Sitting beneath a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt pinned to the wall of his office deep inside a former Baathist presidential palace, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Stockmoe lolled back in his chair and roared with laughter at the fatal idiocy of so many of his enemies.
‘We’ve had well over a dozen examples of these knuckleheads doing stupid things,’ he chuckled. ‘Here’s a funny story. There were three brothers down in Baghdad who had a mortar tube and were firing into the Green Zone. They didn’t have a baseplate so they were storing the mortar rounds in the car engine compartment and the rounds got overheated. Two of these clowns dropped them in the tube and they exploded, blowing their legs off.’
Abandoning the lifeless carcasses and smouldering wreckage of the car, the third brother sought refuge in a nearby house. The occupants were less than impressed, related Stockmoe, slapping his thigh. ‘So they proceeded to beat the crap out of him and then turned him over to the Iraqi police. It was like the movie Dumb and Dumber.’
There have been so many examples of such incompetence that Stockmoe, who leaves Iraq this week after a year as the US army’s 1st Infantry Division’s senior military intelligence officer, has been doling out unofficial Darwin Awards in honour of the most side-splittingly useless insurgents.
Created in 1993 by a Stanford University student, the official Darwin Awards commemorate those who ‘contribute to the improvement of our gene pool by removing themselves from it in a really stupid way’. According to Stockmoe, Iraq’s gene pool is in better shape each day.
Military intelligence officers have long been the butt of jokes that their specialisation is an oxymoron. And it is perhaps a rash soldier who mocks an adversary that has killed well over a thousand troops in just over 18 months. But Stockmoe has a serious point, and a close look at insurgent attacks since the Fallujah offensive in November reveals that while the numbers might have increased, they are becoming less effective. The nine election-day suicide bombers averaged about three victims each, a strike-rate so bad that Allah might soon start rationing the virgins to show his displeasure.
Such is the desperation — and decadence — of the insurgents that they have begun using mentally retarded youths for suicide bombings. This is a way of preserving brighter recruits, but the downside is that they get caught, blow themselves up prematurely or kill the wrong people.
The gap between the rhetoric and the actions of Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, the Jordanian Salafist who leads the most brutal strand of the insurgency, has grown ever wider since he lost his base in Fallujah and was largely restricted to the Sunni corridor that runs from Mosul to north Babil.
Zarkawi’s organisation is riddled with paranoia and division. Some of the guards who held Ken Bigley broke ranks and tried to help him escape. There was bitter dissent when Zarkawi and other insurgent leaders fled Fallujah and left their underlings to fight. Fear of betrayal has led to smaller cells operating ever more independently, preventing an overall insurgent strategy from developing.
Sunday’s watershed election certainly marked a political defeat for the insurgents, but it was also a crushing military one. Despite having 5,200 polling stations to target, they could not bring off a major attack on a single one; one hapless suicide bomber apparently had Down’s Syndrome.
Iraq’s insurgency is not about to end. Indeed, there is every chance that it has several years to run. Despite the loss of thousands, it has consistently been able to regenerate and regroup. Even Stockmoe acknowledges its resilience. The election, however, showed that while ordinary Iraqis are no fans of American troops, they hate the insurgents more.
The bumptious Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his ill-disciplined Mahdi army now have one foot in the political process. Even some Sunnis formerly linked to the insurgency are dipping their toes into democratic waters. Not only that, but the kidnapping of Westerners seems to have dried up. Neither Shia nor Kurds have risen to the bait of sectarian murders by retaliating in kind. At last the Iraqi security forces — the key to the country’s viability — are beginning to acquit themselves respectably.
Any number of screw-ups could still happen and no one should be declaring ‘mission accomplished’ just yet. But as Stockmoe might cheerfully put it, as he packs up his kitbag: the knuckleheads are in deep doodoo.
Toby Harnden is chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph.