Iraq: April 25, 2004


The weekend saw a sharp increase in attacks by anti-government forces. Sunnis trying to retake control of the government killed at least three dozen civilians with rocket, bomb and mortar attacks. But what was less reported were the hundreds of death threats delivered by Sunni gunmen to Iraqis working for the government or coalition forces. These threats often cause people to quit their jobs, or stay away for a while. But in some cases, the worker (usually a Sunni, but sometimes a Shia or Kurd) appeals to tribal or clan leaders, and the word gets back to the Sunni gang that retribution will be harsh and very personal if he makes any more threats to this particular individual. All politics is local, and tribal politics has long been a substitute for the lack of protection and a fair legal system under Saddam. 

After the Shia rebellion in 1991, Saddam made a deal with many of the more powerful (that is, well organized) Sunni tribes. If they helped him put down the Shia revolt, they would get money and autonomy (they could police themselves and use tribal councils for legal matters). These tribes have maintained their power after Saddam fell. Even before the war last year, US Army Special Forces troops had made deals with some of the tribes. This is one reason why the anti-government is not more widespread. The amount of violence is actually quite small for a country of over twenty million.

On Sunday, three suicide boats attempted to attack the oil export facilities near Basra. The defenses against such attacks worked, but two American sailors died when a suspicious boat they were going to expect turned out to be one of the suicide boats and exploded. 

American commanders have allowed Iraqi negotiators to work out surrenders of killers and weapons in Fallujah (Sunni and foreign Arab gunmen) and Najaf (Shia gunmen and some Iranians). In both cases, everyone understands that if the American troops come in, the Iraqi gunmen will lose. Because the US Department of Defense refuses to release numbers of enemy dead (although the data is obtained on the battlefield by intelligence troops), it generally goes unreported how lopsided the casualties are where there are battles with these anti-government forces. But the word gets back from the front about the tactics used and how effective they are. The casualty ratio tends  to be more than 20 (Iraqi) to one (American). Well trained troops, better equipment (especially communications and reconnaissance, like UAVs) and superior tactics put the Iraqis at a serious disadvantage. But American troops do get killed and wounded, and enemy tactics make much use of civilians as shields, and this causes civilian casualties (which cameramen from Arab TV stations always seem to be on the spot to film, but that's another story.) Civilian casualties are very low for urban warfare of this type, but somehow that is not considered news. 

The tribal and religious leaders in Fallujah have not been having much success in negotiating a peaceful end to the siege of the city. The main reason is that there are dozens of different anti-government, Islamic radical and criminal gangs in Fallujah, and not all of them are willing to abide by any peace deal. So it looks like the marines may have to go in. Negotiations have tried to make it possible for Iraqi police, and volunteers from Fallujah, to patrol the town, with backup from marines. But the pro-coalition Iraqis do not feel confident that they could deal with the Iraqi gangs. The marines would kill hundreds of the gang members, wound or capture many more and scatter hundreds of survivors into the countryside, where some will fight on. The entire Sunni Triangle is full of opposition forces similar to this, but the heaviest concentration has always been in Fallujah. A great slaughter of the  gangsters in Fallujah may shock armed anti-government gunmen throughout the Sunni area to back down. That worked for Saddam, the British, the Turks and so on for many centuries past. But the marines are trying negotiations first.

Further south, Muqtada al Sadr and several hundred of his armed supporters occupy the main mosque and threaten suicide attacks against Americans if US troops enter the city and arrest him. Al Sadr knows he is toast if the Americans come in. His militiamen have been beaten everywhere else. The Shia religious leadership (which al Sadr does not belong to, but wants to dominate) is trying to negotiate a deal that would get al Sadr out of the mosque, and out of the way without killing him. Al Sadr is not a easy guy to negotiate with, and is holding out for some kind of miracle that will make the Americans go away, and make him top dog in the Shia community.



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