The Road to Karbala
Although it is an article of faith in certain circles that Iraq was better off under Saddam Hussein, some of the Shi'ite pilgrims headed for Karbala don't think so. According to the Courier Mail:
"It doesn't matter if we are attacked. We want to receive martyrdom ... to go on such a pilgrimage at this time is a response to Zarqawi's threats. He will not stop us from observing our rituals. The situation under ... Hussein was worse and more dangerous. ... But even under Saddam, this didn't stop us from going."
Wearing a white shroud over his clothes as a symbol of his readiness to die, Hussein Nuthair, 22, marched with 10 friends from a Baghdad neighbourhood. "We have no fear and do not worry about Zarqawi or his followers. We carry no weapons and have no fear of dying," he said.
Surely these pilgrims have it wrong. George Galloway, who knew both Saddam and the insurgents, likes both. The Telegraph recalls:
Mr. Galloway described the insurgents as "ragged people, with their sandals, with their Kalashnikovs, with the lightest and most basic of weapons ... These poor Iraqis… are writing the names of their cities and towns in the stars. With 145 military operations every day, they have made the country ungovernable by the people who occupy it. ... But they decided, when the foreign invaders came, to defend their country, to defend their honour, to defend their families, their religion, their way of life from a military superpower which landed amongst them. And they are winning the war. America is losing the war in Iraq and even the Americans now admit it."
This is the sophisticated, educated and nuanced point of view. Believe it.
Apart from its symbolic significance to the Shi'ites, the pilgrimage to Karbala must constitute a prime target in a month full of prime targets for the insurgency. In a period when Iraq is preparing to hold a plebiscite on its constitution and the insurgents seek revenge for Tal-Afar, the pilgrimage is like a cherry sitting on whipped-cream topped fudge. Not only that, but as Bill Roggio points out, there is a whole slew of offensive activity against insurgents in Anbar, Haditha and Qaim and even Samarra and Ramadi. The enemy must react. Some sources have warned of a Great Ramadan Offensive aimed at getting back at the Coalition for all the knocks the invincible (are you listening George Galloway?) insurgency has received.
Al Qaeda's plans for a series of spectacular terrorist strikes in October, targeting American interests as well as U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East and said to be coordinated by Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenant in Iraq - Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- are the subject of a non-public report issued by terrorism experts this week.
The next two weeks are a clear test of the insurgency's strength. But apart from the massacre of unemployed construction workers and unarmed civilians, the insurgents who "are writing the names of their cities and towns in the stars" are having a surprisingly poor showing. US casualties for September up to the 18th stand at 14 KIA. Colonel Robert Brown, Commander of The 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Multinational Force-Northwest gave a briefing on September 14 and described the change in quality of the enemy in his area of operations. It is so packed with detail it deserves an extended quote:
Q How is the state of the insurgency different today than when you arrived to start your mission?
COL. BROWN: There's a significant difference from when we got here last October. Last October, we faced a foreign fighter that was very well-trained. I remember watching attacks out -- we had an attack that involved about 60 foreign fighters in a pretty complex ambush. By complex I mean three or four forms of engagement. They'll hit you with an IED, small arms, mortars -- a very complex attack. We saw that regularly in November and December. We also defeated -- in one of those fights, we killed 40 terrorists, and we did not lose anybody, and we defeated them every time they tried to do that against us. We really worked hard and aggressively at getting out. I mean, we conducted some 2,100 cordon and searches, and thousands of aggressive offensive operations -- 18 attacks a day against the insurgents back in that time period. I remember watching an attack and seeing the insurgents move against us, and I had to look and say, gee, are those our guys or their guys because they're moving very well around buildings. Now, that was November and December. What we saw is that that's faded away very quickly, as we captured and killed. And we killed some 550 enemy and captured over 3,000.
And as we got to February and March, we saw a completely different foreign fighter. We've captured Libyans. We've captured Saudi, Yemenis, Algerians. And many of these -- one Libyan that we captured about a month and a half ago -- he was clearly brainwashed. And he was told that, you know, what was going on here and brainwashed to come and be a -- what he thought was -- he was going to be a foreign fighter against this crusade against the Muslim religion. He got here. He saw that was not correct. They told he was going to be a suicide martyr. He said he didn't want to do that. When we happened to capture him, several other foreign fighters and the cell leader that was orchestrating them, he was very happy to talk to us about what he had seen and what they had done.
And very interesting that younger foreign fighter that we're seeing now -- very poorly trained. We would call them more like RPGs for hire. And we believe it's the -- we know that the leadership is severely disrupted. Again, from -- about 25 percent of the attacks were very complex prior to elections, as I described. Now we're down to five percent are complex. And we're at the lowest number of attacks by far over the last three months. And that is -- clearly the foreign network is disrupted. The leadership is severely disrupted. We captured Abu Talha, the number-two al Qaeda leader in the north of Iraq. And right after that we got Abu Bara, Madhi Musa (sp), Abu Zab (sp), the next six leaders that would step up and take over. Nobody's taken over now. It's not a very popular position because if they step up, they get captured or killed. And so they're really disrupted, totally different.
The other thing -- the other huge change is the population. And in a counterinsurgency, of course, the terrorists don't have to -- the people don't have to love them; they just have to remain neutral and not turn them in. And when we got here, the people were intimidated, and they were neutral. Now they are turning them in. We'd like to call it, you know, the terrorists swim in a sea of anonymity, and that sea has been taken away from them.
And for example, when we got here, they could fire mortars, and they did that. Three hundred mortar attacks a month was the average for the six months prior to us getting here. As we got the population more and more on the side of their government and their security forces, as they saw how the terrorists offered no hope for the future and their government did, they started turning these guys in. And in the beginning, a guy would fire a mortar; in a city of 2 million, it's pretty hard to track him down. Well, we've captured over 142 mortar systems, and now the average is six attacks a month in the entire province, from 300 to six.
And just a couple of weeks ago, when they did fire a mortar, the people told what they looked like, what their license plate was. In one case, they knew one of the individuals. The Iraqi army went out, tracked them right down, arrested them, and there you have it -- much different from that prior to elections, when, you know, they wouldn't say anything. It was -- we didn't see anything, and it was very hard to stop this.
Now some will argue that the enemy is shamming or that Colonel Brown is not being forthright. But the critical nature of the coming weeks means that the enemy must show his true strength -- or the lack of it -- soon.