Iraq: Culture Clash, Public Order and How the War is Fought


December 4, 2005: Americans in Iraq quickly discover that they are in a different culture. It's a violent culture, where the public order we take for granted in the U.S. does not exist in many parts of the country. What is going on here? Don't the Iraqis appreciate our efforts to liberate them from Saddam Hussein's cruel rule? Well, most Iraqis do, but a sizable number want to bring back the good old days (for them), and are taking advantage of some aspects of Arab culture to make it so. Understand this, and you understand what is going on in Iraq.

Iraq has been a violent place for centuries, a fact missed by most reporters. This historical aspect of the area explains much about why, and how, current military operations proceed. The basic problem in Iraq is that the people there have never had a central government they could trust. Thousands of years of kings, sultans, caliphs, emperors and warlords will do that to you. Iraq is just now moving to "rule of the people," rather than rule by a nasty SOB with lots of heavily armed and mean tempered friends. The American effort in Iraq means to make Saddam the last such tyrant to rule the area. But there are some obstacles to overcome first.

Who does rule Iraq these days? It's the "traditional leaders." Under the ancient "SOB and his thugs" model, the main goal of the tyrant was to stay in power and get rich (in that order.) Saddam was an exemplary example of that model. But the day-to-day running of the country was largely left to more traditional arrangements. Tribal and religious leaders provided services people needed to survive. Even much of the infrastructure, like roads and irrigation works, was at least maintained via local leadership. The tyrant might contribute (or loan) the large sums of money needed for major efforts, but the locals were on their own when it came to keeping things going. Saddam used infrastructure investments as another way to keep his core followers (the Sunni Arabs) loyal, and to punish those who would always hate him (Kurds and Shia Arabs). Thus U.S. troops note that the roads and public works are more abundant and in better repair in Sunni Arab areas.

Local leadership was also allowed to maintain public order, or else. Saddam depended mostly on domestic spies to maintain control. He had muscle, to terrorize those who were not behaving. The Sunni Arabs dominated the army and national police. But Saddam had multiple intelligence and security organizations, so everyone was being watched. This is great for maintaining a dictator in power, but not much help in keeping the streets safe. Saddam didn't care much about criminal gangs, as long as he got a cut, and the gangsters were available to help terrorize those who appeared disloyal. Gangsters being outlaws at heart, Saddam made space in his prisons for some of them. Most of the prisoners were there for political reasons. The criminal prisoners were expected to help with getting information from the "politicals," and keeping these disloyal Iraqis in order. Before the 2003 invasion, Saddam emptied the prisons, expect for some of the politicals, and created a golden age for criminal gangs in Iraq.

With Saddam's secret police gone, the tribal and religious leaders were able to form their own militias. These were needed to deal with the criminal gangs, and other militias, especially some of the religious militias. Saddam had kept the peace through terror, and with the government terrorists in disarray, people looked to their traditional leaders for security, as well as the usual dispute arbitration, emergency relief and favors in general. In return, as they had always done, the people offered loyalty, and sometimes their lives, to the tribal sheikhs and Islamic clerics.

There was one major problem with these local arrangements, some of these groups wanted Saddam back, and many of them had violent disputes with other groups, which were now often being settled with guns, not tribal elders. The Sunni Arab tribes had lost most of their income when Saddam was toppled, and his civil servants and army disbanded. Worse yet, many Kurds and Shia Arabs were actively seeking revenge for decades of Sunni Arab terror. But it got worse still, as there was no central leadership in the Sunni Arab community. In such an atmosphere, everyone tried just about everything, usually with the help of bullets and explosives.Criminal gangs flourished, and still do, because of the lack of courts and reliable police.

For the first year or so, Sunni Arabs put aside the beefs they had with each other, as they loosely cooperated to oppose the foreign invader, and the attempt by the formerly subordinate Kurds and Shia Arabs (80 percent of the population) to form a government and run the place. But once the government came together, splits began to appear in the Sunni Arab unity. Some, and increasingly more, Sunni Arabs wanted peace, and are willing to accept it as a minority in Iraq. But many Sunni Arabs are not willing to settle for that status, and be at the mercy of the people they long ruled.

The lack of unity in this Sunni Arab resistance has doomed the movement to failure. There have been several hundred different groups fighting over the last two years. Most have disappeared, Some of these groups are well known in the West, like "Al Qaeda in Iraq." But most of the anti-government groups are led by tribal, religious or criminal leaders. A few are led by foreigners, most noticeably al Qaeda. But even al Qaeda was only able to survive because of tribal support. Religious and criminal leaders could obtain temporary loyalty, but you always belonged to your tribe, clan and immediate family. This was the ultimate safety net in a very violent world.

There are nearly a hundred of these anti-government groups still in business. They survive largely because one or more tribes tolerate, or actively support, them. The anti-government groups come and go because of combat losses (especially the death or arrest of the leaders), or tribal politics (the sheikh and the elders decide to cooperate with the government). Sometimes, there is violence, as the tribes are forced to fight to make it clear that the terrorists are no longer welcome. Some of the terrorist groups have moved to another area, and continued to fight back at the tribe that ditched them. This usually takes the form of assassination attempts (often successful) against tribal leaders. Many of these little wars are still going on, but don't get much coverage in the Western media. The hard core terrorist groups have been steadily losing ground over the last year. This has caused a decrease in suicide bombings, but an increase in American combat casualties, as U.S. troops move into the strongholds of the hard core terrorist groups, and wipe them out, one by one. This fighting is reminiscent of that on the Pacific islands, against Japanese troops, during World War II. The Japanese were outgunned, out fought and rarely surrendered. Same style of fighting is being seen in Iraq. This even extends to the suicidal "Banzai" attack Japanese troops would often make. These energetic, but rarely successful, frontal attacks, were a Japanese custom, it being seen as more honorable, once the situation is hopeless, to stand up and die making a desperate attack, than to wait for the Americans to dig you out. Iraqi terrorists are sometimes coming out and making these hopeless attacks, suffering the same fate as the Japanese.

The Sunni Arab terrorists are sustained largely by encouragement from foreign Sunnis, and portrayal as nationalist and religious heroes in many Arab news outlets. But inside Iraq, it's a lost cause, coming to a bad end, as the losers try to take as many of their enemies with them as they can.


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