The Washington Post reports this morning
on the progress of a major U.S. offensive to take Samarra. A brigade combat team from the U.S. military, backed up by roughly 2,000 members of the nascent Iraqi security forces, fought their way into the city. The insurgents are reported to have suffered heavy casualties during the assault. Other reporting from the field indicates the use of a combined-arms offensive — employing ground maneuver forces, artillery and aircraft — to effectuate the assault on Samarra.
The offensive in the city about 65 miles north of Baghdad largely overwhelmed the rebel force during a night and day of occasionally intense fighting. One U.S. soldier was killed, according to military officials, who estimated insurgent fatalities at more than 100. Hospital officials said they had received the bodies of dozens of Iraqis, including women and children, the Reuters news agency reported. Analysis
The assault, which began at dusk Thursday, was intended to bring a decisive conclusion to a long-running dispute over who actually runs Samarra, which has a population of 250,000. The police department and city council were co-opted months ago by an insurgency dominated by former members of ousted president Saddam Hussein's government, officials said.
With U.S. armor leading the way for Iraqi forces that secured a sensitive religious shrine and a renowned spiral minaret, the operation was described by Iraqi officials as a model for planned joint operations aimed at putting the interim government in control of several central Iraq cities before national elections promised for January.
"We will spare no effort to clean all Iraqi cities of these criminal gangs," said Qasim Dawood, the government's state minister and national security adviser. "Through these operations, we will open the way not only to reconstruction but also to prepare the general elections to be held as scheduled."
Iraqi and U.S. officials also have vowed to wrest control from insurgents in the Sunni Triangle cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, as well as in Sadr City, the large Shiite Muslim slum on Baghdad's east side. Iraq's deputy prime minister promised this week that, after weeks of largely futile efforts to negotiate political settlements, the trouble spots would be the target of military operations during October.
Senior U.S. commanders had privately predicted such operations would come in November or December because of chronic delays in training and equipping new Iraqi troops, who would follow U.S. forces into each city and assert civil order.
: The attack on Samarra is one more indicator that major combat operations — of the kind supposedly ceased on 1 May 03 — have resumed. This is no small counter-insurgency operation, nor is it a delicate cordon-and-search operation aimed at finding certain persons or weapons caches. This is a deliberate attack being fought by a brigade-sized element supported by brigade, divisional and joint fires, in conjunction with a coordinated civil-military effort by the Iraqis and U.S. forces. It is, in essence, a major combat operation, according both to U.S. doctrine and common sense.
There are other data points too, which I noted a couple of weeks ago during a rise in the intensity of daily attacks on U.S. forces, and the declaration that certain areas had become a sanctuary for the Iraqi insurgency. Here are some other indicators pointing to the resumption of major combat ops:
- A WSJ story by Greg Jaffe in mid-September pointed to a new level of cooperation and coordination in the Iraqi insurgency attacks. "The insurgents are no longer operating in isolated pockets of their own. They are well-connected and cooperating," according to one Iraqi official. We don't face an opposing army in Iraq. But if you imagine a spectrum with ragtag rebels on one end and an army on the other, the enemy in Iraq is steadily creeping closer and closer towards becoming an organized, professionalized, well-resourced, lethal and effective fighting force.
- The insurgency now controls major swaths of territory — not just hearts and minds, not just city blocks, and not just litttle hideouts. According to the Journal: "The area referred to by U.S. officials as "insurgent enclaves" has grown from a patchwork of cities to include much of al Anbar province, which fans out to the northwest of Baghdad." This is another sign that we're not just dealing with an insurgency anymore — this an enemy bent on owning territory. That implies a much larger ambition than we previously ascribed to our enemy in Iraq. And more importantly, it probably means they're going to stand and fight their ground, instead of "praying and spraying" rounds at US troops.
- Tom Ricks' Sept. 9 report in The Post corroborated the argument with some important indicators that the Iraqi insurgency is becoming more lethal and more sophisticated. The casualty rates (both KIA and WIA) appear to be accelerating. And, the Iraqi insurgency has been steadily increasing the lethality and effectiveness of its tactics since last year. Whereas IEDs used to be haphazardly constructed and hidden in animal carcasses, they are now much more sophisticated and deadly — often constructed from daisy-chained artillery shells with enough explosives to take out an armored vehicle, carefully concealed, and detonated with alarming precision. The Iraqis also appear to have developed a sophisticated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability, depending in large part on sympathetic Iraqi citizens and networks of insurgents who observe U.S. actions and then pass intelligence back to the insurgents.
- The New York Times' exclusive report from early September on the National Intelligence Estimate done by the CIA paints a very grim picture of what's going on. My sense is that they're looking at certain indicators — especially the size of the insurgency and presence of multiple warring factions — in order to make a short/long-term prediction of instability for the foreseeable future. "The estimate outlines three possibilities for Iraq through the end of 2005, with the worst case being developments that could lead to civil war, the officials said. The most favorable outcome described is an Iraq whose stability would remain tenuous in political, economic and security terms." This estimate describes a nation which is still at a war with itself — and not likely to settle down anytime soon.
- The Post and other media reported on outgoing Marine leader Lt. Gen. James Conway's comments that the Fallujah attack was ill-considered, and once decided on after the gruesome contractor lynching, ill-pursued by political leaders/generals who didn't have the stomach for casualties. This is really the heart of the problem, I think. Our enemy has ratched up the fighting to such a high level of intensity that we not have the political will anymore to fight them as they need to be fought. To beat this insurgency in the near term, we will probably have to respond with the violence that only major combat operations can entail. But that will require an enormous amount of political will — both to inflict casualties and to take them. I just don't think the White House wants to do that, especially with the election looming.
, I'm not sure that an enormous act of force (such as this op in Samarra) will necessarily pacify the country. The insurgency has developed into a fairly decentralized, dispersed, and amorphous enemy. We may succeed in crushing it in Samarra, and possibly in Fallujah and Ramadi as well. But I don't know that this will end the insurgency. The best long-term answer for the U.S. will probably be to set up the Iraqi forces to take on the insurgency, because they will have the greatest chance of political
success against their fellow countrymen. When we open up a can of whoop-a** on Samarra, it breeds resentment. When the Iraqis themselves take ownership of this problem, and crack down on these insurgents, it will not breed the same kind of resentment. We must hasten the day when that kind of engagement will happen, by doing more to build up the Iraqi security forces.
So why does it matter that we're back at war?
Well, if you're the type who likes to keep score, it matters. If you're going to judge this president on his wartime record, it matters. This administration, though a series of major miscalculations, has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Our best hope in Iraq is to leave some sort of lasting democratic government there and to set up the Iraqis as best we can to manage their own security mess. But hope is not a method, and this will be a gamble. Nonetheless, I do not see any way for the U.S. to impose order on Iraq, short of committing 2-4 times as many troops as we have there now and imposing absolute U.S.-controlled martial law on the country. And even then, we would continue to bleed slowly from IED attacks and ambushes on a regular basis. There aren't a lot of good options out there — just varying degrees of bad ones. The tough part is picking the least bad option that will not lead to a failed state of Iraq that we must come back to again in 5 or 10 years.