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[casi] Delusions in Baghdad

>From the New York review of Books

Volume 50, Number 20 · December 18, 2003

Delusions in Baghdad
By Mark Danner

Autumn in Baghdad is cloudy and gray. Trapped in
rush-hour traffic one October morning, without warning
my car bucked up and back, like a horse whose reins
had been brutally pulled. For a jolting instant the
explosion registered only as the absence of sound, a
silent blow to the stomach; and then a beat later, as
hearing returned, a faint tinkling chorus: the store
windows, all along busy Karrada Street, trembling
together in their sashes. They were tinkling still
when over the rooftops to the right came the immense
eruption of oily black smoke.

Such dark plumes have become the beacons, the
lighthouses, of contemporary Baghdad, and we rushed to
follow, bumping over the center divider, vaulting the
curb, screeching through the honking chaos of
Seventies-vintage American cars, trailing the blasting
horns and screaming tires for two, three, four
heart-pounding moments until, barely three blocks
away, at one end of a pleasant residential square,
behind a gaggle of blue-shirted Iraqi security men
running in panic about the grass, shouting, waving
their AK-47s, we came upon two towering
conflagrations, rising perhaps a dozen feet in the
air, and, perfectly outlined in the bright orange
flames, like skeletons preserved in amber, the
blackened frames of what moments before had been a van
and a four-wheel drive.

Between the two great fires rose a smaller one, eight
or nine feet high, enclosing a tangled mass of metal.
Pushing past the Iraqis, who shouted angrily,
gesturing with their guns, I ran forward, toward the
flames: the heat was intense. I saw slabs of smashed
wall, hunks of rubble, glass, and sand scattered
about, and behind it all an immense curtain of black
smoke obscuring everything: the building, part of the
International Red Cross compound, that stood there,
the wall that had guarded it, the remains of the
people who, four minutes before, had lived and worked

"Terrorism," the US Army lieutenant colonel had told
me ruefully the week before, "is Grand Theater," and,
as a mustached security man yanked me roughly by the
arm, spinning me away from the flames, I saw that
behind me the front rows had quickly filled:
photographers with their long lenses, khaki vests, and
shoulder bags struggled to push their way through the
Iraqi security men, who, growing angrier, shouted and
cursed, pushing them back. Swinging their AK-47s, they
managed to form a ragged perimeter against what was
now a jostling, roiling crowd, while camera crews in
the vanguard surged forward. Now a US Army Humvee
appeared; four American soldiers leaped out and
plunged into the crowd, assault rifles raised, and
began to scream, in what I had come to recognize as a
characteristic form of address, "GET. THE FUCK. BACK!
GET. THE FUCK. BACK!" Very young men in tan camouflage
fatigues, armed, red-faced, flustered; facing them,
the men and women of the world press, Baghdad
division, assembled in their hundreds in less than a
quarter of an hour: in the front row, those who, like
me, had had the dumb luck to be in the neighborhood;
behind them network crews who had received a quick tip
from an embassy contact or an Iraqi stringer, or had
simply heard or felt the explosion and pounded their
way up to the hotel roof, scanning the horizon
anxiously, locating the black beacon, and racing off
to cover the story—or, as Lieutenant Colonel George
Krivo put it bitterly, to "make the story. Here, media
is the total message: I now have an understanding of
McLuhan you wouldn't believe. Kill twenty people here?
In front of that lens it's killing twenty thousand."

Behind the flames and the dark smoke, amid the
shattered walls and twisted metal, a dozen people lay
dead, many of whom had been unlucky enough to find
themselves passing the front of the International Red
Cross compound when, at half past eight in the
morning, a man later claimed to be of Saudi
nationality drove an ambulance with Red Cross markings
up to the security checkpoint and detonated what must
have been several thousand pounds of explosives,
collapsing forty feet of the protective wall and
sending a huge sandbag barrier cascading forward.[1]
The Red Cross compound, with its security wall and
sandbags and manned checkpoints, was a "hardened
target"—as were, indeed, the three Baghdad police
stations that, within the next forty-five minutes,
suicide bombers struck, in the neighborhoods of
al-Baya'a, al-Shaab, and al-Khadra.

