Mark Danner

Delusions in Baghdad

Autumn in Baghdad is cloudy and gray. Trapped in rush-hour traffic one October morning, without warning my car bucked up and back, like a horse whose reins had been brutally pulled.


Autumn in Baghdad is cloudy and gray. Trapped in rush-hour traffic one October morning, without warning my car bucked up and back, like a horse whose reins had been brutally pulled. For a jolting instant the explosion registered only as the absence of sound, a silent blow to the stomach; and then a beat later, as hearing returned, a faint tinkling chorus: the store windows, all along busy Karrada Street, trembling together in their sashes. They were tinkling still when over the rooftops to the right came the immense eruption of oily black smoke.

Such dark plumes have become the beacons, the lighthouses, of contemporary Baghdad, and we rushed to follow, bumping over the center divider, vaulting the curb, screeching through the honking chaos of Seventies-vintage American cars, trailing the blasting horns and screaming tires for two, three, four heart-pounding moments until, barely three blocks away, at one end of a pleasant residential square, behind a gaggle of blue-shirted Iraqi security men running in panic about the grass, shouting, waving their AK-47s, we came upon two towering conflagrations, rising perhaps a dozen feet in the air, and, perfectly outlined in the bright orange flames, like skeletons preserved in amber, the blackened frames of what moments before had been a van and a four-wheel drive.

Between the two great fires rose a smaller one, eight or nine feet high, enclosing a tangled, mass of metal. Pushing past the Iraqis, who shouted angrily, gesturing with their guns, I ran forward, toward the flames: the heat was intense. I saw slabs of smashed wall, hunks of rubble, glass, and sand scattered about, and behind it all an immense curtain of black smoke obscuring everything: the building, part of the International Red Cross compound, that stood there, the wall that had guarded it, the remains of the people who, four minutes before, had lived and worked there.

“Terrorism,” the US Army lieutenant colonel had told me ruefully the week before, “is Grand Theater,” and, as a mustached security man yanked me roughly by the arm, spinning me away from the flames, I saw that behind me the front rows had quickly filled: photographers with their long lenses, khaki vests, and shoulder bags struggled to push their way through the Iraqi security men, who, growing angrier, shouted and cursed, pushing them back. Swinging their AK-47s, they managed to form a ragged perimeter against what was now a jostling, roiling crowd, while camera crews in the vanguard surged forward. Now a US Army Humvee appeared; four American soldiers leaped out and plunged into the crowd, assault rifles raised, and began to scream, in what I had come to recognize as a characteristic form of address, “GET. THE FUCK. BACK! GET. THE FUCK. BACK!” Very young men in tan camouflage fatigues, armed, red-faced, flustered; facing them, the men and women of the world press, Baghdad division, assembled in their hundreds in less than a quarter of an hour: in the front row, those who, like me, had had the dumb luck to be in the neighborhood; behind them network crews who had received a quick tip from an embassy contact or an Iraqi stringer, or had simply heard or felt the explosion and pounded their way up to the hotel roof, scanning the horizon anxiously, locating the black beacon, and racing off to cover the story – or, as Lieutenant Colonel George Krivo put it bitterly, to “make the story. Here, media is the total message: I now have an understanding of McLuhan you wouldn’t believe. Kill twenty people here? In front of that lens it’s killing twenty thousand.”

Behind the flames and the dark smoke, amid the shattered walls and twisted metal, a dozen people lay dead, many of whom had been unlucky enough to find themselves passing the front of the International Red Cross compound when, at half past eight in the morning, a man later claimed to be of Saudi nationality drove an ambulance with Red Cross markings up to the security checkpoint and detonated what must have been several thousand pounds of explosives, collapsing forty feet of the protective wall and sending a huge sandbag barrier cascading forward.[1] The Red Cross compound, with its security wall and sandbags and manned checkpoints, was a “hardened target” – as were, in deed, the three Baghdad police stations that, within the next forty-five minutes, suicide bombers struck, in the neighborhoods of al-Baya’a, al-Shaab, and al-Khadra.

In the rhetoric of security, all of these attacks failed dismally. “From what our indications are,” Brigadier General Mark Hertling told Fox News that afternoon, “none of those bombers got close to the target.” In the rhetoric of politics, however, the attacks were a brilliant coup de theatre. In less than an hour, four men, by killing forty people, including one American soldier and twenty Iraqi police, had succeeded in dominating news coverage around the world, sending television crews rushing about Baghdad in pursuit of the latest plume of smoke and broadcasting the message, via television screens in a hundred countries, first and foremost the United States, that Baghdad, US official pronouncements not with standing, remained a war zone.

