On one point, all sources appear to agree: what happened in the northern Sunni town of Samarra last Sunday could tell us a great deal about whether U.S. forces are likely to succeed or fail in pacifying and stabilizing Iraq.
That there was a three-hour battle between U.S. soldiers and Iraqis is also not in question. The problem is that everything else about events there last Sunday is.
The lack of agreement about the "Battle of Samarra," as well its obvious importance in gauging how the occupation is going, has already provoked a flurry of analysis both in the mainstream media and on Internet websites.
The military at first claimed U.S. forces had killed no less than 46 of the paramilitary "Fedayeen," identifiable, apparently, from their black uniforms and checkered khafiyas, or head scarves. That toll rose to 54 within hours after debriefings of each unit.
Press officers claimed that the battle began when two convoys entering the city from opposite sides were ambushed by more than 60 Fedayeen who lay in wait for them at either end of the city. The convoys, which included Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks, were delivering new new dinars to a bank located in the center of town, and the fighting raged through the streets alleys of the city all the way in and all the way out.
Eleven prisoners were taken, they insisted, while, on the U.S. side, only five of the 100 soldiers involved in the battle were wounded.
U.S. military officers were understandably jubilant, claiming a "significant victory" indeed, in terms of body counts, probably the most significant since President George W. Bush announced an end to major hostilities in Iraq May 1.
"They got whacked, and won’t try that again," a "senior military official back at the Pentagon told the New York Times triumphantly, or, as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, told a NATO meeting in Brussels, "They attacked, and they were killed. I think it will be instructive to them."
War enthusiasts back home, meanwhile, told reporters that the battle demonstrated the desperation of the guerrillas. The fact that so many were involved in what was so clearly intended to be a bank heist showed they were running short of money to fund the resistance and possibly of men, too.
Other analysts who accepted the basic outlines of the military’s version of events came to more worrisome conclusions: the number and mobility the guerrillas showed in the fighting suggested they had reached a new level of organization, sophistication, and recruitment, while their uniforms bespoke a growing confidence, and their apparent knowledge of when and how the money was to be delivered meant that their intelligence remains light years ahead of the occupation.
But when reporters began swarming to Samarra some roused from their beds by eager military press officers the scene was not as they had expected. Nor were the accounts of the townspeople, and, after a day of interviews, an entirely different picture of the Sunday battle emerged.
Doctors and hospital staff reported only eight Iraqi dead, including one or two elderly religious pilgrims from Iran, a child, a mentally disabled man who was sitting in a taxi, and a woman leaving the drug factory where she worked. The hospital said it had treated a total of 54 people for wounds.
Indeed, townspeople interviewed by name described the "battle" more as indiscriminate firing from the tanks and other armored vehicles, and random shooting by U.S. soldiers, much of it in the densely populated city center, while "dozens of guerrillas" moved around the city taking pot shots at the U.S. troops at will.
"Luckily we evacuated the kindergarten five minutes before we came under attack," said Ibrahim Jassim, a guard interviewed by the London Guardian. "Why did they attack randomly? Why did they shoot a kindergarten with shells?"
Worse, according to the accounts provided by some sources to the Washington Post, the Iraqi resistance grew larger as men rushed home to get their firearms to join in the fighting.
The military explained the discrepancy in the body counts by suggesting that the guerrillas’ bodies had been carried away and secretly buried by their comrades, an assertion for which reporters there could find no evidence either at the city cemetery or anywhere else.
Justin Raimondo, a writer at Antiwar.com, a website that opposes the occupation, also did a quick calculation suggesting that the militarys explanation did not add up. "We are told that a total of 60 insurgents ambushed those convoys, but if U.S. troops killed 54 and captured 11, that leaves five insurgents to carry away the dead."
Nonetheless, Gen. Mark Kimmit, the deputy director for operations in Iraq insisted that the 54 Iraqi guerrillas killed was accurate, although he also confirmed that, instead of 11 "Fedayeen" captured, only one was in fact in U.S. custody.
Of course, the disparity between the two accounts could be attributed to the legendary "fog of war." But the gap was so large that the media are already raising questions about that dreaded Vietnam-era expression, "credibility," particularly, as pointed out by the Los Angeles Times, and Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch.com, with respect to the inflated body counts that came to encapsulate the mendacity of the "Five OClock Follies" in Saigon, as the daily briefings during the Vietnam War were called.
Indeed, as if on cue, the Times reported this week that, "U.S. military officials, in their regular news briefings in Iraq, have quietly begun reporting insurgent ‘KIA’, or killed in action, after months of declining to detail the other side’s losses."
More worrisome perhaps for the occupations prospects, however, was what the townspeople told reporters about both the battle and their general assessment of the occupiers. "Were the French happy under the Nazis?" the U.S.-appointed police chief in Samarra asked the Financial Times after the battle. "It is the same thing here."
Another policeman found the militarys contentions about guerrilla uniforms incomprehensible. "These are just lies," he told Knight-Ridder. "Everyone who was wearing a kafiyeh was to them a Fedayeen. This is ridiculous."
Others interviewed by reporters had much harsher words and vowed revenge for however many people were killed and injured in the fighting.
It seemed quite a contrast from what greeted U.S. soldiers when they first arrived in the city, as noted by Raimondo who dug out the following account from last April. "(A)s soon as soldiers with the brigades 1/12 Infantry Battalion had cleared the Ba’athist compound, taking nine men into custody as possible regime sympathizers, (Col. Fred) Rudesheim found himself to be a popular man in Samarra. All day long, men came, each offering information," the Denver Post reported.
Now, eight months later, Rudesheim, who has presided over Samarra ever since, insisted the townspeople were still with him. "What we hear is that the people of Samarra are fed up (with the guerrillas)," he told reporters.
SFTT.org, a military website quoted in www.WarInContext.com and TomDispatch.com, featured a message from an anonymous U.S. "combat leader" who claims to have been in the Samarra ambush. He complained that Rudesheim "is not trained in counterinsurgency, and my soldiers are taking the heat."
"We drive around in convoys, blast the hell out of the area, break down doors and search buildings; but the guerillas continue to attacks (sic) us. It does not take a (Gen.) George Patton to see we are using the wrong tactics against these people."
(Inter Press Service)