• The Baghdad Bombings, Islamic State and What America Still Hasn’t Learned

    July 8, 2016 // 12 Comments »

    Baghdad_Sign from 2004

    The suicide bombings in Baghdad by Islamic State, timed for maximum violence, are only the latest reminders that the United States should not downplay the group.

    Since the wave of Islamic State suicide bombings in May – killing 522 people inside Baghdad, and 148 people inside Syria – American officials have downplayed the suicide bombing strategy as defensive. Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy in the fight against Islamic State, said the group “returned to suicide bombing” as the area under its control shrinks. The American strategy of focusing primarily on the “big picture” recapture of territory seems to push the suicide bombings to the side. “It’s their last card,” stated a compliant Iraqi spokesperson in response to the attacks.

    The reality is just the opposite. Just a day after the June 26 liberation of Fallujah, car bombs exploded in eastern and southern Baghdad. Two other suicide bombers were killed outside the city. An improvised explosive device exploded in southwest Baghdad a day earlier. And now the latest, with a death toll approaching 200.

    Washington should know better than to underestimate the power of small weapons to shape large events. After Donald Rumsfeld labeled Iraqi insurgents as “dead enders” in 2003, they began taking a deadly toll of American forces via suicide bombs. It was the 2006 bombing of the Shi’ite al-Askari Golden Mosque in Samarra that kicked the Iraqi civil war into high gear. It was improvised explosive devices and car bombs that kept American forces on the defensive through 2011.

    To believe suicide bombings represent a weakening of Islamic State is a near-total misunderstanding of the hybrid nature of the group; Islamic State melds elements of a conventional army and an insurgency. To “win,” one must defeat both versions.

    ISIS differs from a traditional insurgency in that it seeks to hold territory. This separates it from al Qaeda, and most other radical groups, and falsely leads the United States to believe that retaking strategic cities like Fallujah from Islamic State is akin to “defeating” it, as if it is World War Two again and we are watching blue arrows move across the map toward Berlin. McGurk, following Fallujah, even held a press conference announcing Islamic State has now lost 47 percent of its territory. That may be true, but it also does not really matter.

    Simultaneously with holding and losing territory, Islamic State uses terror and violence to achieve political ends.

    Islamic State has no aircraft and no significant long-range weapons, making it a very weak conventional army when facing down the combined forces of the United States, Iran and Iraq in set piece battles. It can, however, use suicide bombs to strike into the very heart of Shi’ite Baghdad (and Syria, Jordan, Yemen, and Turkey – as Tuesday’s bombing reminds us), acting as a strong transnational insurgency.

    Why does such strength matter in the face of ISIS’ large-scale losses such as Fallujah?

    Violence in the heart of Iraqi Shi’ite neighborhoods empowers hardliners to seek revenge. Core Sunni support for Islamic State grows out of the need for protection from a Shi’ite dominated military, which seeks to marginalize if not destroy the Sunnis. Reports of Shi’ite atrocities leaking out of the ruins of Sunni Fallujah are thus significant. Fallujah was largely destroyed in order to “save” it, generating some 85,000 displaced persons, mirroring what happened in Ramadi. Those actions remind many Sunnis of why they supported Islamic State (and al Qaeda before them) in the first place.

    Suicide strikes reduce the confidence of the people in their government’s ability to protect them; Prime Minister Abadi was ridiculed at the site of the most recent attack, and a member of his cabinet forced to resign. In Iraq, that sends Shi’ite militias into the streets, and raises questions about the value of civil institutions like the Iraqi National Police. Victories such as the retaking of Ramadi and Fallujah, and a promised assault on Mosul, mean little to people living at risk inside the nation’s capital.

    American commanders have already had to talk the Iraqi government out of pulling troops from the field to defend Baghdad, even as roughly half of all Iraqi security forces are already deployed there. This almost guarantees more American soldiers will be needed to take up the slack.

    Anything that pulls more American troops into Iraq fits well with the anti-American Islamic State narrative. Few Iraqis are left who imagine the United States can be an honest broker in their country. A State Department report found that one-third of all Iraqis believe the Americans are actually supporting Islamic State, while 40 percent are convinced that the United States is trying to destabilize Iraq for its own purposes.

    The suicide bombings — in Iraq and elsewhere — are not desperate or defensive moves. They are not inconsequential. They are careful strategy, the well-thought out application of violence by Islamic State. The United States downplays them at great risk.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Destroying Fallujah to ‘Save It’

    June 21, 2016 // 10 Comments »


    One of the concepts that emerged from the Vietnam War was that of destroying a village to save it.

    The idea was that by leveling a place where people once lived, the area would be denied to the Viet Cong. The people? Well, they’d just have to find somewhere else. And you’re welcome, for your freedom!

    The same cynical policy seems very much underway now in Iraq, in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State.


    The current focus is on the city of Fallujah. During Iraq War 2.0, the United States captured the city twice, the final time via a siege that would have embarrassed the Nazis outside Stalingrad. White phosphorus and depleted uranium weapons were used against a civilian population living amidst some groups of Sunni militias and al Qaeda terrorists. No one knows the civilian death count.

    In Iraq War 3.0, 2016 edition, beleaguered Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was quick to declare victory in mid-June after Shia militias reached the center of Fallujah, displacing the Islamic State (an official in the U.S.-led coalition said Iraqi forces had so far taken only half of Fallujah, but why does that matter.)

