It's Time To Declare Martial Law in the Sunni Cities

Return to Fallujah

It's Time To Declare Martial Law in the Sunni Cities

Return to Fallujah

It's Time To Declare Martial Law in the Sunni Cities
Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 5 2005 9:31 AM

Return to Fallujah

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CAMP RAMADI, Iraq—There are a dozen Sunni cities like Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province. For 30 months since Baghdad fell, our soldiers have been fighting an insurgency based inside the Sunni Triangle, where the vast majority of the population is complicit with the insurgents or intimidated by them. The insurgency is a loose conglomeration of foreign fighters, radical jihadists, former regime elements, and those who resent the American occupation. These diverse elements cooperate and survive by mixing among the Sunni residents in the cities and villages.

In January 2004, Coalition Provisional Authority officials routinely drove into Ramadi in unarmored SUVs, with only a few side arms for protection. Today, such an SUV would be lucky to make it 10 blocks before being shot at or blown up. In April 2004, the insurgents massed in the hundreds and challenged the nearby Marine battalion to an open fight for control of the city. For four days, the battle swirled up and down the main streets and alleyways. At one point, 10 separate major firefights were raging at the same time at the government center, in a cemetery, at the soccer stadium, along the Euphrates River, in the market, and along the main street through town.

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Since then, the insurgents have avoided pitched battles, settling into a "shoot and scoot" mode of operation combined with daily detonations of improvised explosive devices. Fatalities from IEDs occur almost weekly. The Marines, spread thin throughout a province the size of North Carolina and conducting spoiling operations along the Syrian border 100 miles to the west, don't have the manpower to place barbed wire around Ramadi, or to limit entrance and demand ID of all military-age males. Nor is the Iraqi army, while improving, yet up to that task. The police are either intimidated or in league with the insurgents. Whether due to fear, complicity, or both, the police are absent when the insurgents walk through the marketplaces showing off their new rocket-propelled grenades.

Efforts to persuade the sheiks and city elders to stand up to the insurgents have been fruitless. Offering economic development as the path to a brighter future has been thwarted. In the last year, 47 contractors began projects inside the city. Five were killed, and 30 others quit and fled the city.

One contractor bid $70,000 to fill a few potholes. Maj. Benjamin Busch of College Park, Md., working with the Civil Affairs Group in Ramadi, estimated that the work should cost $5,000. The contractor protested that he had to buy his own cement trucks because no one was willing to rent to him if it meant entering Ramadi. He then had to hire guards who insisted on driving their own vehicles. He paid local officials for "licenses," he paid the sheik in charge of the local tribe where he was to work. He then had to persuade the insurgents on each street where he was working to accept a payment in exchange for leaving him alone. And his work crew and guards insisted on driving back and forth from Baghdad each day, resulting in about three hours of actual work per day. Busch told him to forget it, but he agreed that such a maze of payoffs and arrangements was typical. It was almost impossible for an outside contractor to work in the city, and local contractors spent more time negotiating with the complex power structure than doing actual work. Hence, $70,000 for a $5,000 job.

Determined to complete at least one job on the streets, Busch brought in two tanks to guard a work detail. Insurgents (without guns) walked around the tanks, gathered the workers together, and told them they had one hour to get out of town. The workers left.

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"The local contractors have to be able to manipulate the local politicians, criminals, and insurgents. That requires deft and bold negotiations. Make a wrong step and you're dead," Busch said. "Insurgents, terrorists, tribal leaders, the fiefdoms run by local officials, and the vast, uninhibited criminal element key onto any contract work as a funded endeavor deserving to be fleeced."

Iraqi officials in Ramadi wield their scant power cautiously. In the last year, the province has had four governors. The first, to secure the release of his two kidnapped sons, tearfully apologized on television for working with the infidels. As soon as his sons were returned, he left for Jordan. The second governor suddenly became ill and resigned. The third was seized and executed. The fourth had his son kidnapped.

Neither economic carrots nor the stick of local governance has worked in Ramadi. At a high cost, American soldiers are keeping a lid on the extent of the violence. But the insurgents control the streets.

Too many supposed Sunni leaders are refractory in their shortsightedness, standing silent and supposedly neutral as the terrorists and insurgents battle the infidels: the Shiites and the Kurds. Sunni leaders act as if they assume that when both sides are exhausted, they can claim greater privileges for the Sunnis—under their leadership. Why they think the terrorists and the jihadists would cede a crumb to them is unclear.

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In May 2004, the Marines gave control of Fallujah to former Sunni generals who were confident they could wean the local insurgents away from the leadership of the jihadists and the radicalized imams. Within three months, Fallujah descended into hell. The Sunni generals were driven from the city in disgrace and ridicule.

In Fallujah, Ramadi, and elsewhere, the leadership of the Iraqi insurgency has passed into the hands of the global jihadists implacable in their hatred. They are not agrarian reformers. Their goal is a fundamentalist, fascist caliphate extending across dozens of countries, achieved by murdering all who oppose them, regardless of borders. This is a global war. Pull precipitously out of Iraq and the savagery of the terror bombings elsewhere will increase.

The Sunnis dominated the Shiites for centuries, and in war the moral is to the physical as four is to one. We can criticize the intelligence projections and policy choices that led our senior leaders to believe that a sudden blitzkrieg of Baghdad would change centuries of tribal and religious dynamics. But we are where we are. Without the American presence, the Sunni-based insurgency would quickly establish a Taliban-type regime in many cities, as it did last summer in Fallujah. The Iraqi army—predominantly Shiite—is beginning to occupy Sunni cities. Currently, each new Iraqi battalion is partnered with an American battalion. The Iraqi soldiers are steadily improving in on-the-ground operations, because they gain confidence as much as techniques by working side by side with American soldiers. Left on their own at this point, though, their tentative morale would collapse. Supporting the Iraqi army with communications, logistics, maintenance, heavy armor, and quick reaction forces will be necessary for years.

While the Iraqi soldiers are improving, the police in the Sunni cities are not keeping pace. Too many of those recruited locally fear for their own lives and those of their families—or sympathize with the insurgents. Those police trucked in from other areas operate like Iraqi soldiers, patrolling in large numbers. Neither the local police nor those from outside the area are performing the hard detective work of aggressively identifying and apprehending the insurgents who brazenly walk through the marketplaces.

In mid-October, there will be an election to accept or reject a constitution. Regardless of whether or how they vote in October, the Sunnis will not have a political epiphany and identify the insurgents hiding in their midst. "Winning Sunni hearts and minds"—persuading them to accept minority status in a democracy—will occur only after the insurgent and terrorist leaders have been killed and their legions of uneducated foot soldiers have been worn down by the tough military restrictions placed upon them.

The Iraqi government should declare martial law in many Sunni cities, place the police under the army, and insist on ID cards for every military-aged male. These steps will hasten the withdrawal of American forces under militarily prudent circumstances.

Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written six books about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.