Within a week, as members of the Red Cross left Iraq and many of the few remaining international organizations followed close behind, the attackers had set in motion, at the “highest levels” of the Bush administration, a “reevaluation” of American policy. Within two weeks, even as President Bush went on vowing publicly that the United States “would not be intimidated,” he abruptly recalled L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator in Iraq, who rushed back to Washington so hurriedly he left the prime minister of Poland, one of America’s few major allies in Iraq, waiting forlornly for an appointment that never came.


After two days of intensive consultations, administration officials unveiled a new policy. They decided to discard what had been a carefully planned, multi-year process that would gradually transform the authoritarian Iraqi state into a democracy – seven clearly defined steps intended to allow democratic parties, practices, and institutions to take root, develop, and grow, eventually leading to a new constitution written and ratified by the Iraqi people and, finally, a nationwide election and handover of power from American administrators to the elected Iraqi politicians it produced. The administration put in its place a hastily improvised rush to “return power to the Iraqis.” In practice, this meant that in seven months the United States would hand over sovereignty to unelected Iraqis (presumably those on the American-appointed Governing Council, many of them former exiles, who had been pressing for such a rapid granting of power since before the war). Elections and a constitution would come later.[2] Despite President Bush’s fervent protestations to the contrary, this was clearly a dramatic change in his policy of “bringing democracy to Iraq” – and, by extension, of making Iraq the first step in what he recently described as his “forward strategy of democracy in the Middle East.”

If victory in war is defined as accomplishing the political goals for which military means were originally brought to bear, then eight months after it invaded Iraq, the United States remains far from victory. If the political goal of the war in Iraq was to remove Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime and establish in their place a stable, democratic government – then that goal, during the weeks I spent in Iraq in late October and early November, seemed to be growing ever more distant.

When I arrived in Baghdad, Iraqi insurgents were staging about fifteen attacks a day on American troops; by the time I left the number of daily attacks had more than doubled, to thirty-five a day. Though military leaders like General Ricardo Sanchez, the overall commander, have repeatedly denigrated the attacks on his troops as “strategically and operationally insignificant,” those attacks led the CIA to conclude, in a report leaked in mid-November, that the “US-led drive to rebuild the country as a democracy could collapse unless corrective actions are taken Immediately.”[3] The United States fields by far the most powerful military in the world, spending more on defense than the rest of the world combined, and as I write a relative handful of armed insurgents, numbering in the tens of thousands or perhaps less, using the classic techniques of guerrilla warfare and suicide terrorism, are well on the way toward defeating it.

“What we have here,” Lieutenant Colonel William Darley told me, “is basically a constabulary action. I mean, this is pretty much the Old West here. Peacekeeping. Where are the regiment on regiment, division on division engagements? We’ve seen almost nothing above the squad level. Basically this is not a real war.” I heard this view, in various versions, expressed by American military men all over Iraq, from staff officers to combat commanders to lieutenants on the ground. Most of these men I found deeply impressive: well trained, well schooled, extremely competent. What joined them together, as the war grew steadily worse for American forces, was an inability, or perhaps a reluctance, to recognize what was happening in Iraq as a war.

“There’s a deep cultural bias in the United States that if a military doesn’t resemble ours, it’s no good,” the military strategist George Freidman of the private intelligence company Stratfor told me. “We have the strongest conventional forces in the world. So no one fights us conventionally. They fight us asymmetrically.”

In Iraq, asymmetric warfare has meant a combination of guerrilla attacks on US and other coalition forces and terrorist attacks on a variety of prominent nonmilitary targets, including hotels, embassies, and international organizations. Beginning late this spring, the guerrilla attacks were centered in Baghdad and the so-called “Sunni Triangle” north and west of the capital but, since mid-autumn, they have increasingly spread to the north and, more slowly, the south of the country. Since late summer, highly effective terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, have grown steadily more audacious and sophisticated, particularly in their use of the international press to multiply their political effect. In responding to both lines of attack, US intelligence – the “center of gravity” in any guerrilla war – has seemed poor or nonexistent.

