When the history of the US occupation of Iraq is written, November 2003 may well come to be recognised as a turning point, a month in which a number of developments took place indicating the US’s increasing desperation in the face of determined and increasing Iraqi resistance to its presence in Iraq. These included a massive intensifying of military operations against the resistance, with devastating consequences for ordinary Iraqis; and a panic-driven change of the US’s political plans for the country, designed to try to create the illusion that the situation is under control in time to prevent George W. Bush from being damaged in next November’s presidential elections.
The month opened with a period of unprecedentedly intense resistance operations against occupation troops and those the resistance regard as the US’s local allies. 61 US and other foreign troops were killed in the first two weeks of the month, suggesting a deliberate escalation of military operations by the mujahideen during Ramadhan. The resistance also succeeded in destroying four US military helicopters during this time, a major blow to the US as it depends on helicopters to transport troops and supplies around the country, as they have proved totally unable to protect ground traffic from attack. Sixteen US troops were killed when a Chinook helicopter was shot down in Fallujah on November 2. On November 7, a Black Hawk was shot down in Tikrit, killing six troops. Another 17 were killed when two Black Hawks were brought down in Mosul on November 15, two days after 18 Italian troops were killed in an attack in Nasiriyyah. It is notable that these attacks took place in several major cities and towns in different parts of the country.
These major incidents apart, the US continued to suffer martyrdom and other operations in the heart of Baghdad, as well as in other towns and cities, and daily attacks on a smaller scale; journalists have acknowledged that the deaths of individual US soldiers in local incidents scarcely merit reporting any more. Although the US maintains publicly that the situation is under control, and that the resistance consists of pro-Saddam desperados and foreign terrorists, its true position was revealed in a secret CIA report leaked to the US media. The report, endorsed by Paul Bremer, the US’s pro-consul in Iraq, acknowledged that the numbers of attacks on US troops have reached an average of 50-75 a day, and estimated that some 50,000 Iraqis are now involved in military resistance to the US occupation.
"A growing number of Iraqis believe US troops can be defeated and are supporting the insurgency," the report warned, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. It added that Washington’s attempt to impose a pro-US regime in Iraq "could collapse unless corrective actions are taken immediately."
It also summed up the dilemma facing the US, warning that whatever it does risks further alienating the Iraqi people and increasing popular support for the resistance. If Washington fails to crush the insurgents, it said, it will only convince the Iraqis that those fighting to defeat the occupation will win. On the other hand, it warns that "more aggressive US counterinsurgency tactics could induce more Iraqis to join the guerrilla campaign."
Despite the CIA’s warnings, the US’s instinctive reaction to the escalating resistance was to step up its military attacks on Iraqi towns and cities where the operations took place. On November 8, in coordinated operations in Tikrit and Fallujah, the US turned the full might of its air power on Iraqi targets for the first time since the end of April. The attacks on Tikrit reportedly began at midnight and continued until dawn, with F-16 fighter-bombers supporting ground attacks by mortar fire, missiles and rockets. Officially, it was an operation against resistance fighters, but Lt. Col. Steven Russell of the 4th Infantry Division, who led the ground forces involved, was quoted in the Associated Press as saying: "We want to remind this town that we have teeth and claws and we will use them."
According to the press agency, "soldiers yelled, ‘knock, knock’ and ‘good morning’ in celebration as the structure crumbled amid plumes of dust and smoke." It was clearly more an opportunity for the US to demonstrate its power and raise the morale of its own troops than an operation with any military object. As usual, the US authorities refused to provide any figures of Iraqi casualties – it does not even bother to records them – but local sources said that there were several civilian deaths and that a number of buildings, including houses, had been destroyed.
Later the same day, November 8, US troops undertook similar operations in Fallujah, in co-ordination with ground operations to round up men in the town. The US has also continued to use air power for the rest of the month, including heavily armed A10 ground-attack aircraft designed to be used against tanks in a battlefield situation. What purpose they could serve in a counter-insurgency war in a largely urban environment is unclear; but it is clear that the US is trying to lessen its dependency on helicopters, which are obviously vulnerable to attack from the ground.
The US attitude was reflected in comments by the Republican Senator Trent Lott, who said: "If we have to we will just raze the whole place [Baghdad] down, see what happens. You’re dealing with insane suicide bombers targetting our people and we need to be very aggressive in taking them out." So much for liberating the Iraqi people for their own sake.
Washington’s panic was clear on November 11, when Bremer was summoned back to the US for immediate high-level emergency talks on the mounting financial and military cost of the occupation, and the lack of progress towards securing the US’s interests and objectives in the country.
The result was a rushed announcement almost totally reversing the US government’s previous strategy. Bremer returned to Baghdad on November 13 with instructions to put two options to the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which the US pretends takes decisions on Iraq’s governance. The first was supposedly an immediate vote for an Iraqi government to assume power; this was designed to be rejected. The other was to reform and expand the IGC and establish a timetable for the writing of a constitution and subsequent elections. The new timetable apparently envisages the formation of a transitional assembly by May 2004, the election of an interim government by June 2004, and full elections by the end of 2005. The IGC is expected to announce this timetable by December 15, to comply with the terms of UN Security Council resolution 1511.
The object is not for US troops to leave Iraq by next year, but for Iraq to have a more credibly independent government whose request for the US troops to say would legitimise their presence. At the same time, Bush would have some progress to boast of in his presidential campaign next year, to try to minimise the political damage that the Iraq imbroglio is causing him.
It is already clear, however, that some Iraqi leaders are determined to resist the US agenda politically as the resistance forces are resisting it militarily. Ayatullah al-Udhma Ali al-Sistani, the senior-most Shi’a leader in Iraq, has already criticised the plans as being inadequate, not reflecting the will of Iraqi people, and not reflecting the Iraqis’ Islamic aspirations. In June, a fatwa from Ayatullah Sistani scuppered an American plan to appoint the authors of a future Iraqi constitution without consultation with Iraqis or elections for a constitutional assembly.
However much military power the US can throw at Iraq, it cannot afford to ignore senior Iraqi community leaders. Its political agenda will take more than brute force to be successful. For all Bush’s plans, it is clear he does indeed have much to panic about.