Squeezing Jello In Iraq
by Scott Ritter - 13 November 2004
The much-anticipated US-led offensive to seize the Iraqi city of Falluja from anti-American Iraqi fighters has begun.
Meeting resistance that, while stiff at times, was much less than had been anticipated, US marines and soldiers, accompanied by Iraqi forces loyal to the interim government of Iyad Allawi, have moved into the heart of Falluja.
Fighting is expected to continue for a few more days, but US commanders are confident that Falluja will soon be under US control, paving the way for the establishment of order necessary for nationwide elections currently scheduled for January 2005.
But will it? American military planners expected to face thousands of Iraqi resistance fighters in the streets of Falluja, not the hundreds they are currently fighting. They expected to roll up the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his foreign militants, and yet to date have found no top-tier leaders from that organisation. As American forces surge into Falluja, Iraqi fighters are mounting extensive attacks throughout the rest of Iraq.
Far from facing off in a decisive battle against the resistance fighters, it seems the more Americans squeeze Falluja, the more the violence explodes elsewhere. It is exercises in futility, akin to squeezing jello. The more you try to get a grasp on the problem, the more it slips through your fingers.
This kind of war, while frustrating for the American soldiers and marines who wage it, is exactly the struggle envisioned by the Iraqi resistance. They know they cannot stand toe-to-toe with the world's most powerful military and expect to win.
While the US military leadership struggles to get a grip on a situation in Iraq that deteriorates each and every day, the anti-US occupation fighters continue to execute a game plan that has been in position since day one.
President Bush prematurely declared "mission accomplished" back in May 2003. For Americans, this meant that major combat operations in Iraq had come to an end, that we had won the war. But for the Iraqis, it meant something else. In Iraq, there never was a 'Missouri moment', where the government formally surrendered. The fact is, Saddam Hussein's government never surrendered, and still is very much in evidence in Iraq today in the form of the anti-US resistance.
While we in America were declaring victory, the government of Saddam was planning its war. The first battles were fought in March and April 2003. Token resistance, no decisive engagement. The Iraqis fought just enough to establish the principle of resistance, but not enough to squander their resources.
Since May 2003, the resistance has grown in size and sophistication. Some attribute this to the incompetence of the post-war occupation policies of the United States. While this certainly was a factor in facilitating the resistance, the fact remains that what is occurring today in Iraq is part of a well-conceived plan the goal of which is to restore the Baath Party back to power. And the policies of the Bush administration are playing right into their hands.
The terror attacks carried out against the United Nations and other international aid organisations succeeded in driving out of Iraq the vestiges of foreign involvement the Bush administration relied upon to present an international face to the US-led occupation. In the chaos and anarchy that followed, the United States was compelled to use more and more force in an attempt to restore order, creating a Catch-22 situation where the more force we used, the more resistance we generated, requiring more force in response.
The cycle of violence fed the resistance, destabilising huge areas of Iraq that are still outside the control of the Iraqi government and US military. High profile operations in Najaf, Sadr City and Samarra did little to bring these cities to bear.
Today, fighters in Iraq operate freely, continuing their orgy of death and destruction in order to attract the inevitable heavy-handed US response. Falluja is a prime case in point. While the US is unlikely to deliver a fatal blow to the Iraqi resistance, it is succeeding in levelling huge areas of Falluja, recalling the Vietnam-era lament that we had to destroy the village in order to save it.
The images from Falluja will only fuel the anti-American sentiment in Iraq, enabling the anti-US fighters to recruit 10 new fighters for every newly-minted "martyr" it loses in the current battle against the Americans.
The battle for Falluja is supposed to be the proving ground of the new Iraq army. Instead, it may well prove to be a fatal pill. The reality is there is no Iraqi army. Of the tens of thousands recruited into its ranks, there is today only one effective unit, the 36th Battalion.
This unit has fought side by side with the Americans in Falluja, Najaf, and Samarra. By all accounts, it has performed well. But this unit can only prevail when it operates alongside overwhelming American military support. Left to fend for itself, it would be slaughtered by the resistance fighters. Worse, this unit which stands as a symbol of the ideal for the new Iraqi army is actually the antithesis of what the new Iraqi army should be.
While the Bush administration has suppressed the formation of militia units organised along ethnic and religious lines, the 36th Battalion should be recognised for what it really is - a Kurdish militia, retained by the US military because the rest of the Iraqi army is unwilling or unable to carry the fight to the Iraqi resistance fighters.
The battle for Falluja has exposed not only the fallacy of the US military strategy towards confronting the resistance in Iraq, but also the emptiness of the interim government of Iyad Allawi, which is so far incapable of building anything that resembles a viable Iraqi military capable of securing its position in Iraq void of American military support.
Falluja is probably the beginning of a very long and bloody phase of the Iraq war, one that pits an American military under orders from a rejuvenated Bush administration to achieve victory at any cost against an Iraqi resistance that is willing to allow Iraq to sink into a quagmire of death and destruction in order to bog down and eventually expel the American occupier.
It is a war the United States cannot win, and which the government of Iyad Allawi cannot survive. Unfortunately, since recent polls show that some 70% of the American people support the war in Iraq, it is a war that will rage until the American domestic political dynamic changes, and the tide of public opinion turns against the war.
Tragically, this means many more years of conflict in Iraq that will result in thousands more killed on both sides, and incomprehensible suffering for the people of Iraq, and unpredictable instability for the entire Middle East.
[Scott Ritter was a senior UN arms inspector in Iraq between 1991-1998. He is now an independent consultant.]