Guerilla War in Iraq?

An IDC Analysis 


New Delhi, 07 August 2003

Although US leaders like Rumsfeld have not yet publicly acknowledged it, American forces are currently involved in an extended, low-intensity conflict in Iraq. More precisely, they are involved in a guerrilla war in the Sunni areas of the country, including much of Baghdad proper as well as an arc that runs from due west to the north, now come to be known as the Sunni triangle. 

The almost daily guerrilla attacks against US forces have resulted in nearly 52 deaths (26 related to combat), since US President Bush declared the end of the major military operations. They have also tied down a substantial number of troops in counter insurgency operations, two of which (Operations Peninsula Freedom and Desert Scorpion) were launched in June. 

Even though the level of intensity is relatively low, this type of hostile but violent resistance can have a disproportionate effect strategically, even when it can be tactically and operationally managed. Since guerrillas choose the time and place of their own attacks and use mobility to evade counterattacks, they appear to be outfighting the regular forces. Even when they are merely holding their own or even losing, their continued operations generate a sense of power for them and weakness for the counter-guerrilla force.

The nature of counterinsurgency requires that guerrillas be distinguished from the general population. This is extremely difficult, particularly when the troops trying to make the distinction are foreign, untrained in the local language and therefore culturally incapable of making the subtle distinctions needed for identification.

There is another level on which the guerrilla war intersects strategy. The United States invaded Iraq in order to be perceived as a decisive military power set to change the world order after its own design. Guerrilla warfare inevitably undermines the regional perception of US power 末 justly or not 末 while creating the impression that the United States is limited in what it can do in the region militarily. Thus, the United States is in a tough spot. It cannot withdraw from Iraq and therefore must fight. But it must fight in a way that it avoids four things:

  • It cannot fight a war that alienates the general Iraqi populace sufficiently to generate recruits for the guerrillas and undermine the occupation.

  • It cannot lose control of the countryside; this could destabilize the entire occupation.

  • It cannot allow the guerrilla operation to undermine its ability to project forces elsewhere.

  • It cannot be allowed to extend the length of the conflict to such an extent that the US public determines that the cost is not worth the prize. The longer the war, the clearer the definition of the prize must be.

Therefore, the task for US forces is 末 first to identify the enemy (making intelligence the centerpiece), second to isolate the enemy from his supplies and from the population and finally destroy him. In retrospect, the strange capitulation of Baghdad 末 where large Iraqi formations simply melted away 末 appears to have been calculated to some degree.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban forces were not defeated in the cities. They declined combat, withdrawing and dispersing, then reorganizing and returning to guerrilla warfare. Saddam Hussein appears to have taken a page from that strategy. Certainly, most of his forces did not carry out a strategic retreat to return as guerrilla fighters; most went home. However, a cadre of troops 末 first encountered as Mujahideen fighters in Basra, Al Nasiriyah and Karbala 末 seems to have withdrawn to fight as guerrillas. What is important is that they have retained cohesion. That does not necessarily mean that they are all being controlled from a central location, although the tempo of operations 末 daily attacks in different locations seems to imply an element of planning by someone. This control and co-ordination has to some extent abated after the killing of Saddam痴 sons.

Vo Nguyen Giap, who commanded communist forces against both France and US in Vietnam, divided guerrilla war into three stages:

  • Stage one 末 very small unit, hit-and-run actions without any attempt to hold territory.

  • Stage two 末 continuation of stage one attacks combined with larger units, regimental and below, engaging in more intense attacks and taking and holding remote terrain as needed.

  • Stage three 末 conventional warfare against a weakened enemy who is engaged and defeated.

The Iraqi Achilles heel is that the transition from the current level of hit-and-run operations is very difficult to achieve. This means that the Iraqis will have to remain at this level of operations for an extended period of time. How long depends as much on their resources as on their intentions. How many fighters they have, how secure their command system is, where their weapons are located and how many they have, will determine the length of the fight.

The key for the United States is the destruction of the Iraqi guerrilla command and control system. The North Vietnamese had a clearly defined command and control system, but it was in the north and in Cambodia. There were sanctuaries. At this moment, it would appear that the Iraqis have no sanctuary. Therefore, the command centers are within political and military reach of the United States. The question is where are they? Where are Hussein and his other commanders? Gen Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Tikriti, Hussein's No. 4 commander and some others have been seized in recent raids in Tikrit.

What is not yet clear is whether this is the beginning of the systematic collapse of the guerrilla command structure or whether Saddam is irrelevant to that. Destroy or capture Saddam and his remaining commanders, and the Ba-athist supporters will not be able to resist a general offensive. This has become the heart of the military equation. To ensure success, the US Department of Defense (DoD) has announced plans for maintaining US troops in Iraq over the next year and beyond and identified units that will begin replacing current forces in September. The plan will see active US Army units deployed on one-year tours in Iraq although six-month rotations will continue in Afghanistan and the Balkans. About 150,000 US military personnel will remain in Iraq for the time being upto 2004.

On the other hand, the Iraqi guerrillas are embracing the tactics of terrorists by targeting civilians. On 05 Aug, an improvised explosive device 末 a weapon favored by Saddam loyalists 末 was ignited near a truck carrying an American contractor for Kellogg Brown & Root, an engineering and construction company involved in rebuilding Iraq. The explosion killed the worker, making him the first American civilian killed in Iraq since Baghdad fell to the coalition on April 9. In addition, three other civilians have been killed in guerrilla ambushes 末 a British journalist, a Sri Lankan worker for the Red Cross and an Iraqi driver for the United Nations.

Pro-Saddam fighters have also killed Iraqi politicians and police who are helping the coalition transform the Ba'athist-run country into a democracy. In a high-profile assassination last month, Saddam loyalists ambushed and killed Mohammed Nayil al-Jurayfi, the pro-American mayor of Hadithah. The mayor's son also was assassinated.

As this piece is being written on 07 Aug, at least eight people were killed in a large explosion at the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. Some of those killed were reportedly embassy staff and guards. Others are thought to be in cars parked close to the embassy. After the explosion, Iraqis stormed the building, smashing portraits of Jordan's King Abdullah II and his father King Hussein. In a separate incident, two American soldiers were killed in a firefight in the al-Rashid district of Baghdad late on Aug 06.

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