Cumulative Chaos


By Salah Hemeid

July 3-9, 2003

As attacks on US troops in Iraq mount, the country sinks further into chaos. Will the US reconsider its occupation strategy, wonders Salah Hemeid.

US forces in Iraq launched a massive operation this week to crush insurgents and round up top figures from Saddam Hussein's ousted regime in a show of force designed to stifle a wave of deadly attacks on coalition soldiers. The operation, code-named "Desert Sidewinder", was taking place across a huge swath of central Iraq stretching from the Iranian border to the districts north of Baghdad, and was expected to last several days.

Operation Sidewinder began Sunday, with American forces simultaneously raiding as many sites as possible. The necessity of renewed action became obvious with the wave of attacks against US troops in recent days, including insurgents carrying out ambushes against military convoys, shooting soldiers in Baghdad, and lobbing grenades at patrols. The spiraling violence also hit British troops when six military policemen were killed and eight other soldiers injured in the southern Iraqi town of Majar Kabir.

The drumbeat of daily attacks on allied soldiers, meanwhile, is putting pressure on military leaders to rethink their strategy, and often to strike back with harsh measures that spur anger and resentment among Iraqis. "We go in with such overwhelming combat power that they won't even think about shooting us," Lt Col Mark Young said earlier. US officials in Washington have reiterated that no centralised Iraqi resistance to American rule remains, but on the ground US military personnel do face "an organised effort", Young admitted.

American officials believe the attacks are the work of loose networks of Iraqi militants, many with ties to Saddam's deposed regime, trying to launch a guerrilla campaign to drive US troops from Iraq and eventually restore the old regime. Opposition in some cases is coming from other sources such as Iraqi nationalists who, whatever their feelings about Saddam Hussein, oppose the invasion of their country. On top of this, criminal groups and local warlords and militias are all striving to carve out and protect their vested interests. Foreign fighters who volunteered to fight alongside Saddam's army before the war may also be an element in the mix.

Most analysts agree that to speak of a full-scale guerrilla war may be premature, but say that this rumbling, low-level conflict -- from whatever source -- has a powerful cumulative impact. While undermining US and British efforts to restore normalcy, the attacks have also conjured up unpleasant memories of Vietnam for an American public with little taste for prolonged, bloody occupation. One of the most worrisome recent developments has been attacks against Iraqi engineers and others associated with attempts to get the country's infrastructure up and running. Among the targeted sites are oil pipelines, liquid natural gas plants and other crucial infrastructure, a sign that the insurgents are trying to prevent normalisation of the allied occupation, and of life in Iraq.

Some American commentators have begun expressing concerns that the Bush administration was unprepared for the aftermath of the conflict. The increasing attacks highlighted fundamental problems for the US troops, usually trained for conventional warfare, in dealing with local guerrillas. Furthermore, intelligence gathering within Iraq has inevitably been complicated by differences of language, religion and culture. Senior US commanders are already admitting that pacifying Iraq is going to take longer than expected.

In an interview with the Cable News Network (CNN) Sunday, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger and former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger called for a stronger response by the US troops and an escalation in troop deployment. "We are not going to lose this but we have to be tougher," said Eagleburger. Berger proposed a larger US troops presence, while recruiting more coalition members and involving Iraqi allies in the fight against the insurgents. Acknowledging these growing concerns, President George W Bush vowed on Tuesday to stay in Iraq despite continued violence against US forces. His declaration seemed to be a clear signal that the attacks, which he attributed to Saddam's loyalists and terrorist groups, could not easily dislodge the occupation.

The Bush administration has now asked as many other countries as possible to contribute troops for policing duties in Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Monday that the United State had requested help from some 70 countries. Other US officials have estimated that some 30,000 foreign troops are needed to help the US soldiers impose law and order in Iraq. However, the problem appears to be getting worse before it gets better. By the end of this week the number of incidents had risen to nearly a dozen a day, and Iraqi ambushes were growing in effectiveness and range. More than 60 soldiers have been killed since major operations were declared over on 1 May. Guerrillas have also managed to cut off power and water in Baghdad with sabotage attacks and killed several Iraqi civilians working to restore electricity.

Paul Bremer, the US civil administrator in Iraq, on Sunday warned the public to expect US and British forces in Iraq will suffer further casualties until Saddam's supporters carrying out the attacks are stamped out. "There are people out here, particularly remnants of the old regime... still fighting us," he told BBC.

Bremer admitted that uncertainty about Saddam's fate was allowing his supporters to brandish the threat of a returning Hussein regime, sternly adding "we will capture and if necessary kill them until we have imposed law and order on this country." "It is unfortunately the case, we will continue to take casualties. But there is no strategic threat to the coalition here," he said. Bremer told BBC Television that the US forces will hunt down Saddam. "I think it is important that we either capture or kill him. The chances of catching Saddam are very high," he said.

Rather than replacing Saddam's regime with a smooth transition to democracy as administration officials promised, chaos and a power vacuum seem to be the order of the day throughout Iraq. Before the situation turns into a disaster the Bush administration might start rethinking its comprehensive strategy for Iraq. The best course would be to reverse the error it made immediately after the war, when it insisted on monopolising control over post-war Iraq and minimising the role of Iraqis and the United Nations. The optimal strategy for all involved is for the Bush administration to move quickly to end the transitional period and involve Iraqis in a genuine political process leading to the election of an Iraqi government and withdrawal of the coalition forces.

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