The Wild, Wierd and Ferocious Counter-Surge
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A series of unrelated, but successive events, including the intense battles for
Recent events have been crammed with incongruity and paradoxes, sometimes verging on the absurd. The character of the insurgency has acquired starkly, contradictory features making it seem more like an asymmetrical war in a hall of mirrors. On the one hand, there is a level of unity, professionalism, discipline and commitment, not seen before. While, on the other hand, there is a risqué, recklessness and bravado in their actions which sometimes has features of the downright bizarre or absurd. This all reflects a heightened level of social tension and despair, which comes not only from the impasse and suffering, but a sense that this is the "last chance saloon." There is an odour of mania in the air, and a strong foreboding that something horrendous is about to happen.
This now means that all the old methods of trying to establish and maintain some form of order are redundant, and only the most novel and obscure of solutions can save the day. In such exceptional circumstances conservative thought is not only inadequate, but also categorically counterproductive. Likewise, solutions once considered contenders for national regeneration, now only lead events more quickly in the direction of destruction. Given the contradictions inherent in the situation and the nature of the main players, the outlook is bleak. Only a force exterior to and independent of all the main players (including and especially, the U.S.A.) could now offer a way out. Furthermore, such an unlikely trajectory must present itself quickly, because the inflammable material in society is so dense that an event can take now place, at any moment, which will catapult the situation beyond anyone's control and proceed in ways, and at a speed, not hitherto imagined.
Al-Najaf: Insurgent Insanity
If the siege of Waco proved a handful for U.S. law enforcement, the U.S. now finds itself fighting two insurgent cults; Al Qaeda on the Sunni side and Jund al-Samaa or the "Soldiers of Heaven" on the Shi'ite flank. On January 28th,Iraqi forces, with U.S. air support, faced off a huge group of fanatical, armed cult members trying to storm the holy city of Al-Najaf, their wives and children with them. The attack was suicidal lunacy from a military standpoint, given that Karbala was ringed with multiple, concentric bands of defences for the purpose of protecting the holiest Shi'ite site during its most important religious pilgrimage. Nevertheless, the cult seemed to be whipped up in a manic, delusional belief that they could break through and massacre pilgrims and key Shi'ite clerics. This was part of a plan to provoke the reappearance of the "Hidden Imam," a Shi'ite saint from 9th century, whom they believe will establish justice and peace throughout the world.
To make things more complex, the group, which has mostly Shi'ite members, also attracts some Sunnis. And just to muddy the picture further, they were reported to have had support from some of the local population, as well as some foreign fighters and Saddam loyalists.
About 800 of them fought a two-day pitched battle with the Iraqi Army, which was forced to retreat and call in US airpower. The group was heavily armed and used anti-aircraft missiles to bring down one American helicopter. The battle finally ceased after around 200 insurgents were killed, including the cults leader, reportedly armed with a hat and coat and two pistols. Perhaps Nietzsche was right when he observed, "in individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule."
Mission "Possible": Audacity and Precision Bordering on the Fictitious
The weekend before Al-Najaf, around 30, almost certainly Sunni insurgents, disguised themselves and a number of SUVs to look like US military brass, and, then, nonchalantly drove through 3 check points into the secure compound of the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Centre, where the US military had convened a meeting to discuss security for the upcoming Ashura pilgrimage. Having entered the compound, the insurgents coolly picked out only American troops, killing five of them and leaving all Iraqi soldiers unharmed. They then left and passed back through the same checkpoints unheeded.
The operation had all the audacity and planning of a Western special forces undertaking, with almost Hollywood scale drama. But what exactly was the purpose of this expensive, high risk adventure? Propaganda value? Yes, but perhaps more ominously, by kidnapping and shooting only Americans, it was a form of psychological warfare, almost as if they were making a statement, or delivering a menace telling the enemy that "we're coming to get you . . . and you have nowhere to hide!" Moreover, "from now on you will be treated just like sectarian victims. Expect to be tortured and executed!"
