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Iraq between insurgency and uprising

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
11 August 2004

The past two weeks have seen a substantial upsurge in violence across many parts of Iraq, culminating in a major assault on the centre of Najaf on 12 August. The conflict’s most visible centres have been Najaf itself, Kut and Baghdad, but the southern city of Basra and a number of towns across central Iraq have also been affected. The intensity of the fighting, at its highest since April 2004, indicates that the Iyad Allawi regime – only six weeks after its appointment in the 28 June handover – is already having to rely heavily on United States forces.

Moreover, some of the US’s coalition partners have been unable to maintain security in their particular sectors. Most notably, Polish forces transferred control of two areas to the United States, citing their inability to ensure military stability amidst a deteriorating situation.

The Allawi regime itself has gradually instigated a number of security measures to help keep control of the highly volatile conditions in Iraq. These include a series of curfews, such as a stringent sixteen-hour per day order applied to the teeming, mainly Shi’a populated Sadr City district of Baghdad; the temporary cessation of oil exports from the southern oilfields because of safety concerns; the closure of the al-Jazeera satellite TV channel’s offices in Baghdad on the grounds that it is insufficiently balanced in its news coverage; and (perhaps the regime’s toughest move) the restoration of the death penalty, not simply for crimes of murder but including kidnapping and threats to state security within its remit.

It is not clear whether these measures reflect independent decisions of the Allawi regime, or whether they are being done at the behest of the US embassy led by its new ambassador, John Negroponte. Here, two factors are significant: US officials or their appointees operate at a senior level in every Iraqi government ministry, and the regime is dependent on American military forces in Iraq for its very survival.

A transforming battlefield

In a longer-term perspective, the past fifteen months of conflict in Iraq have allowed the different insurgent groups to learn a wide range of tactics as they become more practised in urban guerrilla warfare. Their proficiency in political and military assassinations, in bomb-making and in the coordinated use of light arms has increased; they have also developed forms of economic targeting and kidnapping that have measurably hindered the pace of reconstruction – and more recently, bringing it almost to a halt. At the same time, the insurgents remain lightly-armed, have no armoured vehicles or body armour and are frequently using ageing equipment.

In response to these challenges, the far better equipped US forces have also adapted their tactics and technology in numerous ways, including increased reliance on Israeli tactics and equipment used to control the Palestinian intifada. In addition to overwhelming air and ground-based firepower, the US is deploying large numbers of the new, highly-mobile Stryker armoured personnel carrier, as well as numerous reconnaissance drones, a wide range of satellite and land-based intelligence equipment and massive quantities of modern ordnance.

Despite this technological superiority, the US forces have been handicapped by severe equipment problems, and these have reinforced their inability to control the insurgent forces in any of the major areas of operations. Two recent examples are illustrative of this. First, the vulnerabilities of the ubiquitous Humvee jeep mean that 3,000 of the marine corps Humvees in Iraq have had to be “up-armoured” with bolt-on 9.52-millimetre steel plates and 12.7-centimetre thick bullet-resistant windows. These typically add more than 25% to the weight of the vehicles, thus decreasing speed and endurance and increasing maintenance costs.

Second, the body armour that is routinely used by US forces has undoubtedly saved many American soldiers’ lives, but it has also indirectly resulted in large numbers of severe injuries to arms, legs, faces and throats; many injured soldiers have been maimed for life. In response, a range of more comprehensive body armour is being developed, at the cost of adding further to its weight. An indication of the urgency of this research is the recent move to include protection for the shoulders and underarms; the military is demanding 138,000 sets to be available by January 2005 – sufficient for all soldiers at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan (“US Seeks More Protection for Soldiers in Iraq”, Defense News, 26 July, 2004).

If these two indications of how the US military is responding to the problems it is facing in Iraq are combined with a comparison of the situation now with that of a year ago, a wider perspective on the development of the conflict starts to emerge.

A year of tumult

In August 2003, it was becoming apparent that a major insurgency was developing. The month was marked by attacks on the Jordanian embassy, the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, and the mosque at Najaf; US forces were also taking increasing numbers of casualties.

This column reported a year ago (see “The Pentagon: the force is with us”, 7 August 2003) that in the three months after President Bush made his victory speech on 1 May 2003 on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, fifty-two Americans had been killed in combat, and there had been 112 deaths from other causes – including “friendly fire” and road accidents caused by speeding to avoid ambushes. Twice-weekly medivac flights were going to the United States, and the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington had had to clear non-emergency wards to handle casualties.

Although the intensity of this conflict twelve months ago was far lower than it is now, there was already concern that the Iraq insurgency could prove to be an obstacle to the fulfilment of the neo-conservative “New American Century” project. Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, outlined the stakes at the end of July 2003: “…the battle to secure peace in Iraq is now the central battle in the global war on terror, and those sacrifices are going to make not just the Middle East more stable, but our country safer.”

The astute commentator Thomas Friedman developed the theme in the Washington Post (25 August 2003), six days after the bombing of the UN headquarters: “…America’s opponents know just what’s at stake in the postwar struggle for Iraq, which is why they flock there: beat America’s ideas in Iraq and you beat them out of the whole region; lose to America there, lose everywhere” (see “America’s entrapment”, 28 August 2003).

