Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The Fallujah police station assault, and a parallel

It seems, according to the Independent, that the Americans now believe that the storming of the police station in Fallujah was carried out not by those elusive foreign militants but by Iraqis. I believe that the fight in Fallujah was an event of the first importance, for several reasons. For a start, this was no roadside bomb but a direct, force on force assault - a fair fight, if you like - in which the guerrillas "engaged the enemy more closely". The symbolic importance is obvious. Also, the complexity of the raid suggests careful preparation and expertise. To recap, the police station and the nearby army barracks were simultaneously surprised. A diversionary group seems to have opened fire on the barracks and suppressed any response from there whlst the assault party broke into the police station and slaughtered the policemen. Although it is hard to determine exactly what happened with regard to the Americans, some accounts suggest that a relief party was held up by a third group of guerrillas acting as a rear guard and covering the getaway of the rest. Only four of them were killed. This took some organising, and tends to bear out the US contention that former Iraqi Army or Republican Guard officers were involved. But what the attack may tell us more about is the nature of the new Iraqi forces raised by the coalition.

After all, the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps (which isn't a civil defence corps, it's an army, or at least a militarised gendarmerie) unit next door was described as being "trapped" or "pinned down" in its barracks under "heavy" guerrilla fire although it suffered no casualties. This is rather reminiscent of the telegram from the Austrian army on Lissa in 1866 - "Intense cannonade from Italian ships: no casualties" - but in the opposite sense. But - according to the US operations chief in the area - the ICDC's performance was satisfactory. What would it have taken for them to be considered a failure? The same briefing cleared up the question of the US forces' position. Apparently "no assistance was requested and no assistance was rendered". (Several of the surviving policemen had very publicly claimed that the Americans had let them down.) It don't sound great, though, if this lot are the men with the mission of preventing civil war in Iraq or alternatively getting between the US Army and the 't other siders.

In fact it rather reminds of the battle of Bac in Vietnam, an action in which a sizeable force of the Southern army attempted to destroy a whole Viet Cong battalion. The US advisers were optimistic and had planned all to a T, but due to poor leadership and lack of drive the whole thing went to ratshit and the VC made off after nightfall having held up the equivalent of a brigade with armoured personnel carriers and air support all day and shot down a number of helicopters. The political repercussions were profound and led (in some people's view) to the deployment of the US Army and Marines. (The story, in excessive detail, is in Neil Sheehan's book A Bright, Shining Lie.)

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