    Whomever is winning, the fighting has forced more than 85,000 residents to flee in a humanitarian crisis you’ll need to work hard to learn more about. One of the few Western journalists actually on the ground in Fallujah, the Washington Post’s Loveday Morris (follow her at @LovedayM if you have any interest in Iraq at all), described the scene as “No tents, latrines, water tanks for some. Aid agencies just can’t keep up. In 4.5 years covering Syria and Iraq I’ve never seen conditions this bad… No words.”


    It will be years, if ever, before Fallujah is a functioning city again. How do we know? Because of Ramadi.

    Ramadi was the city before Fallujah that was destroyed to free it from Islamic State. Some six months after that victory, the city remains a disaster zone. Estimates are that almost 80 percent of the buildings in Ramadi, including the majority of around 32,000 residential housing units, infrastructure, government departments and schools, have been damaged or destroyed. ISIS did its share of damage, but the U.S. launched thousands of airstrikes, artillery barrages and rocket attacks into the urban areas. Shia militias did the rest.

    Special engineering committees were created to assess the damages, award compensation and schedule re-building. Forms are still being given out to members of the public who venture back into the ruins. According to local administrators, around $19.5 billion will be needed to rebuild the city.

    Since the committees started work in May, they have received around 17,000 applications for compensation, says the mayor of Ramadi. About 50,000 are expected. Staff have managed to process 3,000 applications so far and have made the required site visits at a rate of only 30 and 50 per day.

    So far, the Baghdad central government has only provided about one million dollars. That’s Ramadi. Fallujah awaits.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Talking Iraq on Democracy Now!

    January 11, 2014 // 1 Comment »

    I was very pleased to be on Democracy Now! to talk about Iraq. Here’s the segment:

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    If Not Now, When? Al Qaeda Resurgent in Iraq

    January 7, 2014 // 15 Comments »

    Journalist Liz Sly reports a rejuvenated al Qaeda asserted control over the Iraqi city of Fallujah, raising its flag over government buildings and declaring an Islamic state in one of the most crucial areas that U.S. troops fought to pacify during our nine year War and Occupation.

    Sly goes on to say that the capture of Fallujah came amid an explosion of violence across the western desert province of Anbar in which local tribes, Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda have been fighting one another for days in a confusingly chaotic three-way war.

    Reality: About a third of all American deaths and wounds in the Iraq War and Occupation took place in Fallujah and nearby Anbar Province. In 2003, before the American Invasion, there was no al Qaeda in Iraq, and now there is.

    Many who lost loved ones there, and many survivors, are now asking What Did They Fight For, What Did They Die For?

    With great respect for everyone’s losses and sacrifices, the time to ask those questions is not just now, but when the U.S. government begins beating the drums ahead of the next war. Please don’t be fooled again.

    So maybe it is time to admit what many Americans think happened in Iraq is a myth– the reality is playing out daily there. The near-complete destruction of civil society in 2003 was a hole that could not be climbed out of. The U.S. never addressed the fundamentals in Iraq and, when the war grew tiresome, just left. The endless backslapping over the “Anbar Awakening” and COIN now is clearly hollow. History will judge said the Iraq War apologists, and now it has.

    Anyone offended by the image above can kiss my ass. That’s what war does and you should not turn away from it. It is America’s decisions to fight pointless wars that does that to our fathers, brothers and sons. If you won’t save them, at least look at them and know what your bloodlust for more war did to them.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    July 4 Celebrated in Iraq

    July 5, 2011 // Comments Off on July 4 Celebrated in Iraq

    Here’s a run down on how Iraq, freed from evil by our eight year invasion, celebrated July 4 and 5:

    — July 5 started poorly in Iraq with two explosions in northern Baghdad’s Taji township. Toll so far is 33 killed and 28 injured.

    “The two successive explosions by a booby-trapped car and an explosive charge in the garage of the Municipal Council of north Baghdad’s Taji Township on Tuesday morning killed 33 persons and injured 28 others, including some who remain in serious condition,” reported Aswat al-Iraq.

    — Way back on July 4, in Baghdad’s Mansur neighbourhood, three policeman were killed and one wounded by an improvised bomb that also hurt three civilians.

    — Another suicide bomber in the Baab al-Muadham neighborhood of central Baghdad wounded five security personnel guarding a bus station.

    — In south Baghdad an improvised bomb killed one person and wounded three others.

    — Iraq’s former Presidential Palace, once part of the temporary US Embassy complex and now used by the Iraqi armed forces, came under a mortar attack.

    — In Fallujah, car bomb exploded outside a hospital killing a policeman and a civilian. Eight other people were wounded, five of them policemen.

    — In Haditha, western Iraq, a suicide bomber blew up his explosives-packed belt near the city council building, wounding two policemen.

    — In southern Babil province, a roadside bomb killed one soldier and wounded two civilians, and a gunman assassinated a policeman from the anti-crimes unit.

    — Three children foraging through a rubbish heap in Babil also were wounded by a bomb.

    — In northern Iraq, gunmen with silencers killed a member of President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Diyala, and a soldier was killed and one wounded by an improvised bomb outside the city of Mosul.

    — Detainees in the terrorism prison in Ninewa declared a hunger strike due to the maltreatment. More than 600 detainees are on strike, and will not end it until their demands are met.

    — The Chairman of Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Legislative Council, Judge Midhat al-Mahmoud, announced on Monday that Iraq’s Court of Secession had passed 168 death sentences.

    For those keeping score at home, that adds up to 43 dead and 56 wounded, all in two long, hot days, July 4 and 5, 2011 in Iraq.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State, Iraq, Military