Guerrilla warfare in Iraq threatens peace, reconstruction

A prewar planning scenario that predicted Saddam Hussein would use guerrilla warfare in Iraq to attack occupation forces and attempt to incite a public uprising against them seems to have materialized.

Midway through the war in Iraq, a perceptive op-ed by retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson appeared in several U.S. newspapers. Anderson, a consultant with Science Applications International, a big Pentagon contractor, cautioned against viewing the battle for Baghdad as the last phase of combat operations. Instead, he warned that victory in Baghdad could simply be the beginning of a "greater game" beyond the initial occupation of Iraq.

Saddam Hussein, Anderson predicted, would see the occupation as an opportunity to "hijack" the role of anti-Western demagogue currently occupied by Osama bin Laden and continue to fight coalition troops using guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks. "If the Iraqis weren't totally delusional, they knew they were going to lose the war," Anderson said in an interview with National Journal. "Insurgency was the way to go."

Using the classic three-stage model of insurgency, Hussein would make the initial war as "bloody as possible" and then go into hiding. Phase two would see a prolonged guerrilla war led by the Baath Party against the occupation, and phase three would involve concentrating enough insurgent power to "overwhelm" any U.N. or other interim government. Anderson said the Baathist guerrilla groups should have been neutralized early on in postwar Iraq, before they became a permanent part of the landscape.

Unfortunately, it seems that Anderson's scenario received scant attention during the Pentagon's prewar planning. Upper-level Pentagon leadership divided the possible postwar scenarios according to degrees of probability and impact. Those with the highest probability and highest potential impact were considered the most important to plan for; the next priority were those with the highest impact but lessening degrees of probability, and so on down the line. According to U.S. Central Command spokesman James Wilkinson, at the top of the list were contingency plans for catastrophic events-ignition of Iraqi oil wells, missile attacks on Israel, use of chemical and biological weapons, destruction of dams and dikes, intrusion of Iran into the war theater, conflict between the Kurds and Turks at the Turkish border in northern Iraq, Shiite massacres of Sunnis, and retribution against former Baathists by the general population.

That none of these scenarios reached fruition is perhaps one of the campaign's great successes. But one scenario near the bottom of the Pentagon's list did materialize-the "Robin Hood" scenario, under which Saddam would roam the Iraqi countryside leading a shadowy insurgency, attacking occupation forces and domestic infrastructure. The Robin Hood scenario is nearly identical to the one Anderson described in his article, and it was one subject of his prewar briefings to Pentagon officials. But some in the Pentagon regarded it as making little sense, figuring it would be easier for Saddam to use his weapons of mass destruction in the first phase to stop the Americans (and the Pentagon strongly believed that he had WMD). The Pentagon ultimately saw the Robin Hood scenario as having low probability and low impact, and being far too "high risk" for Saddam to carry out. But as Anderson warned in his article, "Saddam is a high-risk kind of guy."

So what should the Bush administration and the Pentagon do now about the growing guerrilla war in Iraq? The good news, say Anderson and other experts, is that it could turn around quickly if appropriately addressed. The United States already has one thing working in its favor-the Baathists and other guerrilla groups are playing their hand too early. The attackers appear to be using their most aggressive and well-trained forces in these attacks, according to Anderson, beginning their insurgency without the proper political elements in place and alerting the occupying forces to their presence and ambitions. "I would not, if I was advising them, recommend them being this overt this early," he said. "It appears as if they're trying to move into the second stage of an insurgency prematurely."

But Anderson thinks the Saddam loyalists may be attempting to create a different approach from a classic insurgency by inciting a large-scale public uprising instead. "They're trying to create enough incidents to have the coalition overreact and cause the Iraqi public to be so upset ... that they take to the streets and have an Islamic revolution like the one in Teheran in 1979. If they've resorted to this approach rather than the classic approach, it means they think they have a narrow window of opportunity."

One aspect of the Robin Hood scenario currently working in the Baathists' favor is the contrast between the bulky U.S. presence in the urban areas of Iraq and the persistent lack of public safety. Iraqis are afraid to go out at night, yet they see around them "large American compounds surrounded by huge deployments of troops," noted Frederick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an interview with National Journal. Barton recently traveled to Iraq as part of a team of postconflict reconstruction experts at the invitation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the top U.S. administrator in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer. "Large parts of the major cities are completely cut off from Iraqis," Barton said, "Americans are going through [the cities] in convoys 'compound-bound' as fast as they can, and it can be really disruptive. It's becoming a gratuitous insult."

