2004 September 09 Thursday
US Forces Go On Offensive In Iraq Sunni Triangle

The US military is trying to retake the many no-go zones in the Sunni triangle.

After months of creeping withdrawal from a growing number of towns in the north and west, the American military confirmed that major operations were under way to regain lost territory.


The American military's biggest success of the day was the recapture of Samarra, one of the three most important Sunni cities that have been under effective insurgent control since April, apparently without a shot being fired.

Rebel held Tal Afar near the Syrian border is under attack by US and allied Iraqi forces.

Joint US and Iraqi forces began a seven-hour bombardment of Talafar at 0200 local time (2200 GMT Wednesday).

Lots of Sunni rebels are getting killed.

Fierce fighting around the town of Tal Afar, a suspected haven for foreign fighters about 100km east of the Syrian border in northern Iraq, left 45 dead and more than 80 wounded, a local government health official said.

Some Iraqi government forces are involved in the Sunni Triangle offensive and at least part of the Iraqi government supports the offensive.

"Fallujah and Ramadi have not been dealt with," said Sabah Kadahim, a Ministry of Interior spokesman. "It's time to start."

The estimated size of the insurgency has grown.

The Americans cannot reduce the size of their forces for fear that the rebels would make greater advances against the Iraqi forces; the number of American troops is up from 115,000 in February to some 140,000 today, while only 95,000 members of Iraq's security forces, the Americans now say, are ready to take up the slack—a sharp downward revision of the previously cited figure of 200,000. By contrast, the Americans' estimate of 5,000 rebels last year has jumped to 20,000. Plainly there is no light yet at the end of Mr Allawi's tunnel to normality.

In my view the big unknown at this point is whether the central government can develop and field a large army that will stay loyal to it. If the government's military can't develop a substantial fighting capability then the United States has to either stay and fight for years or withdraw and let a civil war between the existing factions settle the question of which strongman will be Iraq's new ruler or even whether Iraq will stay as a single country.

Saigon was never as dangerous to US soldiers as Baghdad is today.

Among those who died were 24 women--as many women as were killed in service during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Vietnam and Korea combined.

The nature of this war is different, said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation.

"I was in Vietnam after the Tet offensive," she said. "Never was Saigon as dangerous a place as Baghdad is today. In Iraq, you can be at risk anywhere."

Consider the comparison to Vietnam. Granted, the death rate of US troops is lower than it was in Vietnam. But that is partly a function of terrain. The Iraqi insurgents do not have jungles to hide in - except for the concrete jungles in cities. The insurgents have Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that can be exploded remotely. But overall the technological advantage enjoyed by US soldiers today is greater than the technological advantage of US soldiers in Vietnam against the VC. Among the technological advantages of US forces today are highly accurate air support with JDAM bombs, GPS navigation, signal processing gadgets that process gunshot sounds to quickly locate the direction of sniper fire, fancier flak jackets and armor protection of vehicles, and remotely controlled robotic devices. Also, in the post-Vietnam War era the volunteer US Army and Marines have gone through a huge internal cultural change caused in large part by the embrace of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity by officers and enlisted men alike.

The greater capability of the US military to protect itself in Iraq is, in my view, causing many observers to underestimate the size of the insurgency in Iraq. Had the US military of the Vietnam era gone into Iraq the US casualty rates would be greater by some multiple of today's casualty rate. Note that I'm not arguing that the main reason the casualty rate of the US military is lower because the US military is doing such a bang up job of killing the insurgents. The insurgency has grown in size. The insurgency's growth has happened in spite of the fact that the US military is much more able to learn lessons from battlefield events than the Vietnam era military. The US military is bringing all sorts of new technology to Iraq as the war progresses and yet still their casualty rates are rising.

Will Bush now let the US military fight its way into every single Sunni Triangle city and town? Will the Iraqi government's military grow in size while staying loyal to the civilian leaders who are officially supposed to control it? Can large enough portions of Iraq be made secure enough to make elections feasible in January?

Update: Note that the initial retaking of Samarra was done supposedly without firing a shot. At first that might seem like a great success. But if no shots were fired then all the insurgents in Samarra are still alive to plant bombs and snipe from hidden locations. On the other hand, if US forces killed insurgents then that would just motivate their relatives to seek revenge. The US probably can't stop the insurgency without acting far more brutally than the American public would find acceptable.

