Iraq: March 28, 2003


Saddam Hussein has learned a lot from the major tyrants of the 20th century. In particular, he admired Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and the bureaucracies of terror both men built. The current Iraqi government is an odd combination of Nazism and Stalinism, using organized terror in administering the country, and for encouraging Iraqis to fight coalition forces. The tactic of threatening reluctant Iraqi troops with death, and worse, if they don't fight, is a method used with brutal effectiveness by Stalin's secret police during World War II. In 1942, for example, one reason Russian troops fought so valiantly against the Germans at Stalingrad was because 19,000 Russian soldiers (according to recently released Soviet documents) were shot by their own officers for insufficient enthusiasm. Stalin's police would also jail and torture the families of soldiers who did not "do their duty for the motherland." At the time it was said that it took a very courageous man not be brave in the Red Army.

Iraq's use of Stalinist terror tactics to force Iraqis to make suicide attacks on American troops was unexpected. Saddam's secret police, Baath Party and Fedayeen have long used terror to compel compliance from the population. Refugees have told of this sort of brutality for decades. Saddam's thugs typically tortured and killed relatives of anyone who betrayed Saddam. This group punishment is an ancient practice, and still widely used in the Middle East. But the brutality of Saddam's henchmen is off the scale, including rape and mutilation that was, at first, not believed by Western officials. Then they saw the scars from wounds on defectors who had survived this treatment, and kept encountering more and more victims. Oddly enough, there was never much of an uproar against this in the West or in the Moslem world. Saddam was seen as "bad" but "someone we could do business with." Now Saddam's way of doing business is forcing Iraqi men to make suicidal attacks on coalition troops or see their families tortured and killed. This is being heard from Iraqi attackers who survive their encounters with coalition troops. Saddam's people supervise these attacks, standing behind the attackers, ready to shoot any that hesitate. Coalition troops have found many attackers who were shot in the back while advancing on coalition troops. 

Not all of the Iraqis attacking coalition troops are compelled to. Indeed, the fact that everyone knows what Saddam's supporters will do if you don't go fight has a tendency to encourage the faint hearted. The attacking groups are not very professional and tend to be quite brittle (breaking and running if you promptly shoot back at them.) The attackers also tend to get confused and easily outmaneuvered by better trained and disciplined coalition troops. Some coalition troops dismissively call the Iraqi attackers "target practice" after several encounters. But the attacks are a chore, with extra troops needed for guard duty at night. But the attackers find that the night attacks are more suicidal than the day ones because all coalition troops are equipped with night vision devices. The Iraqis don't have this and think they are sneaking up on coalition troops in the dark, until they are shot down by coalition troops who were watching the Iraqis for some time. 

These brutal tactics by Saddam's supporters was apparently not planned for. British Royal Marine Commands are advocating changing the plan of attack and going into Iraqi cities and killing the Saddam loyalists and thus putting an end to the reign of terror. But it takes commando class troops to do this, as a lot of careful scouting and small unit raids are needed to carry out this sort of thing. The Royal Marine Commandos, and some US Marine units train for this. But the U.S. Army depends on it's Special Forces and Rangers for these operations. The current strategy calls for going after Saddam, after which his supporters would largely fall apart. This is probably true, although after Saddam is gone, the coalition would have no choice but to go after all the Saddam supporters. 

The growing number of Iraqi soldiers and government officials being taken prisoner is providing a lot more information about what is actually going on in Iraq. For example, a dozen or so of the men making attacks on coalition troops in southern Iraq are al Qaeda members who had been given sanctuary in Iraq. 

Coalition columns continue moving closer to Baghdad, while fighting Iraqi irregulars along several hundred kilometers of supply lines. These attacks cause few casualties, but wear out the coalition troops and increase the time it takes to move up supplies. To help with this, a hundred kilometers of pipeline is being quickly built in Kuwait, so that coalition fuel trucks only need go to the Kuwait border to fill up and then make their run to combat units close to Baghdad.

The six Republican Guard divisions arrayed around Baghdad are being bombed regularly and there appears to be an effort to damage these divisions severely before they can pull back into Baghdad. The Iraqi government expects all the roads into Baghdad to be cut off by coalition forces within another week.

Thousands of Iraqi civilians are trying to flee Saddam's brutal supporters in Basra. This presents a problem for British troops surrounding the city, as there might be armed Iraqis among the civilians, wearing civilian clothes. 

The pundits are already making comparisons to Vietnam, but there are some important differences. The main one being that Saddam's government is a brutal dictatorship that is unpopular with most of the population and that there are no nearby nations providing support for Saddam's followers. Even the Iraqi government admits that it is cut off and not able to hold out for a long time. Saddam's major weapon is media manipulation and turning himself into a heroic Arab folk hero, bravely fighting off the evil Western crusaders. The reality is different, but that doesn't mean you can't reinvent yourself via the media. Madonna has done it several times. 

The bombing of Baghdad continues, attacking more communications targets and using deep penetrator "bunker buster" bombs. Foreign reporters can tell when these are used, as they cause an effect similar to a small earthquake. 

After one week of operations, U.S. forces have suffered 22 killed in combat, six dead in accidents (including two killed by a soldier attacking other soldiers in Kuwait). Seven troops are prisoners and 17 are missing. By historical standards, these are record lows in casualties for troops actively campaigning against an armed enemy. 

In northern Iraq, Iraqi troops are pulling back towards Kirkuk. American paratroopers that arrived yesterday are apparently the first of many more U.S. troops that will be entering northern Iraq. Kurdish militiamen advanced to take the abandoned Iraqi positions. 

The U.S. has another 120,000 troops on the way to Iraq or alerted for such duty.

Coalition strategy still has the option of going for decapitation via an attack on Baghdad. But there appears to be doubt that they could break the will of Saddam's supporters inside Baghdad and quickly find Saddam. Drawn out street fighting in Baghdad, even though coalition forces would have the edge, would still result in higher coalition casualties and higher civilian losses. Apparently, some new moves are being contemplated, including those involving the ongoing negotiations with some Iraqi leaders.

The current situation is great for the media. Bad news sells better than good news. A quick victory in Iraq is not as compelling as fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) and the prospect of bloody street fighting in Baghdad. The pundits can now rake coalition military and civilian leaders over the coals for not delivering a quick win, and denounce those who would turn Iraq into a bloodbath with their bad decisions. 




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