If you are an American, the news from Iraq cannot be
good. Each day on average we lose one or more soldiers or airmen. Fifty
Americans have died since Bush announced the end of the war on May 1. Each
day several Iraqis of uncertain militancy are killed or wounded in skirmishes
with Coalition forces. The war is said to be over, but US forces this week
launched Operation Desert Scorpion involving thousands of troops in the
so-called Sunni triangle of northwestern Iraq. Meanwhile the Kurds in the
north, given their heads by the Coalition, are slowly consolidating their
hold on the region, pushing out non-Kurdish peoples wherever they get in
the way, thereby increasing the homeless population. In the south the
Shia are basically in charge and are consolidating their hold on the region
with the apparent support or at least non-interference of the British and
alleged support from the Mullahs of Shia Iran. In many areas of the country,
desperation and anger are daily on the increase. While obviously not intended,
Iraq is coming apart.
US authorities are blaming much of the trouble on disgruntled followers
of Saddam Hussein, particularly Baath party members and displaced military
personnel. But several analysts of the region--European, Middle Eastern
and American--label that model as too simple, and some have carefully put
the nasty word "insurgency" on the table, meaning guerrilla warfare
by organized resistance to the Coalition occupation. The uglier truth is
probably that there are several emergent insurgencies, each reflecting
the tribal, regional, religious, or political aims of the players.
There was a moment, about eight weeks back, when this evolution of the
situation might have been avoided. As indicated at the time by Coalition
spokesmen, power might have been turned over to Iraqis. Even if done only
on a limited scale, that gesture could have told many Iraqis that the promise
of getting their country back was real. But the Coalition leadership postponed
any action to turn power over to Iraqis, while making a show of blacklisting
the Baath, forbidding party members, especially officials on a roster of
30,000 or so, to take part or hold jobs in any new government. What seems
most clear is the Baath have been driven underground, and they have taken
their guns with them, despite orders to turn guns in to Coalition officials.
Some of the more disgruntled, it is reported, have threatened to undertake
suicide bombings. The odds are that all the people choosing to go underground
are not Baathists, but they are probably increasingly committed nationalists.
There is a familiar look and feel about this situation. It is moving toward
relatively small clusters of extremists supported by larger surrounding
communities. The extremists and less hard line militants are embedded in
communities and neighborhoods. People in those areas help with food, shelter,
concealment, weapons, and moral support. Based on reporting from sites
such as Falluja, US and other Coalition troops who go into these areas
to roust out extremists are themselves hard edged, ready for bloody action,
willing to fire at shadows, frightened and insecure, filled with the momentary
hatred of combat, and unprepared to take chances. Those feelings, as natural
as they may be in the circumstances, are a recipe for disaster.
The Israel Defense Force has been operating in that manner for more than
a year in the West Bank and Gaza. In many instances such as Jenin the
IDF virtually leveled whole villages. They have fired into crowds, used
a combination of tanks, bulldozers, gunships and indiscriminate shootings
and missile launchings to kill individual militants or members of Palestinian
terrorist groups, Hamas and the Al Aqsa Brigade or numerous unlabeled >
"militants". But they have not stopped the suicide bombers.
In fact the IDF operations generate more angry Palestinians, help the
recruitment of suicide bombers, and justify to Israeli hard line leadership
the next round of IDF destruction and killing. .
There is, perhaps, no simple way to shut down this self-perpetuating cycle
of violence, but the initiative is with the strong. Countless times over
the past year the Israel Defense Force has conducted sweeps, "targeted
assassinations" or a heavy-handed destruction of homes and businesses.
Both US officials and the Israelis behave as if there is no connection
between these patterns of harsh Israeli military operations and the suicide
bombings that inevitably follow. The poundings Bush took from conservative
supporters and Israeli lobbyists for criticizing IDF attacks this week,
and his prompt retreat; show that denial of Israeli wrongdoing is well-established,
high-level political blindness.
The situation for Coalition, mainly American forces in Iraq looks more
and more like a Palestinian catch 22. Soldiers who go into an area to
kill or capture extremists will inevitably over-react with the result that
innocent bystanders will be killed or harmed. To limit American casualties
US soldiers will shoot first, and that means Iraqi civilian casualties
are likely to be far more numerous than American military ones. They already
are. That pattern breeds frustration and anger, generates more militants
and makes the surrounding communities less likely to be helpful to Coalition
forces. This is a natural pattern of escalation that will deepen the rift
between American forces and Iraqi civil populations. Matters will get materially
worse, unless the patterns are broken now.
US officials and forces are slipping into an IDF mode in Baghdad and elsewhere
in Iraq. It is probably so that many of the excessive uses of force by
American or other Coalition troops are situations brought on by the extremity
of encounters. But the injuries to a growing number of Iraqis are very
real. It is not good enough to blame the incidents on former Saddam supporters,
and increased pressure on other Iraqis is unlikely to produce positive
responses. The fact that repressing or bullying thousands of people will
not stop a few from taking revenge on their oppressors is well established,
and the experiment does not need to be run again.
There are no easy answers for this situation, but there are good ones and
they work, if not always the first time. Somebody simply has to back off
and keep the next incident from happening. And the next. And maybe the
next. If American authorities in Iraq really want to show the Iraqis that
they have a future as a free people, our forces cannot be allowed to fall
into the Israeli pattern of shooting anyone who moves or throws a stone
or stands in the wrong place. We will have to take some unanswered hits
and severely limit retaliation to bring the situation under control. If
we do that, more and more Iraqis will see what we are doing and they will
help-provided of course that we are moving quickly and visibly to give
them back their country.
These initiatives are with us. The failure to take them will show up in
increasing Iraqi rebellion and growing losses of American troops.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department
of State. He will welcome comments at email@example.com