A Sunday in Samarra
by Jim Lobe
one point, all sources appear to agree: what happened in the northern
Sunni town of Samarra last Sunday could tell us a great deal about
whether U.S. forces are likely to succeed or fail in pacifying and
there was a three-hour battle between U.S. soldiers and Iraqis is
also not in question. The problem is that everything else about
events there last Sunday is.
lack of agreement about the "Battle of Samarra," as well
its obvious importance in gauging how the occupation is going, has
already provoked a flurry of analysis both in the mainstream media
and on Internet websites.
military at first claimed U.S. forces had killed no less than 46
of the paramilitary "Fedayeen," identifiable, apparently,
from their black uniforms and checkered khafiyas, or head scarves.
That toll rose to 54 within hours after debriefings of each unit.
officers claimed that the battle began when two convoys entering
the city from opposite sides were ambushed by more than 60 Fedayeen
who lay in wait for them at either end of the city. The convoys,
which included Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks, were
delivering new new dinars to a bank located in the center of town,
and the fighting raged through the streets alleys of the city all
the way in and all the way out.
prisoners were taken, they insisted, while, on the U.S. side, only
five of the 100 soldiers involved in the battle were wounded.
military officers were understandably jubilant, claiming a "significant
victory" – indeed, in terms of body counts, probably the most
significant since President George W. Bush announced an end to major
hostilities in Iraq May 1.
got whacked, and won't try that again," a "senior military
official back at the Pentagon told
the New York Times triumphantly, or, as the vice chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, told a NATO
meeting in Brussels, "They attacked, and they were killed.
I think it will be instructive to them."
enthusiasts back home, meanwhile, told reporters that the battle
demonstrated the desperation of the guerrillas. The fact that so
many were involved in what was so clearly intended to be a bank
heist showed they were running short of money to fund the resistance
and possibly of men, too.
analysts who accepted the basic outlines of the military's version
of events came to more worrisome conclusions: the number and mobility
the guerrillas showed in the fighting suggested they had reached
a new level of organization, sophistication, and recruitment, while
their uniforms bespoke a growing confidence, and their apparent
knowledge of when and how the money was to be delivered meant that
their intelligence remains light years ahead of the occupation.
when reporters began swarming to Samarra – some roused from their
beds by eager military press officers – the scene was not as they
had expected. Nor were the accounts of the townspeople, and, after
a day of interviews, an entirely different picture of the Sunday
and hospital staff reported only eight Iraqi dead, including one
or two elderly religious pilgrims from Iran, a child, a mentally
disabled man who was sitting in a taxi, and a woman leaving the
drug factory where she worked. The hospital said it had treated
a total of 54 people for wounds.
townspeople interviewed by name described the "battle"
more as indiscriminate firing from the tanks and other armored vehicles,
and random shooting by U.S. soldiers, much of it in the densely
populated city center, while "dozens of guerrillas" moved
around the city taking pot shots at the U.S. troops at will.
we evacuated the kindergarten five minutes before we came under
attack," said Ibrahim Jassim, a guard interviewed by the London
Guardian. "Why did they attack randomly? Why did they
shoot a kindergarten with shells?"
according to the accounts provided by some sources to the Washington
Post, the Iraqi resistance grew larger as men rushed home to
get their firearms to join in the fighting.
military explained the discrepancy in the body counts by suggesting
that the guerrillas' bodies had been carried away and secretly buried
by their comrades, an assertion for which reporters there could
find no evidence either at the city cemetery or anywhere else.
Raimondo, a writer at Antiwar.com, a website that opposes the occupation,
also did a
quick calculation suggesting that the military’s explanation did
not add up. "We are told that a total of 60 insurgents
ambushed those convoys, but if U.S. troops killed 54 and captured
11, that leaves five insurgents to carry away the dead."
Gen. Mark Kimmit, the deputy director for operations in Iraq insisted
that the 54 Iraqi guerrillas killed was accurate, although he also
confirmed that, instead of 11 "Fedayeen" captured, only
one was in fact in U.S. custody.
course, the disparity between the two accounts could be attributed
to the legendary "fog of war." But the gap was so large
that the media are already raising questions about that dreaded
Vietnam-era expression, "credibility," particularly, as
pointed out by the Los Angeles Times, and Tom
Engelhardt of TomDispatch.com, with respect to the inflated
body counts that came to encapsulate the mendacity of the "Five
O’Clock Follies" in Saigon, as the daily briefings during the
Vietnam War were called.
as if on cue, the Times reported this week that, "U.S.
military officials, in their regular news briefings in Iraq, have
quietly begun reporting insurgent 'KIA', or killed in action, after
months of declining to detail the other side's losses."
worrisome perhaps for the occupation’s prospects, however, was what
the townspeople told reporters about both the battle and their general
assessment of the occupiers. "Were the French happy under the
Nazis?" the U.S.-appointed police chief in Samarra asked the
Financial Times after the battle. "It is the same thing
policeman found the military’s contentions about guerrilla uniforms
incomprehensible. "These are just lies," he told Knight-Ridder.
"Everyone who was wearing a kafiyeh was to them a Fedayeen.
This is ridiculous."
interviewed by reporters had much harsher words and vowed revenge
for however many people were killed and injured in the fighting.
seemed quite a contrast from what greeted U.S. soldiers when they
first arrived in the city, as noted by Raimondo who dug out the
following account from last April. "(A)s soon as soldiers with
the brigades 1/12 Infantry Battalion had cleared the Ba'athist compound,
taking nine men into custody as possible regime sympathizers, (Col.
Fred) Rudesheim found himself to be a popular man in Samarra. All
day long, men came, each offering information," the Denver
eight months later, Rudesheim, who has presided over Samarra ever
since, insisted the townspeople were still with him. "What
we hear is that the people of Samarra are fed up (with the guerrillas),"
he told reporters.
a military website quoted in www.WarInContext.com
and TomDispatch.com, featured
from an anonymous U.S. "combat leader" who claims
to have been in the Samarra ambush. He complained that Rudesheim
"is not trained in counterinsurgency, and my soldiers are taking
drive around in convoys, blast the hell out of the area, break down
doors and search buildings; but the guerillas continue to attacks
(sic) us. It does not take a (Gen.) George Patton to see we are
using the wrong tactics against these people."
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2003 Inter Press Service