Juan Cole has some noteworthy observations about the ambush and subsequent firefight this weekend in Samarra. I've been puzzling over this for days now. It seems clear that this was a major development, but the facts remain terribly obscure. And without the facts, it's hard to know just what happened or what significance it has in the larger story.
What struck me first about the firefight were the reports that the insurgents were wearing the uniforms of the Saddam Fedayeen -- one of Saddam's more vicious paramilitaries. If true, that seems like a very big deal.
Guerillas seldom have much to gain by wearing readily identifiable uniforms, save for the psychological message it sends, both to their enemy (i.e., us, in this case) and Iraqi civilians. And the message seems one of audacity -- that they're willing and capable of confronting us as organized paramilitaries and not just by sniping and setting off bombs.
The initial reports suggested it was a pretty poor decision on the insurgents' part since the Army opened up with the full force of Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and killed three or four dozen of the attackers.
But the more we hear about what happened the muddier the story gets. (See particularly the letter appended to Cole's post.)
In initial accounts the Army said that either 46 or 54 insurgents were killed. But battlefield estimates of how many of your enemy you kill are notoriously inaccurate --- and most often inflated. And the local hospital says it counted only 9 dead, most of them civilians.
As Cole notes, some of the discrepancy must be due to insurgents carrying their dead or wounded away after the engagement. But it's hard to figure that this accounts for all the difference. And in recent statements, the Army has downplayed the original reports that the insurgents were wearing the Fedayeen uniforms.
One other point that I haven't yet seen discussed in much depth is the precision and specificity of the information the attackers seem to have had about the mission to deliver those new bills into the city. I've heard some chatter --- though nothing as yet I've been able to nail down --- about suspicion in the Army about the security of information given to the CPA and/or the IGC.
In any case, this is a post about questions rather than answers.
I just don't think we have much of an idea what happened in Samarra. The initial reports seem to have come from soldiers who went into a very rough situation, found themselves in the midst of a horrific firefight, opened up with what are basically battlefield weapons and then pieced together what had happened from observations they collectively made while all of that hellishness was going on.
At this point, neither the Army's initial account of the number of dead or those provided by the local hospital seem particularly credible.