The nature of Iraqi resistance

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
9 July 2003

The previous article in this series sought to analyse the nature of the security problems facing US forces in Iraq with the aim of assessing whether a full-scale insurgency was emerging. It pointed to the obvious fact that Iraq was under a coalition military occupation dominated by the United States, with the head of the civil administration, Paul Bremer, reporting to the Pentagon rather than the state department.

The article also pointed to the likely impact of at least 20,000 deaths during the three-week war on likely Iraqi attitudes to occupation, especially as those casualties were drawn disproportionately from the Sunni communities who had tended to benefit more from the Saddam Hussein regime.

There are other relevant factors in the current tense and unstable situation in Iraq. These include the survival of tens of thousands of members of the Special Republican Guard and militants from Saddam’s various security and intelligence agencies, which probably form the basis for attacks on US forces; the continuing failure to restore public services; problems of morale among US troops; and the slow pace of evolution of democratic instruments of government.

One conclusion that can certainly be drawn is that if major security problems continue for US forces in Iraq, then the aggressive neo-conservative security agenda that it so dominant in Washington could actually be damaged. On this basis, developments in Iraq have implications that are potentially global in their impact.

In fear of the old regime

There was also a note of caution in last week’s analysis – especially in relation to the nature of resistance to the US presence in Iraq. In this respect, some of the events of the past few days help to give us a more rounded view of what is happening.

Several experienced western journalists currently in Iraq argue that the recent upsurge of attacks on US forces, especially in Baghdad, is making people fearful of the return of the Saddam Hussein regime. As a result, open criticism of the regime voiced in the immediate aftermath of the war is now often being replaced with silence. This condition is exacerbated by the slow pace of political development. A related problem is the increased tendency of the guerrilla forces to target those associated with the occupying powers; the killing of trainee police officers on 5 July is only one example.

A number of former opposition leaders have offered a proposal to counter this fear. They call for the US to put far greater resources into the immediate development of a strong Iraqi security force. However, this is unlikely to be feasible unless it is accompanied by a parallel move towards an early degree of Iraqi self-governance. The importance of such a move does now seem to be recognised as an issue by Paul Bremer and others, but Washington still seems reluctant to give up any of the levers of power.

A problem of morale

It is not only the Iraqi people who are facing difficulty in adapting to new realities. There is also an increase in reports of low morale among US troops, many of whom were expecting to leave Iraq two months ago and most of whom were unprepared for dangerous urban warfare operations. A number have started writing to their Congressional representatives, asking for their units to be repatriated. One recent letter said: “Most soldiers would empty their bank accounts just for a plane ticket home”.

There are currently 145,000 US soldiers in Iraq. Since the US army can call on up to a million people, it may seem odd that those who have been there longest cannot be replaced by fresh troops. In fact, the trouble is that the figure of one million is thoroughly misleading.

The core US army strength is actually only around 470,000. These include the approximately 230,000 troops deployed in the Gulf region as a whole, with another 140,000 stationed in other parts of the world outside the United States. Most of the remaining troops that make up the ‘million’ number actually reservists or in the army’s National Guard, almost all with job commitments and families back home.

(Since 9/11 there has of course been a surge in defence spending, but most of this is on equipment and increased salaries rather than additional personnel.)

What this means is that an important side effect of the continuing conflict in Iraq will be on recruitment and retention within the US army itself. This is an unexpected development after the euphoria of a quick victory, but one that is now recognised as potentially serious within the more thoughtful reaches of the Pentagon.

The pattern of guerrilla warfare

These adjustments of policy and thinking will of course need to attend closely to the unfolding realities on the ground in Iraq itself. Recent days alone have signaled the likely direction of events. For the civilian population, an important issue is that problems of electricity supply have actually worsened, with Baghdad experiencing even greater disruption than in the immediate aftermath of the war. For the US forces on the ground, a far more immediate concern is the increase in armed attacks they are now facing.

These attacks are now running at up to a dozen a day in Baghdad and the surrounding area, and are mirrored by others attacks spread across the country, from Kirkuk in the north to Basra in the south. Well over 200 US troops have now been wounded in addition to the thirty killed in hostile action; the number of incidents is now so great that most are not even reported in the western press.

Two features of this guerrilla warfare are of particular concern to the US military leadership. The first is the apparent ease with which individuals can attack US units and then disappear into crowded city districts with little or no risk of their being identified. This is one reason why a $2,500 reward has been offered for information about attackers.

The second is the opposition’s capacity to mount large-scale operations. These are no longer limited to a handful of individuals. Last week’s double attack north of Baghdad is an example. It started with a carefully orchestrated mortar attack on a sprawling military base outside the town of Balad, twenty-five kilometres from Baghdad, which injured seventeen US soldiers. This would have required transport and careful positioning of weapons and itself represented an escalation in capabilities.

After the mortar attack, a US army convoy was ambushed on the main road from Baghdad to Mosul, near Balad. There were no American injuries and a number of Iraqis were killed as the troops returned fire. Later, a small contingent from the attacked convoy headed south and met up with reinforcements four miles away, with the combined force then being attacked by another group of guerrillas. Finally, there was yet another attack when US troops returned to the scene of the original ambush to retrieve the bodies of those they had killed.

It is estimated that around fifty guerrillas were engaged in the three attacks in addition to those responsible for the original mortar attack on the military base. This growing capability is made more potent by the ready availability of arms and munitions. When a former bodyguard of Saddam Hussein was arrested on 26 June, US forces recovered plastic explosive, a machinegun, mortars and 10,000 rounds of ammunition at his home. (Washington Post, 8 July, quoting Associated Press report).

Planned or provoked?

Even this level of guerrilla activity is not conclusive indication that a full-scale insurgency is now in progress. Yet the problems facing US forces are certainly much more substantial than are commonly realised. The key question this raises is the extent to which this scale and type of activity was pre-planned by the old regime before the war. Some journalists have cited a document of January 2003 suggesting that the regime was indeed preparing for this outcome. If so, then it may be that the level of attacks is already peaking and it may still be possible to bring the situation under control.

But what if the violence was not pre-planned – and instead is based largely on post-war improvisation stemming from a deep-seated opposition to US occupation, the ready availability of armaments and the capabilities of some thousands of potential insurgents coming mainly from supporters of the old regime? In this circumstance, the US forces would be faced with a truly dangerous predicament.

The answer is not yet definitely clear. All one can say for now is that the increased intensity, sophistication and scale of the armed attacks suggests that a serious long-term problem of insecurity now exists in substantial parts of Iraq and is going to be very difficult to resolve.

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