who are now more frequently attacking and looting convoys, or simply robbing foreigners (who have more to steal) more frequently. Kidnapping of foreigners is also fashionable, although it is being done largely for political, not financial reasons. At least so far.  This may change if the gangs and militias are not defeated. Crime against Iraqis is up as well, because many police have abandoned their jobs in areas where the gangs are out in the open.

Beating the dozens of gangs is not a problem. Most flee at the sight of coalition troops. Those that fight, do so ineptly and are soon wiped out. But the gangs can also temporarily disappear by hiding their weapons and passing as civilians. This can only be countered by house to house searches and seizing weapons and other evidence of organized crime. This is what marines have been doing in Fallujah, and in addition to weapons, terrorist materials have been found as well. In several Fallujah locations, suicide bombing equipment and documents identifying foreign terrorists were discovered as well. Fallujah, it turns out, was the base for at least some of the suicide bombing attacks that have plagued the country in the last year.

Iraqi leaders have had more success in convincing many of the armed groups to back off. But there is no central command and control of all the Iraqis currently fighting coalition troops. This means there are dozens of groups to negotiate with. The Sunni Arabs in and around Fallujah consist of many gangs (of less than a dozen to several hundred men) based on tribal or ideological affiliation. The tribe based gangs are often full of former members of Saddams secret police and military, since Saddam recruited from tribes he could trust. But the Sunni Arab gangs are only loosely organized, with the "what's in it for me?" attitude so common in Iraq preventing better coordination. There are also criminal gangs, as well as groups of foreign terrorists. 

The al Sadr followers, whose combat units are basically gangs based on tribe or clan, at least have a nominal allegiance to Mullah al Sadr. But the Sadr fighters tend to be poorer, younger and less educated. Al Sadr has preached that if they take up arms, they can have all those things that have been denied them. Many of al Sadr's followers have taken this literally, and done some serious looting. While al Sadr's message has been strict observance of Islamic law, many of his young followers have come up with some novel interpretations of how property rights and armed robbery can coexist. 

Al Sadr is more dangerous than the former Saddam thugs in Fallujah, because al Sadr is a Shia, and Shia Arabs are the majority in the country. Most Shia have stayed away from al Sadr, and consider his militia to be little more than young thugs and religious zealots. But young thugs with guns are hard to deal with. Many European members of the coalition were unable to cope initially. Ukrainian and Spanish  troops fled the armed al Sadr followers last week. American troops quickly re-took control of Kut after Ukrainian troops fled. Italian troops held at Nasiriyah, and the British sent in a few hundred troops to disperse the al Sadr gunmen in in other southern towns. Spanish troops fled Najaf and nearby Diwaniya initially, but American troops arrived to push the al Sadr gangs out of Diwaniya, and Spanish troops resumed their patrols there. Najaf is one of the holy cities, and American troops our on the outskirts while Shia clerics negotiate with al Sadr.

American commanders in Iraqi want more troops. About three brigades are being held in the country, rather than be allowed to rotate home, and two more brigades from the United States have been requested. The additional forces would allow American troops to keep up the pressure on the armed gangs without wearing out U.S. troops. American tactics emphasize round the clock operations, and to do this you basically need two shifts of troops. The 24/7 tactics quickly wear out the opposition, making it easier to round up the gunmen and conduct searches for weapons, ammunition and documents. The additional troops may not be needed, because the gangs are realizing that fighting the Americans is a losing proposition, and the guerilla war isn't working either. But Iraqi negotiators may not be able to work out deals with all the dozens of gangs involved, and this will mean that American and coalition troops will have to continue intensive operations until all the major gangs are put out of action. At that point the Iraqi police and security forces can return to duty. This is the ultimate counter for kidnapping, looting and gang warfare.

Most of the Iraqi police and security forces did their job, and continue to. But those that fled, or joined the gangs, got the most publicity (giving one a false image of what was really happening.) The problem with Iraqi police is that there has not been enough time to train them, and the local police are recruited from the local community. This means that the cops and gang members are often from the same tribe or clan. In many cases, the traditional leaders backed the gangs, leaving the cops in a no-win situation. Long term, the plan is to have enough professionally trained police commanders who can stand up to this kind of local politics. But that will take years. Iraq has never had a professional (in the Western sense) police force and it will take a generation to build one. 

But what about the long term? If history is a guide, things don't look good. There are no true democracies in the Arab world. Iraq would be the first. When the British first took over Iraq from the Turks in 1918, they stayed for fifteen years, set up a constitutional monarchy and left. They had to come back in 1941 after a coup took place and the new dictator of Iraq decided to side with Nazi Germany against Britain in World War II. Iraq was reconquered in a few weeks, occupied for a few years, and again cut loose after World War II. That was followed by a succession of coups and assassinations that led to Saddam Hussein. Currently, Iraq is seen as a giant crap shoot. 

The United States is telling the Iraqis to look at their past and decide if they want to repeat that, or try something different. There are only two things they have not tried; democracy and theocracy (Islamic rule by clerics). Opinion polls indicate that democracy is favored over theocracy by more than two to one. However, a democracy requires everyone to talk differences over, not form street gangs and threaten to kill those you disagree with. It doesn't take many men with guns in the streets to disrupt a democracy. Either the Iraqis stand up and keep the peace, or there won't be democracy. Having foreign troops in the country is very unpopular, and the foreign troops don't want to be there either. Given that dynamic, the coalition troops will probably be gone in two or three years. If that isn't time for an Iraqi democracy to build adequate security forces, then it's back to dictatorship. The United States, and the rest of the world will do what they have always done, and back whoever the successful dictator is. No one can give you democracy, you have to stand up and fight for it. If too few Iraqis are willing to die for democracy, there won't be any.


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