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Iraq - The wild, weird and ferocious Counter-Surge - by stephenj.morgan


Monitoring Iraq is now like watching a weather map of the Mid-West in tornado season. From every, unexpected direction all hell breaks loose with an unpredictability and novelty that we haven’t quite witnessed before. In the madness and complexity that is Iraq, the US surge is provoking a counter-surge of exceptional clashes, which are wilder, weirder and fiercer than in the past. A serious of unrelated, but successive events, including the intense battles for Haifa Street; the “Mission Impossible” attack on the Karbala Security Centre and an attack by an armed cult on the holy city of Al-Najaf, seems to be taking the struggle into an extraordinary and almost eccentric stage. What might before have had some “method in its madness,” appears to be giving way to a sort of “madness in its method.” Until now the “usual suspects, ”i.e., hit-and-run attacks on US forces, tit-for tat sectarian killings and market bombings, while random, had, nevertheless, acquired a certain, strange “predictability”. But now the political “order” seems more like a tank of dancing gas molecules, where spontaneous combustion is the order of the day.

Recent events have been crammed with incongruity and paradoxes, sometimes verging on the absurd. The character of the insurgency has acquired starkly, contradictory features making it seem more like asymmetrical war in a hall of mirrors. On the one hand, there is a level of unity, professionalism, discipline and commitment, not seen before. While, on the other hand, there is a recklessness and bravado in their actions which sometimes has features of the downright bizarre or absurd. This all reflects a heightened level of social tension and despair, which comes not only from the impasse and suffering, but a sense that this is the “last chance saloon.” There is an odour of mania in the air, and a strong foreboding that something horrendous is about to happen.

Al-Najaf: Insurgent Insanity

If the siege of Waco proved a handful for US law enforcement, the US now finds itself fighting two insurgent cults; Al Qaeda on the Sunni side and Jund al-Samaa or the “Soldiers of Heaven” on the Shi’ite flank. On January 28th,Iraqi forces, with US air support, faced off a huge group of fanatical, armed cult members trying to storm the holy city of Al-Najaf, their wives and children with them. The attack was suicidal lunacy from a military standpoint, given that Karbala was ringed with multiple, concentric bands of defences for the purpose of protecting the holiest Shi’ite site during its most important religious pilgrimage. Nevertheless, the cult seemed to be whipped up in a manic, delusional belief that they could break through and massacre pilgrims and key Shi’ite clerics. This was part of a plan to provoke the reappearance of the “Hidden Imam,” a Shi’ite saint from 9th century, whom they believe will establish justice and peace throughout the world.

To make things more complex, the group, which has mostly Shi’ite members, also attracts some Sunnis. And just to muddy the picture further, they were reported to have had support from some of the local population, as well as some foreign fighters and Saddam loyalists.

About 800 of them fought a two-day pitched battle with the Iraqi Army, which was forced to retreat and call in US airpower. The group was heavily armed and used anti-aircraft missiles to bring down one American helicopter. The battle finally ceased after around 200 insurgents were killed, including the cults leader, reportedly armed with a hat and coat and two pistols. Perhaps Nietzsche was right when he observed, “in individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

Mission “Possible”: Audacity and precision bordering on the fictitious.

The weekend before Al-Najaf, around 30, almost certainly Sunni insurgents, disguised themselves and a number of SUVs to look like US military brass, and, then, nonchalantly drove through 3 check points into the secure compound of the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Centre, where the US military had convened a meeting to discuss security for the upcoming, Ashura pilgrimage. Having entered the compound, the insurgents coolly picked out only American troops, killing 5 of them and leaving all Iraqi soldiers unharmed. They then left and passed back through the same checkpoints unheeded.

The operation had all the audacity and planning of a Western special forces undertaking, with almost Hollywood scale drama. But what exactly was the purpose of this expensive, high risk adventure? Propaganda value? Yes, but, perhaps more ominously, by kidnapping and shooting only Americans, it was a form of psychological warfare, almost as if they were making a statement, or delivering a menace telling the enemy that “we’re coming to get you… And you have nowhere to hide!” And, moreover, “from now on you will be treated just like sectarian victims. Expect to be tortured and executed!”

Of course the Americans are incredulous and immediately blamed the Iraqis, pointing to collaboration and raising again the question of being able to trust them in any operations. There certainly is some explaining to do and some almost unbelievable security blunders. Undoubtedly, insider information was involved, but one can’t get away from the sophistication and daring of a methodically and meticulously prepared operation, carried out so easily against such a superior foe. Strategists can only be shocked, because it also says that if the Iraqi Army can’t implement one single high level security operation, and protect top brass and VIPs, what hope has it of battening down Baghdad, a city of 6 million people!

The Battle for Haifa Street – A new tenacity and professionalism

This month’s battle for Haifa Street was the first inkling of a new Sunni strategy in the face of the anticipated US offensive. From the 4th to the 12th of January, for up to 12 hours a day for almost a week around 1,000 US and Iraqi troops were fought to standstill by 100 or so Sunni insurgents in a fire fight of a character and intensity not normally witnessed before.

