The U.S. Army Fights Against Phantoms
By Philippe G lie
Monday 03 November 2003
American strategists are as lost in Iraq as in the middle of a sand storm. They don't know where the blows are coming from and are incapable of avoiding them. Their blindness returns a worrying upsurge: with yesterday's helicopter attack 35 GIs have been killed in two weeks, an account that begins to awaken memories of Vietnam.
In Washington, the elected officials of Congress try to determine what the White House knew about the Iraqi threat before the war. But another question arises much more urgently: what does the White House know now? "We're observing the enemy constantly and adapting ourselves," assured George W. Bush last Monday before the press, describing the enemy as a swarm of pro-Saddam "Ba'athists" and of "foreign fighters".
More loquacious about the ideology of the enemy than about its identity, the President guessed that "The more successful we are on the ground, the more these killers will react," a formula characterized by former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke, as "the most extraordinary declaration by a Commander-in-Chief in modern times."
The summit of the Administration no longer hides its confusion: "We didn't expect that it would be so long or so intense," acknowledged Secretary of State, Colin Powell. His colleague at Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, author of a memo in which he asked himself whether "we are winning or losing the war against terrorism", is not afraid to display his ignorance : the increase in attacks is "possibly linked to Ramadan, is possibly an isolated spike, or, perhaps will continue; that's possible. None of us can predict the future," he declared Thursday during a Pentagon briefing. He was even more frank yesterday: "Does anyone have a clear idea of the precise number of enemies or the links between them? No," he acknowledged on ABC.
The officers on the ground have no more idea. Tuesday, General Raymond Odierno, who commands the Fourth Infantry Division in Iraq, assured that "the guerillas are 95% forces loyal to Saddam Hussein," plus "a small percentage of foreign fighters."
However, the four booby-trapped cars that struck Baghdad the day before were attributed to infiltrated terrorists. "Let somebody bring me an Iraqi ready to commit suicide for Saddam Hussein," challenged Mowaffak al-Roubaie, a member of the Provisional Government Council. A Syrian of Yemenite extraction, arrested before he could detonate his bomb, had entered Iraq only 48 hours earlier: proof that a preexisting network had put the booby-trapped car into his hands. The U.S. Army has already arrested between 200 and 300 foreign fighters who crossed through the Syrian, Iranian, or Saudi borders. Washington has publicly pressured Damascus and Teheran, while handling Riyadh with tact. But several American commanders deployed along the frontier zones with Syria denied this week that a "significant" number of infiltrations had occurred.
America's other phantom enemy is Saddam Hussein. October 8th, George W. Bush congratulated himself that he "no longer exists". Now, however, intelligence officials have just confided to the New York Times their fear that the former dictator, hidden in Iraq, continues to play directly or indirectly a role of resistance "catalyst, even leader". The 25 million dollar price on his head has been fruitless: "we have no immediate information about his whereabouts," acknowledges Paul Bremer, the American administrator of the country.
Underlining that there's "no proof" of the leader's responsibility for the attacks, his capture, Bremer adds, "would be useful" because "it would collapse the dream" of those who hope for his return. The Secretary of Defense even evokes "coordination" between enemy forces: "There is intelligence suggesting that the Ba'athists have the money, that they pay people to participate in attacks with them," he said yesterday.
Paul Bremer has just ordered that a tribunal composed of Iraqis be set up to judge officials of the former regime, and, when the time comes, Saddam himself. The 1,400 American military intelligence experts who tried up to now- in vain- to put their hands on weapons of mass destruction will consecrate their efforts from now on to capturing the former dictator, to identifying terrorist networks, and to preventing attacks. "On the one hand, finding the weapons of mass destruction is important," explains Rumsfeld, "but on the other hand, they're not what are killing us at this time."
Short of solutions, the occupier is above all looking for salvation from the natives, even though they mistrust them. Iraqi forces associated with the Americans include 90,000 policemen and soldiers who participate in the 1,700 daily patrols effected by GIs throughout the country. The General Staff is also contemplating recalling whole units from the presently dissolved regular army. In spite of the increase in attacks against Washington's henchmen, a salary of 120 dollars is supposed to stimulate a sense of vocation.
This maneuver always entails the risk of introducing the worm into the fruit, that is, elements opposed to the American occupation into the forces charged with the reestablishment of order. "There isn't a single mechanism to distinguish the good from the bad," warns Danielle Pletka, a specialist in defense issues at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, who has just returned from a trip to Iraq.
At the end of seven months of occupation, the Americans are forced to admit that they are operating in an almost complete fog. This ignorance of the adversary constitutes their principal strategic challenge today. Washington can claim as much as it likes that the good days in Iraq outnumber the bad days, Richard Holbrooke repeats that "the only day that counts in a war is the last day."
Translation: Truthout French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.
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