Thursday, March 08, 2007

From the pan to the fire

March 8, 2007

Iraqis — from
the pan to fire

THE suicide attacks that killed more than 120 Iraqi Shiite pilgrims in Hila on their way to the holy city of Karbala on Tuesday have exposed yet another shortcoming on the part of the US-led coalition forces occupying Iraq.
There were major security lapses on the part of the coalition forces, who could not provide the right protection to the pilgrims.
It should be noted that the Hila attack came after gunmen and bombers hit group after group of Shiite pilgrims elsewhere - some in buses and others making the trek on foot to Karbala. At least 24 were killed in those attacks, which should have alerted the US military to adopt additional precautions to protest Karbala-bound pilgrims.
The first — and indeed valid — argument cited by the Iraqi Shiite community at large is that the US military, by dismantling part of Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army and forcing the rest to go underground, had deprived the pilgrims of the tight-knit security that was until now offered to them by the Mahdi Army.
Mahdi Army militiamen, it could even be argued, were better organised than the US military in Iraq. At least they knew what they were doing and what they were supposed to be doing when they stood guard over pilgrimages to Karbala. Compare that with the obviously confused state of mind of fresh American reservists flown in from tens of thousands of kilometres away to fight in a land which is not their own and a faceless enemy waging an unconventional and unorthodox war (if indeed there could be one).
US military commanders should have known that they would be leaving a major security vacuum when they moved in to remove Mahdi Army militiamen from the streets at the outset of the new security crackdown. It is not that Mahdi Army militiamen are angels sent down to protect Iraqi Shiites, but in the absence of a properly structured and equipped security aparatus of the state, the best bet was on the Sadrists to protect the pilgrims. That was the case in the last three years (although the Mahdi Army also failed to prevent a major bombing attack against pilgrims two years ago).
This week's incident reminds us of the situation immediately after the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. One of the first missions of the invading forces was to dismantle the 800,000-strong Iraqi army, and that blunder is still remembered as one of the worst that the US military committed in Iraq. By dismantling the army, the US military removed one of the central pillars of Iraqi security under the reign of Saddam Hussein. The US-led coalition forces were not in a position to take over the role played by the ousted security forces, and this vacuum continued to grow since then. Today, it poses the biggest challenge to the US quest to limit its soldiers' exposure to enemy fire by handing over security responsibility to the Iraqi government forces.
It is ironic that the US military has been unable to provide security for its own soldiers despite the three-week-old crackdown in Baghdad.
Nine US soldiers were killed on Tuesday in two separate roadside bombings north of Baghdad, making it the deadliest day for US troops in Iraq in nearly a month and raising to 3,166 the number of American military deaths in the country since March 2003.
Even if one were to give the US military the benefit of the doubt, it would only be fair to observe that Washington's much-touted troop "surge" in Iraq has only made things worse for the suffering people of Iraq. They are now left more vulnerable than they were before the fresh crackdown was launched. What is even worse is the certainty that the "death squads" of Iraq have gone into hiding for the time being and would return to the scene when the US-induced heat cools down.