Monday, Jul. 07, 2003
The War That Never Ends
As each day passes in Iraq, more coalition soldiers die. How much of the killing is organized, and can the U.S. stop it?

In Southern Iraq, local tribal leaders have sorted out property disputes and murder cases for centuries without the help of police and courts. So when Sheik Mohammed al-Ebadi got a call from a British officer to help defuse a riot in Majar al-Kabir, northwest of Basra, he drove there, fast. As he approached the village, he saw British paratroopers engaged in a fierce fire fight with locals armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. The locals, enraged by reports of heavy-handed searches carried out by British troops, had attacked a patrol. When the fighting was done, four Iraqis had been killed and 17 wounded, including a 12-year-old boy. The British had said they needed al-Ebadi's help in rescuing six military policemen who were holed up in the local police station. By the time he got there, it was too late. The British MPs were dead. Some had been shot in the face; others had gunshot wounds stretching from their fingertips up their arms. "They were executed," al-Ebadi said.

It is a measure of the challenge in Iraq that the killings at Majar — the deadliest event involving coalition forces since the end of the war — probably had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein, his family, his supporters, former members of his army or militias, foreign terrorists or anyone else who might be included in that overused phrase "bad guys." Majar is in the homeland of the marsh Arabs, Shi'ite Muslims who, after years of oppression, hate Saddam passionately. That doesn't make them any less dangerous — especially since Iraq is one of the most heavily armed nations on Earth — when crossed. The British died, al-Ebadi thinks, in compliance with old local customs. British troops killed Iraqi civilians, so Iraqi civilians killed other British troops. "In a tribal society," says al-Ebadi, "justice is simple."

Bringing peace to a ravaged land is not. Before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Lieut. General John Abizaid, who will soon take over from Army General Tommy Franks as head of the U.S. Central Command, said there is widespread local support for the coalition presence in Iraq. That support will grow, Abizaid said, "as we build governmental institutions that are good for the future of Iraq." But reaching such a happy consummation will not be easy. "If Jesus Christ or Muhammad or Yahweh decided to come back and make all the decisions, we'd have maybe a 65% chance of succeeding there," said Senator Joseph Biden last week, shortly after returning from Baghdad.

Iraq remains a very dangerous place. Since May 1, when Bush stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln near a banner reading MISSION ACCOMPLISHED and said that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended," 74 members of coalition forces have died, 64 of them American. In addition to the Britons killed last week, a U.S. Marine died at Hillah when his armored vehicle rolled over as it rushed to reinforce a group of ambushed Marines, and a soldier was killed when a bomb exploded near his vehicle on the road to Baghdad airport. In Najaf, a soldier was killed while investigating the theft of a car. In Baghdad, a soldier was shot in the head while shopping in a store, and another was killed and four were wounded when their convoy was attacked in the northern part of the city. Two soldiers from an artillery unit were abducted from a rocket-demolition site they had been guarding north of Baghdad. Two days later Central Command announced that their bodies had been found.

Judging by the number of coalition deaths last week, it seems clear that the situation in Iraq is getting worse. What's unclear is whether the attacks are part of an organized resistance to the American occupation. When the enemy was Saddam and his armed forces, resistance was easy to understand; now it's not. In the Pentagon, officials are nervously revisiting their earlier assumption that the resistance was haphazard and spontaneous. "It may have begun that way," says a senior Pentagon official, "but as these attacks grow more numerous, you get the sense that there's someone pulling the strings at a higher level." There is little conclusive evidence, however, and senior members of the armed forces inside Iraq tend to see things differently. Major Joffery Watson, an intelligence officer based in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, sympathizes with his colleagues back home--"It's easier for us to digest if we can attribute everything to a single group"--but he doesn't buy the analysis. "It's more like gangs," he says.

Determining precisely who is responsible for the attacks is the top priority for the No. 1 American soldier now in Iraq, Lieut. General Ricardo (Rick) Sanchez. Operating out of a small, cramped office tucked away in an opulent palace in downtown Baghdad, Sanchez says there is "no regional-or national-level synchronization or coordination" to the attacks. Instead, he says, "a lot of small groups are attempting to destabilize Iraq." Who are these men? Insofar as anyone can say, they include Saddam loyalists, radical Islamic fanatics, Arab mujahedin who entered Iraq from other countries — and just plain criminals, some of whom may have been freed when Saddam emptied the jails shortly before he fell. Many in these groups lost privileged positions under Saddam and nurse a grievance against his American enemies. Others may oppose the occupation for Islamic or nationalist reasons; still others may simply want to profit from the chaos.