In the rhetoric of security, all of these attacks
failed dismally. "From what our indications are,"
Brigadier General Mark Hertling told Fox News that
afternoon, "none of those bombers got close to the
target." In the rhetoric of politics, however, the
attacks were a brilliant coup de théâtre. In less than
an hour, four men, by killing forty people, including
one American soldier and twenty Iraqi police, had
succeeded in dominating news coverage around the
world, sending television crews rushing about Baghdad
in pursuit of the latest plume of smoke and
broadcasting the message, via television screens in a
hundred countries, first and foremost the United
States, that Baghdad, US official pronouncements
notwithstanding, remained a war zone.

Within a week, as members of the Red Cross left Iraq
and many of the few remaining international
organizations followed close behind, the attackers had
set in motion, at the "highest levels" of the Bush
administration, a "reevaluation" of American policy.
Within two weeks, even as President Bush went on
vowing publicly that the United States "would not be
intimidated," he abruptly recalled L. Paul Bremer, the
American administrator in Iraq, who rushed back to
Washington so hurriedly he left the prime minister of
Poland, one of America's few major allies in Iraq,
waiting forlornly for an appointment that never came.

After two days of intensive consultations,
administration officials unveiled a new policy. They
decided to discard what had been a carefully planned,
multiyear process that would gradually transform the
authoritarian Iraqi state into a democracy—seven
clearly defined steps intended to allow democratic
parties, practices, and institutions to take root,
develop, and grow, eventually leading to a new
constitution written and ratified by the Iraqi people
and, finally, a nationwide election and handover of
power from American administrators to the elected
Iraqi politicians it produced. The administration put
in its place a hastily improvised rush to "return
power to the Iraqis." In practice, this meant that in
seven months the United States would hand over
sovereignty to unelected Iraqis (presumably those on
the American-appointed Governing Council, many of them
former exiles, who had been pressing for such a rapid
granting of power since before the war). Elections and
a constitution would come later.[2] Despite President
Bush's fervent protestations to the contrary, this was
clearly a dramatic change in his policy of "bringing
democracy to Iraq"—and, by extension, of making Iraq
the first step in what he recently described as his
"forward strategy of democracy in the Middle East."

If victory in war is defined as accomplishing the
political goals for which military means were
originally brought to bear, then eight months after it
invaded Iraq, the United States remains far from
victory. If the political goal of the war in Iraq was
to remove Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime and
establish in their place a stable, democratic
government—then that goal, during the weeks I spent in
Iraq in late October and early November, seemed to be
growing ever more distant.

When I arrived in Baghdad, Iraqi insurgents were
staging about fifteen attacks a day on American
troops; by the time I left the number of daily attacks
had more than doubled, to thirty-five a day. Though
military leaders like General Ricardo Sanchez, the
overall commander, have repeatedly denigrated the
attacks on his troops as "strategically and
operationally insignificant," those attacks led the
CIA to conclude, in a report leaked in mid-November,
that the "US-led drive to rebuild the country as a
democracy could collapse unless corrective actions are
taken immediately."[3] The United States fields by far
the most powerful military in the world, spending more
on defense than the rest of the world combined, and as
I write a relative handful of lightly armed
insurgents, numbering in the tens of thousands or
perhaps less, using the classic techniques of
guerrilla warfare and suicide terrorism, are well on
the way toward defeating it.

"What we have here," Lieutenant Colonel William Darley
told me, "is basically a constabulary action. I mean,
this is pretty much the Old West here. Peacekeeping.
Where are the regiment on regiment, division on
division engagements? We've seen almost nothing above
the squad level. Basically this is not a real war." I
heard this view, in various versions, expressed by
American military men all over Iraq, from staff
officers to combat commanders to lieutenants on the
ground. Most of these men I found deeply impressive:
well trained, well schooled, extremely competent. What
joined them together, as the war grew steadily worse
for American forces, was an inability, or perhaps a
reluctance, to recognize what was happening in Iraq as
a war.

