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Bringing Ireland to Baghdad: How the Resistance Will Eventually Kick the Americans Out

One thing the United States doesn't get about guerrilla warfare: It's not over until the guerrillas win.
 
 
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It's very easy to see what's up in Iraq right now -- if you're willing to face it. The trouble is, most "experts" aren't willing. That has been the pattern right from the beginning. We didn't want to admit there even was an insurgency, and even now, nobody misses a chance to declare that "the surge worked," as if that translates to "we win, it's over, let's go home."

Fact number one about guerrilla wars: They're not over until the guerrillas win. Mao set out the guerrilla's viewpoint 80 years ago: "The enemy wants to fight a short war, but we simply will not let him." The longer the guerrillas stay in the game, the sicker the occupying army gets. Sooner or later, they'll go home -- because they can. It's that simple, and it works. So anyone who tells you it's over is just plain ignorant. That's one thing you can rule out instantly.

But people keep saying it. The most recent and ridiculous take is that "Moqtada al Sadr is renouncing violence." Talk about naive! What led these geniuses to that conclusion is that on June 13, Moqtada al Sadr, leader of the biggest and toughest Shia militia, the Mahdi Army, sent out a big announcement: "From now on, the resistance will be exclusively conducted by only one group. ... The weapons will be held exclusively by this group." In other words, he's switching from a big, sloppy, amateur force to a select group of professional guerrillas.

Also, there'll be a non-military role for the civilian supporter, working on local politics to "liberate the minds from domination and globalization."

The glass-half-full school of thought took Sadr's announcement to mean that he's getting out of the violence business, trying to marginalize the "special groups," which is U.S. Army talk for hardcore Shia militias, and move his party to the good ol' middle of the road. See, that's classic misreading of Iraqi reality as if it were U.S. politics. It's like we keep trying to pretend that Iraq under occupation is just a dusty version of Iowa. Sorry, but a country under enemy occupation doesn't think or act like Des Moines. If you want a good analogy to what Sadr is actually doing, it's easy to find one, but you can't look at American politics. You need to go to research other countries occupied by enemy armies, where urban insurgencies started off like Sadr's Mahdi Army did -- as neighborhood defense groups protecting the locals against mobs from across the ethnic divide. And when you start thinking on those lines, there's a really close, clear parallel between what Sadr is doing now and another insurgency that shifted from neighborhood-gang/paramilitary organization to small armed cells, with civilian support channeled into an above-ground political wing: the IRA back in the 1970s.

The basic parallels between Shia Iraqis and the IRA are clear enough: They're both minorities that got stomped on by the dominant tribe -- in Northern Ireland, Protestant mobs used to burn and stomp at will when they were in the mood; and in Shia Iraq, Sunni goons went on regular murder runs in Shia neighborhoods. So both places, Catholic Belfast and Shia Baghdad, got used to defending their own neighborhoods because nobody else was going to defend them. Then they were "saved" by foreign troops from countries that had always been their biggest enemy: The Ulster Catholics were occupied by the British Army, and Shia Iraq by the Americans. Of course, it was all supposed to be gratitude and happiness, the way the occupiers saw it. They expected the slum people to be grateful. Well, there haven't been too many people in history who've been glad to be occupied by foreign troops. Even when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia to root out the Khmer Rouge, a lot of Khmer were more angry at the foreigners than pleased to be rid of Pol Pot. And of course, in both of these cases the troops who arrived were hated alien types: British paratroopers in Belfast, American "crusaders" in Baghdad. A few trigger-happy troops firing on local crowds and boom! Gratitude season was over, and the insurgency was in da house. In both places, the local rebel groups were ready: The IRA in Belfast dated back to 1916, and Sadr City had the same tradition of organizing neighborhood defensive gangs.

The trouble is, when po' folks organize, they have this fatal addiction to big, fancy titles and military fol-der-ol. It's easy to understand: It helps stomped-on people feel braver, have a little pride. So these groups always go for show, a lot of pomp and uniforms, and a traditional military organizational chart. Pretty soon the guy next door is a colonel, the clerk in the corner store is a four-star general, and they're strutting around in homemade uniforms feeling ready to take on Genghis Khan. Good for morale, but fatal to real urban guerrilla war. There are two reasons for that. First, these amateur armies get slaughtered when they go up against professional troops; and second, the traditional open organizational chart makes it very easy for the occupiers to identify everyone who's anyone in the insurgency. When an organization starts out fighting mobs from the enemy tribe, that's fine. So when the IRA tried to fight the British Army head to head in the 1970s, it got stomped; so did Sadr's militia when it went up against U.S. troops in April 2004.

