So – What Did Happen to Iraq?

A few weeks ago, if you can cast your mind back that far, the big story was apparently something to do with a country called Iraq that was trying to agree among itself on its future constitution. After multiple deadlines were breached, two of the factions in the country decided to impose the constitution on the other by their majority. But then, they hesitated. The text was amended, but not by the drafting committee..

And then there was a hurricane. Not that it was one anywhere near Iraq, where they don’t have hurricanes, but it still knocked the whole thing off the agenda. And the Iraqis had a particularly horrible disaster of their own. So – what did happen to that constitution?

Well, it seems nothing happened to it. They have done absolutely nothing about it since then – it still hasn’t gone before Parliament, and even its opponents haven’t held the meeting to draft a counter-constitution they promised. What has been going on is that the killing has kept up at a rate of about thirty a day. August saw the deaths of 85 US servicemen. And, worryingly, there are signs that after a period of quiet, what I call the New-Old Iraqi Army has entered the lists again.

It was in this post back in June that I pointed up what seemed to be increasing convergence between the suicide terrorists and the classic guerrilla elements of the insurgency after a major and complex company-sized assault on Abu Ghraibh. A few days later there was another big assault on a divisional police headquarters in western Baghdad. Over the summer, though, there were few such attacks, or at least none that got reported.

In the last few days, though, there have been signs of NOIA returning to the streets of Baghdad. First, on the day the constitution missed its last deadline, there was a protracted battle between Iraqi police and a force of “30-40” insurgents in central Baghdad. Then, earlier this week, a similar number of rebels – in effect, a platoon – raided the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. This location is as one could imagine heavily guarded. The rebels arrived in 10 cars and opened fire with RPGs and automatic weapons. After around twenty minutes they withdrew, leaving (officially) two police dead and five wounded. An insurgent website later carried a claim of responsibility which boasted of killing most of the garrison, although this is probably propaganda. Nobody even bothered to claim that the rebels lost anyone in the action, and they would appear to have made a retreat in good order.

This is important because it shows that you can drive around downtown Baghdad with a complete platoon of armed men, attack the Interior Ministry (thus putting every police, army and NG unit in the city on the qui vive), and get away with it. It also shows, as the Abu Ghraibh raid does, that at least some of the insurgency has developed effective command and control procedures to go with the explosions. Suicide bombing, horribly effective though it is, will never put you in power – only an army can do that.

What the Ministry raid means, though, is a question I don’t know the answer to. Did they hope to storm it? Or just to shoot it out with the guards and then vanish, scaring the hell out of all within? To demonstrate who owns the streets? Or was this not an attack but a reconnaissance in force?

11 thoughts on “So – What Did Happen to Iraq?

  1. Well, it seems nothing happened to it. They have done absolutely nothing about it since then – it still hasn’t gone before Parliament, and even its opponents haven’t held the meeting to draft a counter-constitution they promised.

    This isn’t true. Well, the ‘absolutely nothing’ part isn’t. There has been much haggling and compromise, which is a healthy thing. I personally thought the whole ‘gotta have the Constitution finished at this time’ was a bit absurd anyway. As to whether this bodes ill or not, I usually defer to the Iraqi’s themselves, and Omar at Iraq the Model seems …. well, ambivilent.

    What is very clear in all this is the acceleration of Sunni participation in the Iraqi political process *and* the increasingly effective Iraqi army and security forces.

    Summing it up nicely, Iraqi Rising’s Aqba states:
    Watching the Iraqi news and following the reactions of the politicians in Baghdad and outside has given me great hope for the future, but at the same time great dread for the present.

    As for the casualty numbers and the effectiveness of the , ahem, ‘insurgents’ as you call them:

    August has been a busy month. A lot of operations and some spikes. 22 of the 85 servicemen killed were in one operation, over 3 days in Haditha, and 14 in one incident. September may turn out to be bloody as well, with operations in Tal Afar.

  2. What evidence of increasing effectiveness have you seen? The last US Army statements were that there were still three or four battalions considered combat-ready, the same as a year ago.