"There's a deep cultural bias in the United States
that if a military doesn't resemble ours, it's no
good," the military strategist George Freidman of the
private intelligence company Stratfor told me. "We
have the strongest conventional forces in the world.
So no one fights us conventionally. They fight us

In Iraq, asymmetric warfare has meant a combination of
guerrilla attacks on US and other coalition forces and
terrorist attacks on a variety of prominent
nonmilitary targets, including hotels, embassies, and
international organizations. Beginning late this
spring, the guerrilla attacks were centered in Baghdad
and the so-called "Sunni Triangle" north and west of
the capital but, since mid-autumn, they have
increasingly spread to the north and, more slowly, the
south of the country. Since late summer, highly
effective terrorist attacks, including suicide
bombings, have grown steadily more audacious and
sophisticated, particularly in their use of the
international press to multiply their political
effect. In responding to both lines of attack, US
intelligence—the "center of gravity" in any guerrilla
war—has seemed poor or nonexistent.

The guerrilla attacks have built on, and worsened, the
American occupation's unpopularity among many Iraqis,
capitalizing on, among other things, the US military's
failure to provide security during the early weeks of
the occupation and the daily humiliations and
occasional brutalities that come with the presence of
an occupying army. The terrorist attacks have served
to consolidate and then worsen the international
isolation the Americans have labored under since the
catastrophic diplomatic decisions that led up to the
war and have succeeded in depriving the coalition of
additional military forces and international help in
rebuilding the country.

Terrorism is certainly—as the lieutenant colonel put
it—Grand Theater. Or to put it a slightly different
way, terrorism is a form of talk. To hear what is
being said, one must look at the sequence of major
bombings in Iraq over the last several months:

August 7, Jordanian Embassy: A suicide car bomber
kills nineteen people.
August 19, United Nations Headquarters: A suicide
truck bomber kills twenty-three, including the UN's
chief envoy in Iraq.
September 22, UN Headquarters: A suicide car bomber
kills two and wounds nineteen.
October 9, police station: A suicide car bomber kills
October 12, Baghdad Hotel: A suicide car bomber kills
eight and wounds thirty-two.
October 14, Turkish Embassy: A suicide car bomber
kills two and wounds thirteen.
October 27, Red Cross Headquarters and four police
stations: Car bombers kill about forty and wound two
November 12, Italian Carabinieri Headquarters,
Nasiriya: A truck bomber kills thirty-one.
Behind these attacks—I list only the major ones—one
can see a rather methodical intention to sever, one by
one, with patience, care, and precision, the fragile
lines that still tie the occupation authority to the
rest of the world. Suicide bombers struck at the
countries that supported the Americans in the war
(Jordan), that support the occupation with troops
(Italy) or professed a willingness to do so (Turkey).
They struck at the heart of an "international
community" that could, with increased involvement,
help give the occupation both legitimacy (the United
Nations) and material help in rebuilding the country
(the Red Cross). Finally they repeatedly struck at
Iraqis collaborating with occupation authorities,
whether as members of the American-selected Governing
Council (several of whom lived in the Baghdad Hotel)
or as policemen trained and paid by Americans.

By striking at the Jordanians, the bombers helped to
ensure that no Arab country will contribute troops to
support the occupation. By striking at the Turks, they
helped force them to withdraw their controversial
offer to send soldiers. By striking at the United
Nations and the Red Cross, they not only forced the
members of those two critical institutions to flee the
country but led most other nongovernmental
organizations, who would have been central to
supplying expertise and resources to rebuilding Iraq,
to leave as well. And by striking at the homes of
several members of the Governing Council (wounding one
member and, in a separate incident, assassinating
another), they forced those officials to join the
Americans behind their isolating wall of security,
further separating them from Iraqis and underlining
their utter political reliance on the Americans.

