Since the end of the battle of Najaf, things have become a jumbled mass of new violent outbreaks and conflicting pronouncements by all sides of the Iraqi conflict. Hidden in this confusion is an entirely new American military-political strategy that promises to wreak further havoc in the cities of Iraq, while shifting dramatically the equation of forces. If the U.S. succeeds, it will set the stage for a massive military offensive just after the November elections, one which may be magnitudes more brutal than anything we have seen so far. If the U.S. fails, it could generate the sort of high profile set-back that ruins Bush’s electoral chances and/or leads to yet another major change in U.S. political-military strategy.
Who Won in Najaf?
The short answer is Ali al-Sistani, who re-established himself as the pre-eminent Iraqi leader by resolving the crisis without the destruction of the Imam Ali Shrine or the slaughter of the Al Mahdi soldiers occupying it. But al-Sistani is having trouble consolidating this pre-eminence, because the U.S. has not delivered the reconstruction aid that it guaranteed; and al-Sistani cannot restore an orderly existence without such outside help. Moreover, since al-Sistani’s strategy rests upon asking the Shia to forego immediate demands in the expectation of achieving political domination in the January election, the sustained violence elsewhere is a threat to the elections and therefore to his credibility.
Did Muqtada al Sadr win or lose in Najaf? Before al-Sistani intervened, the Sadrists were faced with a tough choice. They could have fought to the death: this would have been a great political victory that would rally support inside and outside the country and made the Sadrists the primary force within the Iraqi resistance, even while it meant sacrificing the lives of their most dedicated and experienced activists. Or they could have withdrawn from the Shrine: this would have shattered their credibility as revolutionaries, and left them disarmed and discredited.
It looked like they were going to be martyrs, but al-Sistani snatched away their victory while saving their lives. This preserved (and perhaps even strengthened) their organization; but their political primacy was pre-empted by al-Sistani.
Did the U.S .win or lose in Najaf? The U.S. lost in two ways. It further alienated the Iraqis, so that neither the U.S. nor its client administration have any credibility on the street. It also lost the opportunity for a smashing military victory that might have won the November election for Bush and intimidated Shia militants enough to keep them quiet while the U.S. developed and implemented a new program for the Shia areas of the country.
But the U.S. also won two things from al-Sistani’s intervention. First, it was relieved of a terrible choice: either withdrawing without dislodging al Sadr (which would have been a monumental victory for al Sadr and would have led to liberated areas throughout the South of Iraq); or smashing the shrine and creating Islam-wide outrage that could have led to an immediate insurrection throughout the country. So the U.S. lived to try another strategy, which they would not have had the chance to do if al-Sistani had not intervened.
Second, al-Sistani’s pre-emption provided a template for the new strategy that the U.S. adopted soon afterward. His truce-making provided an orderly process by which the Iraqi police (trained and controlled by the U.S.) took official control of old Najaf. Their authority is guaranteed by the legitimacy of al-Sistani, and therefore they have not had to face a challenge by militant Sadrists or other insurgents (though the police themselves may not remain loyal to the U.S., a process we have seen elsewhere already). For the U.S., this created the vision of parallel developments in other cities: an alliance with “moderates” that legitimated the Iraqi police while effectively removing the militants from the public life of the city.
The New U.S. Strategy.
The new U.S. strategy, then, is targeted at the cities where the guerrillas and their clerical leadership dominate, notably Falluja, Samarra, Tal Afar, and Sadr City (though there are several others which have not been in the news lately). The U.S. method is to negotiate with the clerics, offering extensive reconstruction aid in exchange for calling off the insurgency and perhaps delivering the guerrilla fighters over to the U.S. (They call this negotiating with the moderates to split with the militants.)
If they can get an agreement, then the U.S. marches into town and arrests at least some of the guerrillas, using informants to determine whom to target. If the guerrillas resist arrest, the U.S. annihilates them and the areas they take refuge in. If they melt into the population, then the Iraqi police and National Guard take up stations within the city to enforce the rule of a re-established local government. American troops outside the city maintain the capacity to intervene against any effort to challenge the police or National Guard.
To force an agreement, the U.S. threatens both economic and military attacks on the city as a whole. Part of the plan is to use brutal air power that can annihilate buildings or whole city blocks in an effort to convince residents and leaders that the cost of resistance is simply too high. The underlying assumption is that the “moderates” will eventually choose to negotiate rather than see their city destroyed. As one marine officer in Falluja told Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chadrasekaran, the goal is “to split the city, to get the good people of the city on one side and the terrorists on the other.”