Of course, the Americans are incredulous and immediately blamed the Iraqis, pointing to collaboration and raising again the question of being able to trust them in any operations. There certainly is some explaining to do and some almost unbelievable security blunders. Undoubtedly, insider information was involved, but one can't get away from the sophistication and daring of a methodically and meticulously prepared operation, carried out so easily against such a superior foe. Strategists can only be shocked, because it also says that if the Iraqi Army can't implement one single high level security operation, and protect top brass and VIPs, what hope has it of battening down Baghdad, a city of six million people?!
The Battle for Haifa Street – A New Tenacity and Professionalism
This month's battle for Haifa Street was the first inkling of a new Sunni strategy in the face of the anticipated U.S. offensive. From the 4th to the 12th of January, for up to 12 hours a day for almost a week around 1,000 US and Iraqi troops were fought to standstill by 100 or so Sunni insurgents in a fire fight of a character and intensity not normally witnessed before.
Unlike most previous insurgent attacks, that were characterized by hit and run tactics, opportunistic sniper fire or roadside bombs, this was a sophisticated, well-commanded and coordinated assault by up to a dozen different Sunni insurgent groups, collaborating together. It was evidently a well-planned and implemented operation with the express intention of engaging large scale U.S. and Iraqi forces in persistent, relentless and tenacious, close-quarter, urban combat.
Militarily, the battle at Haifa Street was important from a number of standpoints. Firstly, the combined efforts of US and Iraqi forces were unable to defeat the insurgents. The 500 U.S. troops engaged there could neither contain nor crush what were probably at most 100 insurgents. Moreover, the weakness of the Iraqi forces and the big doubt over whether they could hold onto areas after the U.S. withdrawl was exposed. There were some 400 Iraqi Army personnel involved who, if they had faced the attack on their own, would have been routed. The 500 U.S. troops were fought to a standstill, even though they enjoyed the advantage of air support in the form of repeated assaults by Apache attack helicopters and even F-15 jet fighters, which proved worthless in dislodging the determined insurgents.
A key factor in the Sunni success was their high mobility and command and coordination. They changed positions swiftly and often in small numbers of only two or three men, melting away and then remerging in different positions. Indeed, during the battle, U.S. troops were not just fighting across one side of the street to the other, but they were taking fire from all different directions at once, and were frequently forced to run for their lives, abandoning building after building.
What made Haifa different was from a military standpoint that was the insurgents were more than able to fight the American over a long period in a more classical-style war conflict situation. The Sunni were commanded and co-ordinated in highly professional way and acted with discipline and a high degree of flexibility. They furthermore applied novel tactics that were used to great effect and which the U.S. troops were unable to respond to. At times the guerrillas ran rings around helpless U.S. units and looked near to inflicting a defeat on them, despite having a manpower deficit of some four or five to one in the U.S. favour and one to ten if one bothers to count the Iraqi Army.
The poor U.S. performance must increase reservations about their ability to clear Baghdad of militias and insurgents. At the same time, in the week long battle, Iraqi forces showed more evidence of their inability and unreadiness to take on insurgents, casting further doubt on their potential for success in both the first wave and then in the critical second phase of coming operations, when they are expected to of hold onto areas liberated by U.S. troops. While the U.S. and Iraqi forces appeared uncoordinated and lacking in trust, the new phenomenon for the insurgents was the collaboration in combat of around 12 different insurgent troops, prepared to subjugate themselves to a common command. Finally, there appeared to be a definite deficit in levels of morale between the two battling sides – the insurgents coming out on top, while the U.S., and, especially the Iraqis not showing the same level of tenacity and audacity shown by their opponents.
Assault n°2 "Operation Boomerang Twice"
So, following a 10-day pause to lick their wounds and reassess their tactics, the U.S. declared they had learned their lessons from the first encounter and were ready to retake the thoroughfare. On the 24th of January they launched a second offensive or rather a third. Because it comes to light now that, in fact, after intense fighting, they had already "cleared" Haifa Street of insurgents in 2004 and handed it over to the Iraqis.
Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to have worked out. Evidently the insurgents had taken back full control and the Iraqi Army had fled the area. Things, obviously, weren't going to be the same this time, or were they?
