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Attacks in the Sunni Triangle

April 1, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: For more on the challenges of the Sunni Triangle, we go to retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s the coauthor of “The Generals’ War,” a book which was about the first Gulf War. He is now coauthoring a second book about the latest Iraq War.

Edmund Ghareeb is an adjunct professor in the School of International Service at American University; and retired Army Colonel W. Patrick Lang, a former Special Forces officer, a longtime Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

General Trainor, can the U.S. forces in the Sunni Triangle deliver on the promises today to punish the people who committed those awful acts yesterday?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Not in an absolute term. We don’t really know who did this. We have the photographs and the video of some of the people that were involved in the desecration of the corpses. But in terms of the people that attacked the vehicles to begin with, I’m not so sure we have any precise information on that. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take some sort of action in terms of arresting and detaining some of those people that were involved in the desecration.

JIM LEHRER: But it would be more of a general action than specifics at individuals, is that what you’re suggesting?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Yes, unless we start to get workable intelligence that we can act on for the actual ambushes. If we have that we can move against them.

JIM LEHRER: Colonel Lang, do you agree, short of intelligence, knowing exactly who did it, these promises of punishment are not necessarily going to be carried out?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I don’t think any kind of approach to this as a criminal action is going to be very productive, either in terms of rendering justice or in terms of improving our situation in Iraq. And in fact, I think you have to treat the Fallujah area and the larger Sunni Triangle as an area essentially under enemy control and concentrate forces in there and begin a kind of process of going through the place a block at a time and developing your own intelligence in order to break the back of resistance there. If we don’t do that, we’re going to look awfully bad in the rest of Iraq, and indeed, in the rest of the Islamic world.

JIM LEHRER: How did this happen? How did the Sunni Triangle get to be kind of a no man’s land for U.S. troops and U.S. occupation?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: It was going to be that. We entered Iraq with the intention of removing the Baathist regime, and breaking the back of the government infrastructure that ruled before, because we correctly thought it was a bad institution. And as your piece said, in fact, the Sunni Arabs have ruled Iraq for a very long time, well over a thousand years — they or Turks who are also Sunnis.

And so we focused on them as the people who are going to be reduced in power and stature in the country and they I think understandably regard us as the enemy and are fighting a war against us. It’s Baathist remnants, some nationalists and some local Islamists who are joining up with them people like that. That mob in the street in Fallujah yesterday, those weren’t organized people, that was the people of Fallujah who came out to do this.

JIM LEHRER: General Trainor, why did U.S. troops, U.S. forces or coalition forces go after these folks earlier or to pacify the area of Fallujah, and the entire Sunni Triangle before now?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Well, this has been on going, there’s been a lot of units rotating through there. The Fourth Infantry Division was there and most recently the 82nd Airborne Division and they’re in the process right now of handing it off to the U.S. Marines who have returned to Iraq. So it hasn’t been for lack of effort that this is a dangerous area. It is just dangerous by definition, and because of the reasons that Pat Lang just talked about.

But that doesn’t mean to say that this situation can’t improve. We probably will never be able to totally eliminate any sort of terrorist activity in the region or resistance activity. But you certainly can minimize it and bring it down to manageable portions, and I think the units that are in there right now are going to try to do that.

JIM LEHRER: I want to come back to that in a minute, but Professor Ghareeb, by definition to use the general’s term, define why these folks in the Sunni Triangle feel so strongly about the United States and what it did and the troops, our troops on the ground there.

EDMUND GHAREEB: Well, to a large extent I think most of these people are people who have done well at least under the former regime, also I don’t — however, I don’t think that Saddam Hussein necessarily favored the Sunnis. I think Saddam Hussein favored people who were loyal to him. But that part of the country benefited from the regime, they had improved economically, they also this is an area where people have tribal groups who are still having tribal values, who have lived in this area, they have opposed historically foreign occupation whether it was the Ottomans, whether it was the British and now the Americans because they see this as a occupation.