The guerilla attacks have built on, and worsened, the American occupation’s unpopularity among many Iraqis, capitalizing on, among other things, the US military’s failure to provide security during the early weeks of the occupation and the daily humiliations and occasional brutalities that come with the presence of an occupying army.  The terrorist attacks have served to consolidate and then worsen the international isolation the Americans have labored under since the catastrophic diplomatic decisions that led up to the war and have succeeded in depriving the coalition of additional military forces and international help in rebuilding the country.

Terrorism is certainly – as the lieutenant colonel put it – Grand Theater. Or to put it a slightly different way, terrorism is a form of talk. To hear what is being said, one must look at the sequence of major bombings in Iraq over the last several months:


August 7, Jordanian Embassy: A Suicide Bomber Kills Nineteen People

August 19, United Nations Headquarters: A suicide truck bomber kills twenty-three, including the UN’s chief envoy in Iraq.

September 22
, UN Headquarters: A suicide car bomber kills two and wounds nineteen.

October 9
, police station: A suicide car bomber kills ten. October 12, Baghdad Hotel: A suicide car bomber kills eight and wounds thirty-two.

October 14
, Turkish Embassy: A suicide car bomber kills two and wounds thirteen.

October 27,
 Red Cross Headquarters and four police stations: Car bombers kill about forty and wound two hundred.

November 12
, Italian Carabinieri Headquarters, Nasiriya: A truck bomber kills thirty-one.

Behind these attacks – I list only the major ones – one can see a rather methodical intention to sever, one by one, with patience, care, and precision, the fragile lines that still tie the occupation authority to the rest of the world. Suicide bombers struck at the countries that supported the Americans in the war (Jordan), that support the occupation with troops (Italy) or professed a willingness to do so (Turkey). They struck at the heart of an “international community” that could, with increased involvement, help give the occupation both legitimacy (the United Nations) and material help in rebuilding the country (the Red Cross). Finally they repeatedly struck at Iraqis collaborating with occupation authorities, whether as members of the American-selected Governing Council (several of whom lived in the Baghdad Hotel) or as policemen trained and paid by Americans.

By striking at the Jordanians, the bombers helped to ensure that no Arab country will contribute troops to support the occupation. By striking at the Turks, they helped force them to withdraw their controversial offer to send soldiers. By striking at the United Nations and the Red Cross, they not only forced the members of those two critical institutions to flee the country but led most other nongovernmental organizations, who would have been central to supplying expertise and resources to rebuilding Iraq, to leave as well. And by striking at the homes of several members of the Governing Council (wounding one member and, in a separate incident, assassinating another), they forced those officials to join the Americans behind their isolating wall of security, further separating them from Iraqis and underlining their utter political reliance on the Americans.

“Signs and symbols,” the Italian security officer said. “Terrorism is nothing but signs and symbols.” He looked at the sandbags and barbed wire, the rows of concrete Jersey barriers and armed guards that surrounded his embassy. “None of this will matter,” he told me. “If they want to hit us, they will, and though they won’t get to the building, it will still be a victory because it will kill people and make news. Terror,” he said, “is quite predictable.” What, I asked, did the signs and symbols mean? He spoke matter-of-factly: that anyone who helps the Americans will be a target; that the Americans cannot protect their allies and provide security to Iraqis; that the disorder is growing and that deciding to work with the Americans, who in their isolation are looking like a lessthan-dominant and in any event ephemeral presence, is not the most prudent of bets; that the war, whatever fine words President Bush may pronounce from his aircraft carrier, is not over. Terror, he said, has a logic of its own. Two weeks after we spoke a suicide bomber killed nineteen Italians at Nasiriya.



Autumn in Baghdad is sunny and bright. Drive about the bustling city of tan, sun-dried brick and you will hear the noise of honking horns and see crowded markets, the streets overwhelmed by an enormous postwar expansion of traffic, the sidewalks cluttered with satellite disks and other new products flooding into the newly opened Iraqi market. During the last several months, however, a new city has taken root amid these busy streets and avenues, spreading rapidly as it superimposes itself over the old tan brick metropolis: a new grim city of concrete. It is constructed of twelve foot-high gray concrete barriers, endless roadblocks manned by squads of men with Kalashnikovs, walls of enormous steel-reinforced bags of earth and rubble and mile upon mile of coiled razor wire, and studded here and there with tanks rooted behind sandbags and watchful soldiers in combat fatigues. This city has a vaguely postmodern, apocalyptic feel, “a bit of Belfast here, a bit of Cyprus there, here and there a sprinkling of West Bank,” as one network cameraman put it to me.

