Iraq Must Not Become
An American Palestine
By Terrell E. Arnold

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



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