After the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime, United States policy in Iraq as seen by the more neo-conservative thinkers in Washington had three features.
The first was the development of a regime in Baghdad that would embrace elements of democracy but would essentially be a client regime of Washington, increasing United States influence in the region and serving as a potent warning to neighbouring Iran.
The second was the reorganisation of Iraq as a model free-market economy with an absolute minimum of trade, investment and employment restrictions. What could not be achieved in the United States because of all the limitations of a federal system, trade unions and legal protection, could certainly be achieved in Iraq. This would serve as a beacon for a wider free-market economy across the middle east operating under strong American influence.
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The third was the establishment of at least four permanent military bases in Iraq that would ensure that the whole endeavour had an adequate security foundation. These would be designed, in part, as stand-by facilities, into which very powerful military forces could be deployed if required. This US presence in the heart of the region would make it possible partially to sideline a potentially unstable Saudi Arabia while having the capability to influence regime change in states such as Syria and Iran.
The context in which these objectives were expected to be advanced was that Iraq itself would rapidly be restored to stability, allowing the great majority of US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq within a year, leaving only a few thousand at the newly-established bases.
A prison of self-belief
Twenty months after the start of the war, the evident failure of this plan intersects with political developments in Washington the re-election of George W Bush on a secure mandate, the retirement of Colin Powell, the proposed appointment of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, and what amounts to a purge of people in the intelligence agencies who are not in tune with the neo-conservative outlook.
The result is a reinforced determination by the Bush administration to preserve elements of the original plan, in which retrieving the position in Iraq is the dominant component. Fallujah is a central element of its thinking, so what has happened there and its likely aftermath will clarify whether the neocon dream of a greater middle east initiative can be rescued from its current deep predicament.
The clear-cut American strategy in Iraq has four elements: first, to destroy the insurgency, or at least cripple it to the point where it has little consequence for security in Iraq; second, to build up Iraqi security forces to the point where they can take over most security functions; third, to develop local government administrations preparing the way for elections (Thomas E Ricks, Troops Climbing First Rung of Steep Ladder, Washington Post, 17 November 2004); fourth, to withdraw most US forces, but leaving the permanent military bases and US officials deeply embedded in Iraqi governance, while returning to the original plans for Iraq.
In current circumstances all this may seem far-fetched, but there is a surge of exuberant self-belief in post-election Washington a feeling of lets roll that can easily ignore or dismiss difficult realities.
After the siege
In seeking to achieve these four steps, Fallujah acquired an almost mythical status as an apparently undefeatable rebel stronghold. United States planners calculated that destroying this base of thousands of terrorists would cripple the insurgency and allow US troops to gain military ascendancy across much of the country. The insurgency might not be finished, but the loss of Fallujah would be a blow from which it could not recover.
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group.
This plan seemed to be proceeding as expected for the first two days of the latest Fallujah operation. By 11 November, it was reported that American forces cornered insurgents in a small section of Fallujah after a stunningly swift advance in which they seized control of 70 percent of the military stronghold (International Herald Tribune, 11 November 2004).
Even then, it seemed that insurgent forces in the city numbered fewer than 2,000, against up to 15,000 American and Iraqi troops. Most insurgents had apparently already left, yet it still took more than a week for the city to be subdued, in spite of overwhelming firepower available to the US forces. There are claims that more than 1,000 insurgents have been killed in the past nine days. There is no way of corroborating this; but three aspects of the Fallujah attack are already evident.
First, the insurgents fought with near-suicidal commitment, armed only with light weapons and facing the most modern and best-equipped military forces in the world while vastly outnumbered. The ability of the US forces to take control of Fallujah was never in doubt, but the level of resistance they faced shows that a committed insurgency operating in an urban environment can only be countered with very powerful weapons.
The second is that the US military has suffered serious casualties in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq. In the first sixteen days of November, US forces have had eighty-two soldiers killed, the worst rate of loss since March 2003, exceeding even the intensity of April 2004s bitter fighting. In Fallujah itself, there have been well over 200 seriously-injured soldiers, and from Iraq as a whole over 400 were airlifted out of Iraq to the medical receiving centre in Germany.
These injuries may be small compared with the number of insurgents killed, but the availability of body armour and expert battlefield medicine means that most wounded US soldiers survive whereas wounded insurgents die. A consequence of US capabilities is that very many of the American wounded have lost limbs, or have severe face, neck or groin injuries.
While this ongoing toll of injured soldiery now approaching 10,000 overall gets little media coverage, it is well known to the military and is one of the reasons why the Pentagon is experiencing increasing difficulty in calling up reserves. In recent months, 1,800 out of 4,000 reservists recalled to duty have sought exemption or delay; of those due to report for duty by 7 November, nearly one third simply did not turn up (Monica Davey, Former U.S. soldiers balk at new orders to return, International Herald Tribune, 17 November 2004).
The third aspect of the Fallujah siege is that it has been accompanied by an upsurge of violence across the Sunni areas of Iraq that reveals the predominantly indigenous character of the insurgency. The relocation of many insurgents from Fallujah before the US assault started may be linked to the sustained attacks in Mosul, Baquba, Suweira and elsewhere. Mosul has been the most significant centre, with up to 2,000 insurgents taking control of many parts of Iraqs third city.
United States forces have had to be diverted to subdue this upsurge, but it is doubtful that they have the military capability to bring other cities under control using the methods they used in Fallujah. The intensity of the urban fighting means that the resources required are too great. The result is an increased reliance on crude firepower, and an increased number of air strikes against targets in other urban areas across central Iraq.
The intense violence of the past few days presents an insight into the accelerating insurgency. American sources have often stressed the existence of foreign paramilitaries in Iraq, in some cases even suggesting that they now dominate the insurgency, making Iraq the core battleground of the war on terror. The last few days show a very different picture as few as one in twenty prisoners captured are non-Iraqis.
The implications of this are twofold. It means that the insurgency in Iraq is still largely internal, but also that any significant involvement of foreign, Islamic paramilitaries may be yet to come. The impact of the destruction of Fallujah and the effects of occupation on the Arab world makes it probable that their presence will indeed become progressively more significant.
In the longer term and this means years rather than months it is likely that Iraq will indeed become a focus of paramilitary resistance. The second Bush administration may hold on to its dream of a stable client state in Iraq forming the centrepiece of US influence in the middle east. The reality is likely to be a bitter and costly war that could well define the entire eight-year presidency of George W Bush. Within that legacy, the taking of Fallujah in November 2004 may have an enduring significance.