We Are Making Our First Wrong Turn In Iraq

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When U.S. Special Forces teams went into Afghanistan looking for allies they found a battle-tested, hardened army of veterans waiting for them. All the Northern Alliance needed was leadership, modern communications and the support of devastating American firepower. Within a couple of months, Special Ops troops lead Northern Alliance fighters down from their mountain strongholds to sweep away the Taliban and enter Kabul, a success that has become the paradigm of how Special Forces and Air Power in concert can conquer a country. Now the Special Forces are making a similar attempt in Iraq. What they have created so far is a parody of the Northern Alliance — one that should trouble U.S. leaders, and one that could spell trouble for the future stability of Iraq.

In the months before the 3rd Infantry Division crossed the border from Kuwait, Special Forces teams entered the Iraq. One of their primary missions was to establish the conditions and train fighters for a revolt in the Shia areas in the south of the country. But they failed to spark the anticipated revolt. In retrospect, it's easy to see why; the Shia have been burned before by what they thought were U.S. promises of support. A Shia rebellion against Saddam in the aftermath of the first Gulf War was brutally suppressed, and no one here, remembering the tens of thousands killed then, was willing to commit to support the U.S. until it was absolutely certain that Saddam was going to be permanently removed as a threat.

Of course, when you get to that point, you really don't need a popular revolt. A Shia uprising was supposed to wipe out the Baath Party and destroy any paramilitary cadres along the line of the coalition advance. American forces accomplished both of these missions. Still, the Afghanistan model called for a popular revolt, and in An Najaf last week Special Ops soldiers set out to recruit one.

So it was that when American Combat Engineers got ready to blow up the statue of Saddam in the An Najaf city center, two-dozen fighters calling themselves "the Coalition for Iraqi National Unity" were on hand. They rode into the square in on top of heavily armed Special Forces Honda trucks, full of smiles and waving to anyone with a camera. Throughout the day they were only too glad to pose for pictures in their newly issued equipment while brandishing AK-47's, often begging to be photographed. They all professed to wanting Saddam dead and shouted their willingness to fight his forces anywhere in An Najaf. Bold talk, considering the 101st Airborne had just completed sending Saddam's loyalist cadres to the great beyond. I asked one of the Special Forces soldiers how he knew these guys were not fighting for Saddam the day before. "Some of them probably were," he replied. "But they have had a conversion."

The Coalition for Iraqi National Unity's spokesman, and second in charge, is a cleric who teaches at a local mosque. Even if you accept the power of the clerics in this region, is it really wise to place them in charge of a U.S.-sponsored military force? It seems too great a concentration of power, given the volatile mix of religion and politics in the area.

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It didn't help when the cleric, Hassan Mussawi, began talking about his party. Asked asked about reports that his forces are looting the local people, he responded, "People who accuse us of looting are extremists who are against national unity." The best answer he can come up with when asked about the seven late model Nissan's and a very new looking Mercedes in the courtyard is, "This is what the people give us to fight Saddam." When asked if the U.S. supplies the vast quantities of food his men have on hand he says, "We are self financing, the people give us what we need."

These must be some remarkably generous people to turn over so much food when they have so little themselves and to give up new cars when the average automobile here is 25 years old. The impoverished masses near the headquarters also turned over chairs, dishes, pots, blankets and a host of other items of everyday living.

Mussawi's army is made up mostly of upper middle-aged men and youngsters, several well under sixteen, in what looks like a father-and-son operation. The first thing one notices about all of the older "patriots" is that none of them have missed a meal in a long time. Given the lean look of the general population it does not appear that the people taking part in this uprising suffered much under Saddam's regime. In fact, if their waistlines are a measure of success, then these are prosperous men.

Their claims to military prowess are limited to nocturnal raids with Special Forces soldiers to capture or kill Saddam loyalists still in An Najaf. "We try and arrest our enemies," Mussawi says, "but if they resist we have to kill them." To date, everyone appears to have resisted. One of the Special Forces soldiers on the way out to lead one of these nocturnal raids yelled out to a group of reporters, "You guys can make yourselves useful in the morning by washing the blood off our trucks."

When Special Forces soldiers are asked how they know the people being identified are Saddam loyalists the general reply is, "We have to trust that they know who their enemies are." Still, their enemies might not be the enemies of the United States or even the people of An Najaf. Almost a week after the city has been liberated it is hard to comprehend that U.S. Special Forces would condone and maybe even assist in techniques of blind justice when even they admit they do not know much of the history of the people being targeted.

The people of Southern Iraq are overjoyed that America has rescued them from Saddam, but there is no open revolt here. What is here instead is a ragtag group of old men and boys on the U.S. payroll who are likely looting their own people and settling private scores.

With Saddam's power broken the need for a revolt has passed. By extension there is no need to create a new paramilitary force of uncertain loyalty. It would be better to disarm and disband this little army before it grows, through American largess, into another force to oppress the population here. It is time to give democracy a chance to flourish. That will not happen if armed thugs are allowed to dominate a rebuilding civil society. Special Forces teams have done a lot to assist in the successful invasion of Iraq. However, their military mission in An Najaf is over now and it is time to bring them back under adult supervision. What An Najaf needs now is the rule of law, not continued rule of the gun.