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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Wednesday | June 11, 2003

How not to manage a colony

U.S. Forces Detain 400 Iraqis in a Large-Scale Roundup

HULUIYA, Iraq, June 11 American forces completed their largest combat operation in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad today, with more than 3,000 soldiers backed by fighter jets, armored vehicles and patrol boats surrounding a 30-square mile peninsula north of Baghdad that is said to harbor gunmen attacking American soldiers.

Two brief gun battles erupted when American forces entered this farming town early Monday, American commanders said. Four Iraqis died, four Americans were wounded and 375 Iraqi men were detained. Iraqi civilians said American soldiers handcuffed women and children, beat one man to death and allowed another to die of a heart attack, charges American officials called "absolutely false."

The sheer scope of the operation with pilotless drones, F-15 fighters and AC-130 gunships circling overhead as thousands descended on the area suggested the serious a new American drive to quell a nascent resistance movement in the Sunni Muslim-dominated areas north and west of Baghdad. The area, known as the "Sunni triangle" was a bedrock of support for Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim himself.

The operation, named "Peninsula Strike," is being carried out by a brigade task force, officials say. An estimated 4,000 troops or more are directly or indirectly involved. (A similar number of troops have been deployed to Fallujah. But they are involved in a deployment that will extend over several months, not a single operation.)

The aim of the operation is detain Saddam Hussein loyalists, former intelligence services officials, Ba'ath Party former officials and other groups who have take sanctuary in a peninsula east of Balad.

The Americans are also looking for caches of money, which they believe are stashed in the area and are being used to fund anti-American operations in Iraq. Finding and seizing these funds is an important objective. And they are also searching for weapons.

"We are going to clean this place out," one American official said.

Gunmen have been using increasingly sophisticated techniques to attack American convoys in this area, using flares, lights in houses and lookouts to time attacks, American officers said. After weeks of low casualty rates, 10 Americans soldiers have been killed and dozens wounded in the last fifteen days

A brigade sized sweep to round up 400 people, three of whom may have dropped dead.

Yeah, an effective use of combat power....which will stop few attacks.

The US military's arrogance is apparent here in spades.


First, there is an assumption that all the resistance is based on loyalty to Saddam. Some, clearly, may be coming from the Baathist remnants, but you'd have to be well, insane, to think that's the sole source of opposition. US troops are widely mistrusted. It's not that every Iraqi hates us like Afghans hated the Russians, or that everyone is opposed to US help. The problem is that we're walking all over their national pride with our occupation and no matter how war weary they are, and 23 years of war is a nightmare for any country, there will always be enough people willing to kill Americans if they feel there is no choice.

We don't speak the language, our conceits ignore their history and what we don't understand about the culture, we have contempt for. Hejabs, diet, habits, Americans, especially the young and moderately educated, unworldly privates enforcing American rule, either disregard or disrespect. This would be a bad situation no matter what we did, no matter our motives. But we are in a situation where simple acts of culture are going to be taken as mortal insults.

The American administration still doesn't get that Iraq is a gun culture like the American West. You barge into a Dallas home on a random gun search, one day someone may shoot at you.

Second, Iraqis are not Afghans. They are educated, literate people who understand the West. They don't live in caves. The US cannot run them like they live in a hillside cave or a mud village. If we try, well, we get a war.

Third, where is our base of support? The Shia are watching and waiting, knowing the trouble the US is having with the Sunnis is small potatoes compared to the problems they could cause.

We're not in a quagmire....yet. But our troubles seem so French, an undermanned army trying to hold off a hostile population and the French had much more support in Vietnam and Algeria than we can hope for in Iraq.

Rounding up suspects like the French did so many times doesn't stop guerrilla warfare, it never does. Chalabi's latest claim, that Saddam's paying people to fight may well be true, but it's not the whole story.

If you read Iraqi history, a central truth emerges, that it is in the Iraqi national character to resist the Americans. Because our touch has not been completely repressive, we've gained a little time. But only in a neocon fantasy world, one where French and German troops join us in Iraq, can one expect this to last. Iraqis are fiercely independent and unlilke in Germany and Japan, where GI's screwed their way in to the hearts of the widows and teenage girls left behind, we aren't likely to have that kind of contact with their country.

Instead, we have sullen, broke young men in their 20's and 30's, watching and getting angrier by the day. They sit and wait for us to offend them, and once we do, they pounce. Paying them might keep them busy for a while, but you can't undo a culture which reveres a rebellion against colonial rule.

Fourth, 400,000 soldiers is a pile of trouble any way you cut it. And that was the active army. There may well be a million Iraqi combat veterans of age (17-40) to fight the Americans. Iraq is a militarized country which has fought war after war and filled with men who can handle a gun under fire. People forget that while they may not be great shots, they don't have to be. They have mortars and rockets and RPG's and are using them to good effect. No one knows what weapons the Shia clerics have.

Noit paying them in a fit of misguided arrogance was an amazing decision. If Saddam, and our Iranian and Syrian friends may join him, is paying, it's the only job offer these guys are going to get for a while.

The pro-war people never really bothered to understand the anti-war argument, lost in their fantasies of Churchill and Munich, 1938. A less apt analogy could not have been drawn. What many anti-war people argued was not that the US would lose the Main Force war against Iraqi units, but would find the second war, the guerrilla war, impossible to win. That Iraq would seem to provide a victory, but that Iraqi history indicated that an armed opposition was likely to explode at some point. The reason you didn't want to tip over Saddam, is that you didn't want to see what he was sitting on.

Well, now we do, and we're bungling it. What reason have we given an Iraqi to be loyal to us? At the end of the day, why should Iraqis endorse any of our plans for their country? The Iraqi people may well decide that the best role for the US is in leaving their country. That hasn't happened yet. But, at the end of the day, are we going to provide a reason for Iraqi cooperation without a tank on every corner to ensure it?

Steve Gilliard

Posted June 11, 2003 04:49 PM | Comments (90)


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