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After Saddam, no respite

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The detention of Saddam Hussein raises many questions. One of the most important is whether it means the beginning of the end of the insurgency. The immediate indications are that it may not. In the past few days there have been a number of car bombs directed against Iraqi police forces and numerous violent demonstrations against United States troops. On 16 December, seventeen Iraqis were killed and US troops continued to suffer casualties, including one killed in central Baghdad, the 199th to die since President Bush declared the war was over on 1 May.

But the unlikelihood of the insurgency’s collapse does not rest on the latest violence alone. Perhaps more ominous are two other incidents this week. On 17 December, a senior figure in the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI), Muhannad al-Hakim, was murdered. He was head of security at the ministry of education and cousin of Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, current president of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). This was followed two days later by a bomb attack on a building in the al-Jihad district of Baghdad used by local militia linked to SCIRI, killing the aunt of one of the security guards and injuring five people.

The United States reaction to the continuing violence has been immediate and vigorous. It includes a substantial show of force in Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit involving tanks and other armoured vehicles patrolling the city centre, with the US-appointed regional governor announcing that “any demonstration against the government or the coalition forces will be fired upon.”

In expectation of increasing violence, 3,500 troops of the 81st airborne division will now be kept in Iraq for two months beyond their planned return home in February 2004, and an additional 2,000 troops will be sent to the country.

Among Iraqis there has been a widespread if rather muted welcome for Saddam Hussein’s detention, as it removed a deep-seated fear among many Iraqis of the return of the regime. The manner of his seizure, and the subsequent televising of his dishevelled state and medical examination may have been of considerable domestic benefit to President Bush, but they also brought to an end any pretence that Saddam still wielded substantial political influence.

In this, the capture was not dissimilar to the killing of his two sons, in hiding in Mosul, and protected just by a couple of bodyguards. At that time, there was an expectation that the shooting of Uday and Qusay Hussein would have a substantial effect in diminishing the insurgency. But it did not. The hopes are even greater that Saddam Hussein’s arrest and probable trial will lead to a reduction in resistance, but this is best analysed in the context of much longer-term trends.

The next six months

It has become clear since the end of the first phase of the war that the termination of the regime was not primarily about weapons of mass destruction, nor about destroying a particular brutal and repressive abuser of human rights: it was much more about the long-term control of a key state in the world’s richest oil-bearing region.

Within a month of the toppling of the Saddam regime in April 2003, the New York Times was reporting the establishment of four permanent military bases in Iraq and Paul Bremer confirmed recently that the US intended to secure an agreement with any future Iraqi government over the long-term deployment of American troops. To put it more bluntly, the US anticipated a “friendly” government in Iraq, even if this would be seen in the region as a puppet regime.

On this basis, it would have been reasonable to conclude last April that the termination of the old regime might have resulted in a period of relative calm – perhaps lasting months or even one-two years, but that the establishment of a settled US presence in the country would eventually lead to an insurgency developing partly from within Iraq and partly through the entry of paramilitaries from abroad. Such an insurgency would have fuelled by opposition to a major Arab state being effectively under the direct dominance of the United States.

Against this realistic expectation, the speed and intensity of the insurgency that developed in the immediate post-regime period was frankly surprising. Recent figures indicate that, in addition to over 200 combat deaths, some 10,000 US troops and over 1,000 British troops have been airlifted home with combat or accidental injuries or mental or physical illness. Iraqi civilian deaths have been much higher, with at least 1,500 violent deaths in Baghdad alone.

The implications of the wider picture are straightforward. The US will see Iraq as a client state for the foreseeable future, primarily because it gives the United States secure access to massive “new” oil reserves – which are nearly five times larger than its domestic reserves at a time when it increasingly has to import oil to meet domestic demand. In seeking to do this it is facing an insurgency that is substantially greater than it expected and has developed very much earlier than even independent analysts had anticipated.

If, then, the insurgency does decrease in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s capture, this may be little more than a temporary decline, to be replaced by a more deep-seated and enduring form of violent opposition evolving over the next one-to-five years. If, on the other hand, the insurgency does not ebb away over the winter, then US forces face a very difficult situation requiring sustained military commitments on a scale hugely greater than were anticipated earlier in 2003.

In either event, the next six months will be the key period. The early indications on the ground, both in terms of this week’s violence and the impending reinforcement of US troops, are that the insurgency is not at an end. Perhaps most significant of all has been the caution evident in the statements of both George Bush and Tony Blair. That, in its own way, is more indicative than anything happening in Iraq itself.

The Israeli factor

If this analysis is correct, then US forces will be preparing for a sustained period of urban guerrilla conflict. There is already evidence for this, from a remarkable meeting that took place in Israel earlier this month.

From 1-5 December, the head of the Israeli ground forces command, Major-General Yiftah Ron-Tal, hosted a series of meetings with a visiting senior US team headed by General Kevin Byrnes, commander of the US army’s training and doctrine command (Tradoc).

Among those accompanying General Byrnes were Major-General Robert Mixon, deputy commander of Tradoc’s futures center and Brigadier-General Benjamin Freakly, commander of the US army’s infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia. US and Israeli sources have been deeply reluctant to comment on the meeting but, according to the usually well-informed Defense News [15 December 2003 (paid-for only)]:

“the goals were twofold: to strengthen cooperation among US and Israeli ground forces in future warfighting and military modernization planning, and to evaluate ways in which the US military can benefit from operational lessons Israel has accrued during the past 38 months in its ongoing urban, low-intensity conflict with Palestinian militants.”
Defense News went on to quote a US military source:
“Israel has much to offer in the technological realm, while operationally, there are obvious parallels between Israel’s experiences over the past three years in the West Bank and Gaza and our own post-offensive operations in Iraq. We’d be remiss if we didn’t make a supreme effort to seek out commonalities and see how we might be able to incorporate some of that Israeli knowledge into our plans.”
From a strictly military point of view, such cooperation is to be expected, but what is surprising is the apparent lack of any serious political judgment (see last week’s column in this series, “Perception and reality in the ‘war on terror’”). There is a view across much of the Arab world that Israeli suppression of Palestinian aspirations is essentially a joint US-Israeli process, with the F-16 strike aircraft and Apache helicopters being seen as US warplanes in Israeli markings. Now we have its obverse: Israelis telling the Americans how to suppress the Iraqi insurgency.

As so often, that may be partly a matter of perception but it is deep-rooted and pervasive. The longer the insurgency persists in Iraq, and the longer there is no resolution of the Israel/Palestine confrontation – a prospect made if anything even more remote by Ariel Sharon’s latest speech – the more there is a risk of the occupation of Iraq being seen as a US/Israel operation. That alone is going to further increase the enmity towards the United States both inside Iraq and among the many supporters of al-Qaida and its affiliates.


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