"Signs and symbols," the Italian security officer
said. "Terrorism is nothing but signs and symbols." He
looked at the sandbags and barbed wire, the rows of
concrete Jersey barriers and armed guards that
surrounded his embassy. "None of this will matter," he
told me. "If they want to hit us, they will, and
though they won't get to the building, it will still
be a victory because it will kill people and make
news. Terror," he said, "is quite predictable." What,
I asked, did the signs and symbols mean? He spoke
matter-of-factly: that anyone who helps the Americans
will be a target; that the Americans cannot protect
their allies and provide security to Iraqis; that the
disorder is growing and that deciding to work with the
Americans, who in their isolation are looking like a
less-than-dominant and in any event ephem-eral
presence, is not the most prudent of bets; that the
war, whatever fine words President Bush may pronounce
from his aircraft carrier, is not over. Terror, he
said, has a logic of its own. Two weeks after we spoke
a suicide bomber killed nineteen Italians at Nasiriya.

Autumn in Baghdad is sunny and bright. Drive about the
bustling city of tan, sun-dried brick and you will
hear the noise of honking horns and see crowded
markets, the streets overwhelmed by an enormous
postwar expansion of traffic, the sidewalks cluttered
with satellite disks and other new products flooding
into the newly opened Iraqi market. During the last
several months, however, a new city has taken root
amid these busy streets and avenues, spreading rapidly
as it superimposes itself over the old tan brick
metropolis: a new grim city of concrete. It is
constructed of twelve-foot-high gray concrete
barriers, endless roadblocks manned by squads of men
with Kalashnikovs, walls of enormous steel-reinforced
bags of earth and rubble and mile upon mile of coiled
razor wire, and studded here and there with tanks
rooted behind sandbags and watchful soldiers in combat
fatigues. This city has a vaguely postmodern,
apocalyptic feel, "a bit of Belfast here, a bit of
Cyprus there, here and there a sprinkling of West
Bank," as one network cameraman put it to me.

Many streets, including several of the grand
ceremonial avenues of Saddam's capital, are now
entirely lined with raw concrete a dozen feet high,
giving the driver the impression of advancing down a
stone tube. Behind these walls entire chunks of
Bagh-dad have effectively vanished, notably the great
park and building complex that had housed Saddam's
Republi-can Palace and now comprises the so-called
Green Zone—a four-and-a-half-square-mile concrete
bunker that has at its heart the headquarters of the
Coalition Provisional Authority.

To enter the palace you must secure, first, an
appointment—hard to get, and made immeasurably harder
by the fact that most members of the CPA are difficult
or impossible to reach by telephone—and then make your
way down several hundred yards of sidewalk lined with
razor wire. Your journey will be broken by three
checkpoints, two military (concrete cordons, sandbags,
machine guns) and one civilian. At two of these you
present two identifications and submit to full body
searches, standing with your legs parted and arms
extended and staring straight ahead, in a ritual I
found myself repeating, on a busy day in Baghdad, a
dozen or more times. Finally, after securing an
identification badge, you must wait for a military
escort to drive you to the palace, where yet another
series of checks and searches will be performed.

Inside Saddam's Republican Palace —his huge likeness
in the central atrium is discreetly masked by a large
blue cloth—you will find, amid the dark marble floors
and sconces and chandeliers, a great many Americans
striding purposefully about, some in uniform but many
in casual civilian clothing: chinos, jeans, sport
shirts. They look bright, crisp, self-assured, and
extremely young; they look, in other words, like what
they are: junior staffers from Washington, from the
Capitol, the departments and various agencies and
think tanks. After all the combat fatigues on the city
streets ("During my two weeks here," an oil industry
contractor told me, "I've not seen one American who
wasn't in uniform"), it is a bit of a shock to find
this great horde of young American civilians secreted
in Saddam's marble-lined hideaway, now become
Baghdad's own Emerald City.