But more importantly, I think to a certain extent these people feel that they have been targeted also as the enemy, they have been seen as the enemy by the coalition forces, they feel they are going to be marginalized, they are not going to be represented. They have been on the receiving end of a number of operations that have taken place and which have, they have seen as challenging their basic view of themselves and of the world, and they’re afraid that they no longer will have a role in Iraq of the future.

And that’s why we see the anger, we see the resentment, although nothing justifies the horror that we have seen and the tragedy, which to a larger extent are part of a larger issue of the ugliness of war of the horror of war.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think, Professor, that the U.S. coalition could have handled the Sunni Triangle in a different way that might have pacified these folks? Or was that an impossibility going in?

EDMUND GHAREEB: I don’t think anything is impossible and I’m not sure it’s impossible now, and that’s why I believe it’s important not to pursue and follow a self defeating strategy, because I think what’s important now is that there are some people who are saying these are Saddam loyalists, and forget we have to treat them as the enemy.

I think what’s important, while punishing those people who are responsible, it’s very important to try to communicate to show that these people are going to be represented, that they are going to also have a say in the Iraq of the future, not as rulers but at least in terms in accordance with their proportion of the population, and that they are not going to be totally marginalized.

If this is pursued, I think there’s hope, and also if they feel that their area is also being rebuilt, there’s reconstruction in the area, that they’re not going to be out, without any kind of role in the future of Iraq, then I think there is hope for keeping them in there and for reaching some kind of accommodation with some of the elements in that region.

JIM LEHRER: Back to you, Colonel Lang, you said earlier that you think U.S. troops need to go almost neighborhood by neighborhood to pacify this. You’re talking about military action and force, right?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: There are two things here. On the one hand, as the professor says, we need to do something serious, which we haven’t done before, to assure Sunni Arabs that there is a real place for them in the life of Iraq of the future and that we’re not just handing the country over to the Shia in the South and other people around the country because we haven’t done that very well, it’s not convincing really if you see it from a Sunni Arab point of view. On the other hand the challenges –.

JIM LEHRER: Why is that, what have we done that would make them legitimately suspicious?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, if you look at the structure of the governing council in Baghdad, and the way the CPA treats with various members of the –.

JIM LEHRER: That’s the coalition governing council.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Right. The way they treat with members of the Shia community and the amount of deference given to Ayatollah Sistani and various secular Shia in Iraq, it’s very easy from the Sunni Arab point of view to think that the de-Baathification process which is chaired by a Shia Arab in this case, is in fact designed to deprive them of power in the way the professor is talking about.

That has to stop or these people are going to fight forever. They’re not going to end up as serfs in a country they once ruled. But on the other hand the challenges to us that were made yesterday very specifically are such that I don’t see how e could ignore them. We have to regain control in —

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about military control, boots on the ground, as they say, right?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Absolutely. I think you have to do two things, strategically you have to do something for the Sunni Arabs and tactically you have to regain control of that city.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Back to you, General Trainor, the marines are there now, they had huge success when they were there before, the First Marine Division did, the First Marine Expeditionary force. They were in a Shia area. Now they’re in a Sunni area and they’ve come in with a slightly different approach, do you think? I mean, can the Marines do that? Can they do both what the professor and what Colonel Lang are suggesting?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Well, tactically, Jim, I would hope so. You learn — there have been a lot of mistakes made in the past — both political mistakes and military mistakes, but you learn from those mistakes. And there’s a lot of institutional knowledge being passed onto the marines right now from the 82nd Airborne Division, and you want to capitalize on that.

Now the Marine Corps is taking the approach of based on the long experience going back to the Banana Wars back in the 20s, and the 30s, and encapsulated in a book which they call a manual called “The Small Wars Manual.” And the motto of the First Marine Division that’s back in there right now is “the U.S. Marines, no better friend, no worst enemy.”