    Yes, I know the Iraqi government is boasting about Tal Afar, but the 3rd Armoured Cav have been fighting their way through the place with tanks since the middle of last week, so their contribution would appear to be one of occupying the battlefield after the fighting is over. That is, if they do not withdraw from TA within days, as happened after all the preceding assaults on the place (I think we’re up to the fourth or fifth retaking of Tal Afar now).

    Why anyone cares about Tal Afar I dunno – it’s in the middle of nowhere and only of interest as a border crossing. The rebels aren’t going to be bound by the law only to cross the border where there’s a customs post, are they? When you can move through downtown Baghdad with thirty armed men in complete impunity, it doesn’t seem at all sensible to be running about in the desert up north, hundreds of miles from the centres of population. (Note that any discussion on AFOE ends up with demographics.)

  3. “The last US Army statements were that there were still three or four battalions considered combat-ready, the same as a year ago.

    The WSJ( may be subscription ), had an article on August 15th on Iraqi troop readiness. The bottom line is, is that it’s hard to gauge IA troop readiness with identifiable metrics, and it’s more about ‘feel’. So the US military has come up with a scheme:
    mixing hard data with subjective assessments from U.S. advisers who live and fight with the Iraqis. U.S. advisory-team leaders are asked to make monthly assessments of their counterparts’ leadership ability. Judging more than 50% of the leaders “capable” is one measure of a unit’s overall ability to conduct military operations with U.S. support. Less than 50% triggers an incapable rating. They also rate the Iraqis’ training, determining whether they can perform key tasks such as setting up a roadblock or running an effective cordon and search of an area. And the advisers judge the ability of the unit’s staff to analyze and disseminate intelligence.

    Using this new critera, the Army has judged: “more than three dozen of the 110 Iraqi battalions have been judged “capable” of taking the lead in counterinsurgency operations — albeit with U.S. forces providing some logistics and medical support. The remaining units either are still in training or capable of fighting with U.S. troops in the lead.

    And there’s this:Along those lines, Col. Richard Swengros, who oversees the development of Iraqi police in Iraq, says one key measure of progress is the number of police stations lost to the insurgents. The Iraqi police surrendered dozens of police stations to the insurgents in the latter half of 2004. Despite heavy casualties from car bombs and attacks, the police haven’t surrendered any stations in Baghdad in 2005. “The Iraqi police are standing and fighting,” he says in an email from Iraq.

    I’m also a reader of Michael Yon, whose in Mosul and Bill Roggio at The Fourth Rail, whose insights are pretty sober and postive.

    And lastly, your Baghdad example is a bit flimsy. In a city of 6 million people, in the Middle East, gangs of armed men are quite common. Attacking a government institution such as the Interior Ministry is rare, but it isn’t unheard of. Bottom line is, they were repelled. That’s what counts. Standing and fighting. And I would expect more of this in the coming weeks, with Iraqi’s going to the polls.

    Wars are about offensives and counter offensives. In terms of the larger picture, I think it’s pretty obvious that the tide has turned against the terrorists. They’re doomed, short of an abrupt and premature US withdrawl.

  4. I’m sorry. I can only describe those quotes as vacuous at best and propagandistic at worst. The first appears to be an exercise in defining down readiness to improve headline numbers – what would convince me would be the US Army permitting an Iraqi (NOT Kurdish or SCIRI) formation to take the lead in a serious (i.e. non-featherbedded) operation in central Iraq and it not being a total clusterfuck.

    On police stations, the simple truth is that the Iraqi police stations between Muthanna province and the southern suburbs of Baghdad fell either in the first Sadrist uprising in April, 2004, or in the second in the autumn at the time of the second Fallujah campaign. There is no Sadrist rising on at the moment (although he is at liberty to change this at a time of his choosing). And I wonder how many of them were ever reoccupied. You can’t take police stations you already hold, and in Najaf, for example, the Shia militias who took the police stations have effectively been renamed as the police.

