The Iraqi Intifada

Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian philosopher who is required reading for all military officers, talked about the "culminating point" in a war, when an army's resources are outstripped by the demands placed upon it. That point may be approaching now in Iraq. "There are several million young men in Iraq who are now seeing us in a whole new light," says Pat Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. "We have something like 130,000 troops in Iraq.We probably do not have more than 60 thousand or 70 thousand fighters in that force. They are spread across a vast area." In Lang's view, the United States must either shift that tipping point by bringing in more troops, or we withdraw. "To back away from the hostiles will enormously encourage our enemies. We have no choice but to fight it out and defeat the growing revolt in Iraq," he says. "Once you drive your car off the cliff, there's not much you can do to affect the outcome."

Maj. Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. Army's Central Commander, has no doubt read his von Clausewitz; late last week he made a surprise visit to Baghdad, met with the Iraq commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and announced he may be committing another division of troops to the fight. ("At this [culminating] point prudence requires that the developing imbalance in forces be rectified," says Lang.) That meant either the First Armored Division, already packing up its bags to go home this month after a year's tour of duty, would have to stay, or the Third Infantry Division, which fought its way into Baghdad, would have to return on the double.

Either way, it was a stunning admission that things aren't going as well as expected--a reality that became painfully obvious in recent days. Already over-extended U.S. forces had been sent out to buck up coalition partners who were in danger of losing control of three southern cities, among the five being besieged by a ragtag militia of renegade Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. And after four days of heavy fighting, U.S. Marines on a mission to punish the militants who had killed four American contractors still had not subdued the Sunni city of Fallujah. Adding to the sense of chaos was a spate of kidnappings and hostage takings, with civilians from America, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Britain and Arabs from Israel captured by insurgents.

For perhaps the first time in history, the American army is fighting a two-front guerrilla war. "We are winning every single firefight," blustered the coalition's deputy commander, Brigadier Gen. Mark Kimmitt. And, some might add darkly, losing the larger war. Before, the conflict could quite easily be dismissed as a police action against dead-enders, former regime elements, losers and terrorists--all terms American spokesmen used liberally, and at one time correctly. All the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombs were just gnats' bites. The larger part of the military's mission was reconstruction, winning hearts and minds while "establishing a safe and secure environment," and preparing the country for democracy and sovereignty.

But now it has become house-to-house warfare in Fallujah's mean streets on the Sunni front and a cat-and-mouse game with die-hard militiamen in five southern cities on the Shiite front. Both conflicts threaten to turn much of the country against the American occupation. Even friends of the United States are starting to refer to the violence as the Iraqi intifada.

The costs have been steep, in blood and in political capital. In just five days last week, 49 coalition soldiers, 47 of them Americans, were killed in action--not just in Fallujah but in half a dozen other places as well. It was the worst week of the war so far. Most fell in ambushes and firefights. More telling, by the weekend, at least four and possibly five of the 26 members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council had resigned, at least temporarily, ignoring pleas from U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer to reconsider. Most of them were angry at the Marine Corps' offensive on Fallujah, believing reports from doctors at hospitals there that more than 400 civilians had been killed (the reports were impossible to confirm because no Western journalists could reach Fallujah).

Iraqi leaders were also angry at the Americans for their handling of Moqtada Sadr, a minor Shiite cleric whose hatred for America was nurtured and possibly financed by mentors in Iran. Two weeks ago, he was a nobody, with a couple of thousand armed followers. Last week, on the April 9th anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, U.S. soldiers had to rip Sadr's portraits from the statue going up in Firduz Square to replace the famous one they pulled down of of Saddam one year earlier.His militiamen still controll all or parts of three cities in the south, and swaths of the huge slum in Baghdad, Sadr City, the former Saddam City, renamed after his famous father, Ayatollah Sadiq al Sadr, who was murdered by Saddam's henchmen in 1999.

Moderate Shiites continue to insist that Moqtada Sadr, with his strident calls for an Islamic Republic on Iranian lines, is a minor phenomenon, although the U.S. military upgraded its estimate of his strength to 10,000 armed men--a lot more than the number of effective fighters in the newly minted Iraqi Army. Coalition allies like the Ukraine and El Salvador had all but collapsed when confronted with a few hundred militiamen from Sadr's Mehdi Army, withdrawing to their bases and leaving the streets to Sadr. Even a U.S. rapid reaction force, rushed to Kut, had not completely subdued the city today, after two days of fighting. The widely revered, and politically moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani seemed reluctant to rein Sadr in, issuing a statement calling on him to "avoid escalations,", but also condemning "the measures of the occupation forces in dealing with the current events."