In other words, you cooperate with us, you’re going to benefit from it. But if you oppose us, you’re going to be dead. And it’s not a velvet glove treatment; they’re not going to treat them as though they’re a bunch of Boy Scouts in the Fallujah area, or in the Triangle. It’s kind of a tactic of the mail fist and the velvet glove, you can have your choice — the velvet glove or the mail fist. And the way they’re doing this is they’re establishing sectors and assigning sectors to units appropriate to the size; for example, Fallujah has over 200,000 people in it, there’s a battalion I think it’s the Second Battalion First Marines, a reinforced battalion, which has the responsibility –.

JIM LEHRER: How many marines, how many troops?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: Probably, depending upon their reinforcement element, to use as a figure about a thousand.

JIM LEHRER: About a thousand —

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: And — about a thousand men, yes, but they are capable of being reinforced very quickly with rapid reaction forces and so forth. But what the battalion has the responsibility for is determining who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy, they have white list and they’ll have black list and deal with the people on the white list and take care of the people on the black list.

And they’re doing this with boots on the ground where they will have people in there and not just running in on raids and coming out in armored personnel carriers. These are going to be troops that are on foot in the area and they’re going to stay in the area. And that neighborhood will be their neighborhood to operate in, and this is the way the battalion will be broken down to operate in those areas and they’ll develop their own intelligence and act on that intelligence, and hopefully this will improve the situation.

But I think Pat is absolutely right, you know, have you to have people in there. You just can’t make cordon off these cities and just make excursions inside there. In the meantime, as they maintain control and exercise control in the area, they’re going to be hopefully working with the indigenous Iraqi security forces so that in time these people can take over more and more of the mission.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Ghareeb, does that sound good to you?

EDMUND GHAREEB: I think it sounds good, but I think it’s important as was mentioned by the general earlier to avoid the mistakes of the past, to try inclusion to show that the United States is not excluding the people of this region, that they have a future in Iraq.

It’s also very important, I think, to recognize what’s going on, that this escalation is not only happening by the way in this region, although it’s much worse, we’re seeing it in other parts of Iraq and it’s showing that there is a problem concerning what the U.S. plans are for the future of Iraq. There are a lot of Iraqis who are not sure about what the future is going to lead them, as the problems in terms of improving the living standards of all of Iraq.

There’s a question of representation, which is also, there are questions — there are people who feel they are not fully represented, and there have to be institutional arrangements and not only new constitution that’s going to show Iraqis that they have a say and that they are going to be consulted about their own future, the majority has to be represented, and fully represented, but the minorities have to also be protected and the institutional arrangements are necessary for that.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think in specific terms, Professor, when a Marine comes into a particular neighborhood, he’s got a gun, got a rifle or some kind of automatic weapon and he says I’m here to be your friend and I’ve got an Iraqi, he’s got an Iraqi security person with him. How is the average Sunni Arab in Fallujah going to react to that?

EDMUND GHAREEB: I think different people will react differently, but generally I think that by itself is not going to be enough. I think however it’s important to deal with the people, to understand the culture a little bit better. For example, there have been, when you had soldiers and police going in midnight to the homes to arrest some people, going into the areas where women are, this is something at least, as I said, these are conservative areas where tribal values are still strong, and they feel that this is something that’s threatening to them, it’s dishonorable to them, that’s one factor that could be dealt with in a little bit different way.

The question of the mosques, there have been claims, maybe it’s been exaggerated by the opponents of the U.S. presence there, they’re exaggerating the news about dogs and soldiers going into holy places. Nevertheless, I think some sensitivity should be shown to the people in the area and to take that into account if the problems, some force is necessary, but I think also political tactics are essential if this effort is going to succeed in the long run.

JIM LEHRER: But Colonel Lang, finally before we go, the bottom line here is that every American should be prepared for, there’s going to be other people going to die before this is over, even if the Marines are 100 percent successful, the Marines are going to die and more Iraqis are going to die.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Yes, I think General Trainor and the professor are both quite right but in fact this is going to take an awful lot of troops, they’ll stay for a long time in very close contact with people who are quite hostile, and we just have to steel ourselves to the prospect that it’s going to be a long tough thing.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you all three very much.