April 01, 2004


"The tension is reducing every day. We are seeing a change. People are starting to realize that the soldiers are not here to occupy Fallujah forever-they're here to help us rebuild."
--Taha Bedawi, mayor of Fallujah, last July, quoted on the White House site as one of their "ten voices of liberation". Bedawi was fired by the Americans in November after charges of embezzlement and a violent ransacking of city hall by angry locals. More here.

Posted by BruceR at 12:45 PM


Interesting question: if the Marines wanted to move into Fallujah now to impose a proper curfew, what would it take?

Standard occupation ratios against a hostile citizenry are about 1 soldier per 100 inhabitants sustained, higher during the establishment period. Fallujah has roughly 280,000 residents, suggesting you'd need about 5,000 troops, or one brigade, to really start to put the lockdown. 1st Mar Div, which is occupying Anbar province (basically West Iraq), has two regiments (ie, brigade-sized groups) in theatre. In addition to Fallujah, they're likely responsible for much of the Syrian border, and the nearly-as-tumultuous nearby city of Ramadi. (They're also probably the standby force should anything go wrong in the Polish-led Multinational Division area to their south, among other duties.) Focussing one of those two Marine regiments solely on Fallujah (a safer margin of error would seem to demand more like one-and-a-half) would seem to require a realignment of some of the other forces in Iraq to compensate. In any case, the Americans certainly don't have a lot of troops lying around for this. The current rotation, now nearly completed, is meant to bring them down by the end of the April from 17 brigades, all regular, to 11 regular and 3 National Guard brigades, covering the northern 9 of Iraq's 18 provinces (including Baghdad). The most they could reasonably ever assign to Anbar's needs alone is around a quarter of that, or 3 brigades.

I'm not saying locking down Fallujah isn't an option, but it wouldn't be an easy trick, and may not be sustainable for much more than a couple months.

NOTA BENE: It is fair to say that the Marines here certainly do have more options, simply because of the city size, than were ever available in Mogadishu. With a population of over 1.2 million in that Somalian city, you would have needed an entire division (three brigades minimum, or 12,000 troops) to apply the same force-leverage a single brigade-group can in Fallujah. In Mogadishu, the American-led UN force had nowhere near that, meaning significant reinforcements would have to have been shipped in from the States in that case.

Posted by BruceR at 12:31 PM


Responses to the Fallujah ambush have been interesting. Carter believes it requires prompt retaliation. Henley seems to have decided, after a personal Madrid-related epiphany of some kind (or an April Fools-related seizure --ed.), that this further confirms the pro-war side was right after all. A lot of other people are talking about Baathists, and terrorists, and Islamicists, suggesting they may have completely missed the point here.

Because, when you look at this forensically, this has little to do with the enemies of America, at all.

Okay, what can we tell about Fallujah from yesterday's attack? The attack was well-organized... using enough firepower from smallarms to overwhelm 4 ex special ops operators before they could get out or fire back. The soldiers of fortune in this case were evidently unprepared... the mostly likely reason being they were lured or drawn to that location on a pretext. The attackers enjoyed good street control... not only in the attack, but in the generation of a mob to cover their escape, and to help in sending the right message. Because this was all about sending a message, which we'll get back to in a minute.

The only conclusion is that this one had at least the tacit blessing, if not the foreknowledge, of the real Fallujah leadership.

So who are the leaders? Well, there's no evidence they're terrorists, or Baathists per se (surely they can't be so deluded as to feel fighting Americans now will bring back Saddam; they're not on any deck of playing cards, anyway). We know they're covert, low-profile, organized, violent, and apparently without conventional political aims. In a different context, this mindset would be typical of an organized crime family; in this context, it's probably better referred to as warlordism.

And that's basically what we've got here, it's safe to say. Behind the scenes, there is a shadowy figure, as yet unnamed, and apparently unreachable... the Warlord of Fallujah. What we're dealing with here is tribe-based local factionalism.

The individual may have enjoyed similar status even in Saddam's time; he certainly would have had some relationship with Iraq's prior rulers. We know that the Americans removed, as part of de-Baathification, Fallujah's mayor and police chief last year, appointing replacements. It's safe to assume the previous holders were associates of our anonymous warlord, and the replacements were from another, rival tribal gang, one less powerful pre-war. The Americans armed this rival gang, although not particularly well, but their side rather decisively lost the resulting gang war in February, leaving the Warlord, his side bolstered by numerous demobilized Iraqi army veterans, in firm control of the town. The Americans then did not challenge this again until this week, basically leaving Fallujah alone.