This large U.S. footprint has a symbolic importance as well. When asked what left the biggest impression on him during his recent trip to Iraq, Barton said he was surprised to see how U.S. officials had set up camp in Saddam's presidential palace. According to Barton, U.S. forces have closed off a larger part of the city and are using more guards and security at the palace than when Saddam was in power. "Although it makes sense from an operational point of view, it doesn't fit symbolically with where we want to be going," he said. A foreign occupying force holed up in the palace of a former tyrant could also work in favor of the insurgents' political campaign, he added.

Anderson also recently made a trip to Iraq at the request of the Pentagon to consult with the Coalition Provisional Authority on how best to address the current guerrilla war. He questioned the severity of the problem as it's being portrayed in recent media stories, noting that at least in Baghdad the areas where most of the incidents have been taking place are not your typical hotbeds of insurgency: "Mansur [in the southwest corner of Baghdad] is essentially an affluent suburb like Fairfax- beautiful homes, parks-and not the scene of a typical popular uprising. I don't see this as a festering spot with all the people wandering out in their designer jeans trying to take on the CPA."

Instead, these middle-class neighborhoods are where many of the former Baath Party officials live, some of whom are likely involved in planning the coordinated attacks. According to Anderson, the Baathist insurgency was not bred of poverty or famine like insurgencies we have faced in other countries, such as Somalia, but one by a minority group struggling to maintain its hold on power.

The key objectives for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to combat the guerrilla war, then, are to establish a domestic security force, give an Iraqi political authority practical power, and protect and repair the Iraqi infrastructure. "The lack of civil order, overreaction of the Americans, and inability to get public services are three openings [Saddam] can exploit," Barton said. The key now is to make Iraq a better place than it was when the United States found it. Anderson said, "The sooner we can show things are on an upward slope, the better for us."

Although all the reconstruction objectives are interrelated, first on most people's list is to get U.S. troops off the streets and establish a domestic security force with Iraqi faces. U.S. soldiers "need to be replaced with Iraqi mechanisms," Anderson said. Bremer seems to have taken that advice to heart; in recent days, he has announced at least four levels of new military and paramilitary forces that will be made up of Iraqi recruits.

To counter the recruitment of former Iraqi soldiers by the insurgent groups, the coalition authority also needs to begin an active demobilization program. "We need to engage them as individuals, with their families, for their nonmilitary futures," Barton said. "It takes a labor pool away from guerrilla movements and gets them thinking about other options." Such demobilization programs have been implemented before (in Haiti, for instance) with success.

Anderson believes that the new interim Iraqi political authority is also an important step in fighting the guerrilla war. "The fact that this council has been put together is going down fairly well," he said. "Bremer is trying to make sure that they're not a puppet outfit." Giving the Iraqis a political entity other than a U.S. administration is crucial to winning popular support in the country and providing an alternative to the insurgents' claims to the throne.

Restoring and rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure is somewhat of a mixed bag. According to Anderson, water is running, fruits and vegetables are in the markets, and the stores are fairly well stocked. "On a one-to-10 scale of the Third World countries I've seen, I'd say it's probably a seven," he said. But electricity seems to be the main issue, particularly during the summer.

Anderson reports that electricity is normally on in Baghdad, and off for only an hour or two at a time. The problem, he says, is that in Baghdad, they're used to having electricity 24/7, while in the provinces they were getting very little. Now that the playing field of utilities' supplies has been leveled somewhat, those in the larger cities are understandably unhappy with the new arrangement.

But with an infrastructure that has remained virtually unimproved since the 1960s, any attack on utilities can be disastrous. If sabotage against infrastructure and oil pipelines continues, it will be difficult for the coalition authority to garner popular support from the Iraqi people. Securing and upgrading Iraqi infrastructure is a long and costly process, but integral to fighting the propaganda of the guerrilla groups.

The deaths of Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, are a plus in the coalition's war against the remaining Baathists, but the capture of Saddam is obviously still a crucial step. "Capturing Saddam would be hugely valuable; fighting the guerrilla war will be much tougher without [capturing] him," Barton said. But if Iraqis continue to see a vulnerable occupation force, a deteriorating infrastructure, and an inability to capture Saddam, peace may remain elusive.

Indeed, as Anderson and others have pointed out, this may have been Saddam's plan all along, which means that he may have hidden his weapons of mass destruction so well that they may be impossible to find. An operation that seems unlikely to find WMD and continues to incur American casualties amid persistent Iraqi resistance may soon lose its popular support at home.