Iraq: October 2, 2004


As promised, the government began its campaign to retake control of Sunni Arab towns and cities that had fallen under the control of al Qaeda, criminal gangs and Baath Party gunmen. For the last two days, some 5,000 American and Iraqi troops have surrounded and regained control of Samarra, a Sunni Arab city with 100,000 residents,  a hundred kilometers north of Baghdad. So far, about a hundred Iraqis have been killed, some 75 percent of them gunmen who have resisted the Iraqi police and American troops. The 2,000 Iraqi troops and police quickly seized major mosques in the city, preventing them from being used as fortresses by anti-government forces. At least one kidnap victim was released by advancing troops, and others will probably be found as well. A third of troops involved are Iraqi, and this includes a new Samarra police force, drawn from other parts of Iraq and led by more experienced and reliable commanders. 

The nearby town of Tikrit, Saddam's home town, did not go the way of Samarra mainly because of local politics. The local power brokers in Tikrit make a deal with the coalition and kept it. In Samarra, the local tribal and political leaders were unable to cope with the various gangs, and lost control. The Samarra elite have complained to the new government, and promised to keep it together if troops were sent in to clear out the gangs once more. The main problem in Samarra was that the local police and tribal militias backed down when confronted with the firepower of the gangs and terrorists. The same thing happened in Fallujah, and some other towns in the Sunni Arab areas of  central Iraq.

For Iraqi troops, the operations in Samarra are something of a graduation exercise, an opportunity to show that months of training have produced combat units that can get the job done. The Iraqis have trained with American troops, using tactics that allow the more experienced and better equipped American soldiers to do the difficult stuff, but to give the Iraqis an opportunity to take risks and demonstrate their new skills. 

The real battle for Samarra for take place in the next few months. The people fighting American troops at the moment, and getting killed, are the dummies. The smart guys just hide their weapons and wait for an opportunity to take over the town again. If the new police force cannot hunt down and arrest most of the smarter gangsters and terrorists in the next few months, Samarra will lapse into anarchy again. 

A recently published survey of attacks on police and troops in Iraq revealed what had long been taken for granted, over 80 percent of the attacks took place in just four Sunni Arab provinces. Another three provinces with large Sunni minorities accounted for another 15 percent. The other 11 provinces were pretty quiet, each having a dozen or fewer incidents a month. Interrogations of captured gunmen has made it clear that most of the attacks are planned, and the attackers recruited, by the gangs that have found refuge in the "outlaw" towns like Samarra and Fallujah. Especially in light of last weeks terror bombing, that killed and wounded some 200 children in Baghdad, the new government, and most Iraqis, are determined to put down the gunmen, terrorists and gangsters, and restore law and order. 


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