The new plan is designed to achieve two goals. First, the U.S. hopes to drastically reduce the number of attacks on U.S. convoys and bases outside the cities. These attacks are planned within the cities, the weapons used are stockpiled there, and the guerrillas are protected from detection by their civilian identities as members of local communities. By demobilizing, arresting, or killing the guerillas, the new plan holds the potential to drastically reduce the direct attacks on U.S. forces.
Second, by replacing guerrillas with police as the source of law and order within the city, the U.S. hopes to obtain control over local public life, including establishing pro-American political leadership, instead of the current clerical leadership hostile to the U.S. presence. This will permit U.S. control of the electoral process in January and guarantee a legislature compliant with American policy.
There is considerable urgency in this venture because the current U.S. strategy in Iraq centers around the elections that are scheduled for January. Al-Sistani has made clear that he will not wait beyond January for elections (he has already agreed to wait six months beyond his own original deadline) and any further delay might provoke him into much more forceful protest than he has embraced so far. But elections that exclude the areas currently under insurgent control will produce yet another government with no legitimacy (including a possible boycott by al-Sistani himself). Nor can the U.S. let these cities be part of the election without reconquering them, since they would then send revolutionary representatives to demand that the Legislature call for U.S. withdrawal, a demand that would be supported by upwards of 90% of the population. (Recent polls conducted by the Occupation report less than 10% support for a continuing U.S. presence.)
Thus, the U.S. must quickly (within four months) re-establish its control of these liberated areas, and this control must be peaceful enough to allow for the semblance of fair elections. This is why the moderates are central to the new U.S. strategy. Occupation by American troops is counterproductive — it generates stronger and more determined resistance among the population. (Permanently pacifying even a single city against this sort of resistance requires tens of thousands of U.S. troops patrolling all the neighborhoods — far beyond the numerical capability of U.S. forces.) The Iraqi Police and National Guard are notorious for surrendering or defecting to guerrillas, but the U.S. hopes that they will be able to maintain order if respected local leadership silences the guerrillas and validates their presence, as al-Sistani has done in Najaf.
Is the New U.S. plan working?
There has been enough coverage of four cities to get a sense of what is happening and what the prognosis might be for the new American strategy.
Falluja. The U.S. met with the clerical leadership in Falluja (the first official acceptance of their civic leadership), offering many millions of dollars of reconstruction money to repair the infrastructure that had been virtually demolished in the April attacks — on the condition that (1) the guerrillas were disowned and disarmed, (2) the U.S. was allowed to mount patrols within the city, and (3) the clerics pledged loyalty to the central government. There were no negotiations to speak of, because the clerics rejected all three conditions.
Immediately after the collapse of the non-negotiations, the U.S. initiated almost daily bombing of various neighborhoods in Falluja. The cover story has been that they are bombing “safe houses” used by terrorists associated with Abu Musab al Zarqawi (and that no other people are present during the attacks), but hospitals daily report that the vast majority of the casualties are civilians. It is clear to everyone but the American public that the attacks are designed to convince the people of Falluja to abandon their support of the rebellion. To add a further element of threat to the equation, U.S. has repeatedly announced that it would soon re-invade the city; and during the second week of September even announced on loudspeakers that the residents of certain areas should evacuate because of a pending attack. This was a bluff; American military officials admitted to U.S. reporters that they are waiting until after the November elections in the U.S.
We can expect that the bombing will continue until November, followed by a full scale assault on the city, one which might be far more brutal than the previous attacks on Falluja and Najaf (unless, of course, the strategy changes again in the meantime). In the meantime, there are ongoing overtures for new negotiations, but without either side changing its position.
Sadr City. The Allawi administration and clerics from Sadr City (all of whom were aligned with Muqtada al Sadr) negotiated a tentative agreement that would have banned U.S. troops from mounting patrols inside the huge Shia slum in the Northeast corner of Baghdad; while the Sadrists would not mount attacks on U.S. bases or convoys outside Sadr City. (This was a considerable concession by the Sadrists, since their strategy for expelling the Americans from Iraq depends on mounting constant attacks on U.S. bases and convoys to strain U.S. resources.) In addition, the Allawi administration promised to begin a variety of reconstruction projects inside Sadr City, marking the first time that any serious effort would be made to repair the damage of 18 months of war.