See, when you start a guerrilla movement you can be absolutely sure that some of your members are spies. If you use your imagination a little, really try to imagine what it's like in an insurgent neighborhood, you'll soon see why.

Imagine you're a Sadr City homeboy, cheering the local "brigade" of the Mahdi Army. They march down the street, and everybody feels proud. They're guys you grew up with, know and like. So far so good. Then you get word that U.S. troops, or Iraqi troops, or somebody even scarier, have thrown your little brother in the back of a Humvee. People who get taken like that don't come back, or they come back really messed up. If that isn't scary enough, the troops can crush your family "legally"; after a few hours in an interrogation center, your little brother will sign anything, and next thing you know the Humvees are back to arrest your whole family.

Suddenly you're ready to name names, if they'll just let him out. And you know the names, because you know exactly who's who in the local "Mahdi Army," thanks to all that foolhardy paramilitary organization and open parading. And the guerrillas know you know, and they understand what kind of pressure you're under, which gives them a nasty choice: Kill you, threaten you or risk letting you trade your brother's life for theirs. If they kill you, the neighborhood turns against them; and besides, these guys aren't monsters, no matter what the TV tells you. If you lived in Sadr City, and if you had an ounce of guts, you'd join the Mahdi Army too. They're ordinary people, just like suicide bombers are ordinary people. You'll never understand them if you fall for thinking that they're all monster lunatics.

But the guerrillas have a nasty choice to make when they hear that your brother has been picked up by the army: If they let you live, you'll give them up, and they'll die slowly, under torture. And before they die they're going to name names too -- everybody does, under torture, no matter what the movies say -- bigger names, weapons caches, guerrilla agents inside the occupation government, the really big stuff.

That's basically what happened to the IRA in the 1970s. The IRA had done a good job fighting off Protestant mobs who tried to burn Catholics out of their neighborhood; for that sort of job, their large-unit organization into "Belfast Brigade" and "Derry Brigade" worked well enough. But after the British Army's best units occupied the province in 1969, they were up against "the professionals," as the army liked to call itself. And when you're fighting a first-world army with unlimited funds, manpower, technology and spy services, that sort of wide-open style is hopeless. Rounding up the IRA was as simple as photocopying its organizational charts: "Let's see, today we'll grab so-and-so, the local commander, and tomorrow his next-in-command, then a spot of tea." And if they didn't feel like arresting somebody themselves, they'd just hand his dossier, with photo, to one of the Protestant hit squads that were in bed with the intel services.

It was a wipeout. Within a few years, the IRA's best people ended up dead or in prison because they'd tried to straddle an impossible divide between guerrilla warfare and populist politics. They had plenty of time, sitting in internment camps like Long Kesh, to think over their mistakes, and it was in those cells that the brains of the outfit, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, came up with the exact same move that Sadr's making now.

Like Sadr just did, the IRA divided the "movement" into two parts. One would be a much smaller, more professional urban guerrilla armed wing divided into cells, not "brigades." Each cell would have maybe a half-dozen members, and if possible the members would be from different parts of Northern Ireland, so they wouldn't be obviously connected. Only the leader of the cell would know all the members, and that leader would only have contact with one guy from the main organization. That meant, to put it bluntly, that even under torture he couldn't tell enough to destroy the whole guerrilla movement.

Not only was this a safer way to fight, it was actually more effective than bigger paramilitary units in urban guerrilla fighting. The IRA had already found out the hard way that big, amateur "brigades" couldn't defend their neighborhoods against professional military attacks in the summer of 1972, during "Operation Motorman," when the British Army used Centurion tanks and other heavy equipment to smash through the pathetic barricades around "Free Derry" and the other "No-Go Zones" the IRA had tried to set up. Trivia point: As far as I know, this is still the only time MBTs have been used in military action within the U.K.

