The Magazine

Why Iraq's Still a Hard Place

From the July 21, 2003 issue: The thugs are fighting, the troops are tired, and some doubt our determination--but we're winning.

Jul 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 43 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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HAVE WE WON YET? The simple answer from American and British soldiers in Iraq is: Not yet, but we are winning militarily. "There are still a lot of a--holes left to kill," is how one senior commander describes the situation. But from a countrywide perspective, security is improving; sweeps with code names like "Desert Scorpion" and "Peninsula Strike" are reducing Baathist redoubts and seem to be preventing outside extremists from gaining much of a foothold. Soldiers believe they are fighting a low-level insurgency, and that time is on our side.

Whether this cautiously upbeat appraisal is correct should become clear over the next month or two. Though concentrated in Baghdad, Fallujah, and the Sunni strongholds in central Iraq, the military operations now are part of a broader campaign with ambitious goals. It is meant to drive the final nails in the coffin of Saddam Hussein's regime--and to prevent major violence on July 17, the Baath party national day--while forestalling significant outside agitation. And there is more: a push to convince the Iraqi people that their lives have been irreversibly changed for the better and that they should begin to take a more active role in the reconstruction of their country.

This generally optimistic assessment is tempered by three concerns. First, the universe of bad guys is in flux. One of the main goals of the current operations is to better define who the enemy is. Baathist diehards are the most immediately identifiable, but there are also borderline Baathists and former Iraqi soldiers and officials who have lost their positions of power and privilege. Among these borderline cases, a number are simply thugs, but even those who might be rehabilitated have no obvious way to earn a living. Iraq's economy was misshapen by oil wealth and Saddam's central control.

This situation has been exacerbated by inconsistency in U.S. policy. The original plan had been to quickly reorganize the army and government pending de-Baathification; these priorities have been reversed, probably to good long-term effect, but not without creating confusion and slowing the start of political reconstruction at the grass-roots level. Whatever the relative claims of justice and public order, the uncertainty of the Bush administration's wishes opens an opportunity for the diehards to make mischief. It does not take much money to convince an Iraqi adolescent to pop a rocket-propelled grenade at a passing convoy. A new political order is also a threat to the traditional tribal order, which Saddam of course manipulated, and to the power of the sheikhs.

Since the fall of Baghdad--and indeed even prior to it--the job of sorting out reconstruction policy has fallen to U.S. and British officers. They are naturally skittish about "nation building" missions, but in Iraq they have no alternative. The military's caution is also fueled by deep skepticism of intelligence passed along by the CIA and "other government agencies" (OGA is the acronym of the moment) prior to the war about the regime's will to resist. But at the tactical level, soldiers, agents, and special operations forces are working hand in glove to weed out local Baathist cells. And a broad assessment of enemy strength and commitment to fight is being built, piece by piece. There is an intelligence value in having military commanders who also must act as the civilian authority: All the local leaders are anxious to come plead their cases--they are in some sense the classic intelligence "walk-ins," and by sifting their stories, it is possible to assemble a three-dimensional picture of what's happening in the Iraqi streets. This makes it hard for outsiders to move in unnoticed. In sum, the current operations should yield a more accurate, bottom-up assessment of the situation nationwide, but until then, making any larger judgments will be difficult. And, of course, the success of the current military sweep operations will go far in shaping those judgments.

A SECOND CONCERN is the fitness of the coalition forces. The units that fought the war, especially the ground war, are deeply tired. The 3rd Infantry Division, the 1st Marine Division, and the core of the British force have been in constant operations--deploying, fighting, stabilizing--for six months or more. Some elements of these units have been in the region, either afloat in the Persian Gulf or "training" in Kuwait, for the better part of a year. Headquarters staffs have been planning and preparing for operations even longer. Fortunately, much of the naval force and strike aircraft have gone home for rest and refitting; however, significant parts of the Air Force, such as cargo and tanker aircraft and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, are working as hard as ever.