Many streets, including several of the grand ceremonial avenues of Saddam’s capital, are now entirely lined with raw concrete a dozen feet high, giving the driver the impression of advancing down a stone tube. Behind these walls entire chunks of Baghdad have effectively vanished, notably the great park and building complex that had housed Saddam’s Republican Palace and now comprises the so-called Green Zone – a four-and-a-half-square-mile concrete bunker that has at its heart the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

To enter the palace you must secure, first, an appointment – hard to get, and made immeasurably harder by the fact that most members of the CPA are difficult or impossible to reach by telephone – and then make your way down several hundred yards of sidewalk lined with razor wire.  Your journey will be broken by three checkpoints, two military (concrete cordons, sandbags, machine guns) and one civilian.  At two of these you present two identifications and submit to full body searches, standing with your legs parted and arms extended and staring straight ahead, in a ritual I found myself repeating, on a busy day in Baghdad, a dozen more times.  Finally, after securing an identification badge, you must wait for a military escort to drive you to the palace, where yet another series of checks and searches will be performed.

Inside Saddam’s Republican Palace – his huge likeness in the central atrium is discreetly masked by a large blue cloth – you will find, amid the dark marble floors and sconces and chandeliers, a great many Americans striding purposefully about, some in uniform but many in casual civilian clothing: chinos, jeans, sport shirts. They look bright, crisp, self-assured, and extremely young; they look, in other words, like what they are: junior staffers from, Washington, from the Capitol, the departments and various agencies and think tanks. After all the combat fatigues on the city streets (“During my two weeks here,” an oil industry contractor told me, “I’ve not seen one American who wasn’t in uniform”), it is a bit of a shock to find this great horde of young American civilians secreted in Saddam’s marble-lined hideaway, now become Baghdad’s own Emerald City.

I spoke to one young expert from the Governance Department at some length about the Americans’ “seven-point plan” to install democracy in Iraq, which was then stalled at point three: writing the constitution. (To summarize very crudely, the Shia, the majority on the Governing Council and in the country, were insisting that the writers of the constitution be chosen in a nationwide election; the others, fearing the Shia’s numerical dominance, were pushing for the writers to be “selected” under various methods. This deadlock over the constitution is a precise reflection of the larger “governance problem” in Iraq-beginning with Shia numerical dominance-that would need to be resolved if Iraq is ever to become a working democracy.) I found myself impressed with the young woman’s knowledge and commitment. In general, the CPA members seem dedicated and well-meaning – they’d have to be, to come to Baghdad; they are also entirely isolated, traveling twice daily by military-driven bus within the bunkered compound from their places of work in the bunkered palace to their places of rest in the bunkered Rasheed Hotel.

Or rather they made that trip until October 26, when, just before six in the morning, a person or persons unknown towed a small blue two-wheeled trailer – to any observer (including, presumably, the soldier manning the checkpoint a couple hundred yards away), it looked like a generator, a common sight in electricity-starved Iraq – up to the park across from which the Rasheed stood resplendent behind its impressive concrete barriers, quickly opened the trailer’s doors, turned it around, and directed it toward the hotel, and ran off, no doubt looking back to gaze in satisfaction a few moments later when a dozen or so converted French-made air-to-surface missiles whooshed out of their tubes and began peppering the rooms in which the Americans running the occupation slept, wounding seventeen people, killing one (a lieutenant colonel), and coming within a few yards of killing the visiting Paul L. Wolfowitz, United States deputy secretary of defense and mastermind of the Iraq war.

My friend in Governance was thrown from her bed and, finding her door jammed shut by the blast damage, and taking “one look at the smoke coming from under that jammed door and realizing if I didn’t get out of there I was going to die,” she climbed out on the ledge and crept along it, ten floors up, to the room next door and the smoke-filled, chaotic hallway beyond. The Rasheed was evacuated and many of its former occupants found themselves sleeping on quickly assembled cots in Saddam’s palace. As for my friend’s “seven-point plan,” two weeks later President Bush decided to abandon it. Instead of confronting the problem that had blocked the writing of a new Iraqi constitution-the question of how the fact of Shia numerical dominance, and other unresolved conflicts in the Iraqi state, would be integrated into a functioning Iraqi democracy – the President, faced with mounting attacks from Iraqis opposed to the new political dispensation he had declared himself committed to create, decided to abandon the effort.