I spoke to one young expert from the Governance
Department at some length about the Americans'
"seven-point plan" to install democracy in Iraq, which
was then stalled at point three: writing the
constitution. (To summarize very crudely, the Shia,
the majority on the Governing Council and in the
country, were insisting that the writers of the
constitution be chosen in a nationwide election; the
others, fearing the Shia's numerical dominance, were
pushing for the writers to be "selected" under various
methods. This deadlock over the constitution is a
precise reflection of the larger "governance problem"
in Iraq—beginning with Shia numerical dominance—that
would need to be resolved if Iraq is ever to become a
working democracy.) I found myself impressed with the
young woman's knowledge and commitment. In general,
the CPA members seem dedicated and well-meaning—they'd
have to be, to come to Baghdad; they are also entirely
isolated, traveling twice daily by military-driven bus
within the bunkered compound from their places of work
in the bunkered palace to their places of rest in the
bunkered Rasheed Hotel.

Or rather they made that trip until October 26, when,
just before six in the morning, a person or persons
unknown towed a small blue two-wheeled trailer—to any
observer (including, presumably, the soldier manning
the checkpoint a couple hundred yards away), it looked
like a generator, a common sight in
electricity-starved Iraq—up to the park across from
which the Rasheed stood resplendent behind its
impressive concrete barriers, quickly opened the
trailer's doors, turned it around, and directed it
toward the hotel, and ran off, no doubt looking back
to gaze in satisfaction a few moments later when a
dozen or so converted French-made air-to-surface
missiles whooshed out of their tubes and began
peppering the rooms in which the Americans running the
occupation slept, wounding seventeen people, killing
one (a lieutenant colonel), and coming within a few
yards of killing the visiting Paul L. Wolfowitz,
United States deputy secretary of defense and
mastermind of the Iraq war.

My friend in Governance was thrown from her bed and,
finding her door jammed shut by the blast damage, and
taking "one look at the smoke coming from under that
jammed door and realizing if I didn't get out of there
I was going to die," she climbed out on the ledge and
crept along it, ten floors up, to the room next door
and the smoke-filled, chaotic hallway beyond. The
Rasheed was evacuated and many of its former occupants
found themselves sleeping on quickly assembled cots in
Saddam's palace. As for my friend's "seven-point
plan," two weeks later President Bush decided to
abandon it. Instead of confronting the problem that
had blocked the writing of a new Iraqi
constitution—the question of how the fact of Shia
numerical dominance, and other unresolved conflicts in
the Iraqi state, would be integrated into a
functioning Iraqi democracy—the President, faced with
mount- ing attacks from Iraqis opposed to the new
political dispensation he had declared himself
committed to create, decided to abandon the effort.

Security underlies everything in Iraq; it is the fault
line running squarely beneath the occupation and the
political world that will emerge from it. As I look
back, perhaps my most frightening moment in the
country came not at the Red Cross bombing, or at an
ambush on the highway between Falluja and Ramadi where
five civilians were killed, or at various other scenes
of violence of one kind or another, but at a press
conference the afternoon of the Rasheed attack, when
General Martin E. Dempsey, the impressive commander of
the First Infantry Division, characterized the rocket
launcher—the cleverly disguised weapon that some
unknown persons had used to pierce successfully the
huge security perimeter around the Rasheed and thereby
kill and wound, under the noses of tens of thousands
of US soldiers, the Americans who were supposedly
running Iraq, and nearly kill the deputy secretary of
defense—as "not very sophisticated...a science
project, made in a garage with a welder, a battery,
and a handful of wire." What frightened me was the
possibility that General Dempsey—a sophisticated man
who no doubt had read the literature on
counterinsurgency and knew well "the lessons" of the
British in Malaya and the French in Algeria and the
Americans in Vietnam, but who, like almost every other
impressive American commander in Iraq, had been
trained to fight with, and against, large armored
formations—was aware of the condescension evident in
his tone.

"The idea behind these stay-behind insurgent groups is
that they're clandestine, they use what's available—an
old drainpipe, whatever," said a private security
officer working for an American television network
who, like many of the security professionals in Iraq,
was a veteran of Britain's elite Special Air Service.
"They don't need to be sophisticated, they need to be
effective—and that device that hit the Rasheed was
very effective." Raymond Bonner, a New York Times
reporter, made a somewhat broader point: "The good
news is it was a science project put together in a
garage. The bad news is it was a science project put
together in a garage."

