Thursday, March 16, 2006

Guess Who's in the 'Hood?

Have you ever been in a mood to be alone and had someone unexpectedly drop in on you – and stay awhile?

That’s what happened to the people in southern Salahuddin province in the vicinity of Samarra, which itself is about 55 miles from Baghdad.

What happened

Early on March 16 (surprisingly not on March 15, the Ides of March), “Operation Swarmer” dropped in on what was described as a developing insurgent base of operations. “Swarmer” is the code-name for the combined U.S.-Iraqi air assault-ground force attack on suspected insurgent weapons caches and bomb-makers reportedly living in the area. According to Pentagon news releases and other reporting, this attack is the largest air-assault operation since the end of “major combat” associated with the original 2003 invasion. Iraqi and U.S. troops numbered 850 and 650, respectively. Some 200 ground vehicles and 50 combat and support helicopters were used. The Pentagon said no ordnance was fired by the helicopters, and there was no indication that fixed-wing aircraft participated.

What the U.S. says

Administration and military spokespersons were at pains to point out that a majority of the ground forces used in the attack were Iraqi and that most of the intelligence on which the operation is based came from Iraqi sources. One of the long-standing goals of the Pentagon has been to “stand up” enough trained Iraqi units so that U.S. troops are less visible (and thereby less disruptive) to ordinary Iraqis. After the first day of what is expected to be a multi-day operation, 41 individuals had been arrested; no fatalities on either side were reported.

Evaluating the Situation and the Reports

For months the pledge has been that as Iraqi forces “stand up” U.S. forces will “stand down.” But that means units that are able to operate on their own, from start (contingency planning) to finish (implementing the approved war plan). The Pentagon conceded earlier this year that no Iraqi unit can stand entirely on its own; all need logistics help, compatible communication systems, and good leaders, etc.

“Standing down” is intended to reduce the visible and disruptive presence of foreign soldiers in the daily lives of ordinary Iraqis. Launching an air assault with 50 helicopters doesn’t seem a good choice for lowering force visibility. That is accomplished by moving foreign troops away from urban areas and in getting better control of Iraq’s borders. The Iraqi air force has a few fixed wing planes but no combat helicopters. This signals again that most Iraqi units will continue to function only with significant support from U.S. forces.

Samarra, site of the Shi’ite Golden Mosque destroyed February 22, has been a target of U.S. forces at least three times. It is chiefly Sunni and therefore viewed with suspicion by Shi’ites and the occupation authorities. Moreover, despite no Iraqi “government” or White House statement as a source, some media outlets are specifically pointing the finger at Sunnis for the mosque’s destruction.

Because intelligence can be perishable, it sometimes requires immediate action. However, an operation this large is not just cobbled together at the last moment. It must have been in the planning stage for some time, which means it didn’t have to go today.

What’s wrong with today?

Commanders in the field and politicians in the U.S. keep saying that there is no military solution in Iraq. Yet a major high-visibility military operation starts the same day a major political event occurs: the new Iraqi parliament finally holds its first session. In 40 minutes, the parliament is sworn in – and immediately becomes so divisive that it adjourns indefinitely.

Yesterday, the Pentagon revealed that a U.S. battalion stationed in Kuwait was ordered to Baghdad as part of a general increase of security forces around the city. Called “Operation Scales of Justice,” the movement of 800 U.S. soldiers and 3,700 additional Iraqi troops to Baghdad is intended to preclude a new “spike” in insurgent attacks on pilgrims and residents. But it also raises, temporarily, U.S. troop visibility.

Also yesterday in Ishaqi, north of Baghdad, an air attack destroyed a house from which a suspected terror “facilitator” was said to be operating. The U.S. command said four civilians were killed and the suspect captured. Local police said 13 civilians died – two men and 11 women and children. Ground forces participating in this strike were air-lifted in by helicopters -- another instance where U.S. troops were very visible.

And all this comes two days after a wire service (Reuters) revealed that the U.S. dropped missiles and bombs on more Iraqi cities during October 2005-February 2006 than in the same 5 month period a year earlier, and U.S. aircraft made 50 percent more attacks in the same 2005-2006 timeframe than in the comparable 2004-2005 period.

In the U.S., it is easy to forget that Iraq is a largely tribal society. When a house is bombed or a family member killed, those who survive go to stay with relatives who sometimes reside in “pacified” areas. Events get retold, and in the retelling new resentment and a “need” for revenge get created.

And we wonder why, after three years, the insurgency remains so strong?

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