Iraq: Al Qaeda Reinvents the Banzai Charge


March 23, 2006: Radical Sunni leader Saleh Mutloq is apparently being frozen out by more moderate Sunni political and religious leaders. Although not overtly committed to the armed attacks on the government, Mutloq's rhetoric is often very inflammatory, which more moderate Sunnis see as merely making things worse as they try to develop a role in the new government. Most Sunni Arabs want to make peace with, and avoid angering, the majority Kurds and Shia Arabs. More Saddam era army officers, for example, are offering to join the new army. When these officers go through a background check, more and more, it comes back clean. That means the officer's family is also behind their guy rejoining the army. It also means that the family is prepared, although not enthusiastic about, taking the heat from Sunni Arab and al Qaeda terrorists, who try to kill any Sunni Arab officers serving in the new army.

About 75 of the Iraqi Army's battalions are more or less capable of conducting operations without excessive oversight, though still needing logistical, heavy weapons, and other technical support. Maybe 8-10 brigade headquarters are up to coordinating multi-battalion operations. But only one or two of the ten or so divisions are good enough to conduct large scale operations. The main problem is the lack of trained and experienced senior officers. Few of the Saddam era officers proved competent, or loyal (to the Shia led government) enough to serve in the new army. The competence problem had two aspects. First, most Saddam era officers were selected primarily for their loyalty, not their military competence. Many, however, were effective military commanders. But they were trained in Russian style methods, which emphasized tight control from above, and little initiative at the bottom. This is just the opposite of the American/NATO style.

Many officers trained in the Russian style cannot, late in their careers, switch to American methods. This was encountered when the East European communist governments fell in 1989, and those nations joined NATO in the 1990s. This required that their armed forces learn NATO methods, so they could operate with West European NATO forces. Many of the communist era officers could not make the shift to the, to them, radically different methods.

The loyalty question is a bit more complex. Many of the Saddam era officers were loyal to Saddam because they were all Sunni Arabs, and if you wanted a military career, Saddam was your man. Saddam made much of his being a Sunni Arab. Saddam was also a brutal tyrant, and some Saddam era army officers got in trouble for commenting on that. After Saddam fell, there were many army officers glad to see him go. But most of these officers belonged to families or clans that wanted another Sunni Arab running Iraq. Thus family pressure kept a lot of very competent officers from joining the new army. And then there were the terrorists (both pro-Saddam and al Qaeda), who were quick to kill any Sunni Arabs who served in the new army. Despite all this, there are several hundred, very competent, Saddam era officers serving in the new army. But that is far less than the number needed to run a ten division force. You need over a thousand senior (Major and up) officers to man all those battalion, brigade and divisional headquarters.

Another problem is the political complications involved when you try to remove an incompetent commander. In the American practice, you quickly remove untried commanders who, in combat situations, prove incapable of doing the job. During American wars, it was not unusual for a battalion to have several commanders dismissed during several months of combat. When one was found capable of doing the job, he was definitely the real deal. But the only way to find the hot-shots is to quickly get rid of those who were not able to hack it. In Iraq, when you fire a military commander, you are insulting his whole family and clan. Trying to explain this as, "the more effective American way of running an army" does not always mollify the angry kin. Many Iraqi politicians understand that these dismissals are necessary, but the social and political blowback is painful, and sometimes, the dismissals are overruled. When the officer in question screws up again, you go through the dismissal drill once more, and often succeed in getting the guy out.

It's going to take several years of fighting, or 5-10 years of peace time training and evaluation, to fill all the command and staff positions with effective officers. In the meantime, the Iraqi army is going to be a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the better intelligence resulting from more Iraqi police on the streets, played a role in a commando raid that freed three Western kidnap victims. There were originally four captives, but one, an American, was murdered.

March 22, 2006: Terrorists attacked a police station in Mandan, south of Baghdad. The station was not captured, but four policemen died. The police responded by counterattacking, and captured fifty of the attackers. As police establish themselves in Sunni Arab towns, there is often a showdown with the local tribal or religious leadership, as well as any terrorist groups. The terrorists often flee, because they know that, once they show themselves, the police, with American backup, will find and kill them. But there are fewer places for the terrorists to run. Attacking a police station, to free your captured buddies, is a suicidal way to operate. It's reminiscent of Japanese tactics during World War II. American troops learned that, when the Japanese were cornered and out of options, there would be a last, desperate, and suicidal "Banzai" charge. Shouting "Banzai" ("Ten Thousand Years"), the Japanese troops would come straight at the Americans. The Japanese expected to die, but considered this kind of attack more honorable than waiting for the Americans to blow them out of bunkers and caves. Sometimes a Banzai charge would succeed, although the attackers were eventually wiped out. Such has been the case for those attacking Iraqi police stations over the last 18 months.

March 19, 2006: For the first time in over a year, terrorists attacked and captured a police station. About two dozen gunmen attacked the police compound in Muqdadiyah, a Sunni town north of Baghsad, at north. They arrived in five automobiles, and killed 17 policemen, freed 33 prisoners (apparently their main objective). At least ten of the attackers were killed, and identification of the bodies will lead to a round up of those involved. One of the dead attackers was a Syrian, and he was carrying al Qaeda documents and leaflets.


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