Security underlies everything in Iraq; it is the fault line running squarely beneath the occupation and the political world that will emerge from it.  As I look back, perhaps my most frightening moment in the country came not at the Red Cross bombing, or an ambush on the highway between Falluja and Ramadi where five civilians were killed, or at various other scenes of violence of one kind or another, but at a press conference the afternoon of the Rasheed attack, when General Martin E. Dempsey, the impressive commander of the First Infantry Division, characterized the rocket launcher – the cleverly disguised weapon that some unknown persons had used to pierce successfully the huge security perimeter around the Rasheed and thereby kill and wound, under the noses of tens of thousands of US soldiers, the Americans who were supposedly running Iraq, and nearly kill the deputy secretary of defense – as “not very sophisticated…a science project, made in a garage with a welder, a battery, and a handful of wire.” What frightened me was the possibility that General Dempsey – a sophisticated man who no doubt had read the literature on counterinsurgency and knew well “the lessons” of the British in Malaya and the French in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam, but who, like almost every other impressive American commander in Iraq, had been trained to fight with, and against, larger armored formations – was aware of the condescension evident in his tone.

“The idea behind these stay-behind insurgent groups is that they’re clandestine, they use what’s available – an old drainpipe, whatever,” said a private security officer working for an American television network who like many of the security professionals in Iraq, was a veteran of Britain’s elite Special Air Service. “They don’t need to be sophisticated, they need to be effective – and that device that hit the Rasheed was very effective.” Raymond Bonner, a New York Times reporter, made a somewhat broader point: “The good news is it was a Science project put together in a garage. The bad news is it was a science project put together in a garage.”

Ten days later, when a colleague, a strong advocate of the United States’ invasion, declared to me with some impatience, “The United States will not lose. The United States has absolute military superiority in Iraq!,”[4] I remembered Bonner’s comment. In view of the progress of the war against the US coalition – the spreading activities of the opposition, the growing sophistication of their methods, the increasing numbers of Americans being killed – is the fact that the United States has “absolute military superiority” in Iraq good or bad news? All differences aside (and there are a great many differences), people commonly made the same point about Vietnam; but if it is true that “the United States had absolute military superiority in Vietnam,” then what exactly do those words mean – and what do they tell us about those who utter them?



Fall in Falluja is dusty and bright. Here, on an average day in late October, insurgents attacked American soldiers eight times, twice the rate of a month before, according to General Chuck Swannack, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. The method of choice was IEDs – “improvised explosive devices,” in military parlance – planted, presumably, by FRLs, or “former regime loyalists.” On the road leading into town, just emerging from the cloverleaf off the main highway, I saw the aftermath of one such attack. Late that afternoon, as an American armored convoy rumbled up the highway into the city, someone set off what the general described as

a very sophisticated device, three barrels of flammable material rigged to a triggering mechanism, using a remote-controlled trigger. As our squad was clearing the cloverleaf, the individuals set off the device, killed a paratrooper, and then some individuals directed fire at us with AK-47s from the houses.

As I write, 423 Americans have died in Iraq since the United States invaded in March and more than 2,300 have been wounded there, many grievously; and the rate at which Americans are being killed and wounded is increasing. But while these tolls are having a discernible effect on President Bush’s popularity among Americans, the major goal of this kind of warfare is not only to kill and wound Americans but to increase Iraqi recruits, both active and passive, who will oppose the occupation; its major product, that is, is political. “The point,” said General Swannack, “is to get the Americans to fire back and hopefully they’ll get some Iraqi casualties out of that and they can publicize that.”General Swannack’s men dis mounted, returned fire, stormed the houses, and arrested several civilians, leading them roughly away in flex cuffs. It was a typical day in Falluja, with a typical score: one dead American soldier, two dead civilians, several civilians wounded, several arrested, with an indeterminate number of family members, neighbors, and friends of those killed, wounded, and arrested left furious at the Americans and nursing strong grievances, which tribal honor, an especially strong force in Falluja, now demanded they personally avenge-by killing more Americans. As for the handful of “individuals” who had set off the device and opened fire on the Americans, they managed-as they do in all but a few such ambushes-to get awav clean.

After first estimating the guerrilla strength in and around Falluja at 20,000, the general revised his figure: “Probably about a thousand people out there really want to attack us and kill us and another nineteen thousand or so really really don’t like us.” Such estimates vary wildly around Iraq, depending on whom you ask. General Sanchez recently put the total number of the opposition nationwide at five thousand. Whatever the numbers, the guerrillas’ main business is to make them grow, particularly the number of strong sympathizers; and all evidence suggests that thus far they are succeeding.

