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Is Iraq burning? Return of the ungrateful volcano


America's bad week in Iraq started with the televised lynching in Fallujah, got much worse after Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army rose up in violent opposition, and has gone downhill from there. A dozen Marines are dead in Ramadi, and perhaps dozens of Iraqis have been killed on the grounds of a Fallujah mosque. (The details remain unclear.) Winston Churchill's words to his Prime Minister, concerning the same country in 1922, come to mind: "We are paying millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano."

What went wrong? Is it as bad as it seems? And what is next?

As the numbers of U.S. forces at the heart of the Coalition gradually decline, and Iraqi insurgent forces build up their strength, a point almost inevitably will come when the situation moves beyond the control of the United States. It's certainly tempting to say, "I told you so." But we are not yet at the breaking point. It is very unlikely that the Iraqis will break the will of the United States in the short term.

Rather, the U.S. appears to be executing a strategy of weeding out various troublesome foes prior to the June 30 dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the July 1 handover of sovereignty to a still-undefined Iraqi authority. If that is indeed the case, the timing of these moves can be questioned. How well prepared the U.S. was to wrap up these "spoilers" certainly can be questioned. And what these costly efforts will gain us in the end must be questioned. Yet there remains a logic to events that is too easily overlooked amid the sound and fury.

Let's retrace events step by step. The killings and desecration of American bodies in Fallujah often have been compared to the events in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. But the Mogadishu killings were surprise battle losses when Americans scarcely realized there was a war going on. Much more like the Fallujah events were the bloody October 2000 lynchings of two Israeli reservists who had accidentally wandered into the city of Ramallah in the West Bank. As shocking as both events were, each took place during an ongoing conflict.

In the earlier case, the Israeli authorities identified members of the lynch mob by their faces from television, and raided Ramallah in order to arrest them. In Fallujah, the Marines have been attempting the same response, but their wider mission there comes first: for a week previous to the lynchings, the Marines had been battling entrenched insurgent elements that had effectively taken control of the city. That fight continues, but progress is incremental.

What is most revealing, and most frequently overlooked, is the sudden determination of the U.S. to clear out the hornet's nest that had grown up in Fallujah while it was theoretically under the authority of a small number of Airborne troops. This change does not seem accidental. What the lynchings made clear to the American public, distracted by news of the 9/11 Commission hearings, was that the Coalition had lost control of Fallujah, and was engaged in a fight to retake it.

The battle with the Mahdi Army, a militia owing its loyalty to the Shiite demagogue Muqtada Sadr, also looks like an American choice. The U.S. closed down Al-Hawza, Sadr's newspaper, and arrested a Sadr aide in the year-old case of the murder of rival Shiite power figure Ayatollah Khoei. It's hard to shake the impression that a crackdown was under way.

Sadr's response has been that of a desperate man. First, he brought protesters out onto the streets. Then he launched attacks on Coalition forces in Baghdad and in cities across the south of Iraq. As the CPA announced that Sadr himself was wanted for the murder of Khoei, Sadr announced that he had relocated from his headquarters. Most recently, he has offered his allegiance to his rival, the mainstream Shiite leader Ayatollah Sistani, if Sistani will come to his aid.

The timing of the showdown with Sadr seems poor. Surely one big fight at a time was enough. In hindsight, the U.S. underestimated the Mahdi Army, counting its men in the low hundreds, and overestimated the willingness and ability of U.S. allies to fight. Newly trained Iraqi forces have reportedly handed over their weapons to the Sadrists, or joined them outright. Ukrainian troops allegedly have fled with light casualties from Kut, allowing the Mahdi Army to assume control.

The lesson? Only Americans, British, and troops of a few other nationalities are genuinely willing to pull triggers for the sake of the occupation. And the enemy is fighting with its back to the wall. Accordingly, the Pentagon is re-ordering the current rotation and build-down of U.S. forces to swell the number of American troops in the field for the next few weeks or months.

This is the right decision, without any doubt. As the fighting spreads, with a deady raid against the Marines in the Sunni city of Ramadi, a regular trouble spot over the last year, and Sunni and Shiite insurgents in Baghdad joining force for tactical advantage, the U.S. will need all the strength it can muster. When Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld actually acknowledges that all is not going well -- this seems to be the first time -- you can be sure that the situation is not good. But that doesn't mean that the end is nigh. My guess? The U.S. has bit off too much, but by surging its forces, the Coalition will be able to settle the situation down to the previous unhappy norm within a couple of weeks.

The real problems will come later, after the scheduled handover. The U.S.-appointed Governing Council presently looks like a non-factor. Iraq's real power broker is the abovementioned Ayatollah Sistani, who appears to command far greater numbers than Muqtada al-Sadr or the Sunni insurgents, or both combined.

The June 30/July 1 handover seems designed less for the benefit of the Bush Administration's re-election campaign, as is widely assumed in the United States, than for the mollification of the Ayatollah. Earlier, Sistani singlehandedly anulled the American plan for elections by caucus, insisting on direct elections that will bring his chosen candidate to power. He appears to have convinced the United States that he is too strong to be opposed, and therefore must be accommodated. He now enjoys the luxury of sitting back and condemning the occupation forces as they systematically demolish his rivals and enemies.


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by Analyst @ 06:43 AM CST [Link]


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Replies: 4 comments


Ungrateful volcano.

Churchil was not in one of his good days when he did find that image.

Volcanoes are not grateful or ungrateful, they are.

Regarding Shiites, the question is if they are more grateful to be free of Saddam Hussein now or just a bit displeased that America did prompt them into the volcano 13 years ago and then, let them be roasted.

About Sadr that he is a demagogue is evident.

You think he is panicked that the occupiers were willing to take him for the murder of anotehr irakian.

It is possibl. When I saw the accusations against him yesterday, including the one to have stolen as much as a few hundreds dollars, I did think it was a put up job. And at least for the stealing part, made in too much of a hurry to be credible.

America can win in Iraq, sure. Is it ready to pay the cost? Not sure and I would say I doubt more now than a few moths ago.

remember that McArthur had 23 divisions in japan. True Iraq is smaller, the equipment is modern but electronic can't do it all.


Posted by Paul @ 04/08/2004 04:42 PM CST

This is a confusing situation. My primary concern is the safety of my husband and his activated civilian comrads. Yes, I want the people of Iraq to have the freedom from opression.If an increase of force is needed,lets do it!But give the soldiers what they need to get the job done1

Posted by Betsy @ 04/09/2004 08:43 PM CST

I am so confused. Which do the Iraqi people hate more: The U.S. trying to make things better or Saddam...because you know it wouldn't be hard to bring him back and send all our brave troops home.

Posted by Pam @ 04/15/2004 01:15 AM CST

I would call it unrest not confusion. The situation at hand was to me inevitable. The U.S./Coalition war machine is the occupier to those who have never known or do not want a peacful democracy. People get scared of what they already know will happen. The people who do not know can easily be persuaded by the vulnerability of the situation in my opinion

Posted by Patrick/Granite Shoals,Tx @ 04/22/2004 04:19 AM CST

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