Saturday, October 02, 2004

Appointment in Samarra

The "International Herald Tribune" describes the brigade plus attack on Samarra by US and Iraqi government forces. The objective of the operation was to establish government control after the city council had been disbanded under insurgent threat. Samarra is a city of 200,000 on the Tigris river about 120 kilometers north-northwest of Baghdad. It was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate in the 9th century, when palaces and gardens stretched for 30 kilometers along the river. That history is recalled in numerous archaeological relics whose massive construction make it a potential offensive nightmare. The Great Friday Mosque with its spiral minaret, for example, covers nearly 40,000 square meters -- four hectares, or about 9 acres -- with walls 35 feet high and walls nearly 9 feet thick. It is also the site of a replica of the the Imam Ali Mosque of Najaf, holy to Shi'ites, excepting that it is domed in blue tiles, but with the potential, like its southern counterpart, to become a massive redoubt.

The International Herald Tribune reports that an overnight assault by four American and two Iraqi battalions (for reference note that a division has about 10 battalions) took 80% of the city, killing 100 insurgents outright, and capturing the Shi'ite mosque, the city hall and a pharmaceutical factory site. The assault on the mosque itself was carried out by the Iraqi army in its first major public debut.

In a later statement, the military said that members of 36th Iraqi Commando Battalion had secured the historic Golden Mosque, a sacred Shiite shrine, to safeguard it from insurgents. They also captured 25 rebels at the mosque with weapons, the military said.

Details added by the Daily Telegraph suggests the force had specific objectives when they began the operation. "An Iraqi spokesman said 37 insurgents were captured. During the push, soldiers of the US 1st Infantry Division rescued Yahlin Kaya, a Turkish building worker being held hostage in the city."  Remaining resistance appears to be centered on the old city.

American and Iraqi troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles pushed through Samarra's old city as insurgents unleashed mortar attacks and rocket-propelled grenades from the rooftops. ... Apache attack helicopters circled the area, firing rockets at rooftops where insurgents hid as soldiers fought street by street. Several buildings were destroyed. One resident said 10 per cent of the houses in the old city had been destroyed.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the operation was that such a huge force of Americans and Iraqis achieved tactical surprise. "When the 3,500 US troops and Iraqi forces launched the attack they appeared to catch the insurgents by surprise."  Reports suggest the insurgents were caught flat-footed.

Guerrillas were seen unloading weapons and ammunition from two speedboats on the Tigris in the town, the military said. Troops opened fire and destroyed the boats. The US military said troops destroyed several mortar sites, rocket-propelled grenade teams and guerrilla vehicles as they closed in on the mosque in the city center.

The fact that the First Infantry Division and the Iraqi Army were able to keep the approach of multi-battalion forces secret from the enemy in the heart of the Sunni triangle is one of the most impressive aspects of this operation. The insurgents were surprised in a stronghold where they could expect to enjoy every intelligence advantage. Nearly as impressive was the lightning seizure of the Shi'ite shrine by the 36th Iraqi Commando battalion. If this feat were achieved in Najaf two month's earlier it would have been the equivalent of Allawi capturing Moqtada al-Sadr and his high command in their underpants. In fact, the entire multinational operation implies a degree of coordination, command and control that speaks volumes about the degree of improvement of the Iraqi Army.

But many difficulties still remain. The "Telegraph" points out the obvious one. Will the victory last?

"Less than three weeks ago the US military entered the troubled city to reinstate its city council, which had disbanded earlier under terrorist threat. Although this was hailed as a great success at the time, insurgents quickly returned and cowed local forces when US forces left."

In that respect the earlier American operation in Samarra resembled any Israeli Defense Force incursion into Gaza or the West Bank -- overwhelming but temporary. In fact, any all-American incursion into Falluja would probably have shared the same temporary character. But the American commitment to building a new Iraqi Army and Iraqi State is the bearing strategic fruit which provides the crucial difference. Imagine if the Israeli Defense Forces and a Palestinian Government Force could jointly seize a terrorist stronghold and then garrison it with a Palestinian Force. What if they could seize and hold? This is what American and Iraqi forces are achieving in Samarra; this is what can be done in October that could not be achieved in April, 2004. The view that Iraq is descending into a quagmire represents a valid concern, but it ignores three crucial achievements by US policymakers.

  1. The piecemeal defeat of the threatened Sunni-Shi'ite uprising in April by holding the Sunnis fixed while militarily and politically defeating Moqtada Al-Sadr;
  2. Rebuilding the Iraqi Army from a near-zero condition in April; and
  3. Establishing an interim Iraqi government.

Both Saddam and Sadr believed they could outmaneuver the Americans, who were, if the press is to be believed, singularly lacking in nuance and intelligence. Doubtless Zarqawi believes he can do the same. Long may he cherish that hope.