Tuesday, April 6, 2004

U.S.troopssuffered dozens of casualties at the hands of rebellious Shi’ite militiamen in Baghdad, as Americans were still reeling from the barbarous and gruesome ambush of four civilian security contractors protecting food convoys in Fallujah.

Those victims’ charred bodies were mutilated and dragged through the streets in a despicable manner eerily reminiscent of the Black Hawk debacle in Mogadishu, Somalia. After TV screens worldwide filled with photos and videos of that 1993 incident, Bill Clinton promptly withdrew our troops.

Both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were emboldened by Mr. Clinton’s withdrawal after the attack, seeing it as a sign of U.S. feebleness. In his 1996 “Declaration of War Against the Americans,” bin Laden cited Washington’s Somalia retreat: “You have been disgraced by Allah and you withdrew. The extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear.”

Saddam reportedly distributed hundreds of copies of the “Black Hawk Down” movie to his Fedayeen forces as motivational and training tools prior to the U.S. invasion. It is no surprise, therefore, that frustrated Saddam loyalists or al Qaeda terrorists would now use similar disgusting tactics.

These types of attacks will continue unless American forces respond swiftly and decisively. Both the insurgents in Fallujah and the militias of radical, anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are significant minorities of troublemakers that must be forcibly disarmed and pacified.

Fallujah should come first. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s top civilian administrator, has already vowed that those crimes “will not go unpunished.” Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt promised that the military response will not be a “pell-mell rush into the city. It will be deliberate, it will be precise and it will be overwhelming.” Our response needs to be powerful yet surgical.

Gen. Kimmitt added that our forces would act “at the time and place of our choosing.” But the time needs to be now. The place has to be the entire city. Marines have already begun a lockdown of the city and suffered casualties this week on the city’s outskirts.

Problems in Fallujah began early in the war when that hotbed of tribal support for Saddam was spared the heavy hand of military action. Many Saddam loyalists in the sunni triangle — the area bordered by Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi — never felt the sting of battle and never really accepted that they were defeated. Subsequent events bolstered this major misperception.

Three months after the city’s capture in April 2003, American forces began withdrawing in an attempt to diffuse tensions with the city’s inhabitants, turning over authority and security to Iraqis. Since then, Fallujah, a flashpoint for the anti-American insurgency, has lacked a U.S. presence as American forces remained on the city’s outskirts.

Many Saddam supporters believed the Americans pulled out because we were weak or afraid. The modern city of 200,000 remained a nest for Saddam “dead enders,” as Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld calls them.

Combined with a lack of visible punishment given to the thousands of Iraqi terrorists and insurgents detained during the past year, some anti-American Iraqis have developed a sense of immunity. This attitude was vividly displayed by those openly celebrating the attacks and participating in the macabre aftermath of the recent murders.

The Marines decided not to send forces into the city immediately to retrieve the dead Americans’ remains. Marine commanders argued that they likely would have provoked the mob and faced additional ambushes. This may have been a wise tactical move, but it probably also added to the insurgents’ sense that Americans were afraid. It is now time to reverse the impression of weakness that fuels this barbarism. American officials quickly met with local political leaders and clerics who issued a fatwa, or religious edict, condemning the mutilations (though not the attack). These are necessary political and civil affairs actions.

Many of Fallujah’s residents are peaceful. Some have expressed embarrassment and revulsion at the grisly crimes committed by their neighbors. The coming U.S. show of force should avoid alienating these Iraqis. Additional “hearts and minds” efforts, such as building more schools and hospitals, are also important and should follow later.

But first a dramatic show of force is absolutely necessary. Many other residents are sympathetic to the insurgents and terrorists. The Marines have already sealed off the area and should begin disarming the entire town, while Special Forces and Iraqi troops take down pinpoint targets (such as insurgent leaders). Electricity and other services should be rationed to reward cooperation and punish non-compliance. The Marines also have plenty of cash to buy information and support. They should spend freely.

All those who participated in the attack and the brutal mob acts afterward need to be killed or punished quickly. Symbolism is very important in the Arab world.

Only if forceful actions are taken rapidly, prior to handing over sovereignty this summer, can order be restored and events be prevented from devolving into a re-run of Mogadishu. The cost of action may be high, but the price of inaction would be much higher. The entire terrorist world is watching.

Paul Crespo is a former Marine Corps officer who served in the Middle East. He teaches world politics at the University of Miami and is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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