Grasping a new war reality
WASHINGTON — The bitter lesson insufficiently learned from Sept. 11 is being driven home again in Iraq - the menace of the enemy that doesn't fight by the rules ordained by the superpower.
In recent days, US and British forces have come up against Saddam Hussein's fedayeen. This is a paramilitary force, often un-uniformed, ready for self-sacrifice. It was established in the mid-1990s by Hussein's son Uday and was recruited mainly from the ruling Baath Party. They use tactics generally considered dishonorable, like fake surrenders, human shields, suicide bombings, and guns pointed at the backs of their own soldiers.
The fedayeen have been involved in forcing innocent civilians to challenge checkpoints, creating incidents that leave American troops to be blamed for the deaths of innocent Iraqis. They have succeeded in harassing the long supply line up from Kuwait and slowing the advancing forces. In Najaf, 80 miles south of Baghdad, all roads were closed at one point to protect US troops from the approach of suicide vehicles.
A helicopter gunner told The New York Times that he often found himself about to squeeze the trigger on an enemy soldier when he realized that his target was a civilian. This can be disconcerting.
It isn't as though the existence and tactics of the fedayeen were not known. Intelligence reports had warned the strategy planners about the irregular troops. One CIA report specifically warned of the possibility offedayeen attacks on rear areas. But not much attention was paid by the generals, who were absorbed in more familiar problems like weapons of mass destruction and the capabilities of the Republican Guard divisions. That left the commanders unprepared for the attacks on the rear as the Army swept toward Baghdad.
A Marine lieutenant colonel told the Washington Post that this is "a new phase in the war against a different kind of enemy." There are bound to be new phases and different kinds of enemies as long as a military superpower fails to grasp the reality of asymmetric warfare fought with lives as munitions.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.