With American troops moving out of the urban areas, there are fewer U.S. convoys for roadside bombs to attack. It's Iraqi convoys rolling through populated areas now, and, although there are far fewer IEDs going off, they are increasingly hitting Iraqi troops. The response from the Iraqi soldiers is a little different. The Iraqi troops speak the language, and stop their vehicles and go looking for whoever just set off the bomb. Often, they catch them, partly because they have American explosive detection tools, enabling soldiers to test the hands of suspects, to see who had handled explosives lately. That usually narrows down the list of suspects enormously, and identifies who was responsible.
The dearth of newsworthy activities in Iraq led idle journalists to jump all over a cordon-and-search operation north of Samarra last week. Iraqi army intelligence had received tips that terrorists were based in the area, and an operation was quickly organized. What made this job different was the heavy use of U.S. helicopters to move some of the thousand Iraqi troops into the area. This is the the future of military operations in Iraq, American helicopters moving Iraqi troops. The Iraqis only have a few dozen small UH-1 type helicopters, and it will be years before they get larger helicopter transports. The UH-1s can carry about ten troops. Larger, and much more expensive helicopters, can carry 30 soldiers at a time. Samarra operations are seeking to find those who blew up the Shia holy place (Golden Mosque) in the city last month. Samarra is a Sunni town, which has, for centuries, made a good living catering to Shia pilgrims. The local Sunnis blame the attack on al Qaeda terrorists, but the area still contains a lot of Sunni Arabs who are hostile to the Shia dominated government. The cordon-and-search in Samarra led to the discovery of over a ton of explosives and other bomb making materials, plus automatic weapons. The locals protested the seizure of their AK-47s, saying they needed them for protection from al Qaeda terrorists. Some of the old bombs and artillery shells found, may have been abandoned long ago. American bomb finding gear has improved over the last three years, to the point where it finds old caches that have long since been abandoned by those who originally buried them.
It's the third anniversary of the coalition invasion of Iraq. The elected Iraqi parliament has held its first session, but is prevented from going much farther by factionalism. Iraqis are not keen on compromise, and dictatorship came to Iraq half a century ago when the generals decided to silence the squabbling and take over themselves. Iraqis wonder if they can avoid repeating past mistakes like this. The Shia Arab majority is split in several large, and many smaller, parties, that resist cooperating. The Kurds have two major factions, that are currently tolerating a truce, and dealing with growing popular unrest at the corruption at the faction (clan, actually) leadership.
The Sunni Arabs, who are now the oppressed minority, have always been the most willing group to unite and take charge. But no more. There are many factions. Some are religious extremists, some are secular (like the Baath Party Saddam ran), while others are tribal. One of the factions is al Qaeda, which is basically a group of Sunni Arab Islamic radicals. Al Qaeda is not happy that all Iraqi Sunni Arabs have not supported them. This has degenerated into war between al Qaeda and most Iraqi Sunni Arabs. But many of these same Sunni Arab factions are still hostile to the Shia Arab dominated government.
Most Iraqis understand that a clean, cohesive government is the key to future peace and prosperity. But the cooperation and compromise required to make this all happen has so far eluded Iraqis. American and European diplomats and advisors constantly hover about with suggestions and advice. The key to peace in Iraq is not a military problem, the terrorists and Sunni Arab rebels are beaten. The key to peace is political, and the ability of Iraqi factions to work together. Iraqis have paid a lot of attention to Lebanon, looking for answers. Lebanon is split by religious factions (about one third Shia, one third Sunni and one third Christian). Lebanon went through a 15 year civil war (1975-90), and since making peace, the country has prospered (without oil, just the skills of the people), despite interference from Syria. The Lebanese example gives hope, but the payoff is in the performance. The Iraqi politicians have to perform. In the next few months, we'll see if they can.