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Analysis: Iraq's dark realities

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   Jan. 6, 2006 at 12:44 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 (UPI) -- The intense wave of killings and bombings that have swept Iraq this week comes as a shock awakening, or hangover, following the unrealistically high expectations and self-congratulations in the administration that surrounded the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections and their immediate aftermath.

The decision of the Sunni Muslim insurgents in central Iraq to largely restrain their forces during the election campaign and the voting period could easily be misconstrued as a weakening of will or loss of morale on their part. But, as was clear even at the time, it was no such thing. Like the Irish Republican Army of two decades ago, the insurgents had not forsaken the bullet for the ballot box. Instead, in the manner of sophisticated -- and all too often, successful -- insurgencies throughout the 20th century, they were following a sophisticated strategy of bullets and ballots.

Nor did the ballot box fail them. On the contrary, it was the failure of the dominant "5-5'5" Shiite coalition that now dominates Iraq with U.S. support, backed by its Kurdish allies in the north of the country, to seek to include the Sunnis in political power that played into the hands of the insurgents.

As Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy warned last year, the very success of the Dec. 15 elections now threatens to backfire by dramatically boosting the popularity and recruitment potential for the insurgents. Its outcome was like pouring gasoline on a burning fire. And this week the fire exploded.

Some 11 U.S. soldiers were killed in a single day in Iraq this week. That meant that in a single 24-hour period the encouraging incremental, but previously consistent, pattern of falling rates of U.S. military deaths in Iraq was dramatically reversed.

Even worse was the slaughter inflicted by two well-placed car bomb blasts. Only two days ago, in our regular weekly UPI Iraq Benchmarks analysis, we noted that the number of multiple bomb fatality (MFB) attacks and the casualties inflicted by them had fallen in December to their lowest level in almost half a year.

But it is now clear that those improvements did not reflect tactical success by U.S. and allied Iraqi forces in inflicting attrition on the insurgents and their capabilities. Nor did it stem from a weakening of support for the insurgents within their Sunni home base in central Iraq.

While the insurgents were motivated to play the political game and stay on their best behavior, violence around Iraq abated somewhat. However, once they had concluded that they were going to be given nothing worthwhile by the new Shiite masters of the country and their Kurdish allies, they felt free to unleash all their undiminished capabilities again.

The Conventional Wisdom being propagated by the Bush administration is that the creation of a new, broadly based coalition government in Baghdad enjoying a clear democratic popular mandate will isolate the insurgents and their supporters and give the new government the freedom to crack down far more effectively on them than its predecessors.

Also, the relentless drive to mobilize 220,000 Iraqi troops and police in support of the new government is still seen by the president and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the ace in the hole that will defeat the insurgents while enabling U.S. forces to be steadily reduced.

But there is no sign yet that the new Iraqi forces, even when they can operate independently, have any capability of defeating the insurgency or developing adequate intelligence to penetrate it.

As for U.S. military intelligence on the insurgency, it is as good as it possibly can be from the outside and its tactical and political assessments are second to none. But it is very clear from published reports and official Department of Defense figures that the U.S. military is still almost totally shut out of the insurgency and has failed to penetrate it.

Beyond fleeting and limited tactical successes, U.S. forces still have no idea how many insurgents they are actually killing or capturing per month, despite all the energy and scale of their own military operations. From August through November, the Department fo defense blandly announced that 3,000 insurgents per month were being captured or killed -- neither more nor less. This is not even a rounding off of roughly reliable figures, it has all the hallmarks of a wild guess made on no serious reliable statistical data whatsoever.

And even all these problems beg the most important questions of all that are never asked in all the Babel of mainstream U.S. media discussion of the insurgency.

Are the new Iraqi forces reliable? Can they be counted upon on a large scale to risk their own lives and incur heavy casualties in order to capture and hold significant insurgency leaders? There is no real evidence yet that this is the case.

Can the new Iraqi forces even be trusted not to leak key intelligence about the movements and operations of U.S. forces to the insurgents? There have been worrying signs that they leak like sieves. There is growing concern in Ohio, not yet picked up by the national media, that the deaths of 20 troops from an Ohio force in two attacks in the same week back in August were caused by such leaked intelligence.

While the Sunni insurgency is now threatening to metastasize and grow worse than ever as Eisenstadt warned, Bush administration and U.S. media attention have been distracted from the growing organization and radicalization of Shiite militias throughout southern Iraq, astride the key land communication routes to Baghdad and to the U.S. forces fighting the insurgency in the western and central provinces. The fiercely anti-American Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army are developing close organizational ties with other Shiite militias, all backed by Iran, quietly but intensively. And it is by no means clear whether their fellow Shiites controlling the new army and police forces would be willing to confront, let alone crush them if America insisted on it.

Most important of all, with predominantly Shiite forces being recruited and run by Shiite-controlled Defense and Interior Ministries in Baghdad, will the United States be able to count on the loyalty and reliability of these forces if U.S. forces bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, as there are widespread fears and expectations throughout Europe and the Middle East might happen any time in the next month or two.

Thus, not only is the Sunni insurgency now getting far worse, defying every U.S. political initiative and tactical military innovation over the past half year, but it is also making the United States ever more dependent on the goodwill and cooperation of the Shiite masters of the new military forces being raised at the very time when the reliability and effectiveness of those forces is becoming more problematic than ever.

This week has been a harsh awakening for the American people from the illusory good cheer on Iraq of the Christmas season: But it is all too likely that there will be far worse to come.

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