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The Ba’ath restoration project

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
19 November 2003

Paul Bremer’s hurried return to Washington last week and the resulting changes in United States policy in Iraq make it apparent that the full impact of the developing insurgency is now being registered at the political heart of the Bush administration.

This represents a belated acceptance of what some of the military commanders in the region, and the military (as opposed to the civilian) leadership in the Pentagon have been briefing for some time; indeed, the latter were among the strongest lobbyists for a new UN resolution two months ago, when it was already recognised that Iraq was simply not going according to plan.

A spiral of violence

Within Iraq itself, the insurgency seems still to be gathering pace. There are increasing numbers of attacks on US patrols, a rising casualty list, the recent destruction of five helicopters, and continuing sabotage. Furthermore, the attack on the Italian compound in Nasiriya has had the intended effect of undermining the commitment of foreign governments, a point demonstrated by immediate “adjustments” in policy by the re-elected Japanese government in relation to possible peacekeeping commitments.

It now seems that the escalating insurgency in Iraq has reinforced domestic political concerns to make it highly unlikely that Japan will contribute significant numbers of troops to Iraq. This outcome is a setback for Japanese foreign policy as well as a substantial political reversal for the country’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. Japan has sought to increase its involvement in the Gulf – partly because of its dependence on the region’s oil supplies, and partly as an extension of its competition with China, whose own increasing involvement in the area included technical support for the Saddam Hussein regime.

Although not widely reported, another trend within Iraq has been the increase in attacks on presumed collaborators. In recent weeks this has included the murder of judges, a newspaper editor in Mosul, an electricity supply executive and one of Baghdad’s deputy mayors. This active intimidation has extended to attacks on other people cooperating with the US, especially in the north of the country.

In the past week, an attempt was made to assassinate the manager in charge of distributing fuel products throughout northern Iraq. He escaped, but his son alongside was killed. On 10 November, an interpreter called Khalid Victor Paul and his teenage son were killed as they drove to the latter’s school. Both these murders were in the vicinity of Mosul and seem part of a determined effort by insurgents to bring the disorder and violence of the Baghdad region to the north of Iraq.

The developing problems within Iraq are perhaps most graphically indicated by recent casualty figures from the US army surgeon-general’s office (see Mark Benjamin, “US Casualties from Iraq War Top 9,000”, UPI Wire Service, 14 November 2003). From the start of the war on 19-20 March to the end of October, there were 397 US service members killed and 1,967 injured in combat. In addition, 6,861 troops were medically evacuated out of Iraq over the same period due to non-combat injuries or mental or physical illness. Of these latter evacuees, 2,464 were for non-combat injuries; 504 of the remaining 4,397 were classified as psychiatric.

All these injuries and illnesses were sufficiently serious for the people concerned to be evacuated from Iraq, with the great majority going to the Landstuhl military hospital in Germany and then on to the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington and other US centres.

A particular concern is raised bye report that 378 troops have been evacuated for neurological conditions, raising fears among veteran groups that a repeat of “Gulf war syndrome” may be happening.

The American rethink

The United States’s response to the deteriorating security situation in Iraq has three elements. The first is fairly minor, if still significant – namely, the decision to relocate a substantial part of the headquarters of US Central Command (Centcom) from its Florida base to Qatar.

Centcom is a unified military command developed in the 1980s that covers an arc of twenty-five countries across south-west Asia, the Middle East and north-east Africa. Despite the fact that major command locations are in the Gulf, its headquarters have always been at McDill air force base near Tampa. In the coming weeks, several hundred staff will move from Florida to Qatar; it is expected that the head of Centcom, General John P. Abizaid, will spend much of his time there.

The second development is a series of assaults by US forces against suspected insurgent safe houses, command centres and other facilities. This goes as far as the use of air strikes and tactical ballistic missiles; some of the weapons used are anti-personnel cluster munitions. The intent behind this demonstration of US firepower is to remind the Iraqi attackers of the overwhelming military force available to the occupiers.

An interesting aspect of the current higher level of military activity is that senior US commanders are now confirming the view recently expressed that almost all the insurgency is coming from within Iraq, with only minimal involvement from foreign paramilitaries. According to Major General Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, 90% of the insurgents captured or killed by US forces are Ba’ath loyalists or people described as Iraqi religious militants (see Daniel Williams, “‘Sending a Message’ With a Show of Force”, Washington Post, 19 November 2003).

One tactic the Americans are pursuing is to destroy the homes of suspected guerrillas. This follows a style of warfare long used by the Israelis in the occupied Palestinian territories. There, it has proved largely futile, serving instead to increase resentment and further militancy. (Indeed, some observers suggest that such recent initiatives are motivated more by a concern to “show the flag” in the domestic US media than to have any real impact on the insurgents).

Moreover, the deployment of intense force repeats a pattern developed during the summer when the Iraqi insurgency first began to gather pace. At that time, the military response was a combination of heavy firepower and large-scale detentions. Contrary to expectations, the insurgency actually increased and the US tactics were in turn replaced by a softer approach.