The fact that things did quiet down at this point is the strongest evidence that this is not a revolutionary leader or international terrorist sympathizer the Americans are dealing with. Live and let live worked for him, too. There's no evidence the master of Fallujah tried to export his own control outside the city limits, by attacking nearby bases during the quiet period, for instance.

It's important to see this from his perspective, then. This is not a resistance that's strongly ideologically based. The killers in this case are not trying to bring anyone back, or carry on Bin Laden's jihad. They are, Mafia-like, trying to come to some understanding with the new local authorities. To them the Americans are just the latest people trying to interfere with the normal practice of warlordism. They came in and armed their rivals, so they were defacto a hostile force. The guy is looking for a deal, a ratification.

The choices the incoming Marines had, like all occupiers, were basically two. Decapitation, or deal. If you could kill the guy and his henchman without too much blowback, you could always do that, and decisively shift the local gangland balance back to your "side" that way. The other option is to recognize the existing power structure, and ratify or at least bless it, by dealing with the warlord more or less directly... appointing his cronies to positions of power, giving him control over things like food distribution, in return for his promise to keep Fallujah peaceful. This latter is, of course, the historic British approach to colonialism, and works quite well, especially since it always leaves you with a fallback to option #1 if the arrangement goes south at some later date.

Another way to look at it is option #1 is what was attempted (unsuccessfully) against Gen. Aidid in Somalia, and option #2 is what seems to be keeping the peace with the equally warlordist Ismail Khan in Western Afghanistan at the moment.

Our unnamed warlord tried to first to communicate to the Marines that he needed to be dealt with, through a series of steadily escalating minor attacks over the last couple weeks... mortaring of Marine camps at first, rising up to attacks on convoys. The Marines responded with force of their own, culminating in last Thursday's shootout in the streets of Fallujah proper, probably because they thought they had a fix on the guy that day and could go with option #1.

For whatever reason, that failed. And yesterday's gruesome ambush was the warlord's message back: "I'm still here. I'm still in control. My price just went up." (It's fair to say the killers and mob probably thought the ex-soldiers, travelling armed and in flak jackets, were just another one of those cavalierly-dressed Special Forces teams, and therefore a completely righteous target... albeit an easy one.)

And again, the Marines are back to option 1 or 2. They have crappy human intelligence in Fallujah right now (it's safe to say anyone willing to fight and die against this particular warlord bought it in that big prison break last February or shortly thereafter, cleaning out the potential American allies in the town). Any move that results in collateral damage to the civilian population, without killing the warlord and henchmen, only makes things worse. To then advocate, as Carter does, that they should retaliate immediately anyway would seem unwise.

The problem for the Americans is compounded because, unlike the warlord, they DO have to worry about how their actions are perceived in the rest of Iraq. The fact that Fallujah is thoroughly hostile right now is beside the point... as we have seen, the warlord's control does not inhibit local Iraqi media and stringers from getting images out. Any evidence of impotence or viciousness on their part is unlikely to change the collective opinion in Fallujah, true... it could, however, as this has, have profound impact in the other areas of the world Americans are trying to keep a lid on.

The standard British colonial response, at this impasse, would be to meet sotto voce with the warlord's reps, and make a secret deal. Appoint a couple cronies to the mayor and police chief positions, and trade peace in the streets for a little baksheesh. Even a temporary ceasefire can allow the development of new allies and humint assets in Fallujah, and eventually bring back the decapitation strike, or the tried-and-failed "arm their enemies" approach, as options for them again. The Fallujah resisters, like previous warlords in Somalia or Afghanistan, are not enemies of peace in Iraq, or America, per se. They are obstacles to that peace, which is different. The approach of the Americans, therefore, needs to take that difference into account.

NB: A lot of people are saying things have changed since Mogadishu, that lessons have been learned. (If you ascribe to Bowden's book, that lesson is "don't go after a warlord if you're not sure you're going to kill him," but I suspect they're thinking of a different lesson, something about cutting-and-running.) Of course, the one big difference here is the use of mercenaries... which in another war would have given the Americans maneuver room when it came to resisting public calls for retaliation (cf, Bay of Pigs invasion). It doesn't seem to be working that way, though... if mercenary deaths are seen as as bad as soldier deaths, a lot of the rationale for using mercenaries would seem to be mitigated. Also of note, the Blackwater company has refused to identify the four dead employees... at all. While given the coverage I can certainly understand this, it is also more in line with special operations practice. Are they hiding the families, or hiding the mercs' reason for being where they were? Inevitably, it must be a little of both.

Posted by BruceR at 10:47 AM