Ten days later, when a colleague, a strong advocate of
the United States' invasion, declared to me with some
impatience, "The United States will not lose. The
United States has absolute military superiority in
Iraq!,"[4] I remembered Bonner's comment. In view of
the progress of the war against the US coalition—the
spreading activities of the opposition, the growing
sophistication of their methods, the increasing
numbers of Americans being killed—is the fact that the
United States has "absolute military superiority" in
Iraq good or bad news? All differences aside (and
there are a great many differences), people commonly
made the same point about Vietnam; but if it is true
that "the United States had absolute military
superiority in Vietnam," then what exactly do those
words mean—and what do they tell us about those who
utter them?

Fall in Falluja is dusty and bright. Here, on an
average day in late October, insurgents attacked
American soldiers eight times, twice the rate of a
month before, according to General Chuck Swannack,
commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. The method of
choice was IEDs—"improvised explosive devices," in
military parlance —planted, presumably, by FRLs, or
"former regime loyalists." On the road leading into
town, just emerging from the cloverleaf off the main
highway, I saw the aftermath of one such attack. Late
that afternoon, as an American armored convoy rumbled
up the highway into the city, someone set off what the
general described as:
"a very sophisticated device, three barrels of
flammable material rigged to a triggering mechanism,
using a remote-controlled trigger. As our squad was
clearing the cloverleaf, the individuals set off the
device, killed a paratrooper, and then some
individuals directed fire at us with AK-47s from the

General Swannack's men dismounted, returned fire,
stormed the houses, and arrested several civilians,
leading them roughly away in flex cuffs. It was a
typical day in Falluja, with a typical score: one dead
American soldier, two dead civilians, several
civilians wounded, several arrested, with an
indeterminate number of family members, neighbors, and
friends of those killed, wounded, and arrested left
furious at the Americans and nursing strong
grievances, which tribal honor, an especially strong
force in Falluja, now demanded they personally
avenge—by killing more Americans. As for the handful
of "individuals" who had set off the device and opened
fire on the Americans, they managed—as they do in all
but a few such ambushes—to get away clean.

As I write, 423 Americans have died in Iraq since the
United States invaded in March and more than 2,300
have been wounded there, many grievously; and the rate
at which Americans are being killed and wounded is
increasing. But while these tolls are having a
discernible effect on President Bush's popularity
among Americans, the major goal of this kind of
warfare is not only to kill and wound Americans but to
increase Iraqi recruits, both active and passive, who
will oppose the occupation; its major product, that
is, is political. "The point," said General Swannack,
"is to get the Americans to fire back and hopefully
they'll get some Iraqi casualties out of that and they
can publicize that."

After first estimating the guerrilla strength in and
around Falluja at 20,000, the general revised his
figure: "Probably about a thousand people out there
really want to attack us and kill us and another
nineteen thousand or so really really don't like us."
Such estimates vary wildly around Iraq, depending on
whom you ask. General Sanchez recently put the total
number of the opposition nationwide at five thousand.
Whatever the numbers, the guerrillas' main business is
to make them grow, particularly the number of strong
sympathizers; and all evidence suggests that thus far
they are succeeding.

Saddam's Iraq was a national security state dominated
by the interlocking intelligence services of the
government and the elite security units of the army,
all of it rooted in the enormous Baath Party, a highly
elaborated structure that over a half-century spread
and proliferated into every institution in the country
and that originally grew from a complex network of
conspiratorial cells of three to seven members.
Saddam's elite Republican Guard numbered 80,000; his
even more select Special Republican Guard numbered
16,000; his Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary force—in
effect, Saddam's brownshirts—numbered 40,000. The
Mukhabarat and the various intelligence services, of
which there were perhaps a dozen, numbered thousands
more. All of these men were highly trained, well
armed, and tested for their political loyalty. Few of
them died in the war.

