Sunday, April 11, 2004

Good News, Bad News

The Washington Post reports that an Iraqi Army battalion refused to deploy to Fallujah after taking fire from Shi'ites en route.

The 620-man 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi Armed Forces refused to fight Monday after members of the unit were shot at in a Shiite Muslim neighborhood in Baghdad while en route to Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim stronghold, said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, the official overseeing the development of Iraqi security forces. The convoy then turned around and returned to the battalion's home on a former Republican Guard base in Taji, a town north of the capital. Eaton said members of the battalion insisted during the ensuing discussions: "We did not sign up to fight Iraqis." ...

The battalion, traveling by truck and escorted by troops from the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division, passed through a Shiite area in northwest Baghdad. They were fired on, and six members of the unit were wounded, one seriously, Eaton said. A crowd of Shiites gathered and "surged" at the convoy, he said. "They were stunned that they were taken under fire by their fellow population," he said.

The battalion was then sent back to Taji, where preparations were made to fly it to the Fallujah area. But opposition to the mission stiffened, Eaton said, "so we decided not to involve them in the Fallujah operation."

Readers may wonder why the unit did not return fire, the supposed first reaction of any trained unit, nor did their escorts from US First Armored Division. The only speculative scenario that fits the known facts is that the convoy took a fire after which the assailants fled and the crowd pelted the Iraqis when they were recovering their wounded. Then the whole column turned around. The other interesting data in this story is that there was resistance to movement in Baghdad itself and that Shi'ites were supporting the Sunni battle in Falluja.

The good news takes several forms. First, the Iraqi Governing Council has finally taken partial ownership of the political process to bring their country under control. They are attempting to negotiate an acceptable surrender to Coalition Forces in Fallujah. On the Shi'ite front, Ayatollah Sistani has issued a fatwa to his adherents to stay calm. But the mood, at least to Zeyad in Baghdad is that the entire country is spiraling into an uprising. He adds:

It is the most foolish and selfish thing to say "pull the troops out", or "replace them with the UN or NATO". Someone has to see us through this mess to the end. Only a deluded utopian (or an idiot peace activist) would believe that Iraqis would all cosily sit down and settle down their endless disputes without AK-47's, RPG's, or mortars in the event of coalition troops abandoning Iraq. Please please don't get me wrong, I am not in the least saying that I enjoy being occupied by a foreign force, I am not a dreamer who believes that the USA is here for altruistic reasons, I am not saying that I am happy with what my bleeding country is going through, believe me when I say it tears my heart every day to witness all the bloodshed, it pains me immensely to see that we have no leaders whomsoever with the interest and well-being of Iraq as their primary goal, it kills me to see how blind and ignorant we have all become. Iraqis are dying inside every day, and we are committing suicide over and over and over. Some people call me a traitor or a collaborator for all the above and for speaking the truth as opposed to rhetorical, fiery speeches which have been our downfall.

The crisis has created a sense, evident to Iraqis like Sistani and Zeyad, and perhaps the Governing Council, that they are staring catastrophe in the face. One of the tasks for the Coalition is to exploit the Iraqi urge to take things in hand and use it to mold the new nation. In one sense, we are seeing Iraq -- post Saddam Iraq -- born before our eyes. All of the unaddressed issues, the simmering hatreds, the lack of leadership, the musterings in no-occupation zones which were never controlled by US forces, have come to the fore demanding a resolution. Objectively speaking, this moment would have come anyway. It is George Bush's great good fortune that it arrived in April and not in September.

And where will the Iraqis get the time and space to step up to the plate? The New York Times reports:

Officials in Baghdad and at the Pentagon said the military was prepared, if no peaceful solution materializes, to use two distinct sets of tactics to counter what they viewed as two different insurgencies — both of them dangerous and complex situations on difficult urban battlefields.

One campaign would entail retaking cities around Baghdad, if necessary block by block against an entrenched Sunni foe. The other would involve a series of short, sharp, local strikes at small, elusive bands of Shiite militia in southern cities, continuing until the militia was wiped out. Even as commanders offered a cease-fire to Sunnis in Falluja, allowing Iraqis to try to find a peaceful solution, and postponed any assault on Shiites in Najaf and elsewhere during religious holidays, they prepared for campaigns against foes who showed unexpected discipline and ferocity this week.

