Friday, April 02, 2004

Response at Fallujah

Directly after four civilian contractors were murdered and mutilated in Fallujah, in the heart of the Sunni triangle, the US military apparently strung a low key but effective cordon around the town. The townsfolk rapidly demanded its lifting. The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, based in the city, issued this cryptic statement:

"An agreement has been negotiated with the occupation forces to lift the siege of Fallujah and to withdraw. We are hoping you will cooperate to protect Fallujah and guarantee its security," the message said.

The cordon has if anything, been tightened. "U.S. troops, however, remained outside the city Thursday, and commanders said they would act 'at the time and place of our choosing.''' The US military defended its decision not to send troops into Fallujah immediately. Instead, the forces available blocked off the access routes. Fallujah is bounded in the West by a river and four major roads lead in and out of the town.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said troops didn't respond for fear of ambushes and the possibility that insurgents would use civilians as human shields. ``A pre-emptive attack into the city could have taken a bad situation and made it even worse,'' he said.

Because US troops have largely stayed out of the town in the past, they may have believed in the possibility of extensive defensive preparations. Kimmitt may have suspected, from the sheer barbarity of the act, that anti-coalition forces were actually aiming at ambushing the relief force. The strung up bodies were bait. But concentration on the cordon was also motivated by the knowledge that the perpetrators would seek to escape the locality immediately. Using an expanded version of the "buttonhook" tactic, US forces would have sought to isolate the area of operations immediately.

Q General, there certainly didn't seem to be a pell-mell response yesterday. We spoke to the ICDC today who went and picked up the bodies. They said they didn't dare go near the bodies which were on the bridge until 8:00 in the evening, which would make it about 10 hours after the attack. Can you explain how it was possible that American civilians' bodies were dragged around a town which is guarded by thousands of Marines for a good 10 hours, left out in the street, and nobody did anything?

GEN. KIMMITT: Well, first of all, I don't know the exact time line. And second, it was the determination of the personnel in the region that by the time they would have arrived or could have arrived, those persons were already dead and they were being controlled by some of these insurgents. I think that there was a well thought-out decision on the part of the Marines that let's not rush headlong into there, there may be ambushes set up, there may be civilians being used as human shields. And at this point, while it was dreadful, while it was unacceptable, while it was bestial, a preemptive attack into the city could have taken a bad situation and made it even worse. We will be back in Fallujah. It will be at the time and the place of our choosing. We will hunt down the criminals. We will kill them or we will capture them. And we will pacify Fallujah.

Q Can I just ask one quick follow-up. Just does it not send out a rather dangerous message that these people can get away with this, pretty much do whatever they want? I mean, I was in Fallujah today and people were saying, "Yeah, the Americans were scared to come back in." Does that not send out a bad message of tolerance of violence?

GEN. KIMMITT: Ask them after the Americans have come back in.

CPA Administrator Paul Bremer chose a graduation ceremony for Iraqi police cadets to vow that the incident "will not go unpunished", possibly because a large role has been assigned to the Iraqi police in the forthcoming operation.

From these elements one can deduce the basic shape of the counterstroke. Since Fallujah and its anti-coalition forces are largely run on tribal (read Mafia) lines, the strategic goal will be to arrest the tribal leadership structure and other ringleaders such as imams.  A secondary goal will be to capture the thousands of weapons and magazines that are bound to be present. This will require a block by block reduction of an entire city of 230,000 persons. Hence, a plentiful supply of Iraqi cops is needed for large-scale  interrogation. And all this must be accomplished within the limits of acceptable collateral damage levels.

The rest is tactics. The Marines have long studied Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT). They will put snipers in dominant overwatch; use the road network to divide up the town into zones by posting the intersections; they will build EPW cages outside the town; they will put persistent aerial surveillance aloft; there will be a blanket of electronic surveillance and electronic jamming over the town; they will map out the operation to a room-by-room detail. Then they will lop off bits of Fallujah one slice at a time.

The biggest danger, as Kimmitt knows, is that the Anti-coalition Forces will use civilians, particularly children, as human shields by sheltering and firing from houses. Unfortunately for the enemy, the cordon ensures that Kimmitt will be in no particular hurry. The enemy can shoot it out with Marine snipers who have plenty of match grade ammunition. The presence of Iraqi policemen will allow Kimmitt to direct civilians into processing areas. Then the evacuated houses will be searched individually until the entire leadership structure is taken apart.

The deliberate, even cold-blooded approach by the Marines makes this incident the anti-Mogadishu. The tactics employed against the Rangers in the Blackhawk Down incident relied on the belief that Americans could be reflexively trapped into defending unfavorable positions in attempts to recover bodies. The Anti-Coalition Forces probably felt sure that taunting Americans over the media would produce the desired impulsiveness. As the minutes lengthened into hours and the Marines responded with icy professionalism, the enemy may have come to the unpleasant realization that this was not the former administration and that other still more unwelcome surprises were in store for them.