Tue, 05 Aug 2003

Welcome to 'Iraq-Nam': More U.S. troops will die

Gwynne Dyer, Columnist, London

In the past week or so, Iraqi guerrillas have been killing U.S. troops at the rate of about two a day. Even if the fighting does not escalate any further, at least 1,000 more American troops will die in Iraq before the election in November, 2004. Welcome to "Iraq-Nam".

U.S. President George W. Bush continues to insist that the Iraqi resistance is just "a few remaining hold-outs" from Saddam Hussein's defunct regime because he needs this to be true. Otherwise, his invasion of Iraq would have been a dreadful mistake. At least in public, the U.S. army in Iraq agrees: "There's mid-level Baathists, Iraqi intelligence service people, Special Security Organization people, Special Republican Guard people...conducting what I would describe as a classical guerrilla-type campaign against us," said U.S. General John Abizaid two weeks ago.

However, the videos claiming responsibility for the attacks that are delivered almost daily to Arabic-language satellite TV channels attest that most of them are actually being made by radical Islamist groups within the Sunni Arab population.

These are precisely the religious extremists who were suppressed by Saddam's resolutely secular Baath Party: Salafists and other radicals who long for a 'pure' Iraq purged of corrupting non-Islamic influences. Now they are free to act at last, and their first goal is to purify Iraq of American occupation troops.

Drop a grenade on a Humvee from an overpass, walk up behind an American soldier in a market and blow his brains out, plant a radio-controlled mine in the road: It's easy in a country awash with weapons, and meanwhile the Americans push the population into your arms with endless heavy-handed raids in search of Saddam Hussein, as if he mattered. 'When in doubt, do something' is a sound tactical axiom on the battlefield, but a rotten guide to strategy.

A tipping point of sorts has been passed: There is now a serious guerrilla war in Iraq, even if the U.S. command is still unclear about the nature of its opponents. It will get far worse if religious extremists and nationalists among the Shia Arab majority follow the example of their Sunni Arab cousins and begin attacking the occupation forces, but it is already affecting many calculations about the near-term future.

The first conclusion is that Washington's strenuous efforts to get other countries to send troops to Iraq to lessen the burden on American forces will almost all end in failure, because nobody wants to send their troops into a meat-grinder. The Japanese have agreed to send a (probably token) number of troops to Iraq after a bruising parliamentary debate, and Turkey may yet send a division because it wants to have troops in place in case Iraq breaks up entirely when the U.S. finally pulls out, but that's about it.

Nobody wants to anger Washington by saying bluntly that they don't feel like sharing the blame and the punishment for a ghastly strategic mistake, so they argue that they cannot send troops to Iraq without a new United Nations resolution that puts it under international control. The Bush administration is ideologically incapable of agreeing to that, so there will be no French or German troops going to Iraq, no Indian or Pakistani troops, no Arab troops, not even Canadian troops.

El Salvador, Ukraine and a few other governments that desperately want to ingratiate themselves with Washington will send modest numbers of troops, but that will not even be enough to make up for the number of British troops that have been quietly withdrawn from Iraq since April.

(Tony Blair may be a true believer, but the British general staff aren't fools.) This will be an American war, just like Vietnam was.

It will escalate, and by this time next year the Bush re- election bid will be in serious trouble -- so serious only another brief and victorious war against alleged 'terrorists' may be able to save it.

Washington is already blaming 'foreign terrorists' for the non-Baathist resistance in Iraq, and Syria and Iran are going to find themselves filling the same rhetorical role that the Ho Chi Minh trail did in the earlier war.

Since Syria is a much softer target than Iran, it is quite likely to be invaded and occupied by American forces before November, 2004. If there is another major terrorist attack on American soil, that likelihood becomes a near certainty.

Bush probably will be re-elected next year, only to go under a couple of years later as military and economic troubles overwhelm his second administration. That would leave radical Islamists in power in Iraq (or at least in the Arabic-speaking parts of Iraq, if the country breaks up in the process).

If the U.S. has also invaded Syria in the meantime, the eventual pull-out would bring the same sort of people to power in Damascus -- and in such a general retreat American troops would be pulled out of Afghanistan too, allowing the Taliban back into power there.

The result, by around 2006-07, would be a solid bloc of radical Islamist states from the western borders of Pakistan to the eastern borders of Israel. But not to worry: Paul Bremer, the U.S. proconsul in Iraq, has it under control. "We are going to fight them and impose our will on them and we will capture or ... kill them until we have imposed law and order on this country. We dominate the scene and we will continue to impose our will on this country." Gen. Westmoreland could not have put it better.