It has been clear for many months that the wild card in any campaign to liberate Iraq would be not the quality of American military might or the malevolence of Saddam Hussein’s resistance. Rather, it would be the role played by the Iraqi people in helping to free themselves from one of the world’s most despotic tyrants.
In the course of the past fortnight, the awesome application of the power of U.S. armed forces has been on display minute-by-minute, thanks in no small measure to the basically real-time reporting of correspondents “embedded” with various combat units. These reporters have also served greatly to amplify the ruthlessness and brutality with which the Iraqi regime is clinging to power notably, by forcing civilians at gunpoint to attack coalition troops, executing its own personnel for wanting not to fight and inviting “collateral damage” on non-military populations by collocating weapons with hospitals, mosques, schools, etc.
What has been inexplicable thus far, however, is why a vastly more robust effort has not been made to date to secure the active support of the Iraqi people? As things stand now, they appear, by most accounts, to be uncertain of the true purpose of American and allied troops in their country. Iraqi propaganda and other Arab media warn of Western imperialism and “Crusader” threats to the Muslim faith. The amazingly few instances in which civilians have been harmed under circumstances attributed by the regime to coalition forces (whether rightly, due to an accident, or deceitfully) has unhelpfully given resonance to nationalist appeals to support Saddam.
The people of Iraq are also terrified by the continuing predations of Saddam's Fedayeen and other enforcers, which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has properly called “death squads.” They remember only too well the harsh reprisals against those who dared to respond to President George H.W. Bush's 1991 call to rise up against the regime. The various videotaped images of Saddam and his cohort broadcast from time to time may seem stilted and inauthentic to our eyes but they are seen by conditioned Iraqis as paralyzing evidence that he remains in control and a threat.
As a result of these factors, the Iraqi people have yet to play any significant role in their liberation. Should they continue in this vein, estimates of a protracted and bloody fight are much more likely to prove correct. At worst, the United States and its allies could find themselves fighting a regime that manages to secure a measure of popular support to which it is certainly not entitled and that would be exceedingly detrimental to the goal of regime change.
What is to be done to correct this unsatisfactory, and potentially disastrous, state of affairs? The answer: “Embed” Free Iraqis. This would, of course, mean more than simply having Iraqis who support Operation Iraqi Freedom along for the ride, like the journalists. While that would be desirable in and of itself (for example, tangibly demonstrating Iraqi support for our troops' efforts and facilitating translations in the latters' interactions with local populations), there are myriad other ways in which Free Iraqis' help could be instrumental to the “hearts and minds” dimension of this conflict.
Opportunities should be afforded to U.S.-trained Iraqi freedom fighters to participate in operations in the southern and central parts of the country, just as the Kurds are now being given roles to play in liberating the North. Having Free Iraqis at checkpoints could help with the challenging task of defending against Saddam-loyalists masquerading as civilians, without harming bona fide non-combatants. Using such allies to penetrate enemy-held cities and positions could greatly facilitate their seizure with minimum loss of life and destruction on both sides.
Particularly needed are the voices and faces of Free Iraq on the media most Iraqis can receive. As a prominent Iraqi exile, Professor Kanan Makiya, observed in the Washington Post last Sunday: “Eliminating [Saddam's] image is not enough. An alternative image must be projected and by Iraqis, not Americans.” Broadcasting the message of hope and liberation from within Iraq is essential to winning not only the confidence and active assistance of the Iraqi people. It could be of incalculable importance in dissipating sympathy for Saddam elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Needless to say, Free Iraqis need to be fully “embedded,” as well, in the development and constituting of a transitional authority capable of governing Iraq once its liberation is secured. While some work toward this end has been undertaken, largely at the initiative of the Iraqi National Congress and opposition groups working with it, more much more needs to be done to establish an effective interim Iraqi alternative to the present, odious regime.
Unfortunately, these ideas, so central to empowering anti-Saddam Iraqis and securing the assistance of millions of their like-minded countrymen, remain anathema to the U.S. State Department and CIA. As a result, far less has been done to prepare to meet today's urgent need for an organized, disciplined and reliable Free Iraqi component to serve as an integral part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. There is no more time to waste. Many lives, Iraqi and American, are at stake, as may even be the ultimate success of the mission.
“Embed” Free Iraqis now!