Lost in the frenetic headlines of the last week was an unnoticed military revolution. Never in history have 1,200 men stormed a city of 230,000 in urban combat without extensively using heavy weapons before the US Marines did in Fallujah. This is nothing short of amazing because the 90% of the combat power of an infantry unit is embodied in their heavy weapons. And they were stopped only by a truce, not by enemy resistance. When the Marine casualties from the Ramadi ambush,  not part of the Fallujah battle are subtracted, the Marine losses have been spectacularly low by historical standards. They are actually lower than the IDF losses in the smaller Jenin engagement (which used armored bulldozers to clear lanes) and several orders of magnitude beneath the Russian casualties in Grozny, despite the lavish use of armor, artillery and air by the Russians. US forces were never tested in extensive urban combat during Iraqi Freedom. MOUT is no longer theory. It is practice. Nor is the American success confined to Fallujah. Kut is being retaken without significant losses. The New York Times continues:

Already, "We think we have taken away a significant capability," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director for operations of the military's task force in Iraq, said in a telephone interview. "It no longer is an offensive threat; but it still remains a threat." General Kimmitt said the order had gone out "to destroy the Sadr militia — deliberately, precisely and powerfully." But now the militiamen who took control, to varying degrees, in Kut, Kufa, Najaf and a section of Baghdad called Sadr City have broken into small groups, with some already seeming ready to melt away to fight another day. "We believe that many who were wearing the Mahdi Army uniform last Saturday have tucked it under the bed and put their AK's back in the closet," one senior military officer said.

That means detailed intelligence will be required to identify the militia's leadership and important fighters, a factor noted by Mr. Bush in his radio address, which carried a warning of the "struggle and testing" that lay ahead. In Falluja, he said, the Americans "are taking control of the city, block by block." In the south, he said, "they have taken the initiative from al-Sadr's militia.""Prisoners are being taken, and intelligence is being gathered," Mr. Bush said. "Our decisive actions will continue until these enemies of democracy are dealt with

To sum up, the Jihadis have demonstrated two new capabilities. The ability to create cooperative engagements between Sunnis and Shi'ites; and the ability to combine special forces tactics with religious militias to wage political warfare. Against this, the Americans are demonstrating two new countervailing capacities of their own. They have shown that US forces can take any urban area at casualty rates less than 1 to 50. Second, they have begun to wage joint political warfare in cooperation with the Iraqi governing council. The demonstrated capability to reduce any former "no-occupation" zone opens the way to expand the "good cop, bad cop" approach used in Fallujah. Council delegates can now treat with rebels on an authoritative basis. Sistani's fatwa, till now unobserved, acquires an ominous new meaning for Sadr. A third and potentially war-winning development may be in the wings. The US has seized the intelligence apparatus of a great Arab state but has barely begun to realize its massive investment in additional human intelligence capability. US intelligence capabilities in Iraq today are much, much larger than pre-Operation Iraqi Freedom. Recent events have suggested US intelligence has been able to discern the basic outlines of Syrian and Iranian operations on their own home ground. That is an achievement equal to the Jihadis competing head to head with the FBI in the continental USA. The US may still be on the steep part of the learning curve, but it is the rate of change that counts, and in this respect, the Jihadis are falling behind..

The reluctance of any population to cooperate with a new government stems from a fear no different than that which prevents citizens from testifying against the Mafia. The population had nothing to fear from America and everything to fear from the enemy. And that state of affairs remained unchanged throughout the no-occupation zones which were virtual sanctuaries for subversive activity. The plan was probably to defer the cleanup on the ground until after the handover of power and intelligence capabilities had risen sufficiently. Recent events have advanced the agenda a little.

In this light, it is evident that the poor performance of the Iraqi Army battalion is a secondary problem. There is surplus military power. What is on hand can hardly be used to maximum potential. The real challenges remain political. The events of the last week have empowered the Iraqi Governing Council to an enormous degree. In a sense, the transfer of power has begun two months early. The requirement now is to forge a real alliance with the new Iraqi government, now facing its first crisis and to make them part of politico-military operations in the nation and the region. Paul Bremer and CENTCOM seem to understand this, yet implementing this difficult task remains a challenge.