After initial false starts following the fall of Baghdad, helmeted American troops in all units are proving have evolved into surprisingly effective civilian administrators, much better than the civilians and consultants of the Green Zone in cultivating ties with local populations, tribes and religious figures and pushing forward civil action programs and reconstruction projects.
Their presence on the ground and day-to-day local contacts also yield useful sources of intelligence.
During the transfer of power to Iraqi control – as laid down in the confidential Transition of Power Contract signed this week in Baghdad (See separate article in this issue.), the US army is designated the vital safety net in case the process goes awry. Trouble could come from feuds among the communities getting out of hand, personal agendas, rivalries inside ruling bodies. Pro-Saddam or foreign elements may well use violence, subversion or agitation to spike Iraq’s transition to indigenous provisional government.
Already, field commanders are showing themselves to be resilient adapters to constantly changing situations and unforeseen problems. Their familiarity with the terrain and recommendations, according to a variety of DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources, provided a strong background for the pivotal White House policy conference on Iraq on November 10-11 that produced the three-page document that Bremer carried back to Baghdad.
Some of the military’s key findings and recommendations:
There is no way to stop all attacks and casualties – even after power is handed over in full to an Iraqi administration. In Baghdad in particular, home to an estimated 5.6 million people, small groups of resisters, disrupters and criminals will always be available to hostile forces to challenge the powers-that-be and try and muscle in on urban neighborhoods. Most Iraqis in central Baghdad, including Sunni blue collar and Shiite slums do not split along religious or ethnic lines but are nationalistic. The key contact points are tribal leaders who often cut across religious lines. This leadership is in a state of flux since the war
As time goes by, the organization and weaponry of hostile forces will improve – larger car bombs, more missiles, longer-range mortars and better intelligence for sabotage. While major problems are posed by improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades, the attack on the al Rashid Hotel last month marked the first use of an improved rocket launcher.
US reprisals and anti-insurgency operations will correspondingly escalate – especially as the Iraqi Interim Governing Council thinks Americans are too soft and is demanding tougher action.
By the same token, Iraq’s borders can never be sealed impermeably. The Iranian frontier is wide open, and the Syrian, Saudi and Kuwait borders abound in easy crossing points. At best, 80-85 percent of illicit traffic can be controlled. For the rest, al Qaeda, other terrorist groups, criminal gangs, including oil rustlers, and agents of foreign powers, will continue to enter the country illicitly, whether to fight, stir up trouble, steal or lean on the government in Baghdad to pressure Washington. At the White House conference, Bremer pointed out that deploying troops for perfect border security in Iraq is as pointless as trying to block immigration from Mexico to US.
There is no evidence that Saddam Hussein and his former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al Douri or any other central body is directly organizing attacks. But there are still plenty of funds afloat to hire guerrillas. Many are motivated by rising fee per attack, up from $25-100 to $100-500.
The army does not have all the Military Police, civil action, intelligence and trained counterinsurgency units it needs. But the commanders insist there is no need for more troops on the ground. The problem does not lie in numbers of troops but in their special skills.
Wanted most of all is lighter and more mobile equipment in place of the cumbersome Bradleys and M-1 tanks, more armored Humvees, vests and other special operations equipment.
Work is going on around the clock at Camp Udairi, Kuwait, to bolt slat armor onto a fleet of more than 300 Strykers before they move into Iraq. The armor that looks exactly like a huge green cage is meant to protect the combat vehicles and soldiers manning them from Saddam’s guerillas’ ubiquitous rocket-propelled grenades that plague military convoys, arm ambush squads and even shoot down helicopters with greater accuracy than Strela anti-air missiles. US troops hope the steel contraptions will absorb the worst of the RPGs in the way that a catcher’s mask does a baseball. But the green cage has never been tested in combat conditions and has still to prove its worth.
The idea behind the cage armor goes back to the Vietnam War, according to John Funk, logistics support manager of the manufacturers, General Dynamics. Troops in that war improvised with chicken wire and other means to counter the RPG threat. The idea is to detonate the propelled grenade at a distance from the vehicle and prevent its hot chemical reaction from boring through and causing burns, shock and shrapnel wounds.
The US army is also working on a kind of plate armor that will defeat RPGs. But that’s not due until the army develops the third of its six planned Stryker brigades in 2005. In the meantime, they are working on the interim slat armor solution in two huge hangars with room for eight Strykers. The soldiers working on the project are mostly infantrymen.
The extra armor weighs about 5,200 pounds, about 3,000 pounds lighter than the add-on anti-RPG armor that is under development for later Stryker brigades.