Saddam’s Iraq was a national security state dominated by the interlocking intelligence services of the government and the elite security units of the army, all of it rooted in the enormous Baath Party, a highly elaborated structure that over a half-century spread and proliferated into every institution in the country and that originally grew from a complex network of conspiratorial cells of three to seven members. Saddam’s elite Republican Guard numbered 80,000; his even more select Special Republican Guard numbered 16,000; his Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary force – in effect, Saddam’s brownshirts – numbered 40,000. The Mukhabarat and the various intelligence services, of which there were perhaps a dozen, numbered thousands more. All of these men were highly trained, well armed, and tested for their political loyalty. Few of them died in the war.

In May, in an astonishing decision that still has not been adequately explained, American administrator L. Paul Bremer vastly increased the number of willing Iraqi foot soldiers by abruptly dissolving the regular Iraqi army, which had been established by King Faisal I in 1921, and thereby sent out into bitter shame and unemployment 350,000 of those young Iraqis who were well trained, well armed, and deeply angry at the Americans. Add to these a million or so tons of weapons and munitions of all sorts, including rockets and missiles, readily available in more than a hundred mostly unguarded arms depots around the country, as well as vast amounts of money stockpiled during thirty-five years in power (notably on March 18, when Saddam sent three tractor trailers to the Central Bank and relieved it of more than a billion dollars in cash), and you have the makings of a wellmanned, well-funded insurgency.

During the months since the fall of Baghdad in April, that insurgency has grown and evolved. Its methods have moved from assassinations of isolated US soldiers, to attacks on convoys wIth small arms, to IncreasIngly sophisticated and frequent ambushes of convoys with remote-controlled explosives and attacks on helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades and missiles. While there seems to be some regional coordination among groups, it is clear that the opposition is made up of many different organizations, some regionally based, some local; some are explicitly Saddamist, some more broadly Baathist, some Islamist, and some frankly anti-Saddam and nationalist. “I don’t see a vision by these disparate groups of insurgents or partisans,” said Ahmed S. Hashim, a professor at the Naval War College who has closely studied the opposition. “But at this stage they do not need one. They are making our stay uncomfortable, they have affected our calculus and are driving a wedge between us. What I know is the coalition is losing ground among Iraqis.” Within and among these groupings a competitive politics now exists, an armed politics that will evolve and develop, depending on how successful they are in attacking the Americans and forcing them to adjust their policies and, eventually, to leave the country.

By now much evidence exists, including documents apparently prepared by Iraqi intelligence services, to suggest that this insurgency, at least in its broad outlines, was planned before the war and that the plan included looting, sabotage, and assassination of clerics.[5] Particularly damaging was the looting, in which government ministries and other public buildings, including museums, libraries, and universities, were thoroughly ransacked, down to the copper pipes and electrical wiring in the walls, and then burned, and the capital was given over to weeks of utter lawlessness while American soldiers stood by and watched. This was an enormously important political blow against the occupation, undermining any trust or faith Iraqis might have had in their new rulers and destroying any chance the occupiers had to establish their authority. Most of all, the looting created an overwhelming sense of insecurity and trepidation, a sense that the insurgents, with their bombings and attacks, have built on to convince many Iraqis that the Americans have not achieved full control and may well not stay long enough to attain it.

All of this is another way of saying that if security is the fault line running beneath political development in Iraq, then politics is the fault line running beneath security. By now the failures in planning and execution that have dogged the occupation – the lack of military police, the refusal to provide security in the capital, the dissolution of the Iraqi army – are well known.[7] All have originated in Washington, many born of struggles between the leading departments of government, principally the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon, which the White House has never managed to resolve. (The most obvious product of these struggles was the President’s decision, barely two months before the invasion, to discard the year of occupation planning by the State Department and shift control to the Pentagon, which proved itself wholly unprepared to take on the task.)

In Iraq, after the Big Bang of the American invasion, a new political universe is slowly being born. Part of this Iraqi political universe is called the Governing Council, and it does its work behind the concrete barriers of the Green Zone. Another part works at the level of nascent local government throughout the country. Still another works in the mosques of the south and among the Shiite religious establishment known as the Hawza. And yet another part – now a rather large and powerful part – is armed and clandestine and is making increasingly sophisticated and effective use of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, hoping to force the Americans from the country and claim its share of power. The Americans seek to define the armed claimants as illegitimateessentially, as not part of the recognized universe at all. But in order to enforce that definition – to confine the game to the actors they regard as legitimate – the Americans must prove themselves able to make use of their power, both military and political, more effectively.

