Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Iraq - the black weekend and the new war

Well, it has all finally happened. The potential for trouble represented by the Shia militias has been converted into actuality, and General Abizaid's staff have supposedly been given 48 hours to think of possible sources of reinforcement (link). A cynic might say that Muggins Britain will be top of the begging letter list when it comes to putting out this American-induced fire. The decision to shut down Moqtada al-Sadr's newspaper is shaping up to be the worst decision taken since - well, the decision to invade Iraq. After all, it had a circulation not that much greater than that of this blog - it claimed 10,000 readers, but I suspect audited circulation is a concept strange to Iraq and likely to stay that way. And just look at the results. Black-clad gunmen invading police stations, screaming mobs, firefights in packed city centres, chaos and terror. Not trrr, the real chest-heaving gutgripping kind. No, I think (with hindsight, I know) we could have put up with that paper, don't you? Depressingly, one of the reasons for Al-Hawza's closure was that the US governor was personally annoyed about its coverage of the governor. I'm not sure having the ranking western official in Iraq behaving like a film star does anyone any good.

If it was a film, though, it would have been a good one. The political theatre of the last few days has been extreme in a way that suggests premeditation. Note that everywhere - from the governor's office in Basra to the suburbs of Baghdad - Al-Sadr's gunmen seized police stations, mosques, and other symbols of authority. The message is clear - we are the masters now. The aim is slightly less clear, but all the more important for that. They do not seem to have insisted on the police pulling out completely. The Guardian reported today that at one occupied police station, the head cop and some others were still in residence albeit demoralised. This is serious. Taking over the police and military institutions and then co-opting their members is a strategy seen in numerous civil wars - Spain, Bosnia, Rwanda come to mind, as does Palestine in 1948. When the British army withdrew it was a race to seize the fortified police and army posts and to either co-opt or eliminate the local personnel. In the Shia-majority cities, it's likely that the police are Shia-majority too. That leaves a minority element to be terrorised or bribed - and we have Iraqi B Specials for al-Sadr, complete with whatever arms and training the occupation authorities provided for them. It is possible (I'd say likely) that the militias had a plan for this, ready for the struggle for power post-30th of June - and that Bremer's press crackdown triggered it early.

The response? It doesn't look brilliant so far. Lots of the usual Bush-team political theatre: beautifully tailored spokesmen and pistol packin' officers give bullish briefings about the latest offensive. The same words come up again and again: the perpetrators of the Fallujah atrocity will be punished with "overwhelming force", "at a time of our choosing". That last one especially. The same idea came up when a warrant for al-Sadr's arrest was announced - there would, we are told, be "no advanced warning". The source of this insistence on timing is clearly current military doctrine - the Americans want to be more like the Israeli or British armies in terms of tactics, moving towards the ideas of manoeuvre warfare theory, where one strives to bring your strengths to bear against the enemy's weaknesses and to get ahead of the other side's decision process - acting before they can understand what has happened and react. All good, and certainly an improvement on the scared 90s obsession with that other phrase above, overwhelming force, that induced the US to practically resign from peacekeeping. But what can it mean here? Whatever it says in The Spokesman's Boys' Book of Manoeuvreism, anti-terrorist and counter-insurgency warfare do not permit such imperial confidence. You can only act when you know who to act against, where they are, when they are - operations are dictated by information gathering and testing. No amount of bluster (Operation VIGILANT RESOLVE? Please.) changes that, and a failure to realise it will trap you in the belief that you can plan all your moves. Sweeping Crackdown! Decisive Action! Overwhelming Force!

And that is when you end up doing things like VIGILANT RESOLVE. The US Marines carrying it out have built a huge concrete wall - that looks exactly like a section of the Israelis' "security fence" or "terrorism prevention fence" or whatever it is called this week, just for good measure - across the road west from Fallujah to Jordan. No-one may pass. Unfortunately, this also means that all overland trade between Iraq and Jordan - and this means in effect most of the world - is cut off. No marks for joined-up thinking there. And just to help matters, the British army in Iraq is about to plunge into a major troop rotation - the 20th Armoured Brigade is leaving next week and being replaced by 1st Mechanised Brigade, so the troops who are acclimatised, briefed and experienced will go and be replaced by others who will need to go through the same process before being fully effective - just when they will need all the effectiveness they can get. As the controller in Airplane! put it, looks like I chose the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.

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