Sadr isn't even the worst of the coalition's problems; the widespread backlash among Iraqis of all stripes to Fallujah is. "I think there will be an uprising, an intifada in all of Iraq," says Governing Council member Son Kol Jabok, who says she would be forced to quit if the American offensive on Fallujah doesn't cease. A Turkomen from northern Iraq, she's no fan of the radicals in the Sunni Triangle, but says the American reaction has gone too far--and Iraqis are all angered by it. "We have to be with our people in this," she says.

Meanwhile, both Shiite and Sunni insurgents have taken credit for kidnapping Americans and other foreigners throughout the country. One insurgent group told Arab media they had 30 foreign hostages, and so many Westerners had gone missing after the Fallujah fighting cut the main highway into Baghdad that this figure may not be too inflated.

U.S. troops fought nighttime pitched battles in Baquba, where the governor's office was besieged and a U.S. tank was destroyed. Troops were also engaged in Mosul, where attacks were at one point being launched hourly and in Latiyfah, a south-central town, where U.S. helicopters set down troops on the main street. Baghdad was beset from many quarters. In Sadr City, there were fights all week between U.S. troops and Shiites. Baghdad's crowded Aadimiyah neighborhood, a Sunni area, was cut off by a cordon of U.S. tanks. A widespread uprising in the Abu Ghareib suburb west of Baghdad cut the main highway and supply line for the Marines in Fallujah; the fighting was so intense that the military had to close Highway 10, the capital's main link to Jordan and the outside world. Travelers who tried to find detours were ambushed and, if they were foreigners, killed outright; among the dead were two German diplomats.

Suddenly the insurgency is much broader, and much more dangerous, than anyone had imagined it could become. Many pro-American Iraqis blamed U.S. missteps for making Moqtada Sadr the force he is now. And long before the contractors were murdered, Fallujah was a classic case of the best intentions gone awry. The military authorities' approach to both was by turns heavy-handed, and coddling; a contradiction that has characterized the entire U.S. presence in Iraq. When U.S. troops first rolled into Iraq's cities, looting was rampant--but the military ordered its soldiers not to shoot looters, for fear of alienating the population. Instead, the unchecked looting alienated many of them anyway. Then when insurgents started attacking U.S. troops, force protection became the paramount concern--and many Iraqi bystanders were killed in crossfires, often as the result of massive firepower indiscriminately applied, or at checkpoints when confronted by nervous soldier.

The restive, Sunni Triangle city of Fallujah, population 300,000, has always been a hotbed of opposition. Early in the war, the 82nd Airborne confronted a crowd of demonstrators; shots were fired from the crowd, and soldiers responded with heavy fire, killing 15 persons, several of them children. That led to a tit-for-tat series of attacks on U.S. troops, until finally their commanders negotiated with local sheikhs to pay an ex gratia death benefit to the victims, implicitly apologizing for what had happened. After training Iraqi police and defense forces, the army withdrew to the outskirts of the city, and rarely ventured into it, and then only in force.

When the First Marine Division arrived there last month, their stated mission was to approach Fallujah with a combination of toughness and kindness, pushing reconstruction but at the same time brooking no nonsense. Within a week, five Marines had been killed in a bombing just outside of town, and the next day the four contractors drove into town, and a deadly ambush--possibly one that they were led into by Iraqi security forces, according to some accounts. The rhetoric from American military commanders was tough and unrelenting; demanding the surrender of the attackers, and promising to attack if it didn't happen. After four days of infantry and tank probes, attacks by Apache gunships and F-16 fighter bombers, the Marines were no closer to getting the insurgents, and were still besieging the outskirts of Fallujah.

What seemed to American commanders a necessary response to an inhuman outrage struck Iraqis differently. After Fallujah's imams denounced the desecration of the Americans' bodies--though not their killings--Iraqis felt any attack on the city was unjustified. "We all denounced what happened to the Americans," says Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Rafur, a prominent Sunni cleric who preaches at the Mother of All Battles mosque in Baghdad, and is an organizer of aid convoys to Fallujah (which the Marines allowed through). "But we believe also that collective punishment is more horrific, what about all the bodies that lost arms and legs and the babies who were killed? The Americans are naive," says Rafur.

"They believe everything can be solved with force. This will lead to a general uprising. Many more unarmed people are being killed, and all of them have relatives and tribes and they go to the funerals and swear revenge. It's America's fault what's happening now."