The U.S. command vetoed the agreement. While it would have achieved one of their goals (reducing guerrilla attacks on U.S. bases and convoys), they (correctly) saw that it would frustrate their second goal because it would leave unhindered the political control of Sadr City by the Mahdi Army and its clerical allies. (The U.S. military explained the rejection by saying the deal would allow the Al Mahdi militia to reconstitute itself after its “devastating defeat” in Najaf, but all the evidence indicates that the Najaf battle did not weaken the Sadrists in Baghdad at all.)
The day after this rejection, the U.S. renewed patrols and battles inside Sadr City, attempting to create enough havoc and destruction to drive the moderates back to the bargaining table. They soon discovered, however, that these patrols were taking heavy casualties without driving a wedge between the clerical leadership and the guerrillas. (In Najaf, the long siege generated real anger at the Sadrists, who were not residents of Najaf; many residents saw them as interlopers who brought the American onslaught upon the city. In Sadr city, the guerrillas are family members and respected neighbors who had been keeping crime down and the Americans out for months. Hence, American attacks tended to consolidate support for the Al Mahdi, who were seen as preventing the Americans from taking control and generally oppressing the community by forcibly entering houses, terrorizing residents and indiscriminately detaining men, women, and even children.)
After two weeks of battles and bombings, the U.S. temporarily withdrew back to its bases, leaving control of Sadr City to the guerrillas and their clerical leadership. It currently appears that they have opted for a bombing campaign like the one in Falluja; though so far the bombings have been occasional rather than consistent. The fact that American reporters can access Sadr City and report the carnage might be one deterrent.
Samarra. Soon after the end of the battle of Najaf, the American troops closed a key bridge into Samarra, thereby instituting an economic blockade that effectively cut off all normal commerce. This led to instant hardship around the city and had the hoped-for impact: a group of clerics negotiated a deal in which the bridge was re-opened in exchange for a guarantee that U.S. troops could enter the city without being attacked. This was the first success of the new strategy, and a U.S. patrol entered the town unmolested on September 2. At city hall they stopped to announce and introduce a new U.S.-sponsored city government.
The next day, the guerrillas denounced the agreement and a section of the local clerical leadership allied with the guerrillas announced the formation of a new insurgent government modeled after, and formally allied with, the Falluja government. (This is a new threat to the U.S., because coordination across liberated areas has been absent and would be a huge tool against the Occupation.)
With two competing governments, the situation is unsettled. American troops have been guarding city hall (apparently they do not trust Iraqi police to perform this work with guerrillas still active), and they have been fired upon at least once,. So far, however, there have been no reports of a major battle initiated by either side. The resolution of this standoff could well determine tactics that both sides use in other cities.
Tal Afar. The U.S. chose this city as a location for confronting the guerrillas, despite its atypicality. The residents are largely Turkmen and mostly Shia, and it lies on the border with Syria, which makes it a hub for trade and for smuggling goods and insurgents. Before the U.S. attack in early September, it been a “no-go” location for American troops for only about a month, and so the nature and support of the insurgency is hard to discern. Most significantly, while it is clear that many Shia Turkmen support the guerrillas, the U.S. army insists (and some independent observers agree) that (many, if not all) the insurgents are Sunni Arabs. If this is true, it would constitute an unprecedented alliance between ethnicities within Iraq, one that presages a more resourceful and unified insurgency in the coming months.
There were some brief negotiations with the Turkmen leadership in the city, but no formal deals were offered. The U.S. then initiated a massive bombing campaign much more ferocious than in any other locality (except perhaps Najaf at the height of the siege). Though even public health and hospital officials denounced the bombing and reported hundreds of civilian casualties, the American military claimed that all dead and wounded were insurgents, including a large number of women and children. (One reporter quoted an informant telling American soldiers that everyone in a particular community was an insurgent, so this could be the technical cover for their absurd claims.) The blanket bombing, combined with an American warning to evacuate, led to upwards of 50,000 mainly Turkmen refugees fleeing the city of 350,000(some unconfirmed accounts reported an incredible 250,000 refugees).