As I write, on November 19, US military forces in Iraq are conducting Operation Iron Hammer, striking with warplanes and artillery bases thought to be occupied by Iraqi insurgents. American television broadcasts are filled with dramatic footage of huge explosions illuminating the night sky. In Tikrit, Saddam’s political base and a stronghold of the opposition, the Americans staged a military show of force, sending tanks and other armored vehicles rumbling through the main street. “They need to understand,” Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell told ABC News, “it’s more than just Humvees we’ll be using in these attacks.”

The armed opposition in Iraq seems unlikely to be impressed. However many insurgents the Americans man, age to kill in bombing runs and artillery barrages, the toll on civilians, in death and disruption, is also likely to be high, as will damage to the fragile sense of normalcy that Americans are struggling to achieve and the opposition forces are determined to destroy. Large-scale armored warfare looks and sounds impressive, inspiring overwhelming fear; but it is not discriminate, which makes it a blunt and ultimately self-defeating instrument to deploy against determined guerrillas. In general, the American military, the finest and most powerful in the world, is not organized and equipped to fight this war, and the part of it that is-the Special Forces-are almost entirely occupied in what seems a never-ending hunt for Saddam. For American leaders, and particularly President Bush, this has become the quest for the Holy Grail: finding Saddam will be an enormous political boon. For the American military, this quest has the feel of a traditional kind of war not wholly suited to what they find in Iraq. “We are a hierarchy and we like to fight hierarchies,” says military strategist John Arquilla. “We think if we cut off the head we can end this.”

Whatever the political rewards of finding Saddam, they will not likely include putting a definitive end to the insurgency in Iraq.[7] “The Americans need to get out of their tanks, get out from behind their sunglasses,” a British military officer, a veteran of Northern Ireland told me. “They need to get on the ground where they can get to know people and encourage them to tell them where the bad guys are.” As I write, operations on the ground seem to be moving in the opposite direction. In any event it is difficult to impress an opponent with a military advance plainly meant to cover a political retreat.

President Bush’s audacious project in Iraq was always going to be difficult, perhaps impossible, but without political steadfastness and resilience, it had no chance to succeed. This autumn in Baghdad, a ruthless insurgency, growing but still in its infancy, has managed to make the President retreat from his project, and has worked, with growing success, to divide Iraqis from the Americans who claim to govern them. These insurgents cannot win, but by seizing on Washington’s mistakes and working relentlessly to widen the fault lines in occupied Iraq, they threaten to prevent what President Bush sent the US military to achieve: a stable, democratic, and peaceful Iraq, at the heart of a stable and democratic Middle East.

—November 19, 2003


[1] For the Saudi claim, see Mohammad Bazzi, “Saudis Suspected in 2 Iraq Attacks,” Newsday, November 11, 2003.

[2]See Susan Sachs, “US Is Set to Return Power to Iraqis as Early as June,” The New York Times, November 15, 2003.

[3] See Jonathan S. Landay, “CIA Has.a Bleak Analysis of Iraq,” Philadelphta Inquirer, November 12, 2003.

[4] Christopher Hitchens made the comment, in a debate with me at the University of California at Berkely on November 4. See “Has Bush Made Us Safer? Iraq, Terror and American Power, ” at

[5] See Michael Hirsh, Rod Nordland, and Mark Hosenball, “About-Face in Iraq,” Newsweek, November 24, 2003; and Douglas Jehl, “Plan for Guerrilla Action May Have Predated War,” The New York Times, November 15, 2003.

[6]See Mark Fineman, Robin Wright, and Doyle McManus, “Preparing for War, Stumbling to Peace,” Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2003; and David Rieff, “Blueprint for a Mess,” The New York Times Magazine, November 2, 2003.

[7] See Ahmed S. Hashim, “The Sunni Insurgency in Iraq,” Middle East Institute Policy Brief, August 15,2003, who notes that the “elimination of Saddam and his dynasty may demoralize proregime insurgents but may actually embolden anti-regime and anti-US insurgents who may have held back in the past.. .because of the barely submerged fears that the regime could come back.”