Apocalypse now? Part 1: The War Front

Unable to end the insurgency, the US is rapidly losing its few friends
Click to follow

If Iraq comes to be seen as President George W Bush's Vietnam, this past week may be the equivalent of the 1968 Tet offensive - the moment when America discovered that, for all its overwhelming military superiority, it is not winning the war.

If Iraq comes to be seen as President George W Bush's Vietnam, this past week may be the equivalent of the 1968 Tet offensive - the moment when America discovered that, for all its overwhelming military superiority, it is not winning the war.

The US civil and military leaders in Iraq discovered that their authority was a house built on sand. It crumbled with extraordinary speed in the face of poorly armed and ill-organised opposition in Fallujah and southern Iraq. The message was that the opponents of the US in Iraq are not very strong, but that the coalition itself is very weak.

Not only are large parts of Iraq outside its control, the US is weaker in Iraq than it was a year ago, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. By yesterday its allies within the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) were accusing it of "genocide". On the ground, the US troops recognise that they have no friends among the Iraqi forces supposedly on their side - and even America's closest allies in Iraq are beginning to run for cover.

Yet the disasters of the past week, the worst in political terms since President Bush decided to invade Iraq, are in large measure self-inflicted. The US suddenly found itself fighting a two-front war because it over-reacted to pressure, political and military, from important minority groups in the Sunni and Shia communities.

In Vietnam a US commander once said of a village: "We had to destroy it in order to save it." In Iraq the same might apply to Fallujah. It is true that since the war Fallujah has been the most militant and anti-American city in Iraq, but it is not entirely typical. Sunni by religion and highly tribal, it has a well-earned reputation among Iraqis as being a bastion for bandits. Iraqis in Baghdad, even those sympathetic to the resistance, spoke of people in Fallujah pursuing their own private feud with the US.

Yet the US responded to the killing of the four US contractors in Fallujah by sending in 1,200 Marines to launch a medieval siege, one in which they initially refused to allow ambulances in or out. If the Americans really believed they were being attacked by a tiny minority, Iraqis asked, why were they attacking a city of 300,000 people? The result has been to turn Fallujah into a nationalist and religious symbol for all Iraqis.

For the first time the armed resistance is becoming truly popular in Baghdad. Previously Iraqis often approved of it as the only way to put pressure on the US. But they were also wary of the guerrillas, because of fear of religious fanaticism or connections with Saddam's deeply unpopular regime. But thanks to Fallujah, this has changed: Iraqi nationalism is back in business.

As the first refugees began to reach Baghdad yesterday they received a hero's welcome. At the Khalid bin Whalid mosque in the Dhora district of the city, about 300 people had offered to house families from Fallujah. There were, in fact, more offers of free accommodation than there were refugees needing somewhere to live.

"I have two wives in two houses," said one man, "but they can go and stay with their parents, and people from Fallujah can stay there instead." The Baghdad blood bank in the Adhamiyah quarter was also overwhelmed with people giving blood for the wounded.

The US made a similar mistake by driving Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shia cleric, into a corner. His group has always been well organised, and he has a committed core of supporters. His position depends on the reputation of his martyred father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, assassinated by Saddam in 1999, but he has never been able to mobilise many people in the past. During his confrontation with the authorities last October he was unable to put more than a couple of thousand marchers on the streets in Sadr City, supposedly his home base.

Muqtada al-Sadr was an irritant for the Coalition Provisional Authority, but he never rivalled the influence of Shia clerical leaders such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. There were no real signs that Mr Sadr's movement was going anywhere. Then on 28 March, Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA, closed Mr Sadr's newspaper, al-Hawza, before arresting one of his lieutenants, Mustafa Yaqubi, in Najaf. This may have been a pre-emptive strike to get Mr Sadr out of the picture before the nominal handover of power to the Governing Council on 30 June, but it has proved a disastrous misjudgement.

The young cleric's black-clad militiamen, known as the Army of the Mahdi, number perhaps 5,000 men. But as soon as they went on the offensive, they exposed the fragility of US support among the Iraqi police and US-trained paramilitary units, such as the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps, which were expected to assume an increasing share of security duties.

