Monday, March 21, 2005

Rebels Without a Clue

There have been several interesting stories out of Iraq over the past several days, two from the New York Times and three from the Associated Press. All four of these stories indicate that the Sunni rebellion against the new Iraqi government is, at the least, in some difficulty. Good discussions of the Times pieces are available at the Belmont Club blog, and the Belgravia Dispatch blog here, and here.

On 19 March, the New York Times ran a story recounting an interview with Lieut.-General John Sattler, commander of First Marine Expeditionary Force, the top Marine in Iraq. General Sattler says that the average number of rebel attacks has fallen from 25 a day before the Second Battle of Fallujah in November, down to about 10 a day at present. In the same story, General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, gives a higher number of insurgent attacks, but for him also, the general trend is downwards.

General Sattler credits the reduction in terrorist activity in his area to the fall of Fallujah, increased Marine patrolling and random checkpoints that catch bombers before they can deploy their devices. The city of Ramadi, in the heart of the Sunni triangle, which continues to display an unfavorable attitude, is on “lock down,” locals having to move through a series of checkpoints to do business.

But the most interesting plus-factor for the US and the new Iraqi government raised by General Sattler, which is also the theme of an interesting 21 March piece in the New York Times, is the appearance of increasing numbers of Iraqi troops alongside US and allied forces. Eight battalions of Iraqi army and police have relieved half the US troops formerly at Fallujah, freeing US mobile forces to operate elsewhere.

The 21 March piece, by John Burns, is worth subscribing to the Times to read. The subject is Haifa Street in Baghdad, which, Burns tells us, was “Purple Heart Boulevard” for the 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry (based at Fort Hood, Texas). 1/9th Cav. soldiers garnered 160 Purple Hearts working this area, in their year-long deployment, before returning to Texas.

Haifa Street, which parallels the Tigris River in central Baghdad, just north of the “Green Zone,” was the heart of a Saddam redevelopment scheme of the 1980’s: Saddam bulldozed the old portion of Baghdad located here and built new high-rise apartments which he stuffed with thousands of Baath Party loyalists “…middle- class professionals from his favored Sunni minority, migrants from his hometown, Tikrit, and fugitives from other Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria and Sudan.” Saddam is believed to have hidden in Haifa Street following the fall of Baghdad to US forces in April of 2003, at the start of his underground odyssey. Naturally, Haifa Street has been a stalwart supporter of the anti-US rebellion since the fall of Baghdad.

But the rebels are not prospering. In the first 18 months of fighting, the “insurgents mostly outnumbered the Americans along Haifa Street, showing they could carry the war to the capital’s core with something approaching impunity.”

No longer. Insurgents are attacking in smaller numbers, with less intensity, and the Americans and Iraqi government forces are locating the weapons caches, and killing or arresting lots of insurgents.

The most interesting parts of Mr. Burns article are treated as almost side lights – they receive mention, but are deep in the article. Two such points are the most important and interesting facts mentioned, and they both point to the failure of the current rebellion.

First, as Mr. Burns points out, “[i]n the Shiite neighborhoods of Haifa Street, the good will for Americans is pervasive…residents clustered around the Americans, offering slivers of information about insurgents.” By contrast, the Sunni neighborhoods are hostile. But the friendliness of the Shiites tells us the rebels are losing, and that the insurgency is a sectarian revolt, and not a national one. Were the opposite the case, the Shiites, in the name of self-preservation, would be hostile, or at best neutral. The Shiite friendliness tells us that the Shiite population knows that the rebels, long run, are beaten.

The confidence of the local Shiites is probably based on the second important fact mentioned – the arrival of a two-battalion brigade of the new Iraqi Army. Mr. Burns profiles a man he identified as the commander of the “Iraqi 303rd Battalion” – a General Muhammad al-Samraa. Generals don’t usually command battalions, which makes El Jefe wonder if Mr. Burns has confused the brigade commander with a battalion commander. No matter, General al-Samraa is interesting, and sounds like a real piece of good luck for our side.

