June 4, 2006

Haditha and the Sunnis

This article appears on the MSNBC Hardball Blog.

Incidents in two Iraqi cities have focused world attention on possible misconduct by US forces in Iraq. Although US forces were cleared of misconduct allegations stemming from a March 15 incident in Ishaqi where at least 13 people were killed, a criminal probe has been launched into the November 19, 2005 incident in Haditha where US Marines are accused of killing a group of unarmed Iraqi civilians.

First, if there was misconduct, if the Marines did kill innocent civilians in a rage after losing one of their own, they should be – and will be – held accountable. If there was an attempt anywhere in the chain of command to cover up what happened, those responsible should also be held accountable. Those of us who served in the post-My Lai Vietnam conflict know full well how important this is. The investigation will eventually determine what happened last fall. Guilt or innocence will be determined, punishment, if warranted, will be meted out, and policies may be changed.

That’s the black and white. Now let’s look at the grey.

Haditha (and Ishaqi) is located in the Sunni area north of Baghdad, the so-called “Sunni triangle.” It has been a hotbed of insurgent activity since the war began in 2003. US forces there have been subjected to unending attacks, mostly with improvised explosive devices (IED’s), homemade bombs placed alongside the roads the troops must travel to patrol the area. The November 19 attack involved such a device – a 155mm artillery shell wired to a detonator. IED’s have been the insurgents’ only effective means of attacking US forces – directly confronting the better trained and equipped Americans has proven futile.

Making and planting IED’s cannot be done in a vacuum. Someone - or more likely many – in Haditha were aware of insurgent activities. Although the residents may not be direct participants in the insurgency themselves, they have not provided information to either the US or Iraqi forces. To the soldiers and Marines on the ground, this amounts to tacit cooperation with the insurgents. The biggest complaint among the American troops is not knowing who the enemy is and whom to engage. When troops come under these anonymous IED attacks, they are naturally disposed to strike back. The question is, against whom? It is extremely frustrating for these young soldiers and Marines to get hit with these IED’s, suffer casualties and not be able to respond.

We don’t yet know exactly what happened at Haditha. I am surprised we don’t have more of these incidents. I have maintained for a long time that the residents of these towns, particularly in that area north of Baghdad, know exactly who the bad guys are, and when and where they set up these devices. I am not excusing the alleged actions of the American troops in this case, but I can understand the frustration that causes them.

The potential for more of these incidents, and the insurgency itself, will continue until the Sunnis decide they are going to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.