Friday, April 30, 2004

Deus Ex Machina

The dramatic arrival of Major General Jassem Mohamed Saleh  with the newly formed Fallujah Protection Army, to which the USMC is supposed to hand over control of Fallujah, must rank as one of the most surprising episodes of the war. The Washington Post said:

The surprise agreement in Fallujah, which was authorized by Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, is intended to give more responsibility to Iraqis for subduing the city while attempting defuse tensions by pulling Marines back from front-line positions. ... The Marines will be replaced by a new militia called the Fallujah Protection Army, which will comprise 900 to 1,100 Iraqis who served in the military or other security services under former president Saddam Hussein, Marine officers said. The militia will be commanded by a group of former Iraqi generals, the officers said.

"They will bring in former Iraqi soldiers who are committed to fighting and maintaining the peace in Fallujah," said Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, a battalion commander who was briefed on the deal. "They'll pick up from us," Byrne said. "The plan is that eventually the whole of Fallujah will be under the control of the Fallujah Protection Army. The goal is that anyone should be able to come into the city without being attacked."

The obvious question of where the Fallujah Protection Army came from is only slightly less interesting than how General Saleh came to head it. This article from the Egyptian Al Ahram describes the ongoing formation of the new Iraqi Army, made up quite literally, of a Kurd here, a Sunni there, and a Shi'ite in between. Many of the units they are to command are being trained in Jordan. More are being trained there and equipped by Australia.

The coalition authorities in Iraq this week appointed the leadership of Iraq's new army. A Kurdish general who organized the Kurdish fighters since 1973 will head them, with a Sunni Arab as the chief of staff and a Shia as his deputy. Each had already left Saddam Hussein's army before the last war, unlike dozens of officers who are now being trained to join the new army.

"They are my friends," says Saad Baryas Al- Waaly, 37, which is also why he will not furnish any details. But the former army doctor who is now working in a civil hospital in Najaf does acknowledge that quite a few of his former colleagues are now being trained in Jordan and Iraq. They will be the new officers in an army that is supposed to consist of around 40,000 men.

One of the unresolved questions about the new Iraqi Army is not only its command structure, but its size, allowable weaponry and ethnic composition. Many have argued, quite plausibly, that a lightly armed 40,000 man army is far too small to secure a country as large and lawless as Iraq, which is surrounded by terrorist hotbeds on every side. However that may be, some Jordanian trained units have been fighting beside Americans in Fallujah for a while. The invaluable Darrin Mortenson of the North County Times describes some of them.

When a loud crack sounded from the adjacent building in Fallujah on Thursday, the frontline Marines chalked the blast up to their noisy new neighbors and waited for the report of another "kill." The new Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force soldiers hidden in the house next door had just fired on a man carrying an AK-47 assault rifle in a neighborhood where U.S. forces have declared there are "no friendlies." As the violent stalemate in Fallujah bags a third week, the appearance of specially trained Iraqi snipers this week was a welcome development for Marines at the front ---- and an opportunity for the Iraqis and their U.S. Army Special Forces advisers to prove that not all Iraqi troops will cut and run when the shooting starts.

"They're doing all right ---- damned good shots, actually," a U.S. Special Forces adviser said Thursday, refusing to give his name. He said his small team of Iraqi Counter Terrorism Forces, part of a larger group of tough Iraqi volunteers who recently returned from four months of training in Jordan, were on their way to becoming a lethal weapon against the insurgents of Fallujah and elsewhere in the beleaguered country.

But although the 82nd Airborne had been training the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps around Fallujah for months, the provenance of the Fallujah Protection Army is still unexplained. One of the most difficult operations of war is relieving a unit in contact with the enemy. It first of all requires the existence of the relief force. News accounts which suggest that this-still-to-be formed Fallujah Protection Army (FPA) will take over from the Marines, said to be evacuating "front line positions" within a few days, are only slightly less incredible than a report that Batman, the Hulk and Wolverine have joined the Navy to see the world. The news up this point has raised more questions than it has provided answers. The key points which may become clearer in the coming days are:

  • the relationship between the FPA and the forming Iraqi Army;
  • the relationship between the FPA and the enemy holed up in the 'Golan' neighborhood;
  • the combat role and time-to-establishment of this force.

The most likely scenario is that the FPA will be given charge over city areas free from heavy fighting and assigned general police duties. Those who perform meritoriously in this on the job training could be given regular ranks in the new Iraqi Army, a common relationship between paramilitaries and regulars. But forming militias, especially from local toughs, has always been a tricky business. There is plenty of money to raise militias against the enemy, but left unchecked, they can become lawless gangs unto themselves.

The one certain thing is that return of sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30 will not see the end of conflict. The numerous insurrections, regional wars and massacres during the Saddam era are proof of the volatility of the Land Between the Rivers. And unless America can use its military power and wisdom to hold these fractious elements together, or transform them into a functioning society, it will remain a basket of snakes ready to strike at all and sundry.