May 9, 2004
Gunmen loyal to Muqtada al Sadr are getting nervous, as public support, which was never very strong to begin with, turns to public hate. American troops have been arresting leaders of al Sadrs militia throughout the Shia areas of Iraq in the last few days. In most cases, the al Sadr gunmen flee rather than fight to protect their leaders. Some al Sadr men in Basra tried to seize more government buildings, but were driven off by British troops and chased back to residential areas where gunfire could be heard for hours. The strategy appears to be that the Shia leadership (civil and religious) will continue negotiating with al Sadr for his surrender, while coalition troops dismantle the al Sadr militias that have sprang up in many Shia neighborhoods. One good thing that has come out of the al Sadr experience is to convince many Iraqis that the independent militias are a bad thing. While it can be thrilling, at first, to march through the streets behind a bunch of young guys with guns, it soon turns ugly when the guys with guns start to throw their weight around and turn into capricious bullies.
Fallujah, which had become a refuge for all manner of Baath Party and anti-government gunmen and terrorists, is still blockaded by American marines. Patrols by the security forces recruited locally have gone on without much fuss. But the various gangs are still in and around the city. The Iraqi Fallujah Brigade apparently will not go looking for gunmen, but will just confront those who openly disturb the peace. Meanwhile, the gangs will use Fallujah as a base for attacks on coalition convoys and bases. The marines feel they may still have to go in and deal with the gangs. Eventually, someone, either from the coalition or Iraq, will have to kill or disarm the various Sunni, terrorist and criminal gangs in the Fallujah region. While the coalition would prefer that the Iraqis do it, there is a real fear that an Iraqi army, ordered in by an elected (by the majority Shia and Kurd) government, would simply level the city, with great loss of civilian life.
The violence by Sunni and Shia gangs has caused about 30 percent of non-Iraqi aid workers to leave since April. They have been replaced by Iraqis. This is very popular with Iraqis, who see unemployment as a major problem and were dismayed at the number of foreigners who were brought in to do jobs that most Iraqis thought Iraqis could handle. There have been few, practically none, losses among the 6,000 Iraqis already working on reconstruction. This is despite the threats, and sometimes physical violence, by Baath Party thugs. Despite the headlines by the foreign press, most of Iraq has been quiet for the past few months. The Sunni Arabs were hostile to the coalition from the beginning, and foreign reporters could always get a colorful anti-coalition quote or demonstration by just going to a Sunni neighborhood and looking for Saddam supporters. There was, and is, real fear in these neighborhoods. But not fear of coalition troops, but of the Shia and Kurd troops that will appear when the coalition soldiers leave. This story angle is rarely pursued by the media. But the troops in Iraq know all about it, as it's a matter of life and death to know which neighborhoods are pro-Baath Party, and which ones are not.