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Why the USA Will Never Win an Unconventional War in Iraq

Ramzy Baroud

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The chances of a decisive US army military victory in Iraq is as slim as that of Israel winning against the Palestinians. Victory, in some types of war, is indeed decided by the firepower of the warring parties, the ranking of an army in comparison to its counterpart, and the effective use of air force. In the case of the US war against the Iraqi resistance, none of these aspects is of much relevance.


Israel won most of its wars against Arab nations since the original occupation of Palestine in 1948. Some of these victories added defeat and humiliation to already hurt Arab masses, marking each defeat a “nakba,” or unmatched catastrophe. Israel emerged superior in most of its wars for two simple reasons: the Israeli army fought the physical part of the war, but its weaponry and firepower was that of the United States. On the other hand, the relationship between the Arab peoples and their regimes, one of distrust and cynicism, hampered national unity in times of war.

Yet, while Israel might have excelled in its traditional wars against Arab armies, it hardly mastered the art of dealing with underground resistance, which often follows catastrophic defeat on traditional war fronts. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982 was truly a “clean” victory in the military sense—if one, of course, disregards the documented massacres that took place at the time.

But raising an Israeli flag over ruined Beirut was hardly the end of war. It was the beginning of a different war, whose seeds had just being planted. It was not until May of 2000 that the Israeli army scrambled to abandon the gains of its precious victory in Lebanon. Nearly two decades of a war of attrition between the Israeli army and a few hundred Hizbollah resistance fighters went mostly unnoticed. It was hardly defined as a war, since it lacked the trappings of a traditional war. Nevertheless, the Lebanese claimed the most tangible Arab victory, a victory that Israel still denies.

In traditional war, military strategies and planning are of essence. In a non-traditional war, guerrilla warfare or a popular uprising, a military solution only stiffens the resistance and rallies the masses behind its leadership. A clear example is Israel’s war in the occupied territories. Since Ariel Sharon, then the leader of the Israeli opposition, marked the start of the Middle East upheaval with his forced visit to Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Sept. 28, 2000, a volcano of violence erupted.


Shortly after the Israeli army confronted angry Palestinian masses in the occupied territories, it resorted to what it does best: traditional war. In the early months of the Palestinian Intifada, Israeli tanks rolled into the West Bank and are still there. Although the Palestinian National Authority had no army, and only a small police force armed with Israel’s permission, Palestinians put forth a stiff resistance. Once the face-to-face resistance was marginalised, the Israeli army was in near complete control of the occupied territories.

But the actions of the invading forces fuelled a stiffer resistance that functioned underground. The resistance manufactured its own weapons, developed booby traps with matches and rusty nails; even Israel’s monstrous tanks could not withstand them. Unlike an army’s action, Palestinian resistance is not centralised. Although it is in direct communication with the political leadership of its groups, it seems to act with a level of independence, while coordinating with other resistance factions, regardless of the ideological background that once separated them.

Two major components fuel Palestinian resistance: one is the magnitude of the Israeli army’s violence in the occupied territories, the other is the loyalty and trust which many Palestinians, especially poorer refugees, have in the resistance. In a traditional war, bombing the central command headquarters or communication towers can prove to be fatal blows to one of the warring sides. In guerrilla warfare, especially one backed by the masses, neither assassinating a leading figure nor blowing up a bomb-making shop changes much; in fact, it strengthens the perception of resistance in the eyes of the people.

Following every assassination of a top Palestinian resistance leader, the Israeli media and officials emerge brimming with confidence, saying that the army’s latest victory shall change the direction of Israel’s war on “terrorism.” But following almost every assassination, the opposite becomes true. Although no official numbers are available, it seems that the number of Palestinian resistance fighters has increased significantly since the first bullet fired by an Israeli soldier during the current uprising.

Did Sharon truly believe that assassinating Hamas leader, Ismail Abu Shanab, one of the group’s most moderate leaders, on Aug. 21, would make the resistance dwindle? If history were of any relevance, the answer would be that Abu Shanab’s assassination is likely to further radicalise any remaining moderates in the group. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cheered the death of Abu Shanab, saying: “I hope his death is a lesson for the Hamas people. But it isn’t enough, we have to get each and every Hamas leader.”

While Olmert is not known for his military genius, his reported statement indicates a complete lack of knowledge of how popular resistance conducts itself. Hamas would certainly not wait, until “each and every Hamas leader” is assassinated, since the movement’s leadership base is large and stretchable. In other words, while a government Cabinet can be voted down, the leadership of a mostly underground resistance group can hardly be sidelined or conveniently assassinated. The Israeli war against Palestinians will be on—despite the twists, turns and temporary halts of violence—until the Palestinians reach the point where they believe that the circumstances that led to the resistance are no longer in existence. In this case, an end to Israel’s military occupation.


The United States is bound to meet in Iraq Israel’s fate: Decisive military action in a traditional war, followed by guerrilla warfare carried out by underground resistance groups. The American experience is still young. The Iraqi resistance is yet to connect with the masses at the same level the Palestinian groups have over the years. Continued American occupation of Iraq would only push Iraqis closer to the resistance. Although communication towers of the old regimes in Iraq have been completely destroyed during the short-lived war, the Iraqi resistance will soon develop its means of communication and will soon grow to reach Iraqis of all walks of life, different religious sects and political affiliations.

Once again, if history is of essence, the US army only needs to turn West and observe the devastating and futile Israeli experience in Lebanon and Palestine before it goes on with its rampage, mass arrests and killings at roadblocks. The US army is indeed qualified to fight and win any traditional war, on any front and against any enemy. But the US war in Iraq against a resistance movement that manufactures its own bombs and uses its losses to reassert the motives for which it fought, a war of such magnitude can only result in torment, bloodshed and bitter defeat.

Published Tuesday, September 2nd, 2003 - 06:20am GMT

Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian-American journalist and editor-in-chief of The Palestine Chronicle online newspaper.

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