About 200,000 Iraqis belong to these forces. However, confronted by the Army of the Mahdi the police faded away, often handing over their weapons to Mr Sadr's men. As soon as the Army of the Mahdi moved on the city of Kut, on the Tigris south of Baghdad, the police disappeared and the Ukrainian soldiers in the city withdrew. Not only have local Iraqi allies showed they are not prepared to fight, the crisis has also put intense pressure on America's foreign allies, such as the Poles, Bulgarians and Japanese as well as the Ukrainians, who have military forces in the south. They had gone there in the belief that they were out of harm's way, only to find they were policing some of the most dangerous cities in Iraq.

On Friday a force of 1,000 US Marines counter-attacked and recaptured Kut. When the local police went to see them, the Marines immediately confiscated any of their remaining weapons that had not already been seized by the Army of the Mahdi, then pulled out of the city, leaving no one to keep order.

As for the Civil Defence Corps, its men are accused of luring the four American contractors into a trap in Fallujah at the end of last month, leading to their death and mutilation. However, this has been all but forgotten in the ferociousness of the US response. Early yesterday the IGC, to which the US is supposedly going to hand over power on 30 June, issued a statement demanding an end to military action and "collective punishment" - meaning the siege of Fallujah.

One of the most famous guerrilla leaders against Saddam, the so-called Prince of the Marshes, Abdul-Karim Mahoud al-Mohammedawi, said he was suspending his membership of the council until "the bleeding stops in Iraq". Another IGC member, Adnan Pachachi, the former Iraqi Foreign Minister, whose language is normally highly diplomatic, denounced the siege, saying: "It is not right to punish all the people of Fallujah, and we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal." The political isolation of the Americans in Iraq, apart from their support among the Kurds, is now almost complete.

How has that been allowed to happen? Why did Mr Bremer play so easily into the hands of America's opponents? One answer probably is that hardline civilians in the Pentagon retain their control of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which they have staffed with fellow neo-conservatives who share their over-simplistic agendas for Iraq. The State Department still has little influence.

As a result, the US is reduced to playing its only remaining card in Iraq, which is its overwhelming military strength. After the siege of Fallujah, the US army promises that Mr Sadr will be "crushed", which means a military assault on the Shias' holy city of Najaf and possibly Karbala. Even if it backs off - and yesterday it declared a ceasefire in Fallujah - it will mean that the insurgents will have achieved a sort of official recognition.

Mr Bremer and his colleagues are now in a state of denial. In the days before the fall of Saddam the Iraqi Information Minister, swiftly nicknamed "Comical Ali", was derided internationally as he insisted that US troops had not captured Baghdad International Airport. On Friday US commanders in Iraq were sending poorly defended convoys of vulnerable petrol tankers down the road past the airport, ignoring the fact that the surrounding countryside is under the control of guerrillas. Not surprisingly, the convoys were immediately ambushed - yesterday the US admitted that two of its men had been captured and another killed.

At the time of the US invasion last year, Iraqis were evenly divided on the merits of what was happening. They welcomed the overthrow of Saddam, whose swift fall showed the shallowness of his support. Many were prepared to pay the price of temporary occupation.

As for the Americans, the guerrilla war was worse than they expected, but it was still confined to Sunni areas of Iraq, extensive though these are. The US was not facing the Vietcong, backed by North Vietnamese; it has taken a series of unforced errors, far worse than those in Vietnam, to make things as bad as they are now.

By dissolving the Iraqi state and dealing only with Iraqis long in exile, the US began to alienate Iraqis as a whole. Mr Bremer and the CPA confined themselves to Saddam's old palaces, and when they visited other cities they were cocooned from the reality of Iraqi life around them, most notably the growing anger at the lack of economic opportunities.

Even now there are only limited signs that Washington and the CPA understand the extent of the political defeat that they have suffered. If they are not prepared to hold Iraq with a large military garrison, they need Iraqi Arab allies - and of these today they have almost none.