Sunday, April 25, 2004

The news as I write is that American troops are going to enter the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Religious leaders inside and outside Iraq have warned our commanders that any incursion of U.S. troops into Najaf could enrage the country's Shiites, but our folks are kinda hoping that they don't really mean, like, the whole city:

With the new move, the military seeks to impose a degree of control in Najaf, while hoping a foray limited to the modern parts of the ancient city would not inflame Shiites.

Of course, rather than just "hope", they could send a messenger to Najaf's most distinguished resident, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the man who could spark off a full-scale insurrection with a word, to see what he thinks. And if the Ayatollah won't entertain the question, well, that's all you need to know right there. But it seems our forces have a bit of a problem communicating with the locals.

Here's another communications problem. According to this morning's New York Times, plans for an possible upcoming attack on Falluja are going to target only the insurgents, and try to minimize casualties on others:

While administration officials say they would like to carry out a precise attack on an estimated 2,000 hard-core Sunni Muslim insurgents, military officials say there is no way guided missiles or pinpoint bombing can do this job.

Instead, the military is planning swift raids by Marine riflemen -- backed by helicopters and gunships -- aimed at the insurgents' leaders and their gunmen, while encouraging others in the city to evacuate or stay under cover.

They've evidently been talking like this for a while, because Iraqi blogger Riverbend had a response up more than a week ago:

When [General] Mark Kimmett stutters through a press conference babbling about "precision weapons" and "military targets" in Falloojeh, who is he kidding? Falloojeh is a small city made up of low, simple houses, little shops and mosques. Is he implying that the 600 civilians who died during the bombing and the thousands injured and maimed were all "insurgents"? Are houses, shops and mosques now military targets?

You might also ask how the American military command is so sure that they're facing just a few thousand "hard-core insurgents", when as Steve Gilliard points out, they could easily be backed by ten times as many sympathetic locals. (With experienced leadership too -- the "hard core" types may be very hard core -- most likely including veterans of the human wave attacks in the Iran/Iraq war). In fact, with many people flooding out of the city, and just about everyone in town knowing that an attack may be coming very soon, you've got to wonder why anyone would want to stay unless they'd want to be part of the fighting.

But the military commanders don't seem quite so worried about irregulars swelling the ranks of the resistance. Why? Sad to say, some of that may come down, once again, to failures to communicate. A coalition chaplain explains his command's view to Andrew Sullivan:

... in Faluja, the supposed hotbed of dissent in Iraq, countless Iraqis tell our psyopers they want to cooperate with us but are afraid the thugs will slit their throats or kill their kids. A bad gang can do that to a neighborhood and a town. That's what is happening here.

Ah. So, if they were telling "our psyopers", say,

Why no, I do not wish to cooperate with you. If it is the will of Allah that I should see you soon through my gunsights, infidel dogs, I will cast you into hell with joy in my heart. But right now, my old unit commander is setting up an ambush three blocks to the west of here, and needs all hands to rig the booby traps. Please don't delay me any further -- we're kind of in a rush.

then we might have a problem. But instead, they're telling us that they want to cooperate, and can't because they're afraid of "the thugs". Well, all righty then!

Meanwhile, The New York Times claims that Dubya is deciding whether to initiate a full-scale assault. How are things tending? On the one hand,

Mr. Bush is described by many officials as convinced that if the insurgents hold off American forces there, they will try to do the same in other Iraqi cities.

On the other, while U.S. officials are described as aware of the possibility that an assault on Falluja might provoke uprisings elsewhere,

... officials still describe the fear of uprisings in Iraq as a theory, one they say may be overblown.

That sounds kinda good for fans of armed assault.

Meanwhile, what about the ongoing negotiations with Falluja civic leaders, and members of the IGC? Here's an interesting bit, from very near the bottom of the Times report:

Senior American commanders in the Middle East, in a parallel to officials in Washington, seemed to be exceedingly concerned about possible casualties in Falluja -- and how the operation to quell the insurgency would be played throughout the Arab world, as well.

And so military and civilian officials in Iraq began an "information operation," according to senior officials in Washington, to prepare the battlefield of public opinion.

Of course, American rhetoric has whipsawed between accomodation and confrontation at a dizzying pace for at least a week. The very latest, as I write, is that Iraqi negotiators in Falluja believe that they will start joint patrols with the Americans come next Tuesday -- which, if true, may buy a little time to try to ramp tension down a bit. But only a little. One of the negotiators acknowledges that "if [U.S.] soldiers are attacked, they will respond and this will lead to problems". And with the civic leaders not even claiming control of large neighborhoods, some attacks are almost inevitable.

You can understand why the Iraqis would have agreed to this, if the alternative was an immediate full-scale assault. But some level of resistance is just about inevitable under the present circumstances -- the civic leaders don't even claim to control several large neighborhoods -- and there's nothing in the reports about limited, proportional response. It's almost as if the patrols are designed to provoke a response which would yield a pretext for further escalation. And, as (according to the Times)

All across Iraq, American and allied forces were repositioning and preparing for bombings, mortar attacks, ambushes and even popular uprisings in case an attack on Falluja prompted violence elsewhere, according to Pentagon and military officials.

you really have to wonder -- is the joint patrol scheme for real, or is it just an aspect of an "information operation" designed to provide a pretext for an attack that has already been ordered? One doesn't like to think so, but it would fit the same pattern as Dubya's use of bogus WMD evidence, and his tendentious attempts to discredit the UNMOVIC inspectors, to justify his initial assault on the entire country.

But as I've said before, my record as a prognosticator is hardly spotless. I'd really like, once again, to be pleasantly surprised.

Update: Well, sad to say, if that is the plan, then the plan may be working. Clashes in Falluja are happening already, even before the patrols, and residents are being quoted in news reports saying stuff like this:

"I expect the U.S. and Iraqi forces to be exposed targets for the resistance. No one can control the feelings of the sons of Falluja because they are very angry," said one local man, Abdul Hakim Shaker, shortly before Monday's fighting broke out.

And the refugees from Falluja are already piling up in Baghdad, with the construction of a formal camp for them (I changed a link up above to point to this article).

Meanwhile, the New York Times, reporting on the administration's decision-making process, says that they ...

... saw little risk in agreeing to [extending the cease fire and the joint patrols], because if an invasion of the city proved necessary in coming days or weeks, the extension would allow President Bush and other officials to say that they gave negotiation every chance.

But these subtleties are going to be lost on Iraqis who think, not wholly without reason, that if we're involved in this sort of trouble, it's because we brought it. Like the folks reacting to explosions in a market (not even our bomb!) in Sadr City, a Shiite quarter of Baghdad:

Angry residents held up bloodied human remains to television cameras filming the scene, accusing U.S. helicopters of firing missiles at the market. A dead donkey lay on the road, its guts spilled. Local residents put a sign on its back saying: 'This is Bush.' ...

At the Shaheed al-Sadr hospital nearby, relatives of the dead and wounded sat on the ground weeping.

'This Bush, we don't want him,' one woman cried. 'It wasn't like this under Saddam Hussein.'

This is, again, from a Shiite neighborhood. (Remember when they were supposed to like us?) And it's not like Saddam set a very high standard...

That chaplain's letter to Sullivan via Diana Moon, who gives that particular remark no more attention than it deserves... though there's plenty more nonsense in it; she refers me in email to commentary on more of that.

Late edit: added the "whipsawed" sentence in a late paragraph... and then there was the large update ...


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