March 23, 2007:
General Dave Petraeus, the new
commander in Iraq, has a reputation for quickly fixing problems. Earlier this
month, he became aware of troop commanders adding additional restrictions to
the ROE (Rules of Engagement). Troops who violated these additional
restrictions (like firing at someone who was suspicious, but not firing on
them) got chewed out, interrogated, or worse. This was causing troops to hold
their fire, even when they were in danger. That hurt morale. So Patraeus issued
a clarification, saying that self-defense was of paramount importance, and that
the existing ROE would be used as-is, without any additional restrictions by
lower ranking officers.
That helped, but there's still a problem. The
terrorists are ruthless and clever. They know that American troops are
discouraged from firing at mosques and unarmed civilians. So the terrorists
have developed several clever tactics to exploit these restrictions. One is to
have weapons placed in several buildings, or hidden outdoors, in an area
usually crowded with civilians. Thus the several gunmen can fire a few shots at
passing American troops, put the weapon down, back away from the area (or run
out a back door) and go to where they have hidden another AK-47, sniper rifle or
RPG launcher, and repeat the process. The gunmen keep this up until the
Americans pass, dismount and find the weapons, or kill some civilians. The last
outcome is the desired one, because this becomes fodder for some great
propaganda about the bloodthirsty American killers of innocent Iraqis.
Terrorists also like to fire from mosques, although
this is becoming less popular now that U.S. troops often have Iraqi soldiers
with them, or on call. Americans generally don't fire on, or go into, mosques
(again, because of the Information War angles), but Iraqis troops can, and do.
The people running the mosques are increasingly unwilling to host terrorists,
and get raided by the cops. This has led to shootouts inside the mosques,
between pro and anti-terrorist factions.
It gets worse. Recently, a car bomber was found
using two children in the back seat to get him through a check point. Once
past, he parked the car, got out, ran away, detonated the hidden explosives by
remote control, killing the kids in the backseat, as well as several
bystanders. So troops can expect to see some vehicles on the roads, near
convoys, moving in a threatening manner, but with kids in the backseat. What's
a soldier to do? Clarifying the ROE helps, but it is not as decisive a move as
you might think.