And there's another nagging question: Are the activities of the coalition armed forces contributing to the attacks? In one sense, Sanchez concedes, they surely are, for U.S. units have deliberately been taking the fight to those bands of Iraqis opposed to the occupation. "When you go on the offensive," he says, "you are going to increase the numbers of confrontations and engagements that you have." More worrying is an alternative explanation: that the coalition's heavy-handed actions are acting as a recruiting sergeant for disaffected Iraqis. Sadly, that may be the case. A U.S. official says Paul Bremer, head of the Office of the Coalition Provisional Authority, has ordered a get-tough policy to assure Iraqis that the U.S. is serious about taking on Saddam's Baath Party. It's how that has been done that is problematic.

Take the claims of Raad Hamoudi, a former star goalkeeper of the Iraqi national soccer team who last week found himself back in Baghdad's al-Shaab stadium. He was there with other prisoners, he says, after being picked up by U.S. soldiers looking for a Baath official who lived next door to the house where Hamoudi was staying. (A military spokeswoman would say merely that Hamoudi was arrested "for a reason.") It was only because a U.S. intelligence official took the initiative to find Hamoudi — who claimed to have organized sporting events for the occupying forces — that he was found and eventually released.

The chaotic conditions at the stadium appalled the intelligence official and a Pentagon source who accompanied him there. The men saw young boys being held at gunpoint, kneeling in the hot sand. An Army sergeant, asked why a boy was being detained, replied, "He was caught riding on the back of a stolen bicycle." Says the intelligence source: "This kind of treatment would never be tolerated in the U.S., so why here? Aren't we supposed to be showing them a different way?" Hamoudi, who eventually made it to Jordan, says the American soldiers who arrested him stole two wristwatches. An old man in the house where Hamoudi was arrested asked the soldiers if he could use the bathroom and was told, Hamoudi says, to "piss in his pants."

Such allegations are easy to make and hard to refute. But as they circulate around Iraq, they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: if Iraqis believe that Americans will always treat them as if they are armed and dangerous, they may resentfully refuse to cooperate with the occupying forces — who will then treat them as if they are armed and dangerous. Already the attacks on Americans mean that some of the lessons of effective peacekeeping — painfully learned during a decade of small wars in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo — cannot be applied. Peacekeepers work best when they move in small groups, mingling with the local population, stopping to drink coffee and share a smoke, listening for that key bit of gossip about where the local party chieftain is hiding. But because the Iraqi opposition is going after the "onesies and twosies," says a Pentagon official, U.S. troops will be tempted to hunker down and stay in large groups, protected by vehicles and the full battle rattle of helmets and body armor. You can't collect intelligence that way.

Nor can you do so if your main job is to protect the power grid. But someone must. Baghdad was without power for six days last week, a consequence of looting and sabotage. Locals weren't impressed by the American response. "The Iraqi people saw the Americans defeat Saddam in three weeks," said one man. "Are they telling us they can't fix the power in three months?" Abizaid conceded to the Senate committee that "protection of the infrastructure is a problem." He thought there was no need yet to add more troops to the 145,000 in Iraq. But, he added, "we won't hesitate to ask for more if we need them."

How would that go down at home? So far, the travails in Iraq do not seem to have dimmed Americans' sense that their troops are doing a good job there or diminished Bush's popularity. But what would happen if the trickle of deaths turned into a flood? "It is natural to kidnap American soldiers because they have occupied us," says Tihan Alwan, a village elder standing outside the mosque at Halabsa, a town close to the place from which the two American soldiers were abducted last week. "Not only kidnap," adds his friend Wadah al-Hamdani. "We're going to kill them like sheep." Then he made one of those motions understood in all countries and all cultures — of a knife being drawn across a throat.

Reported by Joshua Kucera/Majar al-Kabir, Scott Macleod/ Baghdad, Simon Robinson/Halabsa and Mark Thompson/ Washington

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