Stage magicians are successful because they fool the audience's eyes with sleight-of-hand. They offer wild motions, or flames, or bursts of smoke from one hand; while pulling a card out of their sleeve with the other. Attention is focused on the active hand, so the prestidigitation of the other is not even noticed.
While much of the media obsesses over President Bush's assertions that Iran is responsible for advanced IED weapons moving into Iraq, everyone seems to be missing the hidden card up the sleeve. For in the past few weeks, there has been evidence of a much more sophisticated type of weapon being used successfully against U.S. troops in Iraq -- but with the media and the public focused on Iran, it is largely being ignored.
We have lost more helicopters in Iraq during the past three weeks than during any period of the war. Details are sketchy, but we've lost either six or seven helicopters in the past few weeks (sources disagree on the total number, and on how many of these were military choppers and how many were civilian contractors'). Nobody seems to be sure if this is due to: (a) new tactics by insurgents with conventional weapons (heavy machine guns); (b) insurgents getting new weapons such as shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (SAMs, or MANPADs); or (c) just a statistical anomaly.
I looked for details on these helicopter downings, from military sources (I figured I'd go to the horse's mouth), but they are confused and contradictory at best. Here are relevant articles from Army Times, Stars & Stripes, and a U.S. Army site called army.mil/news. From civilian news sources, here are articles from the San Francisco Chronicle, and Bloomberg.
The most striking of these downings was a CH-46 "Sea Knight" double-rotor helicopter which went down last week. The military initially reported that it went down due to "mechanical failure," but then a video surfaced on the internet which clearly shows a missile of some type which strikes the helicopter from behind, causing an explosion. The video tracks the smoking helicopter all the way to the ground. Faced with this evidence, the military still stuck to their "malfunction" script, which could be summed up as: "Who are you going to believe: the Pentagon, or your lying eyes?" Finally, they admitted just yesterday that it indeed had probably been shot down.
[Note: YouTube has already removed other copies of this video, so the video link may not work for long.]
All of these events raise serious questions, but they are being given short shrift in the media, drowned out by this weekend's dog-and-pony "anonymous" briefing about Iran supplying weapons to Iraq fighters. The timing of this briefing raises even more questions.
Normally I pride myself when writing on offering not only solid logical conclusions to my arguments, but also possible solutions to problems I have identified. Sadly, this is not possible in this column. I offer nothing more than wild speculation, due mostly to lack of solid information. I cannot draw conclusions without being lumped in with the conspiracy theorists, but I feel I must pose the following questions. Make of them what you will, or (if you like) put together your own conspiracy theory to fit the facts.
(*) None of the cited articles says whether the downed helicopters were attacked by Sunni or Shi'ite forces. I assume, from the scant information given (mostly the locations of the attacks), that most of the attacks were by Sunni insurgents.
(*) Iran is a Shi'ite theocracy.
(*) Iran would not logically send arms to Sunni insurgents, as it would be against their interests. It'd be like Lincoln sending Gatling guns to Richmond at the height of the Civil War.
(*) No mention was made during this weekend's "anonymous" briefing of surface-to-air missiles of any type being provided by Iran to Iraqi groups.
(*) So if Sunni insurgents are suddenly shooting down helicopters with SAMs, where are they getting them from? If these are old stocks of Russian weapons from pre-Saddam days, why haven't they been used previously with such effectiveness? Why hold them back until four years into the war? The logical conclusion is that these are new weapons, and will continue to be used very effectively against U.S. helicopters in the near future. Time will tell on this one, so watch the news for the next few months to see how many helicopters are being shot down, and at what rate. And whether the Pentagon admits they were "shot down" or not (too many "mechanical failures" in too short a period would be a red flag, obviously).
(*) If the weapons aren't old stocks, and are being funneled to the Iraqi Sunnis, where are they coming from? Iraq doesn't manufacture these weapons, and the safe assumption is that they are Russian weapons (since the U.S. government is probably not selling Stinger missiles to Iraqi Sunnis), so where are they coming from? The only tentative guesses in the articles cited earlier are either Syria or Iran... but Iran can probably be written off, as the only person to suggest this was General "As drug czar I can make up facts out of thin air" Barry McCaffrey -- who clearly doesn't know what he's talking about... and hasn't for some time now.
(*) If they are Russian weapons, where are the fragments and other evidence? Or is it truly a nightmare -- do those fragments have U.S. markings on them?
(*) These SAM weapons aren't cheap. They cost thousands of dollars each. What large Sunni-run country in the region with lots of oil money to spend would have an interest in arming Iraqi Sunnis against Americans with expensive and effective weapons? Saudi Arabia, perchance?
(*) Why (other than the war going badly and the Bush administration wanting to distract everyone by threatening Iran) was the briefing on Iranian involvement in Iraq put together so hurriedly, and why was it given the weekend after the video surfaced of the CH-46 being shot down? Perhaps to shunt aside too many questions about too many downed helicopters in Iraq?
(*) The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan's turning point into abject failure (for the Soviets) happened when we started supplying the mujahadeen with Stinger missiles to shoot down the dreaded Soviet Hind helicopters. Is the Bush administration afraid the same thing could be happening in Iraq? American public support for the war is waning fast, and if we start losing two or three helos a