Monday, May 10, 2004

Return to Fallujah

In recent days, Coalition forces have engaged the Madhi Army in a variety of places, arresting Sadr's aides, recapturing sites  seized during the heyday of the "Shi'ite uprising" and generally isolating him from the Shi'a population. Even in the city of Karbalah, Sadr appears to be wearing out his welcome.

Residents of this Shiite Muslim shrine town sit around a hotel lobby cursing the militiamen of radical leader Moqtada Sadr as an influential cleric in the neighbouring holy city of Najaf tells them to leave. The US military appears to be succeeding in its goal of isolating Sadr and his Mehdi Army militiamen and slowly eroding any sympathy that residents of Karbala and Najaf might have felt towards the firebrand young cleric. People in both cities say they have had enough of the "thuggish presence" of Sadr's gunmen around their holy shrines and lament the impact that the standoff, which has gone on for more than a month now, is having on their economy. "The Mehdi Army are a bunch of extremists," says one man from Karbala in his 30s without giving his name. "In fact they are a bunch of thieves and former Ba'athists."

And there were plenty of Ba'athists in Fallujah manning checkpoints with US Marines, partly because the town is full of members of the old Republican Guard. The Washington Post describes how the Marines, despairing of help from Baghdadi politicians, began negotiating with the old generals:

On April 19, after a week of talks, a group of local civic leaders and a few Sunni politicians from Baghdad made a deal with Marine commanders. In exchange for relaxing a nighttime curfew and allowing families to return to their homes, the leaders promised to collect heavy weapons from the insurgents and hand them over to the Marines.

That never happened. All the Marines got was a pile of rusty, antiquated arms. Most of them didn't work. The next day, an interlocutor approached Conway with an enticing offer: A group of former Iraqi army generals was willing to assemble a force that would restore order in Fallujah. ...

Thus far, the generals appear to be opting for a strategy of co-optation instead of confrontation. They have recruited scores of young men who fought against the Marines last month, according to U.S. officials familiar with the new force, called the Fallujah Brigade. The officials said they believed that most members of the brigade participated in the fighting. ...

Conway's aides said they were not alarmed by these developments. More important, they insisted, was improving security in the city and getting Iraqis to take responsibility for restoring order. They said they were encouraged by former fighters joining the brigade. They also said that Iraqis without extensive military service would not have had sufficient clout to take charge in a city such as Fallujah, where a disproportionate number of men served in the army, particularly in the Republican Guard. ...

Although Marine commanders insisted that Conway's superiors were fully briefed about the arrangement and signed off on it, the unorthodox nature of the deal has led senior officials at the Pentagon, the U.S. military command in Iraq and the civilian occupation administration to react with skepticism. "It's Conway's thing," said one U.S. civilian official involved in the issue. "Either it works out, and he emerges as they guy who solved the Fallujah problem, or it turns into a big failure." ...

Marine commanders said they intended to test the new brigade's success in combating the insurgency in a week or two, when they plan to send a convoy through the center of the city. "We're going to see whether anything has changed," one officer said. "If not, we'll just have to go back to where we were."

That convoy has made its way to the center of city. The UK Telegraph reports:

US marines have entered the Iraqi city of Fallujah for the first time in more than a month, according to witnesses. Soldiers drove armored vehicles to the mayor's office in the city center without incident. They were accompanied by Iraqi security forces, who will eventually take over security, witnesses said.

Although hundreds of suspected insurgents have been killed (according to the Post) the original objective of the Fallujah operation to capture those responsible for killing and mutilating four Blackwater contractors has not yet been achieved. But the outstanding arrest warrant has not been served on Moqtada al-Sadr either. While neither operation has achieved its goals, both are still ongoing and much has transpired both on the political and military fronts. US forces have notably been busy driving wedges between Sunni and Shi'ite, between foreign and local fighters and between factions within the Sunni and the Shi'ite, organizing militias and selectively targeting key enemy personnel.

These tactics have deflated -- for the present -- the main danger posed in April: a potential general uprising by a united Sunni and Shi'ite front against US forces, an event probably planned and abetted in both Damascus and Teheran. Yet drawing the fires by playing the factional card may have hastened the very thing both Syria and Iran desire: the de facto division of Iraq into sectarian camps where each would absorb the fragments. The vision of a unitary and democratic Iraq has faltered in the absence of a leadership willing to create it.

Initially the expectation was that an effective central leadership would emerge from representatives of the different ethnic groups. The days immediately following the fall of Saddam Hussein were filled with calls to reconstitute the seat of government. There was an 'international outcry' for the protection of antiquities, the restoration of electricity and the return of oil production. In response, an unprecedented amount of reconstruction money, largely unspent, was earmarked at international pledging sessions for high profile projects. A governing council was organized. Oil ministries were repaired, airports refurbished, a UN headquarters established.

But while the center waxed fat, the field languished.  In the months immediately after OIF, men like General Petraeus were forced to use their meager divisional funds to prop up a local societies in a power vacuum. His success was applauded, but not too loudly, lest his expedients prove too durable for replacements coming down from Baghdad. Possibly to avoid that fate, the Marines deployed to the Sunni triangle in early 2004 resolved to build closer relationships with the local leadership, along with a ton of money. Even during the height of the Fallujah battle on April 19, long before any ceasefire was announced,  the Marines were drafting proposals to spend than $77 million in the town, to achieve by design what Petraeus attempted by improvisation. These measures may indeed create a relatively peaceful Iraq, but not the Iraq America set out to build.

The rout of the UN and the impotence of the Iraqi Governing Council during the April crisis have cast doubt over the prospects of erecting a nation from the center. US efforts around Najaf and Fallujah to deal directly with local leaders with a combination of fighting and alliance constitute may succeed, but at the price of altering the initial vision. It is this unresolved tension between the ideal of a multiethnic, democratic Iraq and the reality of a land divided along sectarian lines that makes the military mission so difficult. If war is politics by other means, then military operations can have no definite object unless the political goals are successively refined. Europe historically opted for plunder, preferring to divide the area under Sykes-Picot, with a map as if idly drawn on a paper napkin, and thereafter busying themselves making making lucrative deals with their pet despots. That model is still on offer today, in French United Nations clothing, the road already taken.

The debate over the way forward is almost entirely political in aspect. The fate of Iraq and the War on Terror will depend as much on the outcome of the Presidential election, the controversy over Abu Ghraib and the diplomatic vision of the Middle East as much as it will on military science.