On Wednesday morning the day erupted to the thunder of heavy artillery and a huge display of aerial firepower. In scenes more reminiscent of the Russian obliteration of Grozny, the U.S. mercilessly pounded apartments and other high-rise buildings from air and ground. What was called "Operation Tomahawk Strike 11" was in full swing. Heavy gunfire, sniper bullets and mortars and RPG rockets met them. The fighting lasted from dawn to dusk for some three days. Civilian casualties were much higher than before, some 37 on one day alone, including women and children, prompting a cry of "genocide" from the Muslim Scholars Association. Film crews were embedded from CNN and heavy media coverage was invited in, obviously in anticipation of a victory this time round. However, when two days coverage had evaporated and evidently "Operation Tomahawk 11" had become "Operation Boomerang Twice" the media silently slunk away.
Yet again, the Iraqi Army performed miserably. Even on camera it was evident by the half-hearted way they shot from the hip that they had no stomach for the battle or firing on their fellow countrymen. One of them interviewed on camera rather sheepishly pleaded that they lacked the U.S. weapons to take control and hold the area on their own, a clear admission of the futility of the whole U.S. strategy. Whether the fighting in the two other districts and an attack on a Multi-National Divisional Patrol were started intentionally by Sunnis in order to overstretch U.S. forces is not clear. One area was the scene of the downing of the private security helicopter a few days before and could have been part of a U.S. revenge mission or extended operations.
What was clear was that Haifa was indented as a model operation as part of the new offensive – "a series" according to officials, "of target raids to disrupt illegal militia activity and help restore Iraqis security force control in the area." But despite the massive numbers, 1,000 or more US and Iraqi troops, with massive heavy weapons and aerial back up, they failed again to dislodge or seriously impede the insurgents.
The insurgents are clearly much better prepared and ready to take casualties. However, the damage inflicted was minor even according to the official communiqués that some 30 militants were killed and 35 detained; a small number for such a massive investment. Although they had supposedly "learned the lessons of earlier" in the month, the Americans yet again showed the futility of this form of traditional warfare against asymmetrical forms.
The effectiveness of the Sunni defence and the spread of fighting to the two other Sunni districts of Al Fadl and Adhamiya, could now mark a shift away from an insurgency based mostly on psuedo or adapted peasant guerrilla warfare, to a more sophisticated form of urban guerillarism, also incorporating, but not relying on elements of classical warfare. The combination of the flexibility and agility of terrorist and guerrilla tactics with classical methods of warfare could prove a formidable mix, which would leave U.S. forces totally confused and wrong-footed.
Had the U.S. and Iraqi forces wanted a better simulation exercise they could have asked for it. However, if this is a harbinger of things to come, the ability of the insurgents to intensify and diversify tactics means that the outcome doesn't bode well for the real thing. They could well be facing a much more humiliating and devastating defeat than the first time they tried to secure Baghdad. One has to ask, after employing such numbers and force for just one area, what hope do they have of clearing and holding a city of six million?
The intensification of sectarian atrocities, combined with a number of unusually belligerent and audacious attacks on US forces, appears to suggest that these are not just a response to the hanging of Saddam Hussein, but a decision to meet the new U.S. troops head on, fire with fire! But the character of the attacks is new in that there is not only a highly effective military professionalism involved, but also a new level of ferocious determination, daring and bravado, almost to the point of wild recklessness and suicidal inhibition.
A Dance of Death
This is the "last chance saloon" mentality. There is not going to be another "Battle for Baghdad," - this is the one and only final one. The Americans know it, the government knows it, the insurgents and militias know it, and the people know it too. What each of them also knows is that it is not going to succeed in any of its objectives. Beneath the surface everyone already knows what the outcome will be and few wish to face it. Nobody wants the U.S. to win, but everybody knows Armageddon follows, should they likely lose.
The battle is starting to be played out like some macabre tribal "Dance of Death," with the principal actors adopting incongruous poses and exaggerated expressions, and grasping every opportunity to act out in public their most carnal and lurid fantasies. The dance is only the prelude to the bestiality that is about to follow. Each actor is fighting to secure the best position from which to face the implosion and anarchy, which will make the current chaos look like harmony.
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