    Name one other Arab capital where the seat of government is surrounded by walls guarded by mercenaries and under nightly mortar fire. (Afghanistan isn’t Arab.)

  5. “the increasingly effective Iraqi army and security forces.”

    I think you raise some reasonable points Rupert, but this seems to get to the heart of the issue. I am in no position to judge the effectiveness and competence of the newly formed security forces, but probably I would be prepared to assume that they are on more of a learning curve than Alek is, and I would assume that with time they will be more than able to look after themselves.

    I am not sure though, to what extent it is possible to talk of these units as Iraqi *national* forces. I have much more the impression that they are highly sectarian in their composition, and largely either Shia forces or Kurdish ones, very much in the way that the elite of the former military structure was Sunni.

    Where I agree with Alek entirely is on whether it is possible to arrive in the circumstances of Iraq today at a constitution which will be acceptable to all three parties.

    My feeling is that the only real factor in doubt is whether the Sunnis will vote or not. If they vote it will be to reject the present constitution. That I suppose would be progress, since it would mean people were throwing voting papers and not bombs at each other. No mean achievement.

    I think the consitution is torn between the islamic law component – essential for the majority of Shia, and unacceptable to the great majority of Sunnis – and the federalism and right to self determination question, which is again fundamental for the Kurds and totally unacceptable to the majority of Sunnis. I see no solution to this which is any more rapid than those we have seen in N Ireland, Bosnia or Kosovo. Which means we are in for a long wait.

    And given the underlying dispute I would reckon it is way too soon to start writing the ‘insurgency’ off. We have no way of really knowing if they are just starting up, we are in the middle, or the issue is reaching its end. I suspect there is a lot of life left in the beast yet. Clearly within this there will be cyclical swings, the whole history of insurgency and counter insurgency has revealed this.

    So when they practice collective head-on confrontations, there is really no way of knowing whether these are foolhardy acts of stupidity, or indications of underlying strength. I think in this context the increased sophistocation and deadliness of the roadside bombs is a rather more important indicator. Here, as elsewhere, there is learning by doing on all sides.

    Of course when I say ‘insurgency’ here I am speaking of groups with real roots in the Sunni population, just like the IRA in N Ireland or the FLN in Algeria. On top of this there is the wild card of Zarqawi and Al qaeda. Who knows what their trajectory is? One possibility is that they are in Tal Afar – it is Turkman not Sunni – and have made the (for them) mistake of attempting to engage US troops directly. But even if this is the case, this is only one phase in a much bigger process.

    And at the end of the day Al qaeda is still pretty marginal to the Iraq situation, where the dynamic seems, as I’ve suggested, to be much more to do with the ongoing conflicts between the three principal groups. I think Al Qaeda are just ‘riding on the top’, using it as a marketing and recruitment exercise and a field training zone.

  6. Alex, it’s odd at one moment you quote the Army to support your argument, then dismiss it the next when it contradicts your views. Whether you think the quotes are valid or not, they’re from the Army and they’re in Iraq. Your not, I’m assuming. And I would recommend reading the article, not just the quotes I provided.

    “Name one other Arab capital where the seat of government is surrounded by walls guarded by mercenaries and under nightly mortar fire. (Afghanistan isn’t Arab.)”

    Well, that isn’t what I said. I said armed gangs, which is the prinicple point of your original post. Saudia Arabia immediately comes to mind. I also remember you saying about a year ago about how Mosul was going to descend into a secretarian civil war like hell, which has also never happened. Again, I refer you to Michael Yon. Your also making some wildly speculative statements and not providing any links.


    Of course when I say ‘insurgency’ here I am speaking of groups with real roots in the Sunni population”

    I think you mean Arab Sunni population, for the Kurds are Sunni after all. But even amongst the Arabs, it’s been clear over the past months of a greater willingness to participate politically and in some cases to fight back physically against foreign jihadists. That was not the case a year ago. As for the composition of the IA forces, honestly, I don’t think it’s that important at the moment. What is important is an improving, rudamentary, and discplined fighting force that can stand it’s ground and fight. That’s happening and it’s an improvement of a year ago. I think that if a fledgling democracy can take firm root, the the IA will grow to reflect that, albiet in limited terms, this being the ME and all.