The third element in the US response is to develop plans for a more rapid transfer of political and security responsibilities to Iraqis, on the assumption that the resulting regime in Baghdad will both be acceptable to the United States and able to exert control across the country. Moreover, it is now apparent that the Bush administration is preparing to return to the UN Security Council to secure an endorsement for this process, in the hope of encouraging other states to help in reconstruction and peace-enforcement.

These three elements of the US response carry the implication that the Bush administration is considering a military withdrawal from Iraq. Pentagon officials are, however, cautious on this issue – and are, in any case, already in the process of developing a number of permanent US military bases in Iraq. Whatever else happens, the United States intends to maintain huge influence in Iraq, based on the promotion of a client regime backed by a lasting military presence, with the core strategic objective of ensuring long-term access to the country’s huge oil reserves.

A planned insurgency?

The inevitable question raised by this consideration of recent US policy in Iraq, in the context of the recent escalation of the insurgency, is whether the policy is in any way realistic. More critically, is the United States losing control, despite the pace of economic reconstruction, and is this as a result of a pre-planned tactic by the old regime to respond to US intervention with a guerrilla war?

If there are no clear answers to this latter question at present, there are two uncomfortable indicators – from past and present – suggesting that US and coalition forces are facing a challenge far bigger than they had anticipated.

The first indicator is the clear evidence existing even before the war that the regime was planning to use urban guerrilla warfare in the event of its overthrow (as reported, for example, by one of the best-informed correspondents, Rajiv Chandrasekaran; see “Iraqis would use urban warfare to trap US troops”, Washington Post, 28 September 2002). He quoted a member of Saddam Hussein’s cabinet, Mohammad Mehdi Saleh: “If they want to change the political system in Iraq, they have to come to Baghdad. We will be waiting for them there.”

Chandrasekaran also reported a prescient comment from a western diplomat in Baghdad on potential Iraqi tactics: “They believe they have a tactical advantage in the cities because they can mix with the civilian population. If soldiers start sniping from apartments filled with people, what can the Americans do? They can’t very well blow them up.” What is now happening is that the Americans are emptying the buildings and then blowing them up, a tactic that does little to control the insurgents and much to increase their own unpopularity.

The second indicator is the current military evidence of preparations to oppose occupation. The nature of the insurgency and the types of military operations being conducted indicate that large numbers of weapons caches were dispersed prior to the US invasion. This must have entailed an extensive organisation, one implying that the regime was surer of the loyalty of its supporters than many western media outlets led their readers to believe.

In this light, the early attacks on coalition troops and their convoys as they moved into Iraq and towards Baghdad in March 2003 seem evidence of the nucleus of a guerrilla capability. It also looks more likely that the opening of the prison gates in October 2002 in a general amnesty was a deliberate attempt to increase lawlessness and anarchy after the United States and its coalition partners entered the country.

The prospect of regime rise

These indicators of an insurgency planned even before the three-week war find echoes in two further of its aspects. In the second week of the war, US forces were able to use extraordinary firepower against the general Republican Guard divisions in their defensive positions south of Baghdad. Notwithstanding their experience of US firepower in the 1991 war, the Iraqi military leaders do not appear to have been ready for these attacks and the Guard divisions suffered massive casualties.

The result of almost a week of intensive attacks was that Baghdad was more open to US occupation than had been anticipated by the regime. Thus, Republican Guard divisions were not able to withdraw towards the city and any original plan to suck US forces into urban guerrilla warfare was forestalled.

At the same time – and this may be the key point of all – what the regime was able to do was ensure that the really elite forces such as the Special Republican Guard, various commando groups and the troops attached to the Ba’ath security services were able to withdraw in time, to disperse and then prepare for a long-term campaign. It then took the best part of three months to develop a guerrilla campaign, and six months for it to have a serious and sustained impact on the US forces.

If this explanation is accurate, then the initial victory for the US in the three-week war of March-April 2003 – right up to the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein on 9 April – was, to a significant extent, illusory. The old regime may have had its defensive plans disrupted, but it was not destroyed.

The implication is clear, and chilling: the insurgency may still be in its relatively early stages, and the strategy that guides it may even include a progressive US handover to the security forces of a client regime, which would be followed by a civil war and the return of Ba’athist forces to power.

Such a prognosis seems quite extraordinary even to contemplate, but it is worth saying that there were a few analysts around before and during the initial three-week war itself who were saying that a long-term US victory was not necessarily assured.

Eight months on, what can be assumed in the present fraught security circumstances is that the Iraqi insurgents will see the US policy of overwhelming force, coupled with talk of a rapid handover to Iraqi political forces, as a sign that they are beginning to make progress towards the achievement of their own strategic objective. The hugely worrying prospect of a Ba’athist resurgence has to be taken seriously. That is a measure of the predicament now faced by the United States in Iraq.

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