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Iraq: the beginning of the end

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The Bush administration's additional deployment of troops to try and bring Baghdad under United States military control is still in its early days. Already, however, three developments throw light both on the likely outcome of the "surge" policy and the longer-term prospects for US troops in Iraq:

  • the recent experience of those troops while in the process of expanding their operations
  • the loss of helicopters to new insurgent tactics
  • the British decision, announced on 21 February 2007, to withdraw from the city of Basra.

As the US and its putative Iraqi allies launched more intensive operations in Baghdad, many analysts expected the insurgents (as so often before) to melt away, waiting for the concentrated searches and clearances to subside before restarting their activities. There is some evidence that Shi'a militia have done just this, including reports of a retreat across the border to Iran by some of the militia's political leaders. For Sunni insurgents, though, temporary retreat has been far from the uniform reaction. One astonishing example is a direct assault on 19 February on a heavily protected American military position in the town of Tarmiya, north of Baghdad.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The Tarmiya example

In this incident, a coordinated attack involved three suicide-bombers who drove car-bombs straight at the US position, killing three US soldiers and injuring seventeen (see Borzou Daragah,"Insurgents strike U.S. outpost in Iraq", Los Angeles Times, 20 February 2007).

Around 100 US troops had moved into Tarmiya in late 2006 after the local police force collapsed in the face of action by paramilitaries reportedly linked to al-Qaida. The troops occupied the old police headquarters, and reinforced them with blast walls. This proved insufficient deterrence: in the attack, two car-bombers exploded their vehicles at the outer walls and a third then drove his car into the building itself before detonating it. An intensive gun-battle then forced the US army to bring in helicopters to evacuate the wounded under fire; three of the machines were damaged by ground fire in the effort.

The Tarmiya incident was a rare example of a frontal assault on protected US positions. At a time when the US forces are going on the offensive, it suggests that at least some of the insurgents plan to respond with aggressive tactics of their own. In so doing, it also looks likely that some of them are now in a position to use some particularly effective portable anti-aircraft missiles. The fact that the surge exercise will be heavily reliant on helicopters, both for troop mobility and for direct air assault, suggests that its outcomes may be markedly more difficult than expected.

The insurgents have developed two new anti-helicopter tactics. The first involves the firing of modern Russian-made surface-to-air missiles, either the SA-14 or SA-16 (see Ann Scott Tyson, "Copter Attacks in Iraq May Indicate New Battle Strategy", Washington Post, 21 February 2007). These have a longer range than the previously employed Vietnam-era SAMs, and are also able to overcome some of the defensive systems on US helicopters. One was used to bring down a marine corps CH-46 helicopter on 7 February, killing the seven people onboard.

The second tactic has been used before but is being developed further. It involves careful preparation and coordination in order to direct multiply-sourced, simultaneous ground fire (including from heavy machine-guns) at a particular helicopter. Between 20 January and 21 February, eight US helicopters were shot down; a Black Hawk and an Apache helicopter have been among the targets, with twenty-people altogether being killed.

Both the intensity of the Tarmiya incident and the increased attacks on helicopters suggest that Sunni insurgents are responding in kind to the US surge, indicating that it is going to be a costly operation for both sides.

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's new book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 (Pluto Press, November 2006)

An enforced choice

All this is coming at a time when one of the close partners of the United States-led coalition, Denmark, has announced its intention to withdraw all but fifty of its 460 troops in Iraq. This will be completed by August 2007, by when there will have been even larger British withdrawals.

The British announcement on 21 February that it will withdraw 1,600 of its 7,100 troops in the coming months (and possibly 500 more by the end of 2007) has been accompanied by impressive amounts of political "spin", but little of it has any meaning.

At the end of December, in a relatively low-profile move, the British moved most of their civilians away from Basra city centre to the main base outside the city on the grounds that the centre had become too perilous. Indeed, two of the British bases in the city are second and third on the list of the most frequently attacked bases in the whole of Iraq. The reality is that British forces are being withdrawn from Basra because of the dangers confronting them and the failure of the much-vaunted "Operation Sinbad" to control the city. They will engage in few if any regular patrols from now on.

The British government seeks to argue that the central Iraqi government will take control but the reality is that local militias have most of the power and this will almost certainly increase still further in the wake of the British withdrawal.

What is really significant is that just at a time when US forces are surging elsewhere, and the US government is highly critical of Iranian involvement in the insurgency, the British forces are evacuating the very part of Iraq with the closest physical and social connections with Iran. Notwithstanding the Bush administration's public acceptance of the British decision, the reality will be deep unhappiness in Washington (see Mary Jordan & Joshua Partlow, "Blair Plans To Withdraw 1,600 Troops From Iraq", Washington Post, 22 February 2007). There will also be hope that the British forces will at least stay on to guard the crucial supply-routes from the port of Umm Qasr towards Baghdad.

The fact of Tony Blair's close relationship with President Bush raises the question: why this parting of the ways in policy between London and Washington? It is almost certain that the answer lies in some very blunt speaking behind the scenes by some of the most senior people in the British army to their political leaders in the ministry of defence and 10 Downing Street. The former were, to put it bluntly, no longer willing to be landed with an impossible task.

It is worth remembering the interview given in October 2006 by the head of the army, General Richard Dannatt. Among his comments were: "I want an army in five years time and ten years time. Don't break it on this one" (see "After failure in Iraq", 26 October 2006). This was unprecedented for a newly appointed army chief, but it represents little more than the tip of the iceberg of the bitter criticism coming from other senior army figures.

That Blair has been obliged to bow to these views is both surprising (many people expected the withdrawal to start only after the installation of his probable successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown) and significant (in light of the intensity of his transatlantic relationship and US worries over the decision).

From the perspective of (say) 2011-12, when the United States has finally had to admit defeat in Iraq, it may well be that the British decision this week will be seen as marking the beginning of the end.


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