Still Fighting Saddam

After the fall of Baghdad, Bush administration officials liked to say that, dead or alive, Saddam Hussein was finished. Well, not quite. Last week the CIA confirmed that the scratchy voice heard on Al-Jazeera, exhorting the Iraqi people to resist the "infidel invaders," belonged to the former ruler of Iraq. "I first say that I am in Iraq and I miss you all, even though I am in your midst, but you know how things are," intoned Saddam, like some creepily intimate family ghost. "Oh brothers and sisters," he continued, "I give you good news of telling you that the jihad cells and brigades have been formed."

Apparently, going guerrilla was always the plan. Last Jan. 23--two months before the war began--the Iraqi secret police, the Mukhabarat, issued orders "to do what's necessary after the fall of the Iraqi leadership to the American-British-Zionist Coalition forces, God forbid..." The secret document, obtained by NEWSWEEK, spelled out a list of 11 steps, beginning, "1. Looting and burning all the government institutions that belong to our Directorates and other ones..." It went on to order the secret police to sabotage power plants, assassinate imams, buy stolen weapons from citizens and generally create mayhem. The document has not been officially verified, but a senior Pentagon official called it "plausible," and in any case the orders have been largely, if not entirely, carried out.

Since President George W. Bush declared major combat operations over in Iraq on May 1, 77 American and 10 British soldiers have died, just under half of them from hostile fire. Hundreds more have been wounded. Americans have begun to wonder, uneasily, if the United States is being sucked into a guerrilla war. At first dismissive, administration officials have grown guarded in their replies. After cockily proclaiming "bring 'em on," President Bush last week allowed, "There's no question we've got a security issue in Iraq... We're going to have to remain tough."

Saddam's shadow is beginning to haunt the White House. American approval of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq has slipped from to 74 percent in April to 53 percent today, according to the latest NEWSWEEK Poll. For several weeks the press and various critics have accused the president of hyping the Iraqi threat to justify a war. Last week the administration admitted that Bush's claim, delivered last January in the State of the Union address, that Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Africa for a nuclear program, was based partly on forged documents. CIA Director George Tenet fell on his sword and took responsibility for allowing the bogus intelligence to appear in the president's speech, but the rumbles of a "credibility gap" grew louder.

The more distant, but still looming, specter is Vietnam. At a congressional hearing last week, retiring CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of California danced around the word guerrilla. Franks said he wouldn't use the term in part because the Iraqi attackers lacked broad popular support. After chiding Franks at the hearing for playing "word games," Sanchez insisted to NEWSWEEK that rhetoric does matter. "The minute you start talking about guerrilla warfare, you know, my God, people will start to say it's a quagmire," said Sanchez. "This is what was going on in Vietnam."

In fact, Iraq is not Vietnam (1959-1975, 57,000 U.S. dead), not even close, certainly at this early stage. The more apt comparison is to the small and long-forgotten colonial wars of the more distant past--Haiti (1915-1920, 146 dead), the Dominican Republic (1916-1922, 144 dead), Nicaragua (1927-1932, 136 dead), or, in a worse case, the Philippines (1899-1902, 4,273 dead). The British understood and accepted the price of empire for more than a century, often fighting on several frontiers at once. It is not clear how Americans, with their shorter attention spans and more populist, isolationist instincts, will feel about a commitment that requires some 150,000 troops, costs more than $1 billion a week and, according to General Franks, could go on for another four years.

Catching Saddam (who has a $25 million bounty on his head) and his wretched sons, Uday and Qusay ($15 million), would clearly help to end the resistance. After three decades of his fearsome rule, many Iraqis still worry that Saddam will return. Myths and rumors fly about in Iraq; the Butcher of Baghdad is seen here, there and everywhere. Weary intelligence officers in the Tactical Operations Center at Tiger Base, home of the Third Armored Calvary, First Squadron, in northern Iraq, joke that Saddam sightings mean that Elvis must be nearby. But they dutifully wait for a call from Task Force 20, the secret Special Operators who have been roaming Iraq looking for Saddam. A senior intelligence official in Washington said that Saddam could be caught "tomorrow"--or never. A Pentagon official noted that he lacks the grass-roots support of the world's other notorious fugitive, Osama bin Laden, but a top CIA official pointed out that Saddam is still rich--he can buy protection.

He can also help support a guerrilla movement. Last week U.S. soldiers near Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, stopped a vehicle that was laden with rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs) and $40,000 in crisp $100 bills, as well as two large plastic bags stuffed with dinars, the Iraqi currency. The Fedayeen, Baath Party irregulars like those captured in the vehicle, sport trademark tattoos on their hands--hearts pierced by arrows. These "dead-enders," as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld likes to call them, are loyal to Saddam. Many other renegades taking potshots at American soldiers are ordinary criminals, or foreign terrorists and "jihadists," or just angry young men who have AK-47s but no jobs.

L. Paul Bremer III, the American civil administrator who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and in effect runs Iraq, may have inadvertently recruited guerrillas for Saddam by disbanding the Iraqi Army and Baath Party, and leaving thousands of men with no visible means of support. Bremer reversed himself and put the soldiers back on a small salary, yet Iraq still swarms with men who are armed and trained to kill and blow things up. (Savvy saboteurs knocked down no fewer than 60 high-tension towers in one night during the last week of June, cutting out power almost completely in Baghdad for two days.) "Many Baathists did not support Saddam and would have been happy to work with the Americans, but when Bremer made his decision that Baathists have no place in the future of Iraq, they were desperate," says Mustafa, an Iraqi professional who works for the CPA and welcomes the American occupation, though not the way it is being carried out. "They think Saddam has money. Many people told me, 'For $100 I will fight for Saddam again'."