Rafur is a Sunni hardliner, so when he predicts an uprising coming out of Fallujah, it's with a large dollop of approval. But the Governing Council (GC) members, all American appointed, are no hardliners--and many of them are deeply incensed. They sent delegations to Bremer and Sanchez last week and won an agreement for a ceasefire, which Bremer announced on Friday at noon. By mid-afternoon, the GC members were hopping mad; reports from Fallujah, not denied by the Americans, were that bombing raids on the city continued, though infantry actions had ceased. Plans to send Iraqi negotiators into Fallujah collapsed. "They lied to me," said Son Kol Jabok. "We made a deal. We gave our word to the people, no more firing." Several GC members suspended their participation in protest, after the Friday ceasefire collapsed, Newsweek learned.

The gravity of the situation in Fallujah was underscored on the streets of Baghdad and throughout Iraq, where the number of attacks on coalition forces multiplied many times last week. For the first time, hostages were being taken, and bartered for withdrawal of coalition forces. Firduz Square in central Baghdad was closed; American soldiers there threatened to shoot journalists who tried to photograph the place where Saddam's statue once stood, on the anniversary of the day other U.S. troops pulled it down. In Baghdad, most people shuttered their shops, and stayed home from work; there were attacks on American troops in half a dozen neighborhoods, on the CPA headquarters in the Green Zone, and on the airport highway, Baghdad's last safe link to the outside world. Sunni clerics broadcast appeals from all the mosques for a general strike from Saturday through Monday, and for once, Baghdad's epic traffic jams disappeared.

Hardly any neighborhood escaped bombings and attacks on passing troops; in the busy Kerada district, armed Iraqis had commandeered two Humvees and were driving around cheering. Illegal checkpoints in southern cities were manned by Mehdi Army fighters wearing police uniforms. In Baghdad suburbs Sunni insurgents posing as Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, searched for foreigners in passing cars.

Perhaps most worrisome of all were unprecedented signs of cooperation between Moqtada Sadr's Shiite radicals, and Sunni insurgents. In Baghdad, Mehdi Army fighters joined with Sunni hardliners in the Aadimiyah neighborhood to attack an American military base on the Tigris River. Pro-Sadr protestors flew banners with the slogan of the Fallujah resistance: "Cemetery of the Americans". And in Sadr's headquarters in Kufa, young men from the Fallujah area volunteered to join the Mehdi Army. So far, this was small stuff, but the idea of an alliance of Sunnis, who supported Saddam, and Shia, who were so oppressed by him, is a sign of how much Iraqi attitudes have been changed by the occupation. "This could lead to very dangerous results," said Mehdi. Said Rafur, the Sunni imam: "Moqtada Sadr was marginalized by the Americans. They ignored him and brought other Shia close to them. We express our solidarity with whoever wants to resist."

Sadr vowed to resist arrest, and took up residence in the crowded streets of Najaf, only a few hundred yards from Sistani's residence--making any sort of military operation to dislodge him risky, especially with the approach of the Shia holiday of Arbayeen on April 11. In Fallujah, a resistance leader named Abu Musa, interviewed by satellite telephone, vowed they would never turn over the killers of the Americans. "When they come, we will kill them with our teeth," he said. Gen.l Sanchez was talking tough, too. "We are going to apply a powerful, precise, sustained combat power in the city of Fallujah to defeat the elements that are in that city." And the coalition would continue attacking Sadr "until he turns himself in or his militia is destroyed."

A lot of other things could happen as well. The Iraqi Governing Council could disintegrate further, just when it's in discussions with the coalition and the United Nations on forming a credible government to take power in July. The fighting could continue to spread and really turn into a generalized uprising. Millions of pilgrims will be visiting the Shiite holy cities this week, and terrorists could once again set off bombs.

In the end, more troops may well help restore order, at least for the time being. But there's no sign the militants in Fallujah will put down their weapons, and many signs that other Iraqis have been inspired to join the resistance to the occupation. Sistani and other moderate Shia may manage to persuade Sadr to stand down, as they have before, but he's unlikely to surrender. Arresting him will be bloody, and create even more martyrs and enemies. Leaving him on the loose may be just as bad. And if the worst happens, and radical Shi'a join with what has so far been a largely Sunni resistance, the war so far will look like the easy part. Bringing Iraq under control is going to take a lot more than sheer firepower. It will need the sort of finesse the occupation authorities have so far been lacking.