Following the bombing, the U.S. sent as many as 2,000 troops into the city, encountered strong resistance and fought a battle for five days before the guerrillas melted away. The U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies moved unhindered around the city for several days, while outside protests against the invasion mounted.
The key protest emanated from the Turkish government, which denounced the U.S., saying that virtually all the casualties were innocent Turkmen civilians; and that no attacks on American troops had ever been mounted by the Turkmen who were the targets of most of the violence. President Gul of Turkey threatened to withdraw from the “Coalition of the Willing” if the invading force did not leave Tal Afar and restore the refugees to their homes.
Perhaps this protest had some effect, because the U.S. troops did withdraw and announcements were made inviting the refugees to return. But this could also represent a planned strategy, since the newly pacified city was placed under the control of Iraqi police and National Guard.
There have been credible reports that this campaign represents a new form of ethnic cleansing, in which U.S. troops evacuated Tal Afar to facilitate the resettlement and domination of the city by Kurds. These reports claim that the police the U.S. left in charge are “pesh merga,” Kurdish militiamen committed to Kurdish domination of the northwestern area of the country. Tal Afar, as a border town sitting on major commercial routes, would be a major asset if it became a part of the Kurdish autonomous region within the country or an independent Kurdish republic.
It is premature to conclude that the Tal Afar campaign represents the most successful application of the new American strategy, without waiting for the ultimate reaction of the Turkmen minority in the city. Certainly their experience with the attack dissipated whatever sympathy they might have had for the Americans, and it thus laid the foundation for an even more determined rebellion as soon as they regain their equilibrium; but they might also have been beaten into submission, a result that appears to be the main American goal.
What is the Prognosis?
The campaign in Tal Afar would appear to be the poster child for the new strategy, but Tal Afar is neither Shia nor Sunni; even if the Turkmen acquiesce to the new regime, their capitulation would not signal that a similar result could be expected in other localities.
More promising for the American strategy is Samarra, a typical Sunni city with a strong insurgency. The initial willingness of some clerics to negotiate when pressured by economic sanctions suggests that the U.S. could possibly identify and work with a compliant local leadership in other cities controlled by insurgents. The outcome is, of course, undetermined, and if the resistance succeeds in isolating or eliminating the newly appointed leadership and/or making a continued U.S. presence untenable, then this U.S. strategy will fall into the long list of failed efforts to pacify the resistance. At present, however, this represents the best prospect for the Occupation to reassert its authority somewhere.
Falluja and Sadr City are both more typical than Samarra and less promising for the Americans. The initial effort to identify and work with some local leaders has failed, leading the Americans to terror tactics against the local population. These have not worked in the past in either location, and there is no sign of this latest iteration working. It seems apparent that the U.S. will wait until after the American elections to activate a more aggressive and more destructive second phase, aimed at terrorizing the population into submission.
Perhaps the greatest success of the new strategy thus far is a negative one. The havoc and destruction wreaked by the terror bombing and invasion of Tal Afar generated a strong reaction from Turkey, a ripple of outrage in Iraq and the Middle East; and no protest at all in Europe and the United States. The less severe, but still brutal, attacks in Sadr City and Falluja have generated almost no complaints or declarations of solidarity. This is a stark contrast to the April battle in Falluja, which generated world-wide denunciations, and the siege of Najaf, which threatened to mobilize the international Shia community.
What the U.S. may have gained, therefore, is the apathy of the world to escalating violence against Iraqi civilians. This, more than the success or failure of these individual campaigns, may lay a foundation for the massive offensives that the U.S. military appears to be preparing for the period just after the American elections in November. The world is fully aware of the ability of the U.S. Air Force to completely level even a very large city, using 2,000 pound bombs delivered in great numbers by carrier-based aircraft. The calibrated increases in the destructiveness of U.S. air attacks over the past few months appears to have numbed local and international outrage, a condition that allows for further escalation and magnitudes more casualties.
The actions of the Iraqi people — both insurgents and civilians — may constrain this strategy before it reaches the point of blanket bombing and wholesale destruction. But even the most ferocious Iraqi resistance may not be sufficient to deter the coming November offensive. The Iraqis need and deserve the support of the international community; the best (and least destructive) deterrent against this impending onslaught would be the threat of uncontrollable world wide protest should the U.S. attempt to level either Falluja or Sadr City.
Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on Z Net and TomDispatch, and in Z Magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.