It’s Worse Than You Think

By Scott Johnson and Babak Dehghanpisheh
September 20 2004 Issue

As Americans debate Vietnam, the U.S. death toll tops 1,000 in Iraq. And the insurgents are still getting stronger.

Iraqis don’t shock easily these days, but eyewitnesses could only blink in disbelief as they recounted last Tuesday’s broad-daylight kidnappings in central Baghdad. At about 5 in the afternoon, on a quiet side street outside the Ibn Haitham hospital, a gang armed with pistols, AK-47s and pump-action shotguns raided a small house used by three Italian aid groups. The gunmen, none of them wearing masks, took orders from a smooth-shaven man in a gray suit; they called him “sir.” When they drove off, the gunmen had four hostages: two local NGO employees – one of them a woman who was dragged out of the house by her headscarf – and two 29-year-old Italians, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both members of the antiwar group A Bridge to Baghdad. The whole job took less than 10 minutes. Not a shot was fired. About 15 minutes afterward, an American Humvee convoy passed hardly a block away – headed in the opposite direction.

Sixteen months after the war’s supposed end, Iraq’s insurgency is spreading. Each successful demand by kidnappers has spawned more hostage-takings – to make Philippine troops go home, to stop Turkish truckers from hauling supplies into Iraq, to extort fat ransom payments from Kuwaitis. The few relief groups that remain in Iraq are talking seriously about leaving. U.S. forces have effectively ceded entire cities to the insurgents, and much of the country elsewhere is a battleground. Last week the total number of U.S. war dead in Iraq passed the 1,000 mark, reaching 1,007 by the end of Saturday.

U.S. forces are working frantically to train Iraqis for the thankless job of maintaining public order. The aim is to boost Iraqi security forces from 95,000 to 200,000 by sometime next year. Then, using a mixture of force and diplomacy, the Americans plan to retake cities and install credible local forces. That’s the hope, anyway. But the quality of new recruits is debatable. During recent street demonstrations in Najaf, police opened fire on crowds, killing and injuring dozens. The insurgents, meanwhile, are recruiting, too. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once referred to America’s foes in Iraq as “dead-enders,” then the Pentagon maintained they probably numbered 5,000, and now senior military officials talk about “dozens of regional cells” that could call upon as many as 20,000 fighters.

Yet U.S. officials publicly insist that Iraq will somehow hold national elections before the end of January. The appointed council currently acting as Iraq’s government under interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is to be replaced by an elected constitutional assembly – if the vote takes place. “I presume the election will be delayed,” says the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s chief spokesman, Sabah Kadhim. A senior Iraqi official sees no chance of January elections: “I’m convinced that it’s not going to happen. It’s just not realistic. How is it going to happen?” Some Iraqis worry that America will stick to its schedule despite all obstacles. “The Americans have created a series of fictional dates and events in order to delude themselves,” says Ghassan Atiyya, director of the independent Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, who recently met with Allawi and American representatives to discuss the January agenda. “Badly prepared elections, rather than healing wounds, will open them.”

America has its own Election Day to worry about. For U.S. troops in Iraq, one especially sore point is the stateside public’s obsession with the candidates’ decades-old military service. “Stop talking about Vietnam,” says one U.S. official who has spent time in the Sunni Triangle. “People should be debating this war, not that one.” His point was not that America ought to walk away from Iraq. Hardly any U.S. personnel would call that a sane suggestion. But there’s widespread agreement that Washington needs to rethink its objectives, and quickly. “We’re dealing with a population that hovers between bare tolerance and outright hostility,” says a senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad. “This idea of a functioning democracy here is crazy. We thought that there would be a reprieve after sovereignty, but all hell is breaking loose.”

It’s not only that U.S. casualty figures keep climbing. American counterinsurgency experts are noticing some disturbing trends in those statistics. The Defense Department counted 87 attacks per day on U.S. forces in August – the worst monthly average since Bush’s flight-suited visit to the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003. Preliminary analysis of the July and August numbers also suggests that U.S. troops are being attacked across a wider area of Iraq than ever before. And the number of gunshot casualties apparently took a huge jump in August. Until then, explosive devices and shrapnel were the primary cause of combat injuries, typical of a “phase two” insurgency, where sudden ambushes are the rule. (Phase one is the recruitment phase, with most actions confined to sabotage. That’s how things started in Iraq.) Bullet wounds would mean the insurgents are standing and fighting – a step up to phase three.

Another ominous sign is the growing number of towns that U.S. troops simply avoid. A senior Defense official objects to calling them “no-go areas.” “We could go into them any time we wanted,” he argues. The preferred term is “insurgent enclaves.” They’re spreading. Counterinsurgency experts call it the “inkblot strategy”: take control of several towns or villages and expand outward until the areas merge. The first city lost to the insurgents was Fallujah, in April. Now the list includes the Sunni Triangle cities of Ar Ramadi, Baqubah and Samarra, where power shifted back and forth between the insurgents and American-backed leaders last week. “There is no security force there [in Fallujah], no local government,” says a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. “We would get attacked constantly. Forget about it.”

U.S. military planners only wish they could. “What we see is a classic progression,” says Andrew Krepinevich, author of the highly respected study “The Army and Vietnam.” “What we also see is that the U.S. military is not trained or organized to fight insurgencies. That was the deliberate choice after Vietnam. Now we look to be paying the price.” Americans aren’t safe even on the outskirts of a city like Fallujah. Early last week a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into two U.S. Humvees nine miles north of town on the four-lane concrete bypass called Highway 10. Seven Americans died. It was one of the deadliest blows against U.S. forces since June, when Iraqis formally resumed control of their government.

As much as ordinary Iraqis may hate the insurgents, they blame the Americans for creating the whole mess. Three months ago Iraqi troops and U.S.-dominated “multinational forces” pulled out of Samarra, and insurgents took over the place immediately. “The day the MNF left, people celebrated in the streets,” says Kadhim, the Interior spokesman. “But that same day, vans arrived in town and started shooting. They came from Fallujah and other places and they started blowing up houses.” Local elders begged Allawi’s government to send help. “The leaders of the tribes come to see us and they say, ‘Really, we are scared, we don’t like these people’,” Kadhim continues. “But we just don’t have the forces at the moment to help them.” Last week negotiators reached a tentative peace deal, but it’s not likely to survive long. The Iraqi National Guard is the only homegrown security force that people respect, and all available ING personnel are deployed elsewhere.

Will Iraq’s troubles get even worse? “The insurgency can certainly sustain what it’s doing for a while,” says a senior U.S. military official. Many educated Iraqis aren’t waiting to find out. Applicants mobbed the courtyard of the Baghdad passport office last week, desperate for a chance to escape. Police fired shots in the air, trying to control the crowd. “Every day there is shooting, gunfire, people killed, headaches for lack of sleep,” said Huda Hussein, 34, a Ph.D. in computer science who has spent the past year and a half looking for work. “I want to go to a calm place for a while.” It’s too bad for Iraq – and for America – that the insurgents don’t share that wish.

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