West Bank of the Tigris

December 10, 2003

AMERICAN TACTICS against insurgents in Iraq are coming to resemble Israel's in its conflict with the Palestinians, and it's not hard to see why.

For one thing, cordoning off villages and blowing up houses and seizing relatives of suspected fighters may simply be the most obvious policy for a big army occupying uncertain or hostile territory. But for another, it turns out that the U.S. Army has actually been coached by Israeli officers, according to several published reports.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. commander in Iraq, says that attacks by insurgents are likely to escalate through the winter and spring. The Pentagon has apparently decided to borrow a page from the Israelis and send in more Special Forces troops, essentially to target and kill leaders of enemy cells. The hope is that elite assassination squads will do a better job ferreting out their foes, while minimizing civilian casualties, than an armored division can do, even if they don't win any hearts and minds. It seems reasonable, because it actually comes closer to police work than to warfare, and that's what is needed.

There are just two problems: Identification with Israel is fatal to the American cause in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. To the extent that Iraqis see Hamas as fighting for them, and to the extent that fedayeen and jihadist fighters in Iraq see bombing an American convoy as a blow on behalf of the Palestinians, the whole U.S. enterprise is lost.

Second, it's difficult to argue that Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been paying off. The intifada continues. Peace seems remote at best. And world opinion has turned strongly against Israel.

Surely, Pentagon planners recognize the risks inherent in their new course. The clear implication is that they have lost faith in the previous occupation policies.

It is worth noting that another major shift is going on: Finally, belatedly, the State Department has started sending virtually all available Arabic speakers to Iraq. They no longer need to get political (meaning neoconservative) clearance. The aim is to get Americans into the country who might actually be able to get a sense of what is going on there.

Neither of these is a small change, or a midcourse correction. They wouldn't have happened if the first seven months of the U.S. occupation of Iraq had been anything close to a success. It's commendable that the Bush administration is pragmatic enough to try something new, though the prospect of stoking an intifada from one end of Iraq to the other is unsettling.

One course of action that looks as though it may be shaping up would be particularly disastrous: jamming a lid on Iraq sometime in the first half of 2004, so that the place appears to be subdued come Election Day in November. Short-term fixes like that have a way of leading to long-term and needlessly painful headaches. A migraine in Iraq would be no way to mark President Bush's second term.

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