  7. “I think you mean Arab Sunni population, for the Kurds are Sunni after all.”

    Obviously this is what I mean, I am simply using conventional shorthand. Maybe I am not being sufficiently PC here :).

    “it’s been clear over the past months of a greater willingness to participate politically and in some cases to fight back physically against foreign jihadists.”

    Well I think these are two separate issues. I think the latter is certainly true, but then the Baathist Arab nationalists are *not* islamic fundamentalists, and never were, so these two groups were always going to have a shoot out. They are however centralists, and this is part of the enormous problem that I see. How much the Baathists were collaborating with the fundamentalists in the past is an unknown question, as is the extent to which, despite the turf wars, they continue tio do so. I suspect that the situation is as they say ‘fluid’ and we will see continuing comings and goings (as we have noted recently in the case of the shia militia of al-Sadr).

    Another of these issues is who is behind the sectarian bombings of the shia. Both factions within the *arab* sunni population have reasons both to do and not to do this. The Baathists historically would seem to have less problems with wholesale slaughter of shia,but the ‘manpower’ would seem rather to have come from the fundamentalists. It is also interesting to note that after the Al Sadr gesture against the constitution the sectarian bombings have subsided somewhat, although it is still far too early to read this adequately politically.

    The willingness of the sunni Arabs to participate in an ongoing political process certainly isn’t clear to me though. As I said I don’t see how you can get a real and meaningful compromise on isssues which seem so basic to each group. What we may see is a *tactical* deision by the Arab sunnis to vote next time, since they probabloy feel they made a blunder by staying out last time. That is progress of sorts, but the end result is that they will probably vote to veto the constitution. This would be evidently a move towards a more subtle combination of political and military methods but I am not clear that this would make things any easier. The non-fundamentalist part of the sunni Arab ‘insurgency’ probably now see themselves, and are probably seen around the sunni Arab world as a classic ‘national liberation’ movement, resisting incursion by Iran from the south and the Kurds from the north. These movements tend to operate *both* politically and militarily, and radical changes of military and political tactics are only to be expected.

    Anyway this will become clearer when we see the outcome of the referendum vote in October, so there really isn’t long to wait now.

    “As for the composition of the IA forces, honestly, I don’t think it’s that important at the moment.”

    Well I think we’ll just have to agree to differ here. In Northern Ireland one of the key stumbling blocks has always been the composition of the UDR and I don’t see that it will be any different here. Until and unless you have an Iraqi state – including all its agencies like ministries, civil servants, security forces etc – free of sectarian issues I think the whole thing will always remain a powder keg. I am not optimistic.

  8. Incidentally Rupert I assume as a regular reader here you are following what I am saying about demographic theories in other areas of the globe. For example I am arguing quite strongly and optimistically (despite a lot of nay-sayers) that Turkey can now evolve a stable democracy with a strong respect for human rights. Iraq has a median age of 19.43: it is a society which has still to reach what Malberg calls the young adult stage. This – in principle – makes democracy very difficult to achieve IMHO, but I am not pushing this point very hard in the Iraq context since I really don’t want to get the two issues so entangled. But at least it is a point to note.

  9. In terms of the larger picture, I think it’s pretty obvious that the tide has turned against the terrorists. They’re doomed, short of an abrupt and premature US withdrawl.

    And that’s not a wildly speculative statement?
    I also remember you saying about a year ago about how Mosul was going to descend into a secretarian civil war like hell, which has also never happened Really? I said it, and it happened. In the autumn of 2004, at the time of the second Fallujah campaign, the insurgents went into Mosul and the police force essentially vanished. The city had to be retaken in a very major military operation and order has only recently been restored. Now, I’ve no idea what the word “secretarian” means, but civil war there most definitely was.

