Still Whacking Moles in Iraq

Whac-a-Mole is a classic arcade game in which the object is to pound the "moles" with a mallet when they randomly pop up out of their holes. The fun and frustration of playing Whac-a-Mole is that no matter how many times you whack the moles, they just keep popping up. This is exactly the phenomenon of the ongoing Iraq insurgency.

Very early on, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described the resistance to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq as comprised of "dead-enders" – the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s former Ba’ath Party, Fedayeen paramilitary, and other Hussein loyalists – and compared insurgent attacks to the everyday violence in large American cities. But the insurgency has actually been multifaceted, with the exact composition ebbing and flowing in much the same way that the arcade moles pop up out of their holes. At one time or another, insurgents have included:

  • Ba’athists, the armed supporters of Saddam Hussein’s regime, fighting to regain power.
  • Nationalists, mostly Sunni Muslims, fighting for Iraqi self-determination.
  • Anti-Shi’ite Sunni Muslims fighting to regain the prestige they held under the Saddam’s rule (or to avoid oppression under majority Shi’ite rule).
  • Sunni Islamists fighting to establish a pure Islamic state (but tolerant of Shi’ite Muslims).
  • Shia militias, the two most well known being the Iran-linked Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
  • Foreign fighters, often linked to al-Qaeda.
  • Insurgent tactics and targets are also varied. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombings are probably the most prolific forms of attack, but insurgents have used small arms (such as the signature AK-47) to ambush military patrols and convoys, mortar attacks against military bases (for example, the October 2006 attack of Camp Falcon that destroyed an ammunition dump), and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) or shoulder-fired missiles to attack aircraft and helicopters. Government officials and foreign civilian have been kidnapped and assassinated (including the beheading of American Nicholas Berg). Iraq’s fledgling security forces (including trainees and recruits) have been the object of numerous attacks. Efforts to restore Iraq’s oil production have been repeatedly frustrated by attacks against oil pipelines and production facilities.

    Most of the fighting in Iraq has been in the Sunni Triangle, but there is still a Whac-a-Mole quality to trying to put down the insurgency. Anti-insurgent military operations have included Baghdad, Tikrit, Fallujah, Rawa (near the Syrian border), Najaf, Samarra, Baquba, Ramadi, and Tal Afar, just to name a few – but as violence is quelled in one area, it rears its ugly head in another. Operation Phantom Fury to push insurgents out of Fallujah at the end of 2004 is a perfect example. One of the consequences of the operation was that many insurgents fled to Mosul, a city that a year earlier was relatively peaceful compared to the rest of Iraq. The result was that Mosul became the scene of intense fighting (in December 2004, a rocket struck a mess tent at a U.S. base in Mosul and killed more than 20 soldiers, one of the deadliest attacks up to that date in the war).

    The mole-whacking continues with the current surge in Iraq. According to the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, security has improved in Baghdad and the al-Anbar province, but attacks have gone up sharply elsewhere. The good news is that sectarian murders in Baghdad have fallen from 1,200 in Baghdad in January to less than 400 in March. The bad news is that suicide bombings have increased 30 percent in the six weeks ending in early April. On April 18, more than 150 people were killed by multiple bomb attacks in Baghdad – the deadliest being an attack that killed 118 people near Sadriya market (ironically, a shopping area closed to traffic and fortified with blast walls after a truck bomb killed 135 people at the market in February, in the single deadliest explosion since the war began in 2003) – and across Iraq the day’s death toll was nearly 230 people.

    In the arcade game, the object is to score as many points as possible based on how many moles a player is able to hit with the mallet. The current score in Iraq is 3,335 U.S. soldiers killed and 24,764 wounded. There are no official numbers for Iraqi civilian casualties, but according to, somewhere between 62,000 and 68,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of the war (others, such as The Lancet study, put the number in the hundreds of thousands). And the cost of playing Whac-a-Mole in Iraq is fast approaching $400 billion.

    But since Iraq is not and never was a national security threat – conventional or otherwise – to the United States, Whac-a-Mole is not a game worth playing.

    Author: Margaret Griffis

    Margaret Griffis is a journalist from Miami Beach, Florida and has been covering Iraqi casualties for since 2006.