Baghdad Blues

George W Bush Senior lost to Bill Clinton on the election slogan “it’s the economy, stupid!” despite his great success in the relatively clean Gulf War-I to oust Saddam Hussain from Kuwait. Though enough indicators point to the US economy booming next year, the irony is that George W Bush Junior’s “military success” in Iraq could be the cause of his downfall in Presidential elections 2004. The slogan this time may well be “It’s Iraq, stupid!”.

Heavily populated by the Kurds, Iraq’s north is relatively peaceful. Despite simmering resentment against the US occupation, Basra area being held by British troops and with factional infighting among the Shias, violence is relatively muted in the south east with its disproportionate Shia community. Within the Sunni triangle, which generally encompasses Baghdad, Fallujah and Tikrit there is a “war” after the “war”, escalation force-multiplied with the downing of two US helicopters by shoulder-fired ground to air missiles, possible the Strela. The Soviet Union dominated the battlefield in Afghanistan till the force-multiplier induction of US-supplied Stinger missiles to the Mujhahideen, severely restricting the movement of Soviet troops on the ground and in the air. As any counter-guerilla expert will testify, the lack of air dominance, even though offset to some extent by both armed and reconnaissance UAVs, hampers counter-guerilla activity. To maintain the tempo of counter-guerilla operations, the US will have to take inordinate number of casualties relative to what they are suffering now.

In the north there is an ethnic fault line between the majority Kurds and the Sunni Arabs. While the Kurds are generally peaceful, there is likely problem about the return of “Kurdish property” from Sunnis. Turkey’s opting out of sending troops has eased tension in Kurdish areas about their imminent presence. In the south the divide is more acute between the Shia majority and the former ruling Sunnis. The Sunnis see a major power shift to the Shias and the Kurds, as is apparent from the ethnic composition of the Iraqi Governing Council where the Sunni minority reflect their approximate population size.

The major areas of conflict are 1/3rd Sunni portion of Mosul and the towns of Huwayiat, Bayji, Tikrit, Ar Dawa, Samarra, Balad (south of Baghdad), Mansur (covered by the 4th Infantry Division), with Baghdad and the Green Zone west to Fallujah (covered by the 1st Armoured Division) and south Baghdad (covered by 82nd Airborne Division). These Divisions are composite forces with elements of National Guard, Reserves and additional heavy armed helicopter support to that already integral to the Divisions. Compared to the 1st Armoured, the 4th Infantry is a fully digitized formation and 82nd Airborne is highly mobile. The troops are overstretched on the ground and there is a requirement for better quality, better training, better intelligence, more translators, faster delivery of key equipment and quick availability of funding for civilian support services. While the rank and file are not averse to the mission or the risks inherent, they feel they have been deployed too long and too often. This could lead to less and less re-enlistment, putting added strain on future deployment. At the same time National Guard units and reserves feel they do not get equal treatment as do the regulars in living quarters, protection or equipment.

The major problem before the helicopter downing was from IEDs (improvised explosive devices), almost 50% are usually detected. Mortars have been used but not effectively, they have been traced out by radars and UAVs. Even though the raids conducted by US troops have over a 70% success rate, the rocket attack on the Baghdad hotel was an example of stand-off attack which may escalate in the near future. The US depends upon major ground movement on up-armoured HUMVEES, tanks being too heavy in many areas and the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) having limitations. In the case of 4th Armoured, they have unique self-protection with a sophisticated digital network with video displays in its command centers and vehicles that give precise map locations, this is particularly helpful in cities and towns like Tikrit, Baqubas and Samara. With Human Intelligence (HUMINT) to back it up, this is extremely useful. UAVs are integrated in 4th Armoured at the Brigade level but are used mostly at night. Instead of light forces as advised by some military experts, the correct quantum is the right partnership and force mix.

In contrast to US claims that foreign attackers are usually behind the attacks on US forces, 70-80% of those captured are criminals freed by Saddam Hussain before his regime collapsed, they are paid US $ 150 to US $ 500. Foreigners are infiltrating through Mosul and the Iranian border, but there is no evidence of Al-Qaeda action, even Al Ansar activity cannot be confirmed, most attackers are not even truly Islamist. At first the attackers resorted to direct fire but not able to cope with US night vision devices and thermal sights, they turned to RPGs. In August they shifted to IEDs with better results, mortar attacks were added in September. There will be improvement in attacker tactics skill and intelligence over time, with fewer but better planned attacks with more use of foreign fighters and experienced cadres.

The US is engaged in a massive drive to recruit Iraqis “cleansed” of Baath Party links to the Border Police, the Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps (ICDC). In fact the first Iraqi Army Battalion with 49 officers and 649 other ranks (ORs) is now coming on line, divided into 4 companies of 6 officers and 112 ORs each and a HQs staff of 17 officers and 201 ORs. The major coalition mistake made was the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, a better modus operandi would have been to concentrate them in their peace locations to carry out detailed screening. A subsistence pay and allowance would have been enough to keep them on line during the verification process, less then 30% were dedicated Saddam-ites. The new Iraqi Army, would then be engaging in counter-guerilla operations instead of 450000 potential guerillas created overnight. This policy can be reversed but probably will not be because it would confirm the “strategic error”. Still there must be a sustained outreach effort to bring former Senior Iraqi Army officers into local government.

The US has felt a need to increase the number of US Military Police (MPs), they are excellent for training Iraqis and for operations within the urban areas. Better HUMINT is a dire necessity as well as reaction thereof, the US objective is to cut reaction time down to two hours from receiving information to launching a raid. Because of lack of translators and analysts, the material gathered cannot be coped with. There are increases in Iraqi walk-in volunteers, others seek payment or influence, the numbers will increase manifold if Saddam is captured. Ramazan has led to step-up in attacks, US troops are being educated sensitivity to Ramadan, with profile of their actions suitably altered to local customs and traditions.

The US is fighting a losing battle for the hearts and minds of the populace. Because of the guerilla attacks the UN and ICRC staff have been evacuated to Cyprus. Oil pipelines have been sabotaged in the north affecting the cash flows. Certainly dollars are better then bullets, the US$ 87 billion approved by US Congress will go a long way in alleviating the sufferings of the Iraqi people, However, cynics point to administration-favourite companies like Halliburton, Bechtel, etc, who will maximize their profits and do little on the ground. Certainly a lot of effort has gone in to successfully bringing electricity, gas, water, sewerage, transportation, telecommunication and medical facilities on line. The radio, TV and press facilities are far better but any number of reasons can lead to crises not planned for. Despite all the good work done to restore Iraq to normalcy, the public perception of “Baghdad Blues” remains.