General al-Samraa is a former Major in Saddam’s air defense forces, and a Shiite, former bodyguard and driver for a Shiite tribal leader. Excellent ! At last the advisory element is getting smart and not trying to officer command echelons of the new Iraqi Army with Saddam’s dug-out generals and cast-offs. Such persons have no reason to be loyal to the new government, and know too many people on the other side. Consequently, the danger of these persons working a double game is high.

By contrast, General al-Samraa is everything you could want: from the ethnic group that was on bottom under Saddam; a field-grade officer under Saddam, so some experience, but not too-high ranking to be involved with the old regime; and spent some time humbly employed after the war, as a bodyguard. He has been given high rank, and has every reason to be loyal to the new government: so as to keep his position, and prevent his former superiors and his Sunni ethnic enemies from regaining theirs.

The situation seems to be tilting against the rebels elsewhere, as well. According to two stories by the AP today, (here and here), on Sunday, 40 or 50 rebels attacked MP and artillery units of the Kentucky National Guard along a road 20 miles southeast of Baghdad, and were handled a pasting: 26 rebels killed, 7 wounded, for 6 US troops wounded. Apparently the rebels "emerged from a grove of trees and a roadside canal" and attacked the convoy.

This is a curious engagement for several reasons. The US troops reported quite a haul of equipment in this action – 6 rocket propelled grenade launchers, 16 rockets, 13 machine guns, 22 “assault weapons” – presumably assault rifles, 2,900 rounds of ammunition, and 40 grenades. This seems like more weapons than one would expect of 40 rebels, (if the reporter means “machine guns” in the sense of a light machine gun, and not a personal weapon, each would have a gunner and loader) so perhaps the attacking rebel group was larger.
How were the weapons captured ? Did the rebels drop them trying to get away, or did the rebels “ambush” fail and draw a reaction that pursued them to their weapons cache, or did the National Guardsmen drive too near the weapons cache thus drawing an attack ? Stupid rebels. Attacking a US road convoy under current conditions (as distinguished from during the invasion, before command and control was worked out and road protection organized), because of roving helicopters, air support, artillery and airmobile infantry on call, is really a death-wish. How fortunate that the Kentucky National Guard could give this many rebels what they so evidently desired !

In any case, I cannot imagine any rebel commander, save under the cruelest necessity, would willingly risk this much precious weaponry falling into enemy hands. Particularly since another AP story, also dated today, says the rebels are so desperate for weapons that they are digging up “rusty munitions” abandoned since the Iran-Iraq war over a decade and a half ago. The rebels are clearly feeling a supply pinch. Perhaps all the pressure on Syria is working ?

Meanwhile, back on Haifa Street, General al-Samraa seems confident: “’My aim is 100 percent clear: all the terrorists living here, they go now,’ … [General al-Samraa]… said, in halting English.” No reason to doubt him – The Times piece mentions, almost as an aside, that the general’s unit is composed “mostly of Shiites.” That’s the big nail in the Sunnis’ coffin, you see. Nothing but doom ahead for them now, if they fight on. Bottom rail on top now.

The Sunnis should have tried to make a deal, but they took a chance and gambled for it all, trying to force out President Bush and get the Americans to cut and run. Then they could beat down the Shiites and Kurds at leisure, with help from the rest of the Sunni Arab world, and re-impose Sunni dominance. Rather than dealing for part of a loaf, they gambled for it all, and have lost. The Shiites have the weapons now, and they have found commanders, and their big power backer isn’t leaving. Fighting on is a recipe for Sunni suicide. The Shiites will gleefully kill and despoil their former Sunni overlords, repaying them for Saddam's years of tyranny, and the Americans will hold the Shiites coats while they do so. The Sunni cause is hopeless, and surely the Sunni leaders, know, or are beginning to suspect this, now.

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