In May, in an astonishing decision that still has not
been adequately explained, American administrator L.
Paul Bremer vastly increased the number of willing
Iraqi foot soldiers by abruptly dissolving the regular
Iraqi army, which had been established by King Faisal
I in 1921, and thereby sent out into bitter shame and
unemployment 350,000 of those young Iraqis who were
well trained, well armed, and deeply angry at the
Americans. Add to these a million or so tons of
weapons and munitions of all sorts, including rockets
and missiles, readily available in more than a hundred
mostly unguarded arms depots around the country, as
well as vast amounts of money stockpiled during
thirty-five years in power (notably on March 18, when
Saddam sent three tractor trailers to the Central Bank
and relieved it of more than a billion dollars in
cash), and you have the makings of a well-manned,
well-funded insurgency.

During the months since the fall of Baghdad in April,
that insurgency has grown and evolved. Its methods
have moved from assassinations of isolated US
soldiers, to attacks on convoys with small arms, to
increasingly sophisticated and frequent ambushes of
convoys with remote-controlled explosives and attacks
on helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades and
missiles. While there seems to be some regional
coordination among groups, it is clear that the
opposition is made up of many different organizations,
some regionally based, some local; some are explicitly
Saddamist, some more broadly Baathist, some Islamist,
and some frankly anti-Saddam and nationalist. "I don't
see a vision by these disparate groups of insurgents
or partisans," said Ahmed S. Hashim, a professor at
the Naval War College who has closely studied the
opposition. "But at this stage they do not need one.
They are making our stay uncomfortable, they have
affected our calculus and are driving a wedge between
us. What I know is the coalition is losing ground
among Iraqis." Within and among these groupings a
competitive politics now exists, an armed politics
that will evolve and develop, depending on how
successful they are in attacking the Americans and
forcing them to adjust their policies and, eventually,
to leave the country.

By now much evidence exists, including documents
apparently prepared by Iraqi intelligence services, to
suggest that this insurgency, at least in its broad
outlines, was planned before the war and that the plan
included looting, sabotage, and assassination of
clerics.[5] Particularly damaging was the looting, in
which government ministries and other public
buildings, including museums, libraries, and
universities, were thoroughly ransacked, down to the
copper pipes and electrical wiring in the walls, and
then burned, and the capital was given over to weeks
of utter lawlessness while American soldiers stood by
and watched. This was an enormously important
political blow against the occupation, undermining any
trust or faith Iraqis might have had in their new
rulers and destroying any chance the occupiers had to
establish their authority. Most of all, the looting
created an overwhelming sense of insecurity and
trepidation, a sense that the insurgents, with their
bombings and attacks, have built on to convince many
Iraqis that the Americans have not achieved full
control and may well not stay long enough to attain

All of this is another way of saying that if security
is the fault line running beneath political
development in Iraq, then politics is the fault line
running beneath security. By now the failures in
planning and execution that have dogged the
occupation—the lack of military police, the refusal to
provide security in the capital, the dissolution of
the Iraqi army—are well known.[6] All have originated
in Washington, many born of struggles between the
leading departments of government, principally the
State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon, which the
White House has never managed to resolve. (The most
obvious product of these struggles was the President's
decision, barely two months before the invasion, to
discard the year of occupation planning by the State
De- partment and shift control to the Pentagon, which
proved itself wholly unprepared to take on the task.)

In Iraq, after the Big Bang of the American invasion,
a new political universe is slowly being born. Part of
this Iraqi political universe is called the Governing
Council, and it does its work behind the concrete
barriers of the Green Zone. Another part works at the
level of nascent local government throughout the
country. Still another works in the mosques of the
south and among the Shiite religious establishment
known as the Hawza. And yet another part—now a rather
large and powerful part—is armed and clandestine and
is making increasingly sophisticated and effective use
of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, hoping to force
the Americans from the country and claim its share of
power. The Americans seek to define the armed
claimants as illegitimate—essentially, as not part of
the recognized universe at all. But in order to
enforce that definition—to confine the game to the
actors they regard as legitimate—the Americans must
prove themselves able to make use of their power, both
military and political, more effectively.

