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Ivan Eland: The Slide to Defeat in Iraq

The Long Ignominious Slide to Defeat in Iraq

By Ivan Eland*
April 6, 2004

The worst nightmare for the American occupation has occurred. Portions of the Iraqi Shiite majority have risen in revolt. Full-scale civil war may be just around the corner.

The armed uprising by Shiite militias in four Iraqi cities, including the Baghdad metropolitan area, was well coordinated and deadly. The rebellion cost the lives of eight American soldiers and countless Iraqis. The revolt consisted of followers of militant cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who has militias numbering in the tens of thousands across Iraq, Although the American occupation had forbidden the bearing of arms, the militants brandished many weapons, including rocket propelled grenade launchers. They took over the streets, occupied police stations and attacked American forces.

Ironically, one of the motivating forces behind the bloodshed was censorship by the United States, a country that prides itself on the freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Last week, U.S. occupation authorities closed down Al Hawza, Sadr’s newspaper, charging that it had incited violence in Iraq. Yet the paper did not advocate attacks on Americans. As the U.S. authorities put it, the paper was guilty of “false reporting.” That type of justification is eerily reminiscent of rhetoric from the Communist Soviet Union. The closing of Al Hawza, symbolic for many Shittes, ignited street protests that mushroomed and became more volatile by the day, culminating in the uprising.

Sadr, always hostile to the U.S. occupation, apparently now believes that peaceful Shiite demonstrations should be replaced by armed insurrection. He urged his followers on, stating that, “there is no use for demonstrations, as your enemy loves to terrify and suppress opinions, and despises people. Terrorize your enemy, as we cannot remain silent over his violations.”

If the rebellion spreads within the Shiite population, which such events seem to portend, even senior U.S. military commanders admit privately that the chances dwindle drastically of keeping Iraq this side of the abyss. The U.S. civilian authorities in Iraq tried to put a brave face on the mayhem by opining that the rebellion made up only a small portion of the Iraqi population. But that proportion could grow over time in both Shiite and Sunni areas as the U.S. retaliates muscularly for the attacks by Shiite militiamen and the burning, dragging and hanging of corpses of already dead U.S. armed mercenaries by the Sunnis in Faluja. Such precipitous U.S. actions may very well incite a escalating cycle of violence—attack and counterattack—that could turn the bulk of the Iraqi population, both Shiite and Sunni, against the U.S. occupation.

Yet even if the “silent majority” of Iraqis remain supportive of U.S. forces, as the civilian occupation authorities claim, it may not be enough to save the American war effort in Iraq. The guerrillas know that the key to winning any guerrilla warfare is to undermine support for the war in the stronger party’s homeland. In the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, with significant support among the peoples of South Vietnam, were able to prolong the war long enough to exhaust the American public at home and prompt an eventual U.S. withdrawal. Similarly, in the American Revolution, the revolutionaries were able to eventually exhaust the British with the support of only one-third of the colonists. Thus, if even a minority of the occupied country’s population is actively hostile to the outside power, a foreign occupation can fail. If the majority supporting the outside power believes that the armed minority will be around a lot longer than the occupiers—not an illogical belief given the short attention span of past U.S. nation-building—its support, out of self-preservation, may be very lukewarm or tepid. So the silent majority may be silent indeed.

Another major problem confronting the U.S. occupation, which was illuminated by the Shiite uprising, is the unreliability of the U.S.-trained Iraqi police and civil defense forces. Those forces fled at the sight of the heavily armed Shiite militias, allowing them to take over checkpoints and police stations. The idea that security in Iraq can be turned over to such forces is no more than a bad joke.

Adding to the reluctance of Iraqis to help occupation forces, foreign allies are unwilling to send added troops to help the United States try to control the chaos (in fact, one ally is already bailing out of the effort and another is grumbling being deceived) because of the Bush administration’s pre-war arrogance and the prospect of retaliatory terrorism on their homelands. The Bush administration’s balloon, filled with triumphalist hot air a year ago as U.S. forces entered Baghdad, has finally burst.


*Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and

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