Update II: 150 American soldiers were able to enter Samarra while 500 insurgents blended in with the populace.

But commanders acknowledge that as many as 500 insurgents remain in the city. The guerrillas' preference is to strike at smaller U.S. or Iraqi units. In classic guerrilla style, they tend to hide their weapons and blend in among residents when faced with larger forces.

U.S. troops pulled out at the end of the day for lack of a secure base at which to spend the night.

The US forces selected new civilian leaders for Samarra during their day trip. But did those civilian leaders survive the night?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 September 09 07:29 PM  Mideast Iraq

Fly said at September 9, 2004 10:03 PM:

Randall: “In my view the big unknown at this point is whether the central government can develop and field a large army that will stay loyal to it.”

I agree. I’ve read US soldier blogs that say that many of the new Iraqi soldiers are brave, good guys. Unfortunately there is no Iraqi military command structure to whom the new soldiers are loyal. Loyalty should be extended to one’s comrades and up through the chain of command. That doesn’t exist in the new Iraqi forces and won’t for some time. (A few Iraqi military leaders did command Iraqi loyalty. Some of those have been assassinated or intimidated by having family members kidnapped.)

In the interim Kurdish and Shia forces will likely be used in the Sunni areas and Kurdish forces used in the Shia areas. That won’t help unite Iraq.

My general impression from reading the soldier blogs is that most of the fighters are untrained rabble. (Some of the fighters in Fallujah were dedicated, trained soldiers who earned the respect of the marines. That may partly explain the attempt to negotiate a settlement that separated foreign fighters from ex-military local residents.) From what I’ve read US soldiers had far more respect for the fighting ability and dedication of the Viet Cong than they do for the Arab fighters.

Most US losses have come from roadside bombs. (Though that is changing as the intensity of street fighting increases.)

Randall: “Had the US military of the Vietnam era gone into Iraq the US casualty rates would be greater by some multiple of today's casualty rate.”

Absolutely agree. The US volunteer forces are far better trained and far more dedicated. The technological gap between the US and the enemy is far greater now than then. The US is losing very few men while attacking. Roadside bombs, sniping, and ambushes are the problem. (At least from the information made public. Fighting is going on some areas where little information is being released.)

Derek Copold said at September 10, 2004 7:02 AM:

The death rate has been kept down by improved body and vehicle armor, not to mention improved medicine and evacuation. So an attack that would have resulted in a death thirty years, today is a wounding. Of course, those woundings are no walk in the park: lost limbs, blindness, deafness, paralysis and the like.

With 135,000 troops in theater, we've lost a total of 8,000 men to deaths and wounding, an attrition rate of 6%. When you add on other factors, like pregnancies, psychological breakdowns, criminal prosecutions and the like, the percentage goes up, possibly to 10%. Considering how marginal our force levels are at the moment, this war has essentially paralyzed us. Unless something happens to warrant a draft, we won't be going to Tehran or Damascus, as the wargasm crowd would love to do. Really, we can't even afford to annoy the mullahs in Iran, lest they start to seriously arm the guerillas and drive our attrition rate even higher.

Derek Copold said at September 10, 2004 10:05 AM:

Incidentally, I have no doubt there'll be elections in January, though they may be flawed. The real question is whether they'll be another meaningful election after those.

John S Bolton said at September 11, 2004 2:39 AM:

There is a parallel to Vietnam also, in the holding back of superior firepower and its accuracy, which could be used to eliminate rebel concentrations. They would have to almost hide in the basement of an elementary school, to hug non-combatants closely enough to avoid targeting by today's bombs. The people running this war don't want to win, or they are advised by those who fear the display of our military capabilities against a rebellion, which might be generalized to reduce the estimated chances of a leftist uprising, in an urban setting.

Derek Copold said at September 13, 2004 6:09 AM:

"The people running this war don't want to win, or they are advised by those who fear the display of our military capabilities against a rebellion, which might be generalized to reduce the estimated chances of a leftist uprising, in an urban setting."

The only way to "win" this war is to depopulate entire cities. I put square quotes around the word "win", because even if the tactic works, I don't see what it will gain us in the long run.

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