April Fools’ Day is traditionally one of good-natured mischief, but not this year. Indeed, U.S. President George W. Bush’s trademark smirk, which normally fits the day’s spirit almost to a T, was nowhere to be seen Thursday.
The reason was clear enough: Iraq suddenly, if gruesomely, recaptured the headlines with Wednesday’s horrific killings of four private US security contractors, whose fiery and grisly end at the hands of an angry mob in the chronically rebellious city of Fallujah was caught on videotape.
While television and cable networks here censored or otherwise obscured the most graphic images of their deaths and mutilation, the public Thursday was still absorbing the meaning of the images that so clearly recalled the grisly scenes in Mogadishu, Somalia more than 10 years ago.
Then, 18 US servicemen were killed and some of them mutilated and dragged through city streets in what became the basis not only for the best-selling book and Hollywood movie, Blackhawk Down, but also, and more importantly for foreign-policy purposes, for the speedy withdrawal of US forces from Somalia.
While few expect a similar reaction now, the fiery reemergence of Iraq in the public consciousness after a relatively calm month when it was pushed to the back pages makes it clear that the Bush administration’s optimistic depictions of the situation there might be as misleading as its prewar claims about Baghdad’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist group of Osama bin Laden.
Such a conclusion was reinforced by the coincidence Wednesday of the worst single attack on U.S. forces in several months. Five US soldiers were killed when their armored personnel carrier ran over a particularly powerful "improvised explosive device" on a highway not far from Fallujah.
That incident brought to 48 the number of US military combat fatalities in March, making it the worst month since last November, and bringing the total US combat toll since May 1, when Bush declared an end to major hostilities, to a new milestone: 600.
The March toll was more than double February’s. Military officials also said Wednesday that the average number of attacks against occupation forces, at about two dozen a day or more than twice the January rate remains on an upward trajectory toward their height last November, when more than 80 servicemen were killed.
Attacks against foreign civilians are also on the rise. Twelve were killed in March, the highest toll to date. Among the victims were four missionary workers and several other security guards, including a Canadian and Briton, who were gunned down last Sunday in Mosul, also to the cheers of a crowd of onlookers.
As noted by veteran New York Times correspondent John Burns on Thursday, both the Fallujah murders and the latest roadside killings should prompt military and occupation officials to rethink their conclusions in early February that foreign and local Islamist terrorists had replaced loyalists of former President Saddam Hussein in the "Sunni Triangle" of north-central Iraq as their principal enemy in the country and that they had "turned the corner" in putting down the insurgency of the Ba’ath Party supporters.
"This reminds me so much of Vietnam, it’s scary," Lawrence Korb, a senior Pentagon official under President Ronald Reagan (198189), told the Washington Post Thursday. "Every time in Vietnam that we kept saying there was light at the end of the tunnel, then something horrible would happen."
The pattern of these attacks suggested to T.X. Hammes, a senior military fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies who just returned from a two-month assignment in Iraq, that occupation forces face a real insurgency that will not be defeated in the short term.
"They plan to beat us," he wrote, adding that the opposition now consists of disparate groups who are loosely allied "to drive the U.S.-led coalition out of Iraq."
The "quality" of the mob’s violence in the attack on the four security workers all former members of US Special Operations Forces also struck Juan Cole, an Iraq specialist at the University of Michigan, as both remarkable and ominous.
"The degree of hatred for the new order among ordinary people is bad news," he wrote in his daily "blog" (Internet journal). "It helps explain why so few of the Sunni Arab guerrillas have been caught, since the locals hide and help them."
"It also seems a little unlikely that further US military action can do anything practical to put down this insurgency; most actions it could take would simply inflame the public against them all the more" Cole added.
Nonetheless, tougher measures were precisely what was urged by the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal, which called for occupation forces to institute military trials and executions of irregulars, a recommendation not immediately accepted by the military in Iraq, whose chief spokesman, Army Brig Gen. Mark Kimmitt, however, promised to "hunt down" those responsible for the killings and "pacify that city."
Washington had been hoping that the transition to the Jun. 30 handover of sovereignty from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to an interim Iraqi government and initial disbursements of some 18 billion dollars in US reconstruction and other economic funds would also help to curb the insurgency.
But continuing maneuvering by various factions and personalities in the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and the persistent uncertainty about the United Nations’ role in the transition have reportedly contributed to a rise, rather than a lessening, in sectarian tensions.
At the same time, the growing insecurity, particularly in the Sunni Triangle, is raising serious questions about how economic development and the investments that it is supposed to promote can proceed.
This was highlighted by a State Department warning earlier this week that the safety of US citizens attending a major trade and investment exposition in Baghdad next week could not be assured.
Coming on the heels of the pledge by Spain’s incoming prime minister to withdraw Madrid’s 1,300 troops in Iraq, the renewed attention to the security situation there also raises new doubts about the continued presence of other foreign peacekeepers and the willingness of foreign businesspeople to travel there. Two Finnish businessmen were killed by assailants last month.
Nor is the instability confined solely to the Sunni-dominated region.
Cole also noted that Wednesday’s incidents in the Sunni Triangle obscured another ominous event in Baghdad itself, where several thousand Shiites protested the CPA’s controversial closure earlier this week of the al-Hawzah newspaper of Muqtada al-Sadr. The authority said the paper was circulating wild and unfounded rumors and deliberately inciting the population against the occupation.
According to Cole, al-Sadr, a radical rival of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has only rarely been able to mobilize a demonstration of that size, and his ability to do so now, after several months in which Sistani appeared to have moved him to the shadows, could herald a rise in his influence, ironically aided by the CPA’s ham-handed actions.
The Journal, which often reflects the views of Pentagon hawks who oversee the occupation from Washington, defended the newspaper’s closure and suggested that the military consider arresting al-Sadr.