Painting Iraq as the West Bank

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British soldiers check Iraqis leaving the southern Iraqi town of Basra

The shooting of seven unarmed Iraqi civilians by U.S. soldiers manning a checkpoint near Najaf on Monday was not simply a tragic error — it played out exactly according to Saddam Hussein's war script. The men guarding the checkpoint were simply defending themselves from a potentially life-threatening situation after warnings had failed to stop an approaching vanload of Iraqis, military officials explained. And that's precisely the sort of tragedy Saddam's men had most likely hoped to provoke by sending a suicide bomber to a checkpoint in the same area on Saturday, killing four U.S. infantrymen.

A major objective of the Iraqi battle plan is to drive a wedge between the U.S.-led invasion force and even anti-Saddam Iraqi civilians, in the hope of stretching U.S. military resources to cope with guerrilla operations throughout the country and also of maximizing Arab and international political opposition to "Operation Iraqi Freedom." So, the Iraqis have concentrated many of their forces in densely populated urban areas — even, in some cases, firing on civilians to prevent them leaving town — knowing that by targeting them the coalition will inevitably cause civilian casualties and alienate ordinary Iraqis. They have broadcast images of civilians killed in Baghdad air raids, and appealed to nationalist and religious sentiment to rally support against the U.S. and British forces. They have camouflaged their soldiers in civilian clothing and sent a suicide bomber, hoping that such actions force coalition soldiers to treat the locals with fear and suspicion. And in the process they are hoping to cast their battle in terms familiar to Arab TV audiences.

To be sure, a week of war in Iraq has filled TV screens throughout the Middle East with familiar images: Arab families wailing in hospitals over children killed in air raids; well equipped troops manning road blocks around desperate, besieged towns; a suicide bombing whose perpetrator is hailed as a martyr in Baghdad and Damascus; civilians mistakenly shot dead by soldiers at roadblocks. Those images are typically associated with the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, but the "Palestinization" of the conflict in Iraq — at least in propaganda terms — may be exactly what Saddam Hussein has in mind. After all, like Osama bin Laden he knows well that no single issue inflames more anti-American passion among Arabs and Muslims than the plight of the Palestinians.

For years, Saddam has drawn an intimate (if spurious) connection between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his own confrontation with the U.S. And as coalition forces begin closing in on the defensive perimeter around Baghdad, there are some indications that the regime has based its defensive concept on guerrilla tactics familiar from the West Bank and Gaza — surprise, deception, hit-and-run and hiding fighting forces in an innocent civilian population to maximize the political cost of eliminating them.

Saturday's suicide bomber, Sergeant Ali Jaffar Moussa Hamadi Al-Nomani, may have done more than the whole Republican Guard to change the relationship of the coalition forces to the local population. Their own safety now demands that U.S. and British forces consider every Iraqi civilian a potential mortal threat. That frays nerves and saps morale — coalition troops had been told the locals would welcome them as liberators; instead they're forced to treat the locals with suspicion. The logic of force protection may have required that the troops manning that Najaf roadblock open fire when the vanload of Iraqis kept coming despite orders to halt and warning shots. But such incidents inevitably make winning over the locals that much more difficult.

Monday's clashes in towns along the Euphrates, including Hindiya and Hilla some 50 miles from Baghdad, were a reminder that even the largest and best-equipped divisions of Saddam's Republican Guard are no match for U.S. forces in a head-to-head fight. U.S. officials reported that some of Saddam's elite units had already lost more than 50 percent of their fighting capacity as a result of five days of relentless bombing. In the best-case scenario, the U.S. will be able to direct its overwhelming air power against the bulk of Republican Guard forces outside of Baghdad, and destroy them before they can retreat into the city. But the Iraqi war plan may be based less on their ability to match the U.S. in a head-to-head fight, than on the notion of turning the political battlefield decisively against their enemies.

Vietnam has long served as a model to Third World insurgents of guerrilla tactics used to orchestrate the political defeat of a power whose military superiority is overwhelming. And it's Vietnam that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz references when he vows that Iraqis will turn their cities into the equivalent of the jungles and swamps that camouflaged the Vietcong. The cities provide cover precisely because coalition forces who claim to be fighting to liberate the Iraqi people — and relying on staging their fight from Arab countries — can't afford to inflict the massive civilian casualties.

The Iraqis can't stop the U.S. simply by standing and fighting; their goal is to make the invasion, and particularly a street fight for Baghdad, politically untenable. Their initial objective has been to delay and draw out a campaign that the coalition needs, for political reasons, to conclude as quickly as possible. Now, Saddam's planners will be hoping that a drawn out siege of Baghdad, with mounting civilian casualties and ongoing guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines will sap the coalition's appetite for the campaign, and turn up political pressure on Washington to settle for less than a total victory.

Sustaining a guerrilla war, however, requires that the local population not only tolerate the presence of the insurgents in their midst, but also feed them, hide them and replenish their ranks. And that may be a tough call for a regime as deeply loathed as Saddam's. Terrorizing the population can achieve some of those goals in the short term, but the ability of Saddam's militiamen to intimidate the locals would be dramatically weakened if Saddam and his lieutenants are taken out of the equation. That may be why U.S. Marines on Monday launched a "snatch" operation in the town of Shatra, hoping to capture Saddam's cousin, Gen. Ali Hassan al Majeed. Presumably such operations will become a vital part of the effort to topple the regime in Baghdad without inflicting mass casualties on the civilian population. Similar logic may also underlie the bombing of Baghdad's broadcast outlets, stopping the regime communicating with the population in order to underscore the coalition message that Saddam's reign is over. Even more important will be a massive humanitarian relief operation in those areas under coalition control.

Saddam's commanders will hope, however, to shape the battle in ways designed to make ordinary fear of the coalition forces greater than hatred for the regime among ordinary Iraqis. So, while there's little doubt that the coalition will prevail militarily in its confrontation with Saddam's armed forces, the victory of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" will require, also, that the coalition prevail in the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds.