When John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in November, 1963, American military deaths in Vietnam had just passed fifty. Military deaths of the United States of America in Iraq since the war “ended” two months ago is nearing that total. Is this the start of an anti-American guerrilla war in Iraq'
Not yet, but it isn’t looking good. In the early days, a lot of American soldiers’ deaths were due to vehicle accidents and the like, but recently, most US casualties have been caused by Iraqi resistance fighters, and they aren’t sniping at isolated check-points, but ambushing US tank patrols with rocket-propelled grenades, making mortar attacks on US command posts, even shooting down Apache attack helicopters.
So is Iraq the new Vietnam' Maybe, but one big difference is that so far US casualties are concentrated in the so-called “Sunni triangle” extending north and west from Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party had the deepest roots. American deaths in this region have been running at five a week recently, which is bad, but perhaps not unbearable. Run that average forward for 16 months, and George W. Bush would have a further 350 US combat deaths to account for when the presidential election comes around in November 2004.
He might get away with it if he could persuade Americans that it was all part of the “war on terrorism”. The bad news for Bush is that the fighting may well escalate in the “Sunni triangle” — and that the Shia majority may start resisting the occupation too.
During the next three months Iraq is too hot even for the Iraqis, but in much of the American-occupied zone, there is still not reliable water or other public services. The entire Iraqi army was disbanded last month with one month’s severance pay, ensuring that many tens of thousands of experienced officers and non-combatant officers, most of them Sunni Muslims, will have nothing to do this summer but nurse their resentment. The two-week gun amnesty ended recently, and every Iraqi possessing a gun without a permit can be arrested — but all rural Iraqis own guns, and by now, thanks to the rampant insecurity, so do three-quarters of urban Iraqi households.
Add to this an occupation force that is still starved of troops, and nervous American soldiers who use massive firepower whenever they feel threatened, and it may be a very long, hot summer. By the end of it, Sunni Arabs and US troops could be in the sort of escalating confrontation that has no exit — and it is a delusion to imagine that the Shia majority are America’s allies. They are waiting to see if they can win political power without fighting the US, but if they conclude that the Pentagon is determined to impose its pet Iraqi exiles on the country then they will fight too.
Looking for Saddam
Iraq is drifting rapidly towards becoming America’s second Vietnam. This was always possible, given the vast gulf between Washington’s declared motives and what most Iraqis think its real motives are. But it has been made likelier by the monumental incompetence of the post-conquest administration of Iraq.
Two months after his defeat in the Kuwait War in 1991, Saddam Hussein had done more to restore order and public services in Iraq than the US occupation regime has done so far. The Shias are still holding their fire, but it’s hardly surprising that the Baathists, a Communist-style organization ideally suited for guerrilla warfare, are re-surfacing in the Sunni Arab parts of the country.
Which explains what is happening now in the Baghdad suburb of Mansoor, where American missiles struck a restaurant where US intelligence thought Saddam Hussein was dining during the war. From that night until last week, long after the neighbourhood had retrieved the bodies of its dead, the site went unvisited and unguarded by US troops. Is Saddam dead' Who cares'
But now the site is sealed off and US forensic investigators are digging frantically in the rubble, hoping to find evidence that Saddam is really dead. As though that would change anything.