Politics & Policy

In The Red

Draining the Sunni Triangle swamp.

It is less than 90 days before we are scheduled to turn Iraq over to an interim government, and neither is the nation ready for the government, nor is the government ready for the nation. We’re finally taking action–after months of diplo-dithering–to drain the Sunni Triangle swamp. As Monday dawned, American Marines, accompanied by about two battalions of Iraqi security forces, cordoned off the city of Fallujah to hunt for the soulless barbarians who ambushed, killed, and mutilated four American civilians last week. They are accompanied by units with loudspeakers who are driving through Fallujah telling the Iraqis to abide by the new curfew, and not to worry: the Coalition is in town to capture or kill the terrorists. An arrest warrant (issued months ago) for 30-year old radical Shiite mullah Moqtadar Sadr is now being enforced as a result of Sadr ordering his Iranian-funded militia to attack Coalition forces.

For many months, Ambassador Paul Bremer has been far too soft and indecisive in dealing with those inciting violence. He brought in Gen. John Abizaid–our highest-ranking officer of Arab descent–to speak with Ali al-Sistani and the other principal religious leaders and obtain their cooperation in pacifying Iraq. They made comforting noises but ignored Abizaid’s admonitions. As one Iraqi source e-mailed me Monday, “Look what is happening now to Al Sadr and his radical followers. Why [was] Al Sadr was not arrested from day one? He killed Abdul Majid Al-Khoie [a leading Shiite cleric who favored peace] in Najaf, established his own courts, intimidated even Al Sistani, and [yet was] left alone…. As if, if you leave bad guys alone they will leave you alone.”

Our policy toward the radical mullahs has to be consistent and firm. Those who plan and organize terrorism, like Sadr, must be arrested and imprisoned. The only real difference between Sadr and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani–the most prominent Shia cleric–is that al-Sistani hasn’t openly called for violence. If he crosses that line, he should have a cell next to Sadr’s. Because you call yourself a cleric doesn’t give you immunity from capture and punishment if you’re organizing violence. Just as the Israelis were right in killing Yassin, the “spiritual leader” of Hamas, we have not only the right but the obligation to arrest and silence those Iraqi “spiritual leaders” who are organizing and inciting murder.

The Sunni Triangle is a war zone. You need only to look at the pictures of the Fallujah incident to see the proof. If you want to see the inhumanity of the enemy–and I don’t recommend it–you can see the atrocity, and the faces of some of the barbarians who perpetrated it at www.bambili.com. It’s as bad as anything I’ve ever seen, including the pictures of American soldiers murdered by Iraqi troops during last year’s campaign.

Because we haven’t destroyed the terrorist networks in the Sunni Triangle and elsewhere, it is almost impossible to see how we can turn Iraqi sovereignty over on the schedule we so foolishly announced. The president unwisely reaffirmed his commitment to the June 30 date Monday. Of the many lessons Vietnam taught us–or should have–one of the most important is that if you establish a schedule, it’s not just yours: It’s the enemy’s as well. It’s no accident that the violence is escalating as our “deadline” approaches. The enemy is preparing the battlefield for their fight against any democratic Iraqi government. We must also prepare the battlefield to ensure that when a new government is ready, it can function with authority and credibility.

The occupation force has been drawn down to less than 150,000. We may need to add more troops temporarily, but the issue is not how many troops we have there, but what we’re ordering them to do. If we had started cleaning out the Sunni Triangle six months ago–and used the forces we have there effectively–the area would be far quieter today. And we have not done nearly enough to end the outside interference from Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and the Syrian Baathists keep the Sunni Triangle ablaze while the Iranians are sending everything from money to silk Persian rugs to pay mullahs like Sadr to stir up violence. There will be no real peace in Iraq until we force these nations to end their interference.

The Fallujah incident illustrates all too vividly the difference between what we have been doing and what we should have been doing. I’ve gotten an earful about Fallujah from the spec-ops community. The problem, they say, is not only with the mullahs and terrorists there. It is also with some of the “PMCs”–private military companies–we have hired to support the Coalition.

Under contract with the CIA, these men are tasked with protecting dignitaries, making sure that Coalition installations are safe from terrorist attacks, and performing any other mission the “customer” imposes. Most of these men are former Navy SEALs, Army special forces, Marine Recon, or Air Force PJs. When they join the civilian companies, they have the skills they need to seize ships, rescue hostages, and the other things the spec-ops guys do so well. But, as one of the former operators who worked for a PMC in Afghanistan told me, their skill sets and trained mental attitude aren’t what’s needed on the streets of Iraq.

One man I spoke to was sent to Afghanistan with hardly any training. The PCM planned a patently inadequate three days of preparation to test basic skills and make an operator ready for the Afghan streets. There was apparently no training in small-unit tactics designed to create cohesion among the operators. This operator told me that the pressure to get men in the field overcame the contractor’s already too-low training standards, and people were sent out long before they were ready.

It’s almost certain that we’ll never know just what the four men killed last week were doing driving around Fallujah. It’s just as certain that some or all of them would have been killed even if their training had been different. But their training and alertness should have enabled them to avoid the ambush in the first place. Apparently, they were neither “switched on” nor “in the red,” meaning that they weren’t acting like they were in a war zone, at the highest state of alert in every waking moment. They hadn’t been trained in avoiding ambushes like the Fallujah attack, or in the escape-and-evasion tactics necessary to any chance of escaping it.

One of the other puzzles is why the $18 billion in reconstruction money appropriated last fall still isn’t being spent. The reason: The political gurus don’t want another “Halliburton” campaign issue, and are trying to award the contracts as they would in peacetime, and it’s taking far too long. Thousands of Iraqis who could be employed building their nation now are unemployed. They have nothing better to do than sit around and listen to the mullahs preaching violence against Americans. Bremer’s contracting shop is too politically sensitive to get this under way, and someone needs to light a fire under them right now. (There are other problems in that shop. One source investigating the U.N. oil-for-food scam told me that while Bremer and his immediate staff appear perfectly honest, there is corruption in contract award and administration.)

In the next 90 days, the anti-Coalition violence in Iraq will continue to escalate, aimed at preventing the new government from establishing itself. Regardless of the progress made in building Iraqi security forces, it’s obvious that the Iraqis aren’t going to be able to defeat the terrorists or end the mullahs’ incitement any time soon. Which means everyone from Bremer on down needs to be “in the red” and “switched on” from now on. And it also means that we have to delay turnover until several milestones are reached.

First, security has to be established in each of the major population centers. Without it, nothing else can succeed. Second, the Iraqis need to have basic services, such as water and electricity, reliably available. Third, we have to push the construction contracts through, and get as many Iraqis as possible working to build their nation, taking the audience away from the radical clerics. Fourth, the Iraqis have to establish their constitution and courts and begin trying criminals such as Saddam.

Functioning courts, reliable basic services, and ongoing construction of Iraq’s infrastructure would be important evidence that the government is real and working. It is only after the Iraqis can manage to meet these goals that the turnover of sovereignty can occur. If we force it before those goals are met, Iraq may end up like Vietnam.

Jed Babbin, an NRO contributor, is author of the forthcoming book, Inside the Asylum: Why the U.N. and Old Europe are Worse than You Think.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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