by Austin Bay
April 6, 2004
It's no Mogadishu, it's no Tet -- in fact, the ugly, baiting murders in Fallujah and Muqtada al-Sadr's made-for-Tv rebellion may be an extraordinary opportunity for the United States and Iraqi democrats, if the military operations and politics are handled with finesse.
As I write this column, elements of the U.S. First Marine Division have surrounded and entered Fallujah, Iraq, the site of last week's murder of four American civilian security agents. Compounding the crime was a Baath fascist replication, in vicious miniature, of the 1993 Mogadishu, Somalia, mutilation of the victims' corpses. It was a PR atrocity.
Within days of the massacre, al-Sadr's militiamen incited riots and shooting sprees in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Al-Sadr, a splinter-faction cleric who counts Iran as a financier and Hezbollah as a friend, is under indictment for the murder of another Shia imam. There's a warrant out for his arrest. Like a junior Al Capone, he responds to the rule of law by sending his gang into the street.
The Fallujah massacre and al-Sadr's riots are calculated, violent acts orchestrated by desperate thugs confronting imminent loss of power. An Iraqi democracy threatens the sorry lot of them, so they're taking their best shot at halting the process.
The Fallujah fascists and al-Sadr think they can defeat or at least deflect America by causing U.S. casualties, then parading the bodies before Peter Jennings and Al Jazeera. Al-Sadr adds another wrinkle: multiple "hotspots" to seed the impression of broad insurrection. It's a clever gambit, staging gunfights in Basra, Kut and Baghdad, and leverages contemporary cable Tv's appetite for 24-7 repetition and magnification. The goal is a "Tet effect," an echo of North Vietnam's 1968 offensive, which was a battlefield disaster for the North Vietnamese but a media (and hence political) victory.
However, Tet 1968 and Mogadishu 1993 are dated scripts. We're post 9-11. Even John Kerry, now scrambling for the political center, said of Fallujah, "United in sadness, we are also united in our resolve that these enemies will not prevail."
Many of us had hoped that proliferating communications technologies like backpack TV cameras and real-time Internet imagery would curb atrocities, that genocidal thugs and those who boss them would be reluctant to murder in front of a lens. I still believe the camera has had a moderating effect in some instances.
However, the Mogadishu precedent, where street battles, mob violence and combat on camera precipitated superpower withdrawal, spawned another opinion. Osama bin Laden and his ilk concluded America was spineless, a "weak horse" with little capacity for perseverance in the face of fanatic's willingness to kill. The fanaticism loomed larger and more potent if it was captured on camera.
It's now up to U.S. forces in Iraq, and available Iraqi security units, to provide a new televised precedent, an icy "city and neighborhood squeeze" documented on camera. In military terms, the U.S. and Iraqi forces will be conducting large-scale cordon and search operations (in Fallujah and in Sadr's alleys), supported by raids and limited attacks on diehard strong-points. Politically, the operation becomes a peculiar "show of force": Post 9-11, the challenge of thugs angling for "body bag" media victories will be met and trumped.
The Marines' Operation Vigilant Resolve in Fallujah appears to have this strategic goal in mind.
Iraqi security personnel are intimately involved, as interpreters and police. The uncensorable image for the cameras: New Iraq's security capability is growing.
The Marines are using loudspeakers to inform and direct the population, an uncensored message in Arabic demonstrating restrained American security techniques but insistent, focused and relentless American resolve. That's a paradox, but it's the new paradigm of the Fallujah precedent. We're not going to destroy neighborhoods, but we will eliminate resistance. The Marines are targeting specific suspects, using information gleaned from video, informants and various sensors, to include unmanned aerial vehicles.
I suspect coalition forces tackling Sadr and the Marines in Fallujah will wait out hostage situations when possible, but they will not wait forever. Such standoffs, with innocents grabbed by cornered militiamen, send another message: Baath and Islamo-fascists aren't leading popular rebellions, they are holding Iraqis hostage, to their own evil ends.