Friday, April 09, 2004

Fallujah and Kut

More speedblogging. No time for style.

The Associated Press is reporting that civilians are evacuating Fallujah, but men of military age are being held back. This creates a cruel dilemma for families that don't want to be separated. There's some suggestion that Marine commanders want to keep up operational tempo to prevent the enemy from regrouping. About 300 Iraqi KIA were reported in Fallujah more than 24 hours ago, with more unrecovered elsewhere. At the normal ratios, this suggests about 600 plus wounded. A thousand casualties, almost entirely young men, in a town of 230,000 is catastrophic for the enemy and human tragedy for that community. It is probably much higher now as the enemy has been compressed, low on ammo and physically exhausted. Two US Marines were reported wounded in yesterday's fighting.

The picture emerging is a fight where some civilian activity continues beside  military engagement. Positions previously taken are sometimes reinfiltrated. Civilians still move around.

"There was one car with two women and a man. I told them that he couldn't leave. They tried to plead with me. But I told them no, so they turned around." ... A long line of cars snaked its way Friday afternoon through parts of the city as residents lined up to be checked by Marines before being allowed out, said Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

Maj. Larry Kaifesh, 36, of Chicago, said the rebels were disguising themselves as civilians and hiding their weapons in white rice sacks to move around the city before launching ambushes against the troops. "It is hard to differentiate between people who are insurgents or civilians. It is hard to get an honest picture. You just have to go with your gut feeling," he said. Soldiers also said they found weapons hidden inside an ambulance.

Meanwhile, US Army units were reported back in Al Kut, which is on the eastern side of the the Land Between the Rivers. There are reports that tribal leaders are also attacking the Shi'ites in Kut.

Personal Take

The most serious aspects of the current crisis are political rather than purely military. It has been suggested the Hezbollah units (with long association to Iran) were behind the kidnappings of expatriate civilians. Some have also wondered whether the Iranians and the Syrian secret service are now actively engaged, in view of the actuations of Sadr and the number of Syrian nationals found captured or killed in Fallujah. Lastly, it underscore the need to maintain the June 30 deadline at all costs. Let's each point in turn.

The pitiful accounts of the battle of Fallujah should put paid to the silly press suggestions that the US military is "overwhelmed". The problem is that the terrifying combat efficiency of the Marines may in fact lead to the literal extermination of enemy forces. US authorities, with a longer term end game in mind, are balancing the political outcomes of letting the Marines continue, even in their restrained mode, and taking more US casualties from holding back. When the media learns the full extent of enemy casualties in Fallujah, Kut, Ramadi, Saddam city and elsewhere, the image of the US military will be switched from "hapless" to "bullying" in a millisecond. As pointed out previously, the real problem in this cycle is intel and planning and not so much the shooting. Finding the right targets to hit to advance our political goals is the crucial part. CENTCOM I think, has been trying to use force to shape the situation.

About three days ago, I suggested privately to a reader that the retention of some units scheduled to rotate to the US was really a contingency against possible Iranian involvement. Ralph Peters, in the New York Post, is openly claiming Syrian and Iranian involvement. This would create, for the first time, the basis for guerilla war. Many posts ago, I recalled that the three requirements for guerilla activity are: sanctuaries, a source of logistical support and a national front. If the Syrians and Iranians are involved, these now exist. They did not exist for Saddam's stay behinds, who the Press called guerillas. They were wrong then and they do not see it now, when the prospect actually exists.

In a way, it fulfills the strategic goals of Operation Iraqi Freedom far better than hoped. Iraq has forced a decisive showdown between the US and the enemy in the Middle East. Even Kerry will find it hard to back down now. In a sense, George Bush has won his gambit to set up a winner take all confrontation. The basic plan now must be to hammer down the fighting, which is contracting faster than expanding. Kut nearly down and Fallujah down for military all purposes. Then the US must switch gears to shift this engagement to the political arena.

The problem is that the occupation has made Sadr the only Iraqi politician by default. Therefore all Arab forces will instinctively rally to him. The problem can never be corrected until an Iraqi government, even a nominal one, takes control. Then, there will be two Arab power centers grappling for control. Relative moderates like Sistani have cast their lot with the Council. If the Council's accession is now delayed or indefinitely postponed he will have no role and will probably take to the streets himself to prevent an erosion of support to Sadr.

To recapitulate. The press has got it absolutely backwards. There is no crisis in military capability. The real problem is political. There are now huge strategic opportunities and dangers. But the first step is to put the revolt down, and this is near to happening, and to install the Iraqi Governing Council as soon as possible. Then we should focus on how to turn the tables on the Syrians and the Iranians. The crown sits none too easy on their heads.