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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.2 (2004) 17-24
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Still No Good Options in a Wrong War
Charles V. Peña
Saddam Hussein's capture by U.S. forces just before Christmas 2003 was certainly a joyous holiday gift for the people of Iraq and good reason for Iraqis to celebrate and dance in the streets. It meant that they no longer had to fear that the dictator who had brutalized them for more than three decades would return to oppress them again. And President Bush received a nice holiday gift of a boost in his approval rating to over 60 percent as well as renewed public support of the U.S. effort in Iraq. But with the euphoria of capturing Saddam (and the "bin Laden next" fever that accompanied it) fading after the new year, the reality in Iraq has set in again; the problems and future prospects after Hussein's capture are largely the same as they were after his removal from power in April. In other words, Santa Claus has not been any kinder than the Easter Bunny.
To be sure, information gleaned from interrogating Saddam will perhaps help coalition forces better deal with a persistent Iraqi insurgency. But Saddam's capture is not an end to the insurgency, nor does it mean that the fighting will end quickly or easily. The attacks against U.S. forces, other coalition personnel, and Iraqi civilians have continued unabated in the wake of that capture. In fact, two car bombs exploded in Baghdad the day after Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, announced to the world, "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him." And the insurgents rang in the new year with a car bomb at an upscale Baghdad restaurant that killed eight people. In addition to the troubling signs that civilians increasingly are becoming targets, the [End Page 17] rate of U.S. casualties doubled in the last four months of the year compared to the previous four months (according to Pentagon statistics).
The standard refrain of blaming the violence on Saddam loyalists (especially after his capture) is the same mistake made at the beginning of the U.S. occupation. Saddam and those loyal to him make up only one engine of the violence in Iraq. Baathists and other Sunni Arabs are likely to continue to resist the American military occupation and regime change because they perceive themselves as the losers in the formation of a new Iraqi government. They are fighting not for Saddam but for their political, and perhaps physical, survival. And the Sunnis cannot be assured that retribution won't be extracted for the more than thirty years of brutal rule by the Baath party and the Sunni domination of Iraqi politics and government dating back to British colonialism. A massive settling of scores has not yet occurred, but many former Baath party officials have been killed in apparent acts of revenge.
Other Iraqis—Shiites and Kurds—will also likely continue to chafe under U.S. military occupation. True, most of the insurgency has been confined to the so-called Sunni Triangle, but there has been sporadic violence in both northern and southern Iraq. That suggests that these areas could be simmering, ready to boil over if ignited by the right spark. For example, a deadly attack in Karbala—a quiet city in relatively peaceful southern Iraq—in late December 2003 left 19 killed and 135 injured. And in another sign that the insurgents are becoming more sophisticated, the Karbala attack comprised four nearly simultaneous strikes involving mortars, grenade launchers, and suicide bombers.
Finally, Islamic jihadists—perhaps even some al Qaeda terrorists—are relatively free to come over Iraq's porous borders (the equivalent of the U.S.-Mexican border, over which thousands of illegal immigrants cross every year) to practice the art of car bombing, throwing another lethal ingredient into the mix.
Because the insurgency is multifaceted, dealing with it requires three different strategies and sets of tactics. Unfortunately, the United States seems intent on finding a one-size-fits-all solution.