Just days after President George Bush told the world that the United States intended a new, more forceful strategy for Iraq, gunmen slipped past Iraqi security forces and kidnapped four American soldiers. The bodies of three of the servicemen were soon found, the fourth died en route to a hospital with a gunshot wound to the head.
In raw numbers, the January 20 raid is far from the most devastating attack on American forces in Iraq. However, the attack shows the fighting still does not fit into the neat columns of Bush administration talking points.
The first clue that there was something different about the attack was initial Pentagon confusion on to report the deaths. The kidnap aspect was left out, as were details which showed that the casualties were not the result of nearly random "for hire" terrorists or a roadside IED. The Karbala strike took some time to plan and care to execute.
About dozen gunmen rode in the black GM "battle wagons" favored by high-value American officials from Dupont Circle to the Green Zone. They also spoke English, carried U.S. weapons, used interpreters, and generally bluffed their way past Iraqi security guards into a provincial compound for American and Iraqi forces. There they snatched the four soldiers, as well as an "unclassified" laptop. U.S. forces say they have already arrested four persons in connection with the attack, but no other information has been released.
The early speculation for responsibility runs to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi internal security forces. The AP quoted unnamed Iraqi officials blamed the radical Shiite Mahdi Army, possibly backed by Iranian intelligence assets. But this runs counter official Bush administration spin which holds that 20,000 more American troops will help tamp down Sunni inspired violence in and around Baghdad.
Just yesterday, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley totally side-stepped the issue of Shiite militias or the extent to which Shiite groups have compromised Iraqi government security forces. Writing in The Washington Post, Hadley simply equates fighting the Sunni insurgency with fighting al Qaeda with securing Iraq. No mention of the Karbala raid or the Shiite militias is even made.
Even so, the Hadley formula clearly calls for greatly stepping up efforts to disarm the ad hoc militias and defang the police and security forces who have come to be dominated by sectarian or ethnic allegiances:
The new plan for Baghdad specifically corrects the problems that plagued previous efforts. First, it is an Iraqi-initiated plan for taking control of their capital. Second, there will be adequate forces (Iraqi and American) to hold neighborhoods cleared of terrorists and extremists. Third, there is a new operational concept—one devised not just to pursue terrorists and extremists but to secure the population. Fourth, new rules of engagement will ensure that Iraqi and U.S. forces can pursue lawbreakers regardless of their community or sect.
The Karbala raid, then, is a fairly clear test case for the "new plan." Whatever else the American mission in Iraq might be, tracking down elements that carefully target American forces for assassination should be part of the plan, old or new.
It may be the Bush administration hopes, at first, to emphasize any possible Iranian connection in such events, further pressing its international case against the regime in Tehran. Fair enough, but ignoring the Iraqi Shiite component is not a long term strategy for success.
Four years into the conflict, the United States has basically set up a giant Prisoner's Dilemma problem in Iraq for the Sunni and Shiite populations. Unless the United States can demonstrate that it can guarantee the peace, neither side has much incentive to move away from violence. Indeed, the dilemma is deadly as disarming could be very, very dangerous if the other side does not do the same thing.
A new White House PR offensive should not shirk this hard task of credibility building, no matter how scarce credibility may have become during the Bush presidency.
Jeff Taylor is editor or Reason Express.