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Facing A Shiite Baghdad
File photo of Shiites celebrating their electoral vistory in the recent Iraqi elections. Photo courtesy AFP.
File photo of Shiites celebrating their electoral vistory in the recent Iraqi elections. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) Dec 27, 2006
It will take a lot more than a "surge" of 30,000 or 40,000 American troops to "bring peace" to Baghdad: 10 times that many probably could not do it. An important article by Sabrina Tavernise published in The New York Times Saturday explains why, although U.S. policymakers appear blind to its obvious lessons. The article's title tells all -- "District by District, Shiites Make Baghdad Their Own."

Tavernise's article documents devlopments we have warned about and predicted in this column repeatedly over the past 10 months. It describes how the Iraqi capital of 7 million people is falling ever more tightly under the control of a web of violent Shiite militias dominating its major neighborhoods while the Shiite-dominated national government is simultaneously powerless to stop it and passively complicit in the process.

Currently, the op-ed pages of American newspapers and talk show hosts around the United States are talking glibly about "unleashing" the U.S. armed forces to bring security to Baghdad.

However, neither the U.S. armed forces nor the ramshackle Iraqi parliamentary-democratic system that U.S. authorities have imposed on Iraq have brought peace, prosperity, security or basic guaranteed daily services of life to the Iraqi capital. For these, the people of Baghdad, especially the ever-growing Shiite majority, have come to rely on their neighborhood militias. They have become the real government of the Iraqi capital.

As we have repeatedly emphasized in these columns over the past nine months, "Beirut Rules" or "Belfast Rules" now operate in the city of Baghdad.

In Belfast from 1969 through 1994 and in Beirut from 1975 through 1991, the professional armies of major states never made the mistake of thinking they could totally annihilate the guerrilla/paramilitary forces operating in the country.

Belfast had always been a British city so the British Army was never an army of military occupation there. The guerrilla insurgency of the Irish Republican Army came only from a small minority of the Catholic community of Northern Ireland which itself was only one third of the total population. But the British Army managed to tame the IRA by waging relatively limited military operations against it and putting its main emphasis on intelligence and diplomatic/political dialogue with the political wing of the group, Sinn Fein.

The great Israeli historian Martin Van Crefeld has argued that the success of the British Army in containing and reducing the levels of guerrilla violence and sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland came precisely because they used only a little firepower instead of a lot, and because their forces took more casualties than they inflicted.

The Syrian Army in Beirut was far more of an outside, foreign presence than the British Army in Northern Ireland ever was. Yet for all their famed ruthlessness, after their initial entry into Lebanon in the mid-1970s, the Syrians never made the mistake of trying to wage a direct war of annihilation against any of the most powerful sectarian militias they had to deal with.

The reason for this was that in both cases, the militia forces were deeply rooted in their own local community strongholds and were seen by a significant plurality and often a majority of their inhabitants as the community's defenders. War against them was therefore seen as war against the entire community. The more force that was used by outsiders against militia forces and the more civilian casualties it caused, the more the remaining civilians, especially the families and friends of the dead and injured, would be motivated to rally to the militias' cause.

That is the nightmare scenario that the U.S. armed forces could face if they were forced to fight a campaign of annihilation or repression against the dominant Shiite militias that increasingly control the city of Baghdad. The idea would be for the U.S. armed forces to be acting in a supportive role in alliance and partnership with the Iraqi police and army, who would be operating on behalf of the democratically elected Iraqi government.

But the reality would be far different. The Iraqi armed forces and police remain highly unreliable with a senior U.S. officer recently publicly admitting that as many as 25 percent of the senior commanders of the Iraqi police had significant ties to the Shiite militias.

The more U.S. firepower and military force would be used against the militias, and the more civilian casualties that would be inflicted as a by-product of military operations the more the Shiite population of Baghdad would become bitterly opposed to the U.S. presence. As the conflict escalated, U.S military forces would become embattled and beseiged. The Iraqi government that is a government in little more than name in the Iraqi capital at best would try to help ineffectually and at worst could easily become a conduit for intelligence and sabotage on behalf of the Shiite militias.

The U.S. Army historically has had little experience of the complexities, viciousness and enormous casualties that full-scale street-fighting in urban enivronments cause. Horne's great book is no guide to that kind of experience, nor does it pretend to be. Vicious and horrific as the Algerian War of Independence and its Battle for Algiers were, they were not remotely on that scale. The problems of taking the casbah in Algiers in 1958 pales compared with securing the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City with its 2 million people -- four times the population of the entire city of Algiers in 1956.

Tavernise identified a new, hard Iraqi reality -- the control of Baghdad by the Shiite militias. There are realistic and effective ways to respond to that problem. But imagining that a "surge" of just 30,000 or 40,000 American troops can permanently pacify a foreign city of 7 million people are not among them.

Source: United Press International

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