Iraq’s spiral of violence

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 October 2004

The last week in Iraq has seen the continuation of a pattern that has lasted for some months: persistent violence combined with only limited reporting of events.

There have been attacks within the Baghdad “green zone“, repeated assaults on Iraqi police and national guard centres, further kidnappings and regular mortar, small arms and bomb attacks on United States personnel. But only a small part of the insurgency is now covered in detail, mainly by media outlets in the middle east and some specialist western sources, although the main BBC news website is proving unusually comprehensive in its coverage of attacks.

Paul Rogers will deliver a lecture on “The war on terror and the new American century: reflections on the US presidential election” at London’s Birkbeck College on 11 November 2004; for further details, click here

In the past three months alone, over 200 American troops have been killed and considerably over 1,000 injured. The Iraqi casualties are far greater. Iraq’s ministry of health published casualty figures until the start of October 2004, but – possibly to avoid political embarrassment – it has now stopped. The twenty-two weeks up to 6 September revealed a death toll of 3,040 Iraqis in war-related incidents, including 159 women and 128 children. The figures include deaths from insurgent action as well as coalition air and ground strikes; they average 138 a week across this period (see Norimitsu Onishi, “A single week’s tally of deaths for Iraqis”, International Herald Tribune, 20 October 2004).

After the suspension of the ministry of health publication, the New York Times has attempted to gather its own record of casualties from numerous sources, including hospitals. For the week up to 17 October, it calculated that 208 Iraqis were killed. At the very least, this suggests that the earlier ministry figures were not in any sense overestimates. It also suggests that the ongoing war in Iraq, even at its current intensity, is killing over 7,000 civilians each year.

The solution is force

In its Iraq campaign, the US military has sustained a regular level of air strikes on the city of Fallujah, while also continuing ground bombardments there and in Ramadi. It is determined to use particularly heavy military force to disrupt the insurgency, and the forthcoming centrepiece of its actions is likely to be a major assault on Fallujah, probably just after the presidential election on 2 November.

The lead force in this operation will be elements of the United States marine corps, the branch of the American armed forces that in the past has taken an especially hard line in urban warfare. This, moreover, comes at a time of sustained US military casualties, with troop units throughout central Iraq being targeted in frequent attacks. In these uncertain and dangerous conditions, where troops will be primarily concerned to minimise their own casualties, the inevitable result is the use of concentrated firepower and the likelihood of substantial civilian casualties.

The turn to this strategy of concentrated force is the product of a perception that has been spreading through US military intelligence and leadership circles in the past three months. This sees the insurgency as focused on a few geographical locations such as Fallujah, but with effects that permeate across central Iraq and are becoming steadily more dangerous. It also emphasises the importance of external, non-Iraqi fighters; here, the current notoriety accorded to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi replicates the targeting of earlier public enemies like the Taliban’s Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden himself. In this context, Fallujah is seen as particularly significant because Zarqawi and other foreign paramilitaries are said to be hugely influential there.

This developing mindset among the US elite is challenged by a number of analysts, as well as by the few journalists who have recently worked in Fallujah. One report by a local journalist relayed through the BBC’s Arabic service offers a relevant insight into current conditions (“Inside Besieged Fallujah”, 18 October 2004). It seems that different clans in Fallujah have their own militias, but they are working together against US forces; relations between the police and militias are good. The reporter was not aware of any foreign fighters in the city and said that any who are present “have blended in very well with the locals”.

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

Despite such testimony, and given the timetable to planned Iraqi elections by the end of January 2005, the US seems fixated on the idea that the insurgency can be curbed by “taking out” such centres as Fallujah. This assessment is reminiscent of the approach taken during the Vietnam war, as well as earlier phases of the Iraqi campaign itself.

It also suggests that, to put it no more strongly, the US leadership is completely misreading a developing insurgency that is much more deep-seated than it thinks, may not actually have important “centres”, and may simply not be controllable by the application of superior military force. In addition, the human and physical damage that will ensue from the use of force may in the longer term further strengthen Iraqi opposition to the US presence.

The strength and persistence of that opposition is demonstrated by another factor that has received surprisingly little attention – the presence of substantial numbers of people prepared for “martyr” or suicide operations. A recent calculation has found at least 125 suicide bomb attacks on Iraqi and US forces in the past sixteen months, many of them directed against the Iraqi police force, which has had over 750 officers killed in the period (Thomas L Friedman, “The other intelligence failure in Iraq”, IHT, 10 October 2004).

Very little is known about the people prepared to take this action but there is no indication of any decrease in the numbers willing to do so. Moreover, the attacks are spread across much of Iraq, extending to the north of the country, and may not be coordinated by any one group. This presents huge intelligence difficulties for the US military, who may be dealing with a phenomenon that is even more amorphous than the traditional, and already often impenetrable, guerrilla “cell” structure.

The significance of this trend is that it has already evolved to a higher degree than among Palestinian groups in Gaza and the West Bank, and militants in Afghanistan. Its intensity in Iraq is perhaps matched only by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka – and the phenomenon there was established only in the course of many years of conflict. If US forces now opt for the massive use of military power against Fallujah and other centres of resistance, an almost certain response will be an increase in popular radicalisation that will include many more candidates for suicide attacks.

This response is also unlikely to be short-term. Overwhelming American firepower may well give the appearance of “success” against the insurgency – possibly enough to assist the staging of elections in January. But the underlying reality is that such a United States strategy will be deeply flawed, and incapable of achieving its central objective: controlling the Iraqi insurgency.

Britain’s crucial decision

In this context, the political dispute in Britain about a US invitation to redeploy British troops in southern Iraq to aid the US forces in central Iraq is significant. Whether or not the request is related to the presidential election, British government compliance – although initially involving a battalion of around 850 troops – would represent a significant change in the nature of British operations.

The redeployment would entail a coalition partner committing troops to US command just ahead of a specific intensification of US military operations in the heartland of the Sunni insurgency. If these operations do succeed in their immediate aim of securing central Iraq for the planned Iraqi elections, then the impact on this change in British policy may not be felt for some months. If they fail, the implications for the UK position could be fundamental.

If the Tony Blair government does accept the United States request, the result will be that Britain will be much more heavily involved in a Washington-designed military strategy that shows every sign of being deeply counter-productive.

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