A second and also cunning aspect of the anti-American/anti-Iraqi strategy has been to stoke sectarian fires, knowing that Americans would not want to be caught in a civil war. A year ago this month, the Golden Mosque in Samara – the holiest Shia shrine in Iraq – was bombed. It was a stroke of tactical brilliance. Once again, international outrage at the predators was muted (nothing like the protests in response, for example, to Israeli attempts to repair a ramp near the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem). But Iraqi Shia, until then restrained despite repeated attacks, turned to militias both to protect them and to take revenge against what they saw as their complicit Sunni neighbors.
Having lost so many clashes of perceptions, the US has now had to change its strategy for the clash of arms. Under a new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, American forces are not just training Iraqi forces to “stand up so Americans can stand down,” they are actually attempting to provide security to the residents of Baghdad, to clear out the terrorists and keep them out.
To accomplish that will require sophisticated counter-insurgency techniques – a subject on which Petraeus has literally written the book. But beyond making progress, Petraeus will need to show progress through the media to the world: a terrorist cell eliminated, a weapons cache seized, a torture chamber located, a neighborhood stabilized, a market teeming with people no longer afraid they won’t survive the afternoon. Purple fingers once a year will not suffice.
The enemy knows what it has to do in response: Litter the streets of Baghdad with bodies. If the dead are Americans, that’s a bulls-eye. But if they are just ordinary Iraqis heading for work or taking their children to school or buying rice for dinner that can be spun as a victory, too. The “international community” will direct its anger not at the killers but at those brave enough to stand up to them. Is that not perverse, illogical and immoral? Is it not insane? Of course it is. But most people won’t understand why until and unless the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department learn to wage a more effective war of ideas.