U.S. forces have to hit religious sites
They cannot honor presumed immunity in warfare if the enemy misuses them as bases to carry out attacks
BY ROBERT STEWART
April 28, 2004
In early 1944, Allied forces in World War II faced a decision that is now disturbingly common in Iraq: What to do with enemy forces using holy sites as defensive positions?
German troops were entrenched behind the Gustav Line, south of Rome, and defending the key city of Cassino from the heights of Monte Cassino, and its famous and revered sixth-century monastery. The Allies made a fateful, though ultimately militarily successful, decision: Using hundreds of American bombers, they destroyed the Abbey of Monte Cassino, clearing the way for eventual Allied success in piercing the Gustav line in May 1944, taking Rome on June 4, and liberating Italy within the year.
Despite the obvious public relations setbacks, coalition forces in Iraq faced with similar decisions (more visible than in World War II given the unblinking eye of 24-hour cable news coverage) must make the same choice. Failure to do so will lead to additional casualties and, worse, signal to insurgents that they are safe when using a mosque as a fortress, weapons storage facility or sniper nest.
Military actions this week show that the military leadership in Iraq understands this important lesson of history. Coalition forces in Iraq made the right - if unpopular - choice Monday when U.S. Marines came under sniper fire from the minaret of a mosque in Fallujah, where some insurgent positions in the city came under heavy American fire last night.
After taking casualties Monday, the Marines returned fire and destroyed the minaret and the snipers. When attacked again later that day from within the same mosque, Marines called in armor and air support. U.S. forces fired on insurgents in the mosque, killing eight.
The attack on the mosque will not be unique, and the use of religious sites by insurgents or terrorists is not happening only in Fallujah. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday, "there have been additional attacks from mosques in Fallujah" before Monday's. And radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his loyalists regularly use holy places in Najaf as refuge.
Capturing or killing al-Sadr is key to ending the insurgency in Najaf and elsewhere. If al-Sadr continues to misuse such sites, coalition and Iraqi forces will have no choice but to enter - and perhaps destroy - such facilities.
Such actions will likely be seen by many as an attack on Islam. They are not. The mosque in Fallujah was used to shoot and kill troops; it is no longer serving that unholy purpose. The same will be true elsewhere across the nation.
There are early signs of optimism that Iraqis will disapprove of the misuse of mosques. And there were reports from Najaf yesterday that suggest a new group - the Thulfiqar Army - has killed members of al-Sadr's force, is handing out leaflets threatening those cowering in mosques, and is threatening to kill others unless they leave Najaf immediately. In some quarters, at least, the blame for misuse of religious centers is being rightly laid at the feet of insurgents.
A Marine commander, Col. John Coleman, said following the attack in Fallujah that the decision was made after insurgents occupied the mosque, redefining its status. Coleman said of the building, "instead of serving as a center of religious life, it was employed as a bastion in the attack."
At that point, the once-holy site was transformed from a building to be protected to an obstacle to peace and security for its congregants. The message of the coalition response was clear, and essential to the future safety and success of a free Iraq: No insurgent is safe when misusing a mosque; no attack will go unanswered.
The fighting in Fallujah sends an important message of resolve and leaves no doubt in the minds of those who might use mosques similarly elsewhere. Coalition leadership must not back down in its support for the decisions of the local commanders. Such actions are never pleasant, rarely win immediate friends, and must be taken only after a certainty of danger - but they are essential to victory.
Following the destruction of the Abbey of Cassino in 1944, German troops used the ruins as defensive positions. They were successful in turning back American troops and then their New Zealander replacements. It wasn't until a month later, on May 18, that Polish troops raised their flag on the mountaintop with the Nazis in full retreat.
Like coalition forces in Iraq Monday, the Allies in World War II chose to destroy a religious facility used by the enemy for non-religious means. Despite the obvious drawbacks, and Allied reticence to raze a religious treasure, it was the right choice, saved lives and helped lead to the liberation of Europe.
Similarly, security in Fallujah will come only after insurgents who attempt to use the ruins as a political defensive position - as they surely will - are publicly and overwhelmingly defeated.
In 1964, a rebuilt abbey was reconsecrated at Monte Cassino. Iraqis, too, can rebuild a mosque defiled by terrorists, but only when insurgents are in full retreat and mosques are used only for saving lives, not taking them.
Robert Stewart, a former Army intelligence analyst, is a Washington-based writer.
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