Unlike most previous insurgent attacks, which are characterized by hit and run tactics, opportunistic sniper fire or roadside bombs, this was a sophisticated, well-commanded and coordinated assault by up to a dozen different Sunni insurgent groups, collaborating together. It was evidently a well-planned and implemented operation with the express intention of engaging large scale US and Iraqi forces in persistent, relentless and tenacious, close-quarter, urban combat.

Militarily, the battle at Haifa Street was important from a number of standpoints. Firstly, the combined efforts of US and Iraqi forces were unable to defeat the insurgents. The 500 US troops engaged there could neither contain nor crush what were probably at most 100 insurgents. Moreover, the weakness of the Iraqi forces and the big doubt over whether they could hold onto areas after the US withdraws was exposed. There were some 400 Iraqi Army involved and, if they had faced the attack on their own would have been routed. The 500 US troops were fought to a standstill, even though they enjoyed the advantage of air support by apache attack helicopters and even F-15 jet fighters, which proved worthless in dislodging the determined insurgents.

A key factor in the Sunni success was their high mobility and command and coordination. They changed positions swiftly and often in small numbers of only two or three men, melting away and then remerging in different positions. Indeed, during the battle, US troops were not just fighting across one side of the street to the other, but they were taking fire from all different directions at once, and were frequently forced to run for their lives, abandoning building after building.

What made Haifa different was from a military standpoint that was the insurgents were more than able to fight the American over a long period in a more classical-style war conflict situation. The Sunni were commanded and co-ordinated in highly professional way and acted with discipline and a high degree of flexibility. They furthermore applied novel tactics that were used to great effect and which the US troops were unable to respond to. At times the guerrillas ran rings around helpless US units and looked near to inflicting a defeat on them, despite having a manpower deficit of some 4 or 5 to 1 in the US favour and one to ten if one bothers to count the Iraqi Army.

The poor US performance must increase reservations about their ability to clear Baghdad of militias and insurgents. At the same time, in the week long battle, Iraqi forces showed more evidence of their inability and unreadiness to take on insurgents, casting further doubt on their potential for success in both the first wave and then in the critical second phase of coming operations, when they are expected to of hold onto areas liberated by US troops. While the US and Iraqi forces appeared uncoordinated and lacking in trust, the new phenomenon for the insurgents was the collaboration in combat of around 12 different insurgent troops, prepared to subjugate themselves to a common command. Finally, there appeared to be a definite deficit in levels of morale between the two battling sides – the insurgents coming out on top, while the US, and, especially the Iraqis not showing the same level of tenacity and audacity shown by their opponents.

Assault n°2 “Operation Boomerang Twice”

So following a 10 day pause to lick their wounds and reassess their tactics, the US declared they had learned their lessons from the first encounter and were ready to retake the thoroughfare. On the 24th of January they launched a second offensive or rather a third. Because it comes to light now that, in fact, after intense fighting, they had already “cleared” Haifa Street of insurgents in 2004 and handed it over to the Iraqis. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have worked out. Evidently the insurgents had taken back full control and the Iraqi Army has fled the area. Things, obviously, weren’t going to be the same this time, or were they?

On Wednesday morning the day erupted to the thunder of heavy artillery and a huge display of aerial firepower. In scenes more reminiscent of the Russian obliteration of Grozny, the US mercilessly pounded apartments and other high-rise buildings from air and ground. What was called “Operation Tomahawk Strike 11 was in full swing. Heavy gunfire, sniper bullets and mortars and RPG rockets met them. The fighting lasted from dawn to dusk for some three days. Civilian casualties were much higher than before, some 37 on one day alone, including women and children, prompting a cry of “genocide” from the Muslim Scholars Association. Film crews were embedded from CNN and heavy media coverage was invited in, obviously in anticipation of a victory this time round. However, when two days coverage had evaporated and evidently “Operation Tomahawk 11” had become “Operation Boomerang Twice” the media silently slunk away.

What was clear was that Haifa was indented as a model operation as part of the new offensive – “a series” according to officials, “of target raids to disrupt illegal militia activity and help restore Iraqis security force control in the area.” But despite the massive numbers, 1,000 or more US and Iraqi troops, with massive heavy weapons and aerial back up, they failed again to dislodge or seriously impede the insurgents. One has to recognize that after employing such numbers and force for just one area, what hope do they have of clearing and holding a city of 6 million?

These clashes are a decision to meet the new US troops head on, fire with fire! There is not only a highly effective military professionalism involved, but also a new level of ferocious determination, daring and bravado, almost to the point of wild recklessness and suicidal inhibition. There is nothing to loose. There is not going to be another “Battle for Baghdad.” This is the “last chance saloon.”


Stephen John Morgan is a former member of the British Labour Party Exectutive Committee. He is a political psychologist, researcher into Chaos/Complexity Theory and lives in Brussels (Old Europe) http://morgansreview.tripod.com/ Contact morganreply@yahoo.com

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