Iraq: A Vietnam-style quagmire?
Pete Tatchell warns that western forces could get bogged down in a long, bloody guerrilla war. April 7th 2003
The war in Iraq will be over in a week. This is what military chiefs and media pundits told us in mid-March, just a few days before the battle began.
The hi-tech, professional US and UK forces would, they said, overwhelm Saddam Hussein's underpaid, poorly armed and disaffected troops. Blasted by "shock and awe", most would surrender without a fight.
Mass defections would start on day one, followed by total collapse within a week.
That is what the White House and Downing Street wanted the world to believe, in order to win over a sceptical public.
Gulf War 2 will, they promised, be quick, precision-targeted and virtually bloodless, with few military or civilian casualties.
Early predictions that Baghdad would fall within seven days have proven to be reckless and downright delusional. On March 21, the top brass boasted that US forces would be in the centre of Baghdad within four days.
It took them more than two weeks, and even now their presence is partial and tenuous.
Six months ago, I warned that resistance would be stronger than expected. The Iraqi people are fiercely nationalistic.
They loathe the idea of foreign occupation. Moreover, two million Iraqis have a stake in Saddam's regime through military and government jobs and other forms of patronage. They will lose everything - perhaps even their lives - if Saddam is deposed. Many will fight to the death.
So far, my warnings have been closer to the reality of the battlefield than the wild optimism of the Pentagon. I am no military expert, just someone with a bit of common sense and a basic knowledge of military history.
Having studied the US debacle in Vietnam, it seems likely that Operation Iraqi Freedom may last several months - and possibly years.
Saddam is evil, but probably not quite as stupid as Pentagon planners assume. He seems to have learned lessons from Gulf War 1.
His troops have avoided big battles in the open desert, where they are vulnerable to allied air strikes.
Iraqi generals have, so far, not repeated the 1991 military disaster on the Basra road, where whole divisions were blown to pieces by US bombers.
Instead, Saddam is concentrating his troops in the cities, using the civilian population as human shields.
Military deployments and tactics in the south around Basra and the central region near Najaf indicate this is Saddam's strategy.
Modelling his tactics on those of the Vietnamese NLF in the 1960s, he seems intent on fighting an irregular war with small, mobile, covert units of his Fedayeen militia and Republican Guard.
Organised into terrorist-like cells, their aim is to draw western troops into the cities where they can be picked off by sniping, mines, booby-traps and car-bombs.
It could be like Berlin in 1945 or Belfast in 1972 - only 10,000 times worse.
Many of Saddam's troops have already gone to ground, discarding their uniforms and passing off themselves as civilians. We have seen this in Umm Qasr and other Iraqi towns.
Their tactics are to fight an asymmetrical war with no big weapons and no set piece battles. Defeating this shadowy, invisible enemy in unfamiliar terrain may be difficult for US and UK troops.
It is highly probable that allied soldiers will have to flush out Saddam's forces in house-to-house street fighting.
Is the US and UK public ready for the prospect of its servicemen and women coming home in body bags for months and perhaps years?
Even if Baghdad is taken soon and relatively easily, British and American troops may not kill or capture all the enemy.
Saddam's fighters could simply melt away, in order to live to fight another day.
The Iraqi leader's strategy may be to avoid a last ditch stand and switch instead to a rearguard terrorist campaign against the armies of occupation.
In this scenario, the western forces will have a physical presence and administration in Baghdad, Basra and other towns, but only partial control.
They are likely to face significant armed resistance and considerable civilian hostility (already strong because of allied bombs killing the innocent).
American and British troops may have to remain in Iraq for three years or more to maintain control and prevent counter-attacks by Saddam loyalists.
They will also, increasingly, have to suppress protests by anti-Saddam nationalists who resent the foreign occupation of their country. Keeping the peace might not be easy.
Guerrilla units could wage highly effective hit-and-run terror attacks on allied patrols, blending back into the civilian population after lightening strikes.
If a mere 200 IRA volunteers can wreck havoc in Northern Ireland for 30 years, despite the presence of 20,000 British troops, imagine what Saddam's die hard loyalists can do.
He has 70,000 Republican Guards, 25,000 Special Republican Guards and 20,000 Fedayeen militiamen. These are terrorist-trained fanatics, willing to die for Saddam.
To combat an Iraqi guerrilla campaign, the occupying US and UK forces would be bound to adopt tough counter-insurgency measures, including checkpoints, house searches, curfews, roadblocks, military courts, internment without trial, and possibly assassination and torture, as happened in Vietnam and Northern Ireland.
This crackdown is likely to provoke anger and violent protests by the Iraqi people.
How will allied troops respond? With CS gas, rubber bullets and baton charges? Or with live rounds?
Either way, this is the point where the US and UK tactics might start to seriously backfire.
To sustain a change of regime in Iraq, the allies need the support of the Iraqi people. Right now, only a minority favour western invasion.
Although they hate Saddam, most are also against a US and UK attack.
They see civilians suffering and dislike the neo-imperial connotations of an allied 'liberation' where they are treated like pawns, with no say or control over their own destiny.
Saddam is successfully exploiting this nationalist sentiment. By playing the patriotic card against America and Britain, he is deflecting opposition to his regime.
So far, there have been few crowds greeting the advancing allied armies as liberators.
The public reaction has generally ranged from polite to sullen. This may be because some are still afraid of Ba'ath party informers and hit squads.
It could also be because many blame the invaders for a war that has devastated their country and killed the innocent.
Growing civilian casualties as the war progresses, followed by heavy repression in the name of peace-keeping, will inflame nationalist passions and provoke rising Iraqi hostility towards allied forces.
A US and UK occupation could become a Vietnam-style fiasco, where we lose the hearts and minds of the civilian population, resulting in growing popular resentment and eventual outright rebellion.
Gulf War 2 will, eventually, get rid of Saddam. There is little doubt about that.
But at what price? Could we now be sowing the seeds of Gulf War 3: a national liberation war by the Iraqi people against the occupying armies of Britain and America?
Peter Tatchell is an anti-war, gay and human rights campaigner, and the author of Democratic Defence (Heretic Books/GMP, London, 1985) www.petertatchell.net
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