Julian Manyon

Worse than Vietnam

The war has descended into chaos, says Julian Manyon. And whereas in Vietnam there was strong local support for the Americans, there is none in Iraq

Text settings


As Iraq burns, Paul Bremer’s men remain inventive. Faced with the problem of getting their positive message out from behind the blast walls and barbed wire which surround the Coalition headquarters in Baghdad, they have resorted to technology. A television studio has been built inside Saddam Hussein’s former palace, and broadcasting companies such as ours are expected to link its outpourings to London so that reassuring messages from American officials and their Iraqi allies can be pumped directly on to British television screens. It could be called ‘Good news from the bunker’.

In truth, after the most disastrous month since the invasion, good news is hard to come by. Though Bremer’s headquarters, and our own fortified compound directly across the river, remain impregnable, the Americans have, astonishingly, lost control of many of the country’s major highways, with checkpoints of the previously ballyhooed Iraqi police simply melting away. Reconstruction work, the manna of billions of dollars which was supposed to reconcile Iraqis to the occupation, has virtually come to a halt, with one major American contractor, Kellogg, Brown and Root, the sticky-fingered subsidiary of Dick Cheney’s Halliburton, said to have lost 34 of its employees dead in the last 40 days. Roughly half of all foreign workers have left Iraq either temporarily or for good, and those who remain appear to be mainly security men who ride up and down in the lifts of our hotel clad in flak jackets and nursing submachine-guns. Ominously, work to improve Baghdad’s power supply before the punishing heat of the Iraqi summer sets in has, apparently, stalled.

American military casualties have risen sharply. The Pentagon refuses to disclose the number of wounded, but the best estimate (based on the announced figure of 137 dead) is that in the month of April some 850 soldiers were killed or injured, the equivalent of an entire battalion being put out of action. The numbers are still too low to affect the capabilities of the occupation force, and the casualties are being suffered by a professional army rather than by the draftees of Vietnam, but they are alarming in an election year and are certainly one of the main reasons that the Americans chose humiliating retreat in Fallujah rather than the decisive street battle they had repeatedly threatened. Fallujans, who had grown used to airdrops of American leaflets carrying such boastful messages as ‘Terrorists: your last day on earth was yesterday’, are now celebrating what they see as victory.

The Fallujah debacle has fully illustrated the lacunae in American tactical and strategic thinking, and is likely to cost them dear. They launched Operation Vigilant Resolve in an unconcealed thirst for revenge for the slaying and public mutilation of their four contractors and were then blinded by their own propaganda. Their mantra has always been that foreign terrorists, inspired by bin Laden and his Jordanian sub-contractor Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, are at the root of the Iraqi insurgency. Fallujah was portrayed as a town which had been hijacked by alien fanatics. All that was needed were a few precise air strikes to take out the villains and the honest burghers of Fallujah would welcome the Americans and the millions of investment dollars they brought with them. As frustration mounted in the face of dogged resistance, Brigadier General Mark Kimmit, whose blue eyes increasingly have a true-believer glint, declared Fallujah to be a town that ‘doesn’t get it’. But it was the Americans who had failed to understand. All evidence now suggests that the Fallujah insurgency is essentially home-grown in a town long known for its strength of Islamic, even Wahabite, belief and renowned for insular hard-headedness. It appears that the fighters, who now call themselves mujahedin, or holy warriors, are being advised, even commanded, by former Saddam-era army officers of whom there is no shortage locally and who were abruptly thrown on the scrapheap by the American decision to disband the old army soon after last year’s apparent victory.

Tragedy ended, for the time being, in near farce when, after days of air strikes from fearsome Spectre gunships which inflamed both Iraq and the wider Arab world, the Americans did an abrupt about-face and handed security in the town to a former Saddamist general, Jasim Mohammed Saleh, who arrived in his old uniform with an honour guard carrying an outsize Iraqi flag — the three-starred red-and-black version which the American-appointed Governing Council had previously declared defunct. The country’s official new flag, an insipid light blue creation, was only visible when it was publicly burned by the Fallujah mob. American embarrassment and confusion appeared to deepen when the Pentagon declared that General Saleh was not, after all, the right man for the job and would be replaced by another Saddam-era officer. General Saleh’s offence appeared to be his statement to the Reuters news agency that there are no foreign fighters in Fallujah — words which effectively torpedoed America’s justification for the bloodshed. But what no one in Fallujah, or in the rest of Iraq, could doubt is that the previously invincible Americans had blinked.

