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Iraq is a bloody no man's land. America has failed to win the war. But has it lost it? - Independent, UK

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  • Zafar Khan
    Iraq is a bloody no man s land. America has failed to win the war. But has it lost it? Ten US troops were killed in action across Iraq last week. The fighting
    Message 1 of 1 , May 15, 2005
      Iraq is a bloody no man's land. America has failed to
      win the war. But has it lost it?

      Ten US troops were killed in action across Iraq last
      week. The fighting is now sustained and ferocious.
      Patrick Cockburn, winner of the Martha Gellhorn prize
      for journalism, reports from the frontline of
      America's war on terror
      15 May 2005


      "The battlefield is a great place for liars,"
      Stonewall Jackson once said on viewing the aftermath
      of a battle in the American civil war.

      The great general meant that the confusion of battle
      is such that anybody can claim anything during a war
      and hope to get away with it. But even by the
      standards of other conflicts, Iraq has been
      particularly fertile in lies. Going by the claims of
      President George Bush, the war should long be over
      since his infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech on 1
      May 2003. In fact most of the 1,600 US dead and 12,000
      wounded have become casualties in the following two

      The ferocious resistance encountered last week by the
      1,000-strong US marine task force trying to fight its
      way into villages around the towns of Qaim and Obeidi
      in western Iraq shows that the war is far from over.
      So far nine marines have been killed in the week-long
      campaign, while another US soldier was killed and four
      wounded in central Iraq on Friday. Meanwhile, a car
      bomb targeting a police patrol exploded in central
      Baghdad yesterday, killing at least five Iraqis and
      injuring 12.

      Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the leader of one of
      the Kurdish parties, confidently told a meeting in
      Brasilia last week that there is war in only three or
      four out of 18 Iraqi provinces. Back in Baghdad Mr
      Talabani, an experienced guerrilla leader, has
      deployed no fewer than 3,000 Kurdish soldiers or
      peshmerga around his residence in case of attack. One
      visitor was amused to hear the newly elected President
      interrupt his own relentlessly upbeat account of
      government achievements to snap orders to his aides on
      the correct positioning of troops and heavy weapons
      around his house.

      There is no doubt that the US has failed to win the
      war. Much of Iraq is a bloody no man's land. The army
      has not been able to secure the short highway to the
      airport, though it is the most important road in the
      country, linking the US civil headquarters in the
      Green Zone with its military HQ at Camp Victory.

      Ironically, the extent of US failure to control Iraq
      is masked by the fact that it is too dangerous for the
      foreign media to venture out of central Baghdad. Some
      have retreated to the supposed safety of the Green
      Zone. Mr Bush can claim that no news is good news,
      though in fact the precise opposite is true.

      Embedded journalism fosters false optimism. It means
      reporters are only present where American troops are
      active, though US forces seldom venture into much of
      Iraq. Embedded correspondents bravely covered the
      storming of Fallujah by US marines last November and
      rightly portrayed it as a US military success. But the
      outside world remained largely unaware, because no
      reporters were present with US forces, that at the
      same moment an insurgent offensive had captured most
      of Mosul, a city five times larger than Fallujah.

      Why has the vastly expensive and heavily equipped US
      army failed militarily in Iraq? After the crescendo of
      violence over the past month there should be no doubts
      that the US has not quashed the insurgents whom for
      two years American military spokesmen have portrayed
      as a hunted remnant of Saddam Hussein's regime
      assisted by foreign fighters.

      The failure was in part political. Immediately after
      the fall of Saddam Hussein polls showed that Iraqis
      were evenly divided on whether they had been liberated
      or occupied. Eighteen months later the great majority
      both of Sunni and Shia said they had been occupied,
      and they did not like it. Every time I visited a spot
      where an American soldier had been killed or a US
      vehicle destroyed there were crowds of young men and
      children screaming their delight. "I am a poor man but
      I am going home to cook a chicken to celebrate," said
      one man as he stood by the spot marked with the blood
      of an American soldier who had just been shot to

      Many of the resistance groups are bigoted Sunni Arab
      fanatics who see Shia as well as US soldiers as
      infidels whom it is a religious duty to kill. Others
      are led by officers from Saddam's brutal security
      forces. But Washington never appreciated the fact that
      the US occupation was so unpopular that even the most
      unsavoury groups received popular support.

      From the start, there was something dysfunctional
      about the American armed forces. They could not adapt
      themselves to Iraq. Their massive firepower meant they
      won any set-piece battle, but it also meant that they
      accidentally killed so many Iraqi civilians that they
      were the recruiting sergeants of the resistance. The
      army denied counting Iraqi civilian dead, which might
      be helpful in dealing with American public opinion.
      But Iraqis knew how many of their people were dying.

      The US war machine was over-armed. I once saw a unit
      trying to restore order at a petrol station where
      there was a fist fight between Iraqi drivers over
      queue-jumping (given that people sometimes sleep two
      nights in their cars waiting to fill a tank, tempers
      were understandably frayed). In one corner was a
      massive howitzer, its barrel capable of hurling a
      shell 30km, which the soldiers had brought along for
      this minor policing exercise.

      The US army was designed to fight a high-technology
      blitzkrieg, but not much else. It required large
      quantities of supplies and its supply lines were
      vulnerable to roadside bombs. Combat engineers,
      essentially sappers, lamented that they had received
      absolutely no training in doing this. Even
      conventional mine detectors did not work. Roadsides in
      Iraq are full of metal because Iraqi drivers normally
      dispose of soft drink cans out the window. Sappers
      were reduced to prodding the soil nervously with
      titanium rods like wizards' wands. Because of poor
      intelligence and excessive firepower, American
      operations all became exercises in collective
      punishment. At first the US did not realise that all
      Iraqi men have guns and they considered possession of
      a weapon a sign of hostile intention towards the
      occupation. They confiscated as suspicious large
      quantities of cash in farmers' houses, not realising
      that Iraqis often keep the family fortune at home in
      $100 bills ever since Saddam Hussein closed the banks
      before the Gulf war and, when they reopened, Iraqi
      dinar deposits were almost worthless.

      The US army was also too thin on the ground. It has
      145,000 men in Iraq, but reportedly only half of these
      are combat troops. During the heavily publicised
      assault on Fallujah the US forces drained the rest of
      Iraq of its soldiers. "We discovered the US troops had
      suddenly abandoned the main road between Kirkuk and
      Baghdad without telling anybody," said one indignant
      observer. "It promptly fell under the control of the

      The army acts as a sort of fire brigade, briefly
      effective in dousing the flames, but always moving on
      before they are fully extinguished. There are only
      about 6,000 US soldiers in Nineveh province, of which
      Mosul is the capital and which has a population of
      three million. For the election on 30 January, US
      reserves arriving in Iraq were all sent to Mosul to
      raise the level to 15,000 to prevent any uprising in
      the city. They succeeded in doing so but were then
      promptly withdrawn.

      The shortage of US forces has a political explanation.
      Before the war Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of
      Defence, and his neo-conservative allies derided
      generals who said an occupation force numbering
      hundreds of thousands would be necessary to hold Iraq.
      When they were proved wrong they dealt with failure by
      denying it had taken place.

      There is a sense of bitterness among many US National
      Guardsmen that they have been shanghaied into fighting
      in a dangerous war. I was leaving the Green Zone one
      day when one came up to me and said he noticed that I
      had a limp and kindly offered to show me a quicker way
      to the main gate. As we walked along he politely asked
      the cause of my disability. I explained I had had
      polio many years ago. He sighed and said he too had
      had his share of bad luck. Since he looked hale and
      hearty this surprised me. "Yes," he said bitterly. "My
      bad luck was that I joined the Washington State
      National Guard which had not been called up since
      1945. Two months later they sent me here where I stand
      good chance of being killed."

      The solution for the White House has been to build up
      an Iraqi force to take the place of US soldiers. This
      has been the policy since the autumn of 2003 and it
      has repeatedly failed. In April 2004, during the first
      fight for Fallujah, the Iraqi army battalions either
      mutinied before going to the city or refused to fight
      against fellow Iraqis once there. In Mosul in November
      2004 the 14,000 police force melted away during the
      insurgent offensive, abandoning 30 police stations and
      $40m in equipment. Now the US is trying again. By the
      end of next year an Iraqi army and police force
      totalling 300,000 should be trained and ready to
      fight. Already they are much more evident in the
      streets of Baghdad and other cities.

      The problem is that the troops are often based on
      militias which have a sectarian or ethnic base. The
      best troops are Kurdish peshmerga. Shia units are
      often connected with the Badr Brigade which fought on
      the side of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. When 14 Sunni
      farmers from the Dulaimi tribe were found executed in
      Baghdad a week ago the Interior Ministry had to deny
      what was widely believed, that they had been killed by
      a Shia police unit.

      The greatest failure of the US in Iraq is not that
      mistakes were made but that its political system has
      proved incapable of redressing them. Neither Mr
      Rumsfeld nor his lieutenants have been sacked. Paul
      Wolfowitz, under-secretary of defence and architect of
      the war, has been promoted to the World Bank.

      Almost exactly a century ago the Russian empire fought
      a war with Japan in the belief that a swift victory
      would strengthen the powers-that-be in St Petersburg.
      Instead the Tsar's armies met defeat. Russian
      generals, who said that their tactic of charging
      Japanese machine guns with sabre-wielding cavalry had
      failed only because their men had attacked with
      insufficient brio, held their jobs. In Iraq, American
      generals and their political masters of demonstrable
      incompetence are not fired. The US is turning out to
      be much less of a military and political superpower
      than the rest of the world had supposed.

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