As I write, on November 19, US military forces in Iraq
are conducting Operation Iron Hammer, striking with
warplanes and artillery bases thought to be occupied
by Iraqi insurgents. American television broadcasts
are filled with dramatic footage of huge explosions
illuminating the night sky. In Tikrit, Saddam's
political base and a stronghold of the opposition, the
Americans staged a military show of force, sending
tanks and other armored vehicles rumbling through the
main street. "They need to understand," Lieutenant
Colonel Steve Russell told ABC News, "it's more than
just Humvees we'll be using in these attacks."

The armed opposition in Iraq seems unlikely to be
impressed. However many insurgents the Americans
manage to kill in bombing runs and artillery barrages,
the toll on civilians, in death and disruption, is
also likely to be high, as will damage to the fragile
sense of normalcy that Americans are struggling to
achieve and the opposition forces are determined to
destroy. Large-scale armored warfare looks and sounds
impressive, inspiring overwhelming fear; but it is not
discriminate, which makes it a blunt and ultimately
self-defeating instrument to deploy against determined
guerrillas. In general, the American military, the
finest and most powerful in the world, is not
organized and equipped to fight this war, and the part
of it that is—the Special Forces—are almost entirely
occupied in what seems a never-ending hunt for Saddam.
For American leaders, and particularly President Bush,
this has become the quest for the Holy Grail: finding
Saddam will be an enormous political boon. For the
American military, this quest has the feel of a
traditional kind of war not wholly suited to what they
find in Iraq. "We are a hierarchy and we like to fight
hierarchies," says military strategist John Arquilla.
"We think if we cut off the head we can end this."

Whatever the political rewards of finding Saddam, they
will not likely include putting a definitive end to
the insurgency in Iraq.[7] "The Americans need to get
out of their tanks, get out from behind their
sunglasses," a British military officer, a veteran of
Northern Ireland told me. "They need to get on the
ground where they can get to know people and encourage
them to tell them where the bad guys are." As I write,
operations on the ground seem to be moving in the
opposite direction. In any event it is difficult to
impress an opponent with a military advance plainly
meant to cover a political retreat.

President Bush's audacious project in Iraq was always
going to be difficult, perhaps impossible, but without
political steadfastness and resilience, it had no
chance to succeed. This autumn in Baghdad, a ruthless
insurgency, growing but still in its infancy, has
managed to make the President retreat from his
project, and has worked, with growing success, to
divide Iraqis from the Americans who claim to govern
them. These insurgents cannot win, but by seizing on
Washington's mistakes and working relentlessly to
widen the fault lines in occupied Iraq, they threaten
to prevent what President Bush sent the US military to
achieve: a stable, democratic, and peaceful Iraq, at
the heart of a stable and democratic Middle East.

—November 19, 2003

[1] For the Saudi claim, see Mohammad Bazzi, "Saudis
Suspected in 2 Iraq Attacks," Newsday, November 11,

[2] See Susan Sachs, "US Is Set to Return Power to
Iraqis as Early as June," The New York Times, November
15, 2003.

[3] See Jonathan S. Landay, "CIA Has a Bleak Analysis
of Iraq," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 12, 2003.

[4] Christopher Hitchens made the comment, in a debate
with me at the University of California at Berkeley on
November 4. See "Has Bush Made Us Safer? Iraq, Terror
and American Power," at

[5] See Michael Hirsh, Rod Nordland, and Mark
Hosenball, "About-Face in Iraq," Newsweek, November
24, 2003; and Douglas Jehl, "Plan for Guerrilla Action
May Have Predated War," The New York Times, November
15, 2003.

[6] See Mark Fineman, Robin Wright, and Doyle McManus,
"Preparing for War, Stumbling to Peace," Los Angeles
Times, July 18, 2003; and David Rieff, "Blueprint for
a Mess," The New York Times Magazine, November 2,

[7] See Ahmed S. Hashim, "The Sunni Insurgency in
Iraq," Middle East Institute Policy Brief, August 15,
2003, who notes that the "elimination of Saddam and
his dynasty may demoralize pro-regime insurgents but
may actually embolden anti-regime and anti-US
insurgents who may have held back in the
past...because of the barely submerged fears that the
regime could come back."

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