From Liberation to Counter-Insurgency
By Jim Lobe
The Asia Times
Wednesday 18 June 2003
WASHINGTON - It was just 45 days ago that President George W Bush, in a campaign-perfect photo-op, landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of California, swaggered across the deck in full flight gear, and declared that Operation Iraqi Freedom had liberated that nation from the evil clutches of former president Saddam Hussein.
But within six weeks, the US Central Command in Baghdad has unleashed a new campaign with a far more ominous name. Operation Desert Scorpion is designed, in the equally ominous words of Monday's Wall Street Journal, "to avoid a prolonged guerrilla campaign" that appears to be under way, at least in what is now referred to as "the Sunni triangle" of central Iraq.
It is clear that the weeks of chaos that followed the collapse of Saddam's government in early April have taken a serious toll on US hopes that Iraqis, either out of fear and awe of Washington's military might or out of gratitude, would simply do what they were told by their liberators.
But even the US mainstream press, which has been dutifully documenting the efforts of the country's troops to restore order and win over the population, is now suggesting that things are not going according to plan, assuming that there ever was one. "Significantly, this realization is reaching deep into the US heartland," writes Tom Engelhardt, whose website of reflections and key articles about the "war on terrorism" has drawn a steadily growing audience since the terrorist attacks of September 11.
"Newspapers from Cleveland, Tallahassee, Charlotte and Salt Lake City carried headlines this weekend such as 'Losing the Peace', 'Iraq War Still Hot, Commanders Say', 'Civilian Deaths Intensify Anti-US Ire' and 'The War Is Over, But US Soldiers Keep Dying'," according to Engelhardt, who noted that the vocabulary of the Vietnam War is re-infiltrating the press.
For instance, New York Times' military analyst Michel Gordon used the dreaded term "counter-insurgency" about prospects for defeating unhappy armed Iraqis. "Unlike the rush to Baghdad, this fight will not be measured in days but in months, if not years ... For the Americans this is a campaign of raids, bombing strikes and dragnets, as American commanders try to isolate and destroy remnants of the old order. It is more like a counter-insurgency than in invasion," Gordon added, in what Engelhardt said marked the first reference to the tactic in relation to the US involvement in Iraq.
In a swift echo, The Christian Science Monitor followed with an article on Monday titled "US Anti-Guerrilla Campaign Draws Iraqi Ire". "The US army has changed from being a liberator to an offensive occupier," the article quoted Fawzi Shafi, editor of a new weekly newspaper in Fallujah, the apparent center of anti-US resistance, as saying.
Rehabilitating schools and providing free gasoline to communities are now referred to by the old Vietnam cliche of "winning hearts and minds"; arms seized by US troops have been called "weapons counts", an eerie reminder of the "body counts" of Vietnam days.
And while the US strikes of the past ten days are referred to so far only by their operation codenames, it takes very little imagination to see them as akin to "search-and-destroy missions" of that bygone period. Washington's first governor in Iraq, retired General Jay Garner, even told the New York Times that he saw "Vietnam and the strategic hamlet concept" as relevant to the Iraqi occupation, presumably to separate the population from rebellious elements. It remains unclear precisely who those rebellious elements are, although Paul Bremer, who succeeded Garner, said that they do not appear to be under centralized command.
While former Ba'ath Party members and Fedayeen Saddam are no doubt involved - the media was filled with stories last week insisting that a bounty is being paid for dead US soldiers, although it was unclear who would pay them if there was no central control - administration officials in Washington and military commanders in Iraq have also suggested that al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist fighters from outside Iraq are infiltrating the borders and rallying to the resistance.
Eager to expand the war on terrorism to Saudi Arabia, some neo-conservative writers, such as Stephen Schwartz of the strongly pro-Israel Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, have suggested that Wahhabi clerics are infiltrating fighters into Iraq to fight with the resistance. Others say that Iran is building a tactical alliance with al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups with a similar aim in mind.
But it is also possible that the armed resistance, which has taken the lives of at least ten US soldiers and injured dozens more in just the past three weeks, may also be recruiting among sectors that are rapidly growing disillusioned or angry about the military presence.
While US forces reportedly have done much better with Shi'ite communities that opposed Saddam since he emerged as Baghdad's top leader in 1979, last week's Operation Peninsula Strike against suspected Sunni rebels also reportedly wiped out several members of a Shi'ite family near Fallujah, apparently by accident.
Indeed, according to the Journal's account, the main victims of Peninsula Strike turned out to be members of clans that were opposed to Saddam, suggesting that the US military - as in Afghanistan - is being manipulated by informants more interested in pursuing their private or clan interests against others than in pacifying the country. "The show of force so far has failed to stop the attacks, while many civilian casualties have raised support for America's foes," the Journal concluded from the latest offensives.
Or, as Engelhardt noted in reviewing several weekend news reports of apparently innocent victims of the latest operations "that rang with a familiar Vietnam-era conundrum - how do you carry out brutal assaults on hard-to-find guerrilla forces in civilian areas without knowing the language, area or culture, without alienating that population when some of them die, others are mistreated, and many are humiliated"?
"What we are seeing here is a fundamental reassessment of the situation in Iraq in terms of political and military stability," said Daniel Goure, a Pentagon adviser at the Washington-based Lexington Institute. "We have been operating on two assumptions: that once the war was over the Iraqis would rapidly move into peaceful mode, and second, that there would be a new political and economic spirit in the country. We discovered neither of these assumptions is true."