    Viz: The Times, November 11, 2004:
    INSURGENT fighters seized key areas of the northern city of Mosul yesterday, raiding police stations, shelling US and Iraqi soldiers and threatening Iraq’s third-largest city with the same disorder that provoked the assault on Fallujah….Black-masked insurgents in Mosul attacked at least six police stations, stole rifles and body armour, burnt buildings and police cars and roamed freely in streets that had been abandoned by ordinary people and local US and Iraqi military units.

    They flouted a curfew which had been announced by the provincial governor the day before, after previous attacks killed three policemen and two residents.

    Guerrillas sheltering behind sandbags fired mortar shells towards American and Iraqi forces holding bridges across the River Tigris.

    One unit of guerrillas attacked the office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main parties of the Kurdish population who dominate northern Iraq…

    John Robb:”For example, attacks on multiple police stations in Mosul resulted in the scattering of 5,000 policemen.

    BBC News, 23/11/2004:”A helmet sits on a desk next to a broken safe. Amid pools of mud there are discarded papers. There is nobody around.

    Bullet holes through the window pane. A mattress on a table. This is an Iraqi police station in Mosul – one of many that have been abandoned in the last few days.

    This has become the most immediate problem facing US forces in this city. In early November, insurgents carried out a series of co-ordinated attacks against local police stations.

    They occupied and ransacked buildings, taking with them anything worth keeping including uniforms, weapons, radios and police cars.

    The soldiers moved quickly. People working in nearby fields watched, but no one waved
    The attacks caused the police force to collapse. The chief of police has left his job.

    US commanders estimate that more than three quarters of local policemen are no longer showing up for work…”

    Great, eh? No violence there!

    CBS News, same date:The former police chief of the northern city of Mosul was arrested after allegations that his force allowed insurgents to take over police stations during this month’s uprising, Deputy Gov. Khasro Gouran said Monday. Brig. Gen. Mohammed Kheiri Barhawi was arrested Sunday by Kurdish militia in northern Irbil, where he fled after he was fired in the wake of the uprising.. The Kurds locked up the police chief for being a rebel plant..

    Wikipedia: “The worst violence was seen in Mosul. Insurgents launched a massive offensive, seizing the western (Arab) half of the city and effectively destroying the police force at the same time the U.S. launched its assault on Fallujah. On November 16, over 3,000 U.S. troops and a similar number of Iraqi troops launched a counteroffensive, dismantling insurgents from strategic points but failing to break their hold on most of the city. Mosul, which a year earlier was relatively peaceful compared to much of Iraq, would be a scene of some of the heaviest sustained fighting for some time to come.”

    The Boston Globe:”According to the senior Kurdish official, Sadi Ahmed Pire, Kurdish intelligence and captured insurgents confirm that the Ba’ath Party in Mosul has reconstituted itself and is coordinating attacks in Mosul against Iraqi police, government, and the Kurdish and Christian minorities….Violence in Mosul also threatens to touch off ethnic bloodshed, as insurgents have singled out Kurds and Christians for assassination. In response, Kurdish officials have sent thousands of Peshmerga fighters into the city. They are nominally under the command of the Iraqi National Guard, but in reality answer to the two major Kurdish political parties.

    If you’re going to call me a liar, get your facts right.

  10. “the sectarian bombings have subsided somewhat”

    commenting on my own comment, and in the be careful what you say department, unfortunately they are back again this morning:

    A suicide bomber killed over 80 people in a crowded Shi’ite district of Baghdad on Wednesday, while gunmen killed 17 north of the city and the capital resounded with explosions and gunfire.

    The suicide bomber blew up an explosives-packed minibus in Kadhimiya, in Baghdad’s old town, killing 82 and wounding 163, most of them laborers looking for day jobs, police said.

    An Interior Ministry source said the bomber lured the men toward his vehicle with promises of work before detonating the bomb, which contained up to 500 lbs of explosives.

    It was one of the single deadliest car bombings Iraq has seen, and came days after around 1,000 people died in the same district in a stampede on a bridge, triggered by fears of a suicide bomber in a crowd during a Shi’ite religious ceremony.

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