September 2004 was described as “a month of death in Iraq” by one Arab commentator after a series of major clashes in which at least a thousand Iraqis, many of them civilians, were killed. In just the week ending September 18, 300 civilians were recorded as having been killed by US operations and in attacks by resistance fighters, many more wounded, and at least 16 US troops killed. Behind the stark casualty figures are massive damage to Iraqi towns and society, and immense human suffering.
In one of the largest American atrocities, 13 civilians were killed and at least 60 injured in Haifa Street, central Baghdad, on September 13, when an Apache helicopter fired a missile into a crowd of Iraqis celebrating the destruction of an American military vehicle in a resistance attack. It was just one of dozens of similar attacks around the country, as the US stepped up the use of air power to attack resistance-held areas where ground troops can no longer operate. In American-held areas, resistance operations also caused injuries to Iraqi civilians, as well as US and Iraqi government forces. In one particularly bloody incident, also in Haifa street, 47 Iraqi policemen were killed by a car bomb.
The intensification of hostilities was mutual. As resistance forces gradually established control over more and more of the country, and increased operations against US forces in areas which they do not control, the US responded in early September with assaults on a number of major resistance-controlled towns. With the elections in the US due on November 2, and elections in Iraq due on January 31, the US evidently decided it needed to go on to the offensive yet again to prevent the resistance from gradually taking effective control of the entire country. Despite the strength of military forces deployed in the country, and their increasingly ruthless tactics, the sobering fact for the US is that they do not even control Baghdad outside of the heavily fortified Green Zone where they are based; even there, they are subject to constant attack. Neutral observers had concluded by the beginning of September that the US and its local proxies did not exercise effective control over a single major city or town outside the Kurdish north of the country; and even there there are regular operations against the US forces. With only weeks to go to the US presidential polls, the Bush administration could not afford to let even more control slip from its grasp. This was also soon after the agreement which ended the US siege of pressure of Najaf, which lasted for most of August, but ended with the US having to accept a humiliating compromise with Muqtada al-Sadr.
The result was a broad series of attacks on major centres of resistance launched by US forces early in September. Among the targets was Fallujah, which has been in resistance control virtually since May, when the US was forced to accept a deal to end a major offensive to seize the city. At the time, a “Fallujah Protection Brigade” was placed in nominal control of the city on behalf of the Americans, but this dissolved into non-existence after some weeks, leaving the city in the hands of Sunni resistance groups.
The US launched its latest attacks on Fallujah on September 7, supposedly in response to an ambush the previous day in which seven marines had been killed. The assault consisted mainly of tank and artillery fire from marines entrenched to the south of the city, supported by helicopters and airstrikes.
Although the US claimed that over 100 resistance fighters had been killed in the initial attacks, Arab television stations showed the bodies of civilian casualties, including children. The US repeated similar attacks for the rest of the month, causing immense damage and casualties in the city, without getting even close to being able to enter it on the ground or to reach any agreement with its people.
Alongside the American attacks, there have also been attempts by the interim Iraqi government to persuade the people of the city to allow the US military into the city and to prepare to take part in the elections due in January. These have not been successful. One local ‘alim, Khalid Hamoud, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying “If there is occupation, there must be resistance. We want to live in peace, but it seems that Fallujah is punished for every attack on the Americans, no matter where it takes place.”
There were also heavy attacks on the northern town of Tal Afar, near Mosul. These attacks began in late August, but were intensified in September, when the US forces sealed off the town, describing it as “a hotbed of militant activity”. Hundreds of local people are reported to have been killed in American air attacks, while local civil authorities condemned the Iraqi government and the US for refusing to allow medical assistance into the town. Dr Rabya Khalil, the provincial health director, angrily denounced the authorities, saying “we sent ambulances, medical teams and medical supplies, but unfortunately the troops prevented them from entering the town. This is a shameful and unacceptable act – how can the wounded be treated or evacuated?”
The outcome that the US is trying to achieve was apparently demonstrated in Samarra, another town that was a no-go area for several months. Here, the US also launched military attacks, before Major General John Baptiste convened a gathering of tribal leaders in nearby Tikrit and told them to persuade the inhabitants of Samarra to open the city to US troops. If the city was not opened, he said, the forces would launch a massive ground attack. “It will be a quick fight,” he was quoted saying. “The enemy will die fast. The message for the people of Samarra is that this thing is going to be resolved, peacefully or not.”
In Samarra a combination of threats, diplomacy and bribery appear to have succeeded. A deal was agreed on September 9, and US forces reportedly promised to open a bridge to the city and offer millions of dollars in aid. American troops were then able to enter the city for the first time since May, setting up check points and installing an approved mayor, before withdrawing again on the grounds that they did not have a suitable place to stay in the city. Within days, however, small-scale resistance attacks against US troops had resumed, and it remains to be seen how long the agreement will hold.
There was also heavy fighting in the Shi’i dominated Baghdad suburb of Sadr City. The fighting there had begun in August, when Najaf was under siege , but did not end when agreement was reached in Najaf. As Crescent went to press, Iraqi government officials were reportedly negotiating with local members of the Mahdi Army, loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi Army are reportedly willing to offer a similar deal to the one which ended the Najaf siege, by which they would partially disarm provided the US forces promised to stay out of the city. This is less likely to be acceptable to the US within Baghdad, however.
In Najaf itself, meanwhile, and in other southern Shi’i towns where the Mahdi Army is established, such as Kufa, an improvised peace with the government appears to be holding while Muqtada al-Sadr and his senior officials conduct talks with the government, encouraged by Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani and other more senior Shi’i ulama, about a possible role in the elections due in January and in the post-election politics of the country.
There is widespread cynicism about the possibility of the elections taking place as scheduled, considering the conditions in the country. In the interview with the BBC in which Kofi Annan said explicitly for the first time that the US invasion of Iraq had been illegal, he also said that elections in January appeared impossible. The view is shared by other observers, mindful of the fact that no census has yet been taken, without which voter registration is impossible, and that government officials cannot even enter towns and cities in many parts of the country.
Part of the US’s agenda is to reach some sort of settlement with Iraqis in enough areas to be able to hold some sort of elections, however superficial, so that they can claim some degree of legitimacy for the post-election regime, whatever that may turn out to be. Allawi’s current position is precarious at best, and his credibility was hardly helped by his trip to the US late in September, in which he thanked the Bush regime for liberating his country instead of expressing Iraqis’ desperate desire for the occupiers to leave. Although Annan is quite right in saying that proper, free and fair elections are quite impossible, some sort of facade electoral process, hardly an unknown phenomenon in the West-dominated Arab world, may well be set up.
As with the establishment of Allawi’s interim government, and the parallel political process in Afghanistan, real power in the country will undoubtedly be distributed in private meetings between Iraqi leaders who have decided to work with the US rather than openly against them. Political deals will be brokered, key government positions assigned to particular communities or even individuals, and American patronage used to oil the whole process. Iraq may not have a Loya Jirga yet; but it may effectively have one by the time the so-called elections take place, whether they are in January or postponed.
When the US was laying down its political schedule, Ayatullah al-Sistani insisted on the scheduling of full and free elections. Many people will be watching to see how he and the Shi’i community will respond when it becomes clear that the elections will be no such thing.