Tet II?

Robert Alt

April 8, 2004

Baghdad, Iraq—The media hailed the recent battles in the Sunni Triangle and the coordinated attacks orchestrated by radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr’s militia as evidence of a new crisis in Iraq. The Guardian, for example, referred to the conditions in Iraq as being “[o]n the brink of anarchy,” and the New York Times opined that “the events in Falluja[h] and the other cities on Sunday appeared likely to shake the American hold on Iraq more than anything since the invasion…” It wasn’t long before Senator Ted Kennedy waded into these deep political waters, declaring Iraq to be “Bush’s Vietnam.” Unwittingly, the Senator may be onto something. The recent round of attacks bears a striking resemblance to a particular battle in Vietnam—the Tet offensive—a battle that America decisively won on the ground, but lost in the press.

To understand the similarities between the Tet offensive and recent activity in Iraq, it is necessary to revisit both. In the Tet offensive, the North Vietnamese forces abandoned guerilla tactics to launch a massive coordinated assault across South Vietnam. They engaged hard targets, including the United States embassy, which they stormed but never actually entered. While U.S. casualties were high, the military scored a major victory, putting down the offensive in a matter of days, and inflicting astronomical casualties on the opposing North Vietnamese forces. However, the images of the fighting at the embassy and the media’s emphasis on U.S. casualties led Americans to believe that the U.S. had suffered a major setback.

In Iraq, anti-Coalition elements likewise abandoned guerilla warfare this past Sunday for a series of coordinated attacks on hard targets designed to be spectacular—or, more precisely, media spectacles. In one attack on a Coalition base outside Al Najaf, the insurgent numbers were large enough to justify calling in air support, although the aircraft quelled the crowds without firing a shot. And in the Al Sadr region of Baghdad, members of Al Sadr’s so-called Mehdi Army temporarily seized three police stations and claimed control of the city. These incidents preceded Operation Vigilant Resolve, an intense crackdown by Marine forces in the Sunni Triangle cities of Ar Ramadi and Fallujah which began on Monday, but which notably had been planned for several weeks.

The U.S. sustained eight casualties and more than two dozen wounded in Sunday’s attacks, as well as twelve casualties in a seven hour fire fight in Ar Ramadi on Tuesday. The sacrifice of these fallen heroes should not be forgotten, but neither should we forget that which their sacrifice purchased. By Sunday night, the U.S. regained control of all seized police stations and checkpoints in Sadr City. The challenge to Al Najaf was put down without the loss of a single U.S. soldier. After months of operating as “the wild west,” the outlaw cities of Ramadi and Fallujah are now finally subject to U.S. scrutiny, including checkpoints and curfews. The number of Iraqi insurgents killed, injured or captured is staggering—with conservative counts numbering in the hundreds. And Muqtada Al Sadr is in hiding, running like a common criminal from an arrest warrant issued for his role in the murder of a rival cleric. All this was done by a military which has scrupulously avoided collateral injuries while fighting a foe whose policy seems to be to maximize the collateral harm to its own people.

But these successes should not be mistaken for an end of hostilities. The Coalition has long anticipated violence corresponding with the influx of pilgrims in the south for the Shia holiday of Arba’een. Unfortunately, it is expected that terrorists and extremists will capitalize on this event to kill Iraqis and foment turmoil. There is no way to completely prevent this outcome without simply forbidding the celebrations—a cure which the Shia likely would view as worse than the disease.

Notwithstanding the predicted holiday violence this weekend, and contrary to popular wisdom, there was no major change in the nature of the opposition during the last week. Ramadi and Fallujah were known opposition territories that held a disproportionate number of Saddam supporters, Fedayeen, and international terrorists. Similarly, Muqtada Al Sadr and his followers were known to be hostile to the Coalition long before he made a statement last week aligning himself with Hezbollah and Hamas. These contingencies respectively were believed to be responsible for the continuing guerilla-style terrorism in the country which was claiming the lives of Coalition members and civilians alike. The one major change in the last week was tactics. The insurgents chose to attack hard targets directly, and paid dearly.

But the recent attacks did demonstrate that the insurgents have a very powerful weapon: not bombs or bullets, but the media. By interpreting a series of attacks in which the insurgents were soundly defeated as a crisis, the media has been used as a dull pawn by Coalition opponents. And make no mistake: those seeking to aggrandize their power and to destabilize Iraq are attempting to use this pawn to wage war against the king. Having witnessed the change in resolve from President Clinton to President Bush, the eyes of friend and foe in Iraq are fixed on November. To provide but one example, a local Iraqi priest in Baghdad recently grilled me about Senator Kerry. Would his policy be different than that of President Bush? The priest was gravely concerned, because a change in course would have dire consequences for Iraq. And a change of course is what undoubtedly motivated the futile attacks this week.

By objective criteria, the past week has witnessed victories for Coalition forces, and stunning losses for the extreme anti-Coalition factions. But for all the cries of despair, the only real crisis in Iraq is in the subjective eyes of a media unwittingly being used by extremists, and in the jaded eyes of politicos like Senator Kennedy, who are willing to concede American defeat in their quest for Democratic victory.

Robert Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University. He is currently reporting from Iraq. He posts daily reports on the Ashbrook Center’s web log, No Left Turns.