The Lesson of Samarra

"U.S. Sees Lesson for Insurgents in an Iraq Battle," is the headline of a New York Times news report on Tuesday. Detailing the violent ambush in the Iraqi town of Samarra over the weekend, the first sentence of the article reads, "American commanders vowed Monday that the killing of as many as 54 insurgents in this central Iraqi town would serve as a lesson to those fighting the United States."

But what, exactly, are those "lessons?" The answer to that question spells more bad news for both Iraq and the U.S. occupation.

It is still unclear as to what actually happened in Samarra. The military brass' story is that dozens of Hussein-allied fedayeen pseudo-ninjas were picked off with surgical precision in a pair of wild gunfights fought on crowded city streets. Angry Iraqi witnesses and medical personnel, however, claim that innocent civilians were caught in the crossfire. But it doesn't matter which of the two wildly divergent versions of what happened in this particular Biblical town on this particular day is closer to the truth.

For all who plan to mount an armed resistance to the occupation, for whatever reason, the lesson remains the same: Force the U.S. military to fight on crowded streets. The inevitable result will be dead civilians and a surge in anger and alienation among the populace.

The narrow Anglo coalition that sort of runs Iraq now has failed to heed this lesson, one it should have learned in Vietnam, and again in Somalia. Instead, they are again speaking the language of body counts and "winning" the battle, the same mindset that so confused America 40 years ago. "They attacked, and they were killed," said Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Samarra insurgents. "So I think it will be instructive to them."

The U.S. military's reports claimed that 54 guerrillas were killed, but did not mention if any of these might have been civilians. But that's nothing new. Nobody talks about the many innocent Iraqis who have been killed since the invasion, most of whom die in fog-of-war encounters that go uninvestigated by any official beyond the lower echelons of the military. Nobody talks about the nightly raids conducted by U.S. troops who don't speak the language and who are, after all, soldiers and not policemen. Nobody talks about how the death of a single child can turn an entire clan completely and irrevocably against the United States, even if they don't give a hang about Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda or anything else beyond making a living and raising a family.

To say so is hardly melodramatic. Life in the so-called Sunni Triangle, which stretches west and north from Baghdad, has been reduced the basic elements of human nature: survival, greed, rage, love. It is no different in other urban war zones around the world, from Liberia to Somalia to the West Bank.

Vivienne Walt, of the San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service, who has been doing excellent reporting since the start of the war, reports:

At the hospital, several patients said they were injured when a shell, apparently fired from an attack helicopter, struck a mosque at about 5 p.m., when residents were converging for evening prayers.

In the corner bed of one ward lay Ali al-Tashi, a 9-year-old boy who had gone to the mosque Sunday night to pray with his father. Heavily bandaged, the boy sobbed in pain and confusion. His older brother, Grimian, 17, clutched his hand and tried to comfort him.

"He still does not know that our father has been killed," Grimian said. "All our brothers and sisters and our mother have gone up north, to Irbil, to bury him."
Let me be clear, since it is so easy to be falsely labeled as a soldier-hating "Jane Fonda" by the cable news loudmouths: I make no judgment about the soldiers who fought for their lives in Samarra. I trust they did their best to avoid killing civilians. They are paid and trained to be soldiers and they are doing their best. It is their commander-in-chief who is guilty of criminal negligence for ignoring a century's worth of history and sending them into a vale of tears.

Piecing together all the media reports and available eyewitness accounts from both sides, the image that emerges is of a situation astonishingly similar to the events depicted vividly in "Black Hawk Down." Both the book and the movie recreated the terrifying sequence of reactionary violence that lead to the United States' abrupt withdrawal from Somalia during the Clinton administration.

As in Somalia, convoys of U.S. troops, armored and armed to the teeth, are sent barreling into a known hostile urban setting, almost like bait, with snipers riding atop humvees and tanks. They are then attacked by unknown gunmen. In this case, nobody is clear whether the attackers were really fedayeen irregulars loyal to Saddam Hussein and his cronies, well-organized bandits after the Iraqi money the troops were carrying to two banks, or something else.

Whatever their identity, the attackers take the bait (i.e., U.S. soldiers) and attack, using time-tested hit-and-run-and-hit-again guerrilla tactics against a technologically superior enemy. The occupying soldiers, justifiably scared and angry, do exactly what they are trained to do: Overwhelm their opponents with superior firepower and, when in doubt, shoot first and ask questions later.

Here is Walt describing the carnage that ensued in Samarra:

Residents also charged that American soldiers showed little regard for the safety of civilians during the gunbattle.

"I saw a man running across the street to get his small son, who was stuck in the middle," said Abdul Satar, 47, who owns a bakery a block from one of the two banks to which the convoys had driven. "So the Americans shot the man," he said.

In a house on the outskirts of Samarra, Abir Mohammed Al-Khayat, 28, said a rocket hit the minibus in which she and several others had commuted from their jobs at a local pharmaceuticals factory. "There were about 20 of us, men and women," she said, cradling her arm, injured by shrapnel, in a sling.
Once both sides had retreated to the safety of their barricaded bases or secret safehouses, stunned civilians were left to survey the aftermath; to stare at their blood-soaked streets in fear, rage, sorrow and confusion. They then decide who to blame and what to do about it. This is the frontline of the much-vaunted "battle for hearts and minds" we heard so much about during the Vietnam War. As with people everywhere, these decisions will be based mostly on their biases and self-interest.

In Samarra, the verdict for many is already clear. Walt quotes Salem al-Rathmani, a resident of Samarra: "'Why are people attacking the Americans? Because of the Palestinian issue, the Americans' policy of supporting Israel, the sanctions,' he said, referring to the U.N. economic sanctions imposed after the first Gulf War." However, she adds pointedly, the crowd gathered around this self-appointed spokesman only verbalizes agreement when recounts the numerous Iraqis rounded up in recent U.S. dragnets. "Why are they capturing a lot of people without real charges?" they shout.

The Bush administration has been loudly complaining about this kind of "negative" reporting for months. Supporters of its Iraq policy claim that it offers a skewed impression of what is happening in Iraq, since the violence is supposedly "only happening in one part of the country." Putting aside the fact that this claim is simply not true -- devastating car bombs, massacres of protesters and other horrors have been spread across Iraq -- the more severe problems in the country's Sunni areas can not be just waved away. Simply put, an Iraq without the "Sunni triangle" is not Iraq.

The president, in his Thanksgiving Day pop-in visit to Baghdad airport, claimed once again that U.S. troops are dying in Iraq to fight "the terrorists" over there so we don't have to do so at home. This type of rhetoric –- which is an affront to the intelligence of every American over the age of nine -- would be comical if it weren't so tragic.

The reality is that things are falling apart in Afghanistan; al Qaeda recouped its forces and is back in business; and Iraq has become the perfect symbol for fundamentalist zealots everywhere, who can now point to the clumsy Western superpower squatting in the Arab heartland.

Meanwhile, we are killing and dying in Iraq, while ersatz Brink's truck drivers and bureaucratic spinmeisters try to make sense and bring order to a shattered country with a complex culture and history. On Tuesday, another American soldier was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near his convoy south of Samarra. Since President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq on May 1, 189 American soldiers have been killed in action. It is safe to say that many, many more Iraqis have died in that period.

Yet, the president and his PR machine insist that shooting it out with a bunch of thugs in a tiny, crowded Third World city most Americans couldn't find on a map is a way "to teach a lesson."

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