Sadr's "Mahdi Army" learned the same hard lesson when it tried to barricade Sadr City against the U.S. Army. The first blow came in April 2004, when Sadr ordered his amateur troops into the streets to fight the U.S. occupiers. They died like a Stallone comedy. Sheer massacre. That was lesson number one: Urban combat should be left to a few trained people, not amateurs with guns.

Then, after the surge, when we finally started applying commonsense counterinsurgency tactics, came hard lesson number two, the same one the IRA had learned: If you're running an open "army," it's very easy for the occupier to know who to snatch. In the past few months, U.S.-Iraqi forces have smashed their way into Sadr City and grabbed most of the Mahdi Army leadership.

That's the situation Sadr is facing, and it's incredibly similar to the one the IRA faced back in the days of disco, with one big, big difference: The level of violence in Iraq is, oh, about a zillion times higher than it was in Northern Ireland. In more than 30 years of "war" up there, only about 3,100 people died. Nobody knows how high the toll's running in Iraq, but you can add a couple of zeros to that 3,100 and not be too far off. U.S. troop losses alone are already higher than the total number of dead in 30 years of Northern Ireland fighting, after only five years of war.

So Sadr has had a big slap in the face, and he's got to go into relaunch mode. Luckily for him, he has outside help in the brains department, with advisers from Hezbollah in Lebanon, the very best guerrilla movement in the world right now, and Iranian intelligence, the MVPs of this whole war. I'd take that lineup over hick boneheads like Cheney any day.

Sadr's answer was clear, from that announcement he made in mid-June: He's going to divide the movement into two parts, just like the IRA did. There'll be a big-tent political party for the ordinary civilian supporter, backed by a small, well-trained urban guerrilla movement. And there'll be a firewall between the two groups, so Sadr can deny any armed operation that gets messy, just like Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein used to do when an IRA attack went wrong. The IRA provides Sadr with a perfect blueprint on how to do it. (It even had a slogan to describe its new tactics, saying it would win "with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot in the other.")

After its reorganization, the IRA fought much smarter, pushing its political party, Sinn Fein, and working to set up top-secret guerrilla cells in London to hurt the Brits where they lived and take the war away from the Northern Ireland slums. Over the long term, it worked: After it blasted London a couple of times, it cut a deal just in time to be out of the terrorism business before 9/11. As of now, not a single IRA fighter is in prison and Sinn Fein is the fastest-growing party in Ireland.

My guess is that Sadr is planning to make exactly that kind of move: dividing his forces into a big-tent, peaceful political party for the ordinary Shia civilian and forming a cell-based, small, deniable, professional urban guerrilla force with his best fighters.

Some of the recent hits on U.S. targets in Baghdad show that the Shia are shifting from open rebellion to smart, well-planned hits on the targets that hurt the occupier most: U.S. troops and civilian staff in Baghdad.

On June 24, two weeks after Sadr announced his reorganization, "Shiite extremists" in Sadr City carried out one of the most effective bombings of the war, blasting a district council meeting and killing two U.S. soldiers, two State Department officials and six Iraqis who'd been working with the Americans. That's exactly the kind of operation Sadr's new force wants to specialize in: fast, secret, aimed at the Americans, with no civilian casualties. Compare that attack to the standard Sunni car-bomber who blows up a whole street full of kids to get a couple of cops, and you can see that somebody in Sadr City is playing smarter than the average Iraqi insurgent. You can't do something that slick with the sort of amateur, open paramilitary group Sadr used to have. That's Hezbollah-style professionals at work.

Meanwhile, on the political front, Sadr is setting up the new political wing to "liberate minds," meaning "control the new Shia Baghdad." You see, what the U.S. press isn't telling us, but I know from my top-secret military moles in Iraq, is that there are no more Sunni districts in Baghdad. Baghdad is becoming a Shia city fast. Formerly Sunni districts like Karkh are now majority-Shia. There are a few holdout Sunni neighborhoods ("nahias") and little slices of neighborhoods ("malhallas.")

But they're crumbling, too. Baghdad is a Shia city and getting Shia-er by the day. So Sadr is in position to be mayor and warlord at the same time. Lord, he must laugh his Orson Welles beard off when he reads these ignorant U.S. military "analysts" saying he's renouncing violence.

 
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