What is the position one year on? Since the war started in March 2003, 932 US soldiers have died in combat with many hundreds more killed in accidents; over 750 have died in combat since President Bush’s victory address. Accurate figures for injuries are difficult to obtain, but one recent report (Los Angeles Times, 8 August 2004) cited an assessment by Pentagon sources: 6,239 troops wounded in action in Afghanistan and Iraq, with over 3,500 of them so severely injured that they have to be retired from active duty. There have, in addition, been at least 10,000 soldiers evacuated to the United States from Iraq because of accidental injuries, and mental and physical illnesses.

These are the American casualties; those borne by the Iraqi people themselves are hugely greater still. Two months after the initial three-week termination of the Saddam Hussein regime, estimates of civilian Iraqi casualties extended to around 3,000 people. This figure now appears to be a serious underestimation. The Iraq Body Count group has carefully monitored civilian casualties in the initial phase of the war and since, offering details of a huge range of recorded incidents, including upper and lower estimates of civilian deaths.

The first three weeks of fighting in March-April 2003 appears to have killed from 7,000-9,000 Iraqis, a figure that has inexorably escalated; current estimates suggest an Iraqi death-toll of 11,500-13,500, with up to 500 people being killed each month. In addition, well over 20,000 people seem to have been seriously injured, and the total is rising rapidly.

The western media’s capacity to report on the carnage has been restricted by continuing problems of kidnappings and assassinations, which have directly affected journalists. But some Arab stations, especially al-Jazeera, have maintained an effective presence – no doubt one reason for the Allawi regime’s antagonism. Another consistently productive source has been the Institute for War & Peace Reporting’s programme to train Iraqi journalists; some of them have been able to deliver graphic first-hand accounts of conditions in cities like Fallujah that are essentially under insurgent control.

Elsewhere, the reality of conditions in Iraq is often revealed through apparently marginal statistics. For example, more than a hundred of Iraq’s university professors have been assassinated in the past year, adding to the profound crisis facing much of Iraq’s higher education system, itself a key potential component in any redevelopment of the country (see “Academia in Crisis”, Middle East International, 6 August 2004)

Two other recent developments give an indication of long-terms trends that could have substantial significance. First, the establishment in late 2003 of an “Islamic Resistance Court” in western Iraq; this has extended its remit beyond domestic and other disputes to include cases related to alleged collaborators with US forces and other coalition interests. One case ended in the execution of the defendant and another concluded with the destruction of two trucks after their drivers were accused of working with the Americans. Although the court is clearly without official authority, it has extensive support in this region of Iraq.

Second, the increasing cross-community cooperation in the insurgency; this is revealed in the striking presence in Najaf of considerable numbers of Sunni insurgents from the Fallujah area whose military experience is being used to train members of the Shi’a “Mahdi army” in Najaf. One group of nine officers and forty soldiers from Fallujah is under the leadership of Colonel Rifaat al-Janabi, who still dresses openly in his Special Republican Guard uniform and is using his soldiers to instruct local Mahdi army militia in the use of equipment such as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

An assumption among many analysts of Iraq has been that different aspects of the insurgency, such as the April 2004 fighting in Fallujah and the current violence in Najaf, are essentially unconnected. Recent evidence suggests that there is such a connection; this implies that a quasi-nationalist cause may be starting to emerge that transcends the confessional communities and is becoming united in common opposition to the United States occupation and the Iyad Allawi regime.

If this is indeed so, then a transition from insurgency to a more general uprising is certainly possible. This would also do much to explain the determination of the US military to suppress the Mahdi army in Najaf, whatever the human and political costs.

From Najaf to Tehran?

In the light of all this evidence, an overview of the current position in Iraq one year after the bombing of the UN headquarters in August 2003 becomes clearer.

At that time, the number of US casualties was relatively small though rising, while Paul Bremer (head of the Coalition Provisional Authority) and others were making persistent claims that the US-led coalition was facing merely diehard “remnants” of the Saddam regime. A year later, the insurgency is still escalating. In response, US forces are operating under extreme pressure, employing large-scale firepower, and taking serious casualties as they support the client regime of Iyad Allawi.

This new Iraqi leadership, even with US military backing, is proving unable to maintain control across wide swathes of the country – including Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra, Najaf and Baghdad’s Sadr City. The experience of the past two weeks of tumult, in the context of a country where reconstruction and economic development is largely stagnant, indicates that the regime and the American military faces a growing insurgency that could develop into a national uprising.

At the same time, and quite extraordinarily, there is increasing talk among neo-conservative elements in Washington of the need to confront Iraq’s neighbour, Iran. The use of military force to pre-empt Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions is being openly discussed, and some neo-cons see regime change in Tehran as necessary.

The existing range and depth of problems the US military is encountering in Iraq, and its continuing difficulties in Afghanistan, make it hard to understand how such thinking can survive – yet it does (as John Hulsman has recently reported from Washington in openDemocracy). The remarkable combination of proliferating problems in Iraq and a desire to extend the “war on terror” to Iran makes one conclusion unavoidable. The assumption among many critics of the Bush administration that the neo-conservatives and their New American Century are thoroughly discredited and in retreat is both premature and singularly dangerous.

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