There are reports of $5,000 bounties for the death of each American. One lone assassin simply walked behind an American soldier, Specialist Jeff Warshaw, as he came back from getting a soda at Baghdad University, and shot him fatally at the base of the skull. "He was assassinated," says Capt. Blake Grass, commander of Warshaw's unit.

U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged for the first time last week that resistance seemed as if it was coordinated at the regional, if not the national, level. Some of the attackers are organized into groups or "cells" of up to 50 men. On the road between Baghdad and Al Qaim, a U.S. patrol came under fire from an RPG one night two weeks ago. The soldiers stopped to return the fire. They later discovered that buried alongside the road were seven or eight 3-foot-long projectiles, much larger than RPG rounds. They were wired together to detonate at once and blow up a whole convoy. Fortunately, the connection malfunctioned.

The guerrillas stay off the phones (the Americans might be eavesdropping) but signal each other by red and green cluster flares, rifle shots and whistles. Their weaponry is getting heavier and more high tech. Troops in Baghdad have been hit by mortar attacks. On June 21, a shoulder-held SA-7 antiaircraft missile was fired at a U.S. C-17 cargo plane as it was landing at Baghdad airport. The missile detonated before it hit the plane.

Such close scrapes and a steady splatter of attacks by RPG and machine gun have worn down the morale of some soldiers. The men of Alpha Company of the Third Infantry Division go by the call sign "Assassins" and have stenciled in-your-face names like anthrax and anguish on the cannons of their Abrams M1A1 tanks. They duked it out with Iraqi tankers in front of the Republican Guard Palace in the third week of the war--and relished the fight. "It was like a videogame," said Sgt. Renato Adennogr, a tank gunner. "Ping, another one, ping, ping." At first they were welcomed by the Iraqis. "Not even a dirty look," says company Capt. Phil Wolford.

But the good feeling is long gone. During the last week of June, just in Baghdad, Iraqis launched attacks on U.S. soldiers an average of 20 times a day, according to a confidential military report provided to NEWSWEEK. "All you do is try to help them and they just throw rocks at you and spit at you and shout at you," says Sgt. Paul Harris, who is stationed outside Baghdad. Good works now seem like a waste of time in the searing desert heat. Alpha Company brought in bulldozers to clean the trash off a neighborhood soccer field. The next day people used it as a dump again. "There's no trust anymore," says Sergeant Harris. "None."

Bremer, the American proconsul, is trying to put together an Iraqi ruling council, but in the meantime the Americans are blamed for whatever goes wrong or doesn't work, which in Iraq is almost everything. "There was a lot of good will toward the Americans when they got here, but they wasted it," says Mustafa, the pro-American Iraqi professional. "The Americans liberated Iraqis, but they also made a lot of promises which they haven't kept... All that people have seen so far is no electricity and water, and their city torn apart by looting that the Americans did nothing to stop."

Not surprisingly, the Army units in and around Baghdad have pulled back behind their armor and Kevlar. Nighttime raids seize hidden weapons and munitions, but also alienate the citizenry, especially when soldiers kick in the door of a house occupied by women. Chinese communist Mao Zedong once said that a guerrilla fighter is like "a fish that swims in the sea." The critical question is whether such rough (if necessary) tactics by the Americans will make Baghdad and its environs a shark tank.

Fortunately, the attacks have been mostly confined to the so-called Sunni Triangle, around Baghdad in central Iraq, where Iraq's sizable Sunni Muslim minority resides. The Kurds in the north and the majority Shiites in the south have been far friendlier, or at least docile, toward the American occupiers. They vividly remember the brutal oppression of Saddam's Sunni-dominated Baath Party.

American soldiers are relatively safe in non-Sunni Iraq. The Marine Expeditionary Force responsible for seven of Iraq's 18 provinces, the Shiite area that runs south of Baghdad down to Basra, can patrol on foot, without body armor or helmets. They stop to chat with the locals about crime or electricity blackouts, still a problem but slowly improving. In Karbala, some leathernecks on foot patrols often carry only their pistols and clubs to beat off packs of wild dogs that roam the town at night.

The Marines' morale remains high. "I know this sounds like the party line, but most of the guys here know that what they're doing is important," says Navy Corpsman Jay Smith, who serves with a Marine antiterrorist security unit. "They like the feeling that they're helping people who've been screwed over for 30 years by Saddam." Morale is improved by the prospect of going home: the MEF will soon hand over southern Iraq to Polish, Italian and Spanish troops.

The Bush administration is under pressure from Congress to bring in more foreign troops to share the burden. Last week the Senate voted 97 to 0 urging Bush to consider requesting a NATO force and calling for United Nations help in rounding up international peacekeeping forces for Iraq. But the French and Germans, who opposed the Iraq war, are balking at --helping an occupation force that is basically run by the United States.

In the meantime--and probably in the long run as well--American soldiers will bear the brunt of the messy job of bringing order and stability to Iraq. The Marines have a useful motto: "No better friend, no worse enemy." In other words, the Americans are there to help restore electricity and foster democracy, but also to move quickly and relentlessly to stamp out any insurgency. As historian Max Boot pointed out in The New York Times, the Marines have used a handbook called "The Small Wars Manual" since the 1930s. While "delay in force... will always be interpreted as weakness," the Marine handbook notes, "in small wars, tolerance, sympathy and kindness should be the keynote of our relationship with the mass of the population." That lesson was forgotten in Vietnam when the military tried to overwhelm the Viet Cong with mobility and firepower. If the United States wants to avoid a quagmire in Iraq, it will have to judiciously mix force and generosity, no mean feat. After decades of Baathism, most Iraqis know government only as an engine of repression and violence. Exorcising the ghost of Saddam could take years. Finding Saddam and his sons--dead or alive, and, if alive, bringing them to justice--may be a necessary first step.

Still Fighting Saddam | News