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April 20, 2004
Thanks For The Help

Iraqi insurgents attempted a prison break in Baghdad today, shelling a compound where American forces hold several thousand Iraqis suspected of being part of Saddam's Ba'ath regime and/or the post-liberation insurgency. Unfortunately, the Gang That Can't Shell Straight wound up causing over a hundred casualties -- entirely in the inmate population:

Guerrillas fired a barrage of mortar rounds at Baghdad's largest prison Tuesday, killing 22 prisoners in an attack a U.S. general said may have been an attempt to spark an uprising against their American guards. ... Ninety-two prisoners were wounded in the mortar attack on the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison, 25 of them seriously, said Col. Jill Morgenthaler, a U.S. military spokeswoman.

"This isn't the first time that we have seen this kind of attack. We don't know if they are trying to inspire an uprising or a prison break," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told The Associated Press.

All of the casualties were security detainees, meaning they were suspected of involvement in the anti-U.S. insurgency or of being part of Saddam's ousted regime. The prison houses some 5,000 security prisoners.

The insurgents seem to have poor intelligence, poor targeting skills, or both. The incident demonstrates the amateurish nature of the insurgency. That doesn't mean amateurs can't be deadly; 22 dead Iraqi prisoners attest to their danger, as well as the dozens of American soldiers who have died in the various eruptions of violence this month. In some ways, amateurs can be deadlier than professionals, because professionals know when and how to attack and how to cover themselves. They don't kill off large numbers of their own people while inflicting no casualties on their targets, and they don't get a whole lot of people around them killed in the return fire.

Besides, the deadliest encounters have been ambushes, where the American forces have taken most of their casualties. When our troops have fought heads-up, on either a defensive or offensive posture, the combat capability of the insurgents has been exposed as woefully inadequate, even for the unit sizes they present. As John Burns noted after he was briefly held by al-Sadr's militia:

Some of the militiamen were in their 50's and 60's, but most were young, some no more than 12 or 13. Weapons training among them appeared virtually nonexistent; Kalashnikovs with loaded magazines and safety catches off were nonchalantly waved in the air. ... One man of about 25 thrust a long-bladed knife into an imaginary belly, telling his companions, "This is what I will do to the American infidels when they enter here."

As I noted at the time, that sounds like a great plan, if he lives long enough to actually get that close to one. "Bringing a knife to a gunfight" is an old proverb describing a pseudo-fatal cluelessness. In this case, with this description of what appears to be no more than a casually organized mob, the pseudo- part of that description may not apply.

What this tells us is that we face a disorganized and unprofessional group of fanatics who substitute religious fervor for military tactics and strategy. Marines in Fallujah noted that their offensive maneuvers against their entrenched defense amount to little more than suicide missions. Marines have faced these tactics before, in the Pacific Theater of WWII, and in that case they faced a disciplined, professional army -- and the result was still mass slaughter every time the "banzai charges" occurred.

There is no reason to suspect that the results would be any different now than in the island battles against the Japanese, except that the casualties will be radically lower as they face a poorly-led and badly-constituted militia instead of the crack troops of the Japanese Imperial Army. The only way the Marines in lose this matchup is if the American will to win dissipates. If the Iraqi militias get a hint that we will pull out or walk away from Iraq, it will only encourage the worst elements in the country to rise up and push us out.

Instead of hysterical analogies to Tet, Americans need to keep some historical perspective on the mission and the objectives, and let the best military force in history do the job of which they are more than capable.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 20, 2004 5:06 PM

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