With startling abruptness the United States has come up against the limits of its formidable power. No one doubts that its forces could, in the end, make short work of the Fallujans and Muqtada al-Sadr’s ragtag Shiite ‘army’ in Najaf. But they have now dimly perceived that simply chopping off the hydra heads of resistance is likely to multiply them, amid mounting evidence that the Coalition is losing the battle for hearts and minds. Many ordinary Iraqis who had never cared a jot for the hillbillies of Fallujah were incensed by the spectacle of American air power battering the town, and sympathy spread across the Sunni-Shia divide. While visiting a Baghdad hospital to film a four-year-old boy whose left hand and left foot had been blown off by an American bomb in Fallujah, I was berated angrily by the father of another child. He was a Shiite who had recently joined Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, and his attention was fixed not on the Sunni refugees but on the foreign interloper. Though we had few words in common, he made clear his view that British troops must get out of Iraq or the consequences would be bloody. He drew his finger across his throat.

We no longer have to rely on anecdotal evidence for a picture of how Iraqis are feeling. An extensive opinion poll commissioned by the American newspaper USA Today and conducted before most of April’s bloodshed and the publication of the ‘torture’ photographs from Abu Ghraib prison has some disturbing findings for the Coalition. In Baghdad, 82 per cent said they see the Coalition forces as occupiers rather than liberators. More than 60 per cent of Arab respondents nationwide said American and British troops should leave Iraq immediately and, disturbingly, anti-Coalition sentiments seemed to be running at similar levels among both Sunni and Shia. Only Kurds strongly favoured the occupation.

The photographs showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by their American guards could hardly have been better calculated to diminish still further sympathy for the Coalition. In Vietnam the Americans spent years brushing off such worries. ‘Get them by the balls and the hearts and minds will follow,’ one commander famously declared. But casting my mind back to those events, the disturbing thought occurs that, in terms of local support, the Americans are actually worse placed now than then. In Vietnam they had come to salvage a more or less existent government which had at least some constituency in the Catholic minority and other anti-communists. They propped up a South Vietnam ese army which, for all its weaknesses, did on occasion demonstrate a willingness to fight. At least 400,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the war. By contrast, the first battalion of the new Iraqi army flatly refused to participate in the battle for Fallujah, saying they had not signed up to fight their fellow countrymen. An American general has admitted that, during April, fully half of their Iraqi army and police recruits deserted or even joined the other side. Though many in Baghdad and other cities continue to yearn for stability and proper government, very few are now prepared to identify with the Americans, let alone fight for them. The only reliable allies the Americans can count on are the Kurds, who cannot be widely deployed in Arab areas for fear of inflaming local feeling.

So it is in an atmosphere of double or quits that the British government is deciding whether to reinforce our presence in the quagmire with up to 4,000 more troops. No one doubts that they would perform well, even if faced with the treacherous task of winkling Muqtada al-Sadr out of Najaf without setting off a full-scale Shiite revolt. But equally no one can now be under any illusion that there is a military solution to the chaos in Iraq. In that sense the game is up.

What is now required is the abandonment of much of the ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric and a frank acknowledgment that however unpalatable many of the insurgents may be, they are, overwhelmingly, Iraqis. Further, we must recognise that they are driven not just by American blunders but by a broad distrust of the Coalition’s political and economic objectives. The looming White House strategy of transferring ‘sovereignty’ to an unelected body which cannot pass laws and has no control over its own armed forces or Coalition troops can only be seen by many Iraqis as insulting, for all the worthy efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi to make the process more acceptable. And, beyond that, there is growing suspicion that the Americans will only permit the elections loosely scheduled for January if the results can be manipulated. To have a chance of bringing the violence under control, the more extreme Iraqi elements must be marginalised, and to achieve that the Coalition will have to demonstrate that its fine words about bringing democracy translate directly into handing real power — including the power to ask us to leave — to Iraqis. That way it is even possible that they will ask us to stay.

The views that I have expressed in the last few lines, though I subscribe to them wholeheartedly, are those of Dr Gailan Ramiz, the distinguished Iraqi political scientist. Unfortunately Dr Ramiz is no longer able to express them for himself, as he was recently killed as a bystander in the ambush bombing of an American patrol.

Julian Manyon is the Middle East correspondent for ITV News.