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Iraq's burning season

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Iraq's slow burn of the last six weeks has been occurring behind the backs of most of the western media. The bombing on 22 February of one of Shi'a Islam's holiest shrines, the al-Askari mosque (the "golden mosque") in Samarra, has reignited the world's attention. But how does this latest incident, and the retaliatory attacks it has provoked, fit into the unfolding story of Iraq's conflict and United States strategy for the country?

The Samarra assault, conducted by a dozen men dressed in paramilitary uniform who subdued the mosque's guards before detonating a bomb underneath the shrine's gold-plated dome, occurred on the third day of intense violence targeted both at the Iraqi security forces and at Iraq's majority Shi'a population.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers has just written a report for the Oxford Research Group on the likely effects of a military attack on Iran:

"Iran: Consequences of a War" (February 2006)

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)

On 20 February, a bomb in a Mosul restaurant frequented by police officers killed five people and injured twenty-one, and a suicide-bomb in a market in the (Shi'a) Khadamiyah district of Baghdad killed twelve and injured dozens more. A day later, the bombing of a market in the al-Doura area of southern Baghdad killed twenty-two people and injured thirty.

The Samarra attack, however, is especially significant, for two reasons. First, the potent symbolism of the target: the mosque contains the remains of two of Shi'a Islam's twelve revered imams, Ali al-Hadi (died 868 ce) and Hassan al-Askari (died 874 ce). (The latter's son, Mohammed al-Mahdi, is the famed "hidden imam" the idea of whose reappearance to deliver justice to the world – devoutly expected by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, among others – plays a crucial role in Shi'a Islam's belief-system.)

Second, the political context: the incident occurred at a moment of pressure on the Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari – from both US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and British foreign secretary Jack Straw – to include more of his Sunni opponents in the new cabinet he is attempting to form. Al-Jaafari has vigorously responded to their comments: "When someone asks us whether we want a sectarian government the answer is 'no we do not want a sectarian government' – not because the US ambassador says so or issues a warning."

In this light, the provocative attack was clearly aimed at damaging Sunni-Shi'a relations and probably had the intention of encouraging Shi'a political parties to take an even harder line in current attempts to create a workable new government. The likely effect of the attack is to reinforce intercommunal tensions in a way that will make any such agreement more difficult, illustrating once again the element of sophisticated political calculation practiced by the insurgents.

The Samarra blowback

Samarra, almost 100 kilometres north of Baghdad, is more than an arena of Sunni-Shi'a tension. It is also one of the model cities for what US neo-conservatives have argued in recent months is the "right" way to control the Iraqi insurgency. The approach is termed "clear, hold, build" and involves clearing a city or district of insurgents, holding it with US troops with assistance from Iraqi security forces, and implementing a build strategy of reconstruction and long-term control (see "Victory in Iraq", 15 December 2005).

Samarra was meant to be a classic example of this winning strategy. In the last weeks of 2004, shortly after November's assault on Fallujah, 5,000 troops drawn from the 1st infantry division and Iraqi forces were sent into Samarra to take the city from insurgents. A few months later, a twelve-kilometre-long earth wall was bulldozed all the way round the outside of the city, broken by just three entry/exit points which could, so the theory went, be policed to keep out insurgents.

Within the city, US army units were housed in public buildings and other locations, with extensive free-fire "killing" zones around them, extending for 100 metres. In the process, houses were cleared of occupants to keep the surrounding areas free for garrison protection by machine-guns mounted on the roofs. Patrols were mounted throughout the city to ensure it was clear of insurgents.

Among Paul Rogers's columns on the United States's second assault on Fallujah in November 2004, and its aftermath:

"Fallujah fallout"
(11 November 2004)

"American dreams, Iraqi realities"
(18 November 2004)

"No direction home"
(25 November 2004)

The result of this intense security activity – even prior to the 22 February mosque assault – was failure. Samarra's economy has largely collapsed in the face of this foreign occupation, and the city's population has fallen from 200,000 to 90,000 since the US plan was implemented. Armed attacks by insurgents, which initially fell by half, are again increasing; indeed, insurgents are operating in the city so successfully that they are once again setting off roadside bombs within the city itself, in spite of the wall and the roadblocks. The number of such bombs rose from eight in October 2005 to fifteen in January 2006.

In a graphic and detailed account of life for US soldiers in the city, veteran correspondent Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder Newspapers ("Explanations for failure in Samarra vary", 15 February 2006) reported on the mix of cynicism and low morale now affecting them.

In one incident, the bodies of two insurgents were retrieved by soldiers of the 82nd airborne division following an exchange of fire beside the Tigris river. Lasseter reports a sergeant ordering the corpses to be strapped like deer to the hoods of the US's heavily-armoured Humvees: "The soldiers heaved the two bodies onto the hood of a Humvee and tied them down with cord. The dead insurgents' legs and arms flapped in the air as the Humvee rumbled along. Iraqi families stood in front of the surrounding houses. They watched the corpses ride by and glared at the Americans."

Lasseter's piece is a rare example of "embedded" reporting that gives some real indication of the experience and behaviour of American troops in Iraq. He further reports that, more than a year after the city was retaken, "American troops are still battling insurgents in Samarra. Bloodshed is destroying the city and driving a wedge between the Iraqis who live there and the U.S. troops who are trying to keep order. Violence, police corruption and the blurry lines of guerrilla warfare are clouding any hopes of victory."

An insider's view

If Lasseter's report is an exception to the general tenor of media coverage in the United States, it is also the case that some of the specialist defence journals – read primarily by the military – are publishing material that tends strongly to support his portrait. One of the most remarkable and revealing examples is a report in the current issue of the Washington weekly Defense News (Greg Grant, "Iraqi Insurgents Find Ways to Bounce Back", 20 February 2006 [subscription only]).

Two points stand out. The first is that whenever US or Iraqi security forces succeed in killing or detaining insurgent leaders, there is little effect on the overall scale of the insurgency, whose networks seem able quickly to recover – there are routinely more than 100 attacks every week (the number for January was 433). This is happening despite the extraordinary rate of such killings and detentions: the US authorities themselves say that the combined number was 24,470 in 2004 and 26,500 in 2005.

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It is worth remembering that in late 2004, the same authorities were describing the insurgents then active as mere "remnants", controlled by a handful of extended families known to the Americans, leading a campaign destined soon to peter out. This assessment was given an added boost by the detention of Saddam Hussein himself in December that year. A little more than fourteen months on, no one speaks of "remnants" and the confident projections of the insurgency's demise have turned to ashes.

The second point, which seems to contradict much of the coverage in western media, is that the insurgents are not just drawn from the ranks of disaffected Sunnis and small numbers of foreign jihadists, but also comprise members of Shi'a militias. Indeed, it is now recognised that it was Shi'a insurgent groups who first developed new forms of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – shaped-charge explosives that can penetrate armour – and later shared this technology with Sunni insurgents.

As an illustration of the United States's military predicament in Samarra and elsewhere in Iraq, perhaps most telling of all are the comments (quoted in Defense News) of one army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Ross Brown, a squadron commander in the 3rd armoured cavalry regiment: "I went out on an operation, I killed 27 [insurgents] in October. All they do is fill their spaces with more people; they have an infinite supply of replacements. We kill a leader or we detain a leader and there is somebody else in charge. Every time I feel good about killing or detaining this guy, there is somebody else to fill the boots, somebody is standing right behind ready to jump up."


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