The Battle of Samarra, And What it Tells Us

You’ve probably already heard about the clash last weekend between U.S. troops and Iraqi insurgents near the town of Samarra that was provoked when the insurgents ambushed an American convoy. I think, though, that it probably deserves more attention that it’s getting.

Why? Well, Col. David Hackworth’s group, Soldiers for the Truth, is running what they claim is an eyewitness account of the battle from the U.S. side, and it’s a little different than what you’ve been hearing on CNN:

The convoy which was attacked while driving through Samara was not a supply convoy as reported, but was carrying large amounts of new Iraqi currency to stock local Iraqi banks and US greenbacks used to pay for goods and services the US forces need to accomplish their missions in Iraq…
When we received the first incoming rounds, all I could think of was how the hell did the Iraqis (most of these attackers being criminals, not insurgents) find out about this shipment? This was not broadcast on the local news, but Iraqi police knew about it. Bing, Bing Bing, You do the math…
Hack, most of the casualties were civilians, not insurgents or criminals as being reported. During the ambushes the tanks, brads and armored HUMVEES hosed down houses, buildings, and cars while using reflexive fire against the attackers. One of the precepts of “Iron Hammer” is to use an Iron Fist when dealing with the insurgents. As the division spokesman is telling the press, we are responding with overwhelming firepower and are taking the fight to the enemy. The response to these well coordinated ambushes was as a one would expect. The convoy continued to move, shooting at ANY target that appeared to be a threat. RPG fire from a house, the tank destroys the house with main gun fire and hoses the area down with 7.62 and 50cal MG fire. Rifle fire from an alley, the brads fire up the alley and fire up the surrounding buildings with 7.62mm and 25mm HE rounds. This was actually a rolling firefight through the entire town.
The ROE under “Iron Fist” is such that the US soldiers are to consider buildings, homes, cars to be hostile if enemy fire is received from them (regardless of who else is inside. It seems too many of us this is more an act of desperation, rather than a well thought out tactic. We really don’t know if we kill anyone, because we don’t stick around to find out. Since we armored troops and we are not trained to use counter-insurgency tactics; the logic is to respond to attacks using our superior firepower to kill the rebel insurgents. This is done in many cases knowing that there are people inside these buildings or cars who may not be connected to the insurgents.
The belief in superior firepower as a counter-insurgency tactic is then extended down to the average Iraqi, with the hope that the Iraqis will not support the guerillas and turn them in to coalition forces, knowing we will blow the hell out of their homes or towns if they don’t. Of course in too many cases, if the insurgents bait us and goad us into leveling buildings and homes, the people inside will then hate us (even if they did not before) and we have created more recruits for the guerillas.

SFTT is running the letter anonymously, so obviously it’s open to debate as to whether it’s legitmate or not. But Hackworth and SFTT have done a pretty good job of telling truth from fiction up to now, and they’re not given to tossing out incendiary accusations just for fun, so if they’re inclined to publish this letter, I’m inclined to believe it’s at least worth reading.

So, if it is legitimate, it tells us several things about the state of the insurgency:

  • They’ve infiltrated the Iraqi police. As the correspondent noted, that’s the vector by which the insurgents would have heard about the convoy. If that’s true, it’s a Very Bad Thing, because our current policy in Iraq is to very quickly hand power over to whatever functioning local institutions we can find — such as the Iraqi police. If the Baathists are silently pulling their strings from a cave somewhere, that could mean the “Iraqification” plan could be doomed before it even gets going.
  • They’ve gained confidence in their arms, numbers, and tactics. We can tell this because they have graduated to attacking tanks. A modern main battle tank is a formidable target, wrapped in layers of “composite” armor that’s impenetrable by almost anything foot soldiers can carry. For this reason, guerrillas tend in the early stages of their movements to avoid attacking them, preferring instead to ambush soldiers when they’re out of their vehicles. Eventually, though, as the guerrillas start to succeed, they gain the confidence to take on these imposing targets, and when they do, it’s a clear signal to the other side that the bad guys have taken things up a notch.
  • We’re reacting in exactly the way they probably hoped we would. Because tanks aren’t usually targets of guerrilla attacks, they aren’t designed to deal with such things very well; their main armament is typically a huge cannon that’s better at destroying another tank a mile away than it is at killing a guy with an RPG in a window without hurting the little old lady in the next window. If Hack’s correspondent is correct, the new U.S. rules of engagement for Iraq are to basically just fire away and not worry about the little old lady (it’s her fault for living next door to a terrorist). This is incredibly boneheaded, as it just means that every town our tanks roll through will end up with a bunch of folks with new reasons to hate America by the time the tanks are gone.

Once you see all these things, the picture from Samarra starts to get clearer. When I saw the first news reports (“Insurgents attack U.S. convoy, 54 Iraqi dead, no U.S. dead”), I couldn’t figure out what the motivation was. Why risk so many guerrillas on a supply convoy? It made no sense. Now, though, it makes perfect sense. They’ve been living off of their hoard of Saddam cash, but that money is gonna be worthless as soon as the occupation currency takes effect, so they work their informants in the police to find out the route of the convoy. The odds of actually knocking it over are slim, but even if they don’t, they know our rules of engagement well enough by now to know that they could still win a significant propaganda victory if they laid their ambush in a populated area — once the shooting started, we’d level the place, and the people of the town would see the evil of the Great Satan with their own eyes.

Speculation? You bet. But it sure makes more sense to me than the official story does.

UPDATE: Juan Cole is asking some of the same questions I am.