Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Behind Enemy Lines

This report from Mitchell Prothero describes what an Iraqi UPI reporter saw in the 'Golan'. Hat tip: Reader WG

While U.S. Marine commanders are hopeful that patrols of local fighters will bring peace to Fallujah, -- a city wracked by anti-coalition activity since the arrival of U.S. forces a year ago -- a situation of even greater concern appears to be lurking; an entire neighborhood seems to be completely under the control of foreign Islamic fighters, mostly from Syria.

An Iraqi employee of United Press International entered Fallujah on Saturday with a source who serves as a mid-level official in the Army of Mohammed, the umbrella group of Iraqi resistance opposing the U.S. occupation. The source had agreed to help arrange a tour of the city and interviews with civilians and resistance fighters by a UPI reporter for the following day.

They entered the city using a route that passed a new Fallujah Protective Army checkpoint, which waved them into the center of the city without even a cursory search. After the local guide liaised with Iraqi fighters in Fallujah, the pair was given permission to travel to the city and was supplied with three armed guards from the Army of Mohammed while they attempted to identify damaged parts of the city and arrange interviews. Upon their arrival in the Golan neighborhood in the northern portion of the city, where much of the fighting has taken place, a group of fighters speaking with Syrian accents approached and ordered the resistance fighters to leave and took the two men into custody. ...

Osama (the UPI reporter) said at least 10 Syrians were in the compound he was held in and estimates that far more were hidden in various fortifications around the area.

This report strongly suggests that 1) a large pocket of the enemy is still inside or contained in Fallujah; 2) this pocket may be called the 'Golan' and is in the nothern section of the city; 3) there may be large numbers of Syrian fighters in the 'Golan'. It is implies that the Fallujah brigade is not very careful in discharging its duties or is complicit to some degree with the enemy. The report continues:

And the top officer for the U.S. Marines in the area used a weekend press conference to dispute reports that the Marines would withdraw from Fallujah and turn local security over to the new unit. The initial reports to that effect came from embedded reporters and eyewitness accounts of Marines pulling back from their positions in Fallujah and turning over several checkpoints to the FPA.

"We have chosen not to commingle U.S. and Iraqi units, and that has prompted some realignment of Marine forces," Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said Saturday. "In fact, we have assigned the Iraqi battalion to our least-engaged sector until they can get their feet on deck, absorb the weapons and equipment we are passing their way, and prepare for the next phase of the operation."

This is a categorical denial that the USMC has left Fallujah. General Conway's claim to have turned over "several checkpoints" to the Fallujah Brigade is consistent with the UPI reporters firsthand observation. Conway's assertion that the USMC is still in the city receives implicit support from the fact that the Syrian fighters were still "hidden in fortifications around the area" -- i.e. the 'Golan', something they would not do unless the USMC were present, seeing as they would have little to fear from the Fallujah Brigade in its present condition. The last part of the UPI report is interesting:

Conway said the decision to incorporate local fighters -- some of whom undoubtedly had recently been fighting the U.S. forces -- stemmed from a need to co-opt Iraqis frustrated by the occupation from the most committed anti-coalition fighters.

"It got at what was essentially at that point our operational objective, which was to separate out the hard-core insurgents and freedom fighters from the other citizens of the city that may well have taken up weapons against us, based upon the fact that they thought they were defending their city, based upon the call of the imams and those types of things," Conway said.

Taken at its face value, Conway's statement implies that the USMC appreciates that the enemy consists of an alliance -- something also corroborated by the UPI reporter, who speaks of the "Army of Mohammed", described an "umbrella group" -- and that the explicit goal of the Marines is to drive a wedge between the hard-core and peripheral elements. In General Conway's words: "to separate out the hard-core insurgents and freedom fighters from the other citizens of the city that may well have taken up weapons against us, based upon the fact that they thought they were defending their city".

To recapitulate, the main points are:

  • the enemy is probably still in the city
  • the enemy may consist, in part, of Syrian fighters
  • the USMC is probably still bottling them up otherwise how to account for the enemy containment, and is therefore present in the city, contrary to press reports
  • the USMC is attempting to drive a wedge, as per General Conway, between the hard core and the peripheral enemy elements



Although this information is too limited to make wide-ranging predictions, we may use it to adjust a posteriori our degree of belief in the following propositions.

  • the USMC has 'capitulated' to the enemy, turned tail and run. I think this proposition, driven by recent press reports, is less likely based on the UPI reporter's observations.
  • the US command is clueless as to how to respond to the current crisis. The Marines may be wrong in their appreciation of the enemy, but they are clearly working on the basis of a plan. Whether it will succeed or not remains to be seen.
  • an assault on the 'Golan' is imminent. I this likelihood is diminished by the new information. The enemy is dug in and commingled with the population. The whole point of the Fallujah Brigade seems to separate out the hard core Jihadis from the local population so as to widen the range of Marine military options. Such is the intent. Only time will tell if the plan will work.

None of the information provided by the UPI report bears on the wider, strategic decisions of the war. It says next to nothing about Sunni versus Shia, CPA versus Iraqi Governing Council or the role of Iran. However, it does suggest that there may be a Syrian hand in the recent fighting, or in the words of US officials, Syria has "not been helpful".

It's tempting to compare USMC attempts in Fallujah to drive a wedge between the "hard core" and their supporters to negotiations in Najaf between the US and community leaders as reported by  the Associated Press. Suggestions that the US is trying to isolate Sadr have been augmented by reports in the Scotsman about a mysterious militia called  "Thulfiqar Army" which has recently been killing off Sadr's men. Twenty of Sadr's men have been killed in recent open fighting with US troops. Stay tuned.