Saturday, June 26, 2004

The Price of Newsprint

The Washington Post has an account of the victory -- yes the victory -- that the First Armored Division won over Moqtada Al-Sadr's militia. Scott Wilson describes how US Forces fought around politically constituted sanctuaries, an admission of how the mighty US Army might rule the battlefield, yet bow to the almighty media.

Over the next 60 days, more than 5,000 troops from the division engaged in the most sustained urban combat operation of the now 15-month occupation. In desert cities that once welcomed American troops, they battled a Shiite uprising that threatened to upset the June 30 transition to an Iraqi interim government. Their orders were stark: Smash the uprising, and capture or kill its leader, the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr.

By the time the uprising was over, silenced in a cease-fire June 4, the U.S. military success appeared decisive. While 19 U.S. soldiers had been killed in combat and scores wounded, military officials estimate that 1,500 insurgents were killed. Sadr's militiamen had been driven from positions many had died defending.

At Karbala, for example, Americans fought to retake positions from Sadr simply because rules of engagement governing other Coalition Partners prohibited them from participating in their own designated areas of operation. "Karbala had been the responsibility of a brigade of Polish soldiers. Like Spain, Ukraine and other U.S. partners responsible for security in the Shiite south, the Polish government had prohibited its soldiers from conducting offensive operations. The rules rendered them useless when Sadr's militia rose up." At Najaf Americans took hundreds of mortar rounds and thousands in small arms from two sites without being able to fire a shot in retaliation.

For weeks, Sadr's foot soldiers had used the impenetrable acres of Najaf's cemetery, the largest in the Islamic world, as a staging area. Just blocks away is the Shrine of Imam Ali, the holiest place in Shiite Islam. As the battle loomed, both sites were designated by U.S. commanders as "exclusion zones" for their troops. ... The British, the firmest U.S. partner in Iraq, were already angered by what they saw as provocative U.S. military tactics in the holy cities. ... U.S. soldiers said the zones awarded a tactical advantage to Sadr's men, who used them as refuges. Operating near the Shrine of Imam Ali, U.S. patrols came under steady fire that they did not return. Each night, mortars fell on their camp -- 495 in all -- fired from a mosque complex in Kufa, a few miles to the east, also protected by an exclusion zone. "Our soldiers were getting hurt in the same places every day because of these zones," said Spec. Christopher Stinespring, 30, of Arthurdale, W.Va. "There was nothing we could do."

In what was probably the most psychologically revealing moment of the battle, infantrymen fought six hours for the possession of one damaged Humvee, of no tactical value, simply so that the network news would not have the satisfaction of displaying the piece of junk in the hands of Sadr's men. The enemy understood the rules of engagement too well, but from the other side. "Squeezed into a few downtown blocks, Sadr militants began using children to shuttle ammunition, soldiers said. Youngsters carrying large plastic bags darted from corner to corner, and the soldiers would not shoot them. 'We all grew up knowing you don't hurt women and children,' Taylor said. 'And they used that to their advantage.' The US estimates that 20 civilians were killed in operations around Najaf. The Najaf hospital claims 81. When the Russians retook Grozny after a disastrous first foray, they returned to the operational formula of Marshak Konev in Berlin and rained down 8,000 artillery shells per hour on the town, killing perhaps 27,000 before attempting it again. The vastly more powerful Americans did not, yet triumphed. They are inept, as everyone knows.

Ted Koppel was determined to read the names of 700 American servicemen who have died in Iraq to remind us how serious was their loss. Michael Moore has dedicated his film Farenheit 9/11 to the Americans who died in Afghanistan. And they did a land office business. But at least they didn't get to show Sadr's miliamen dancing around a battered Humvee. The men of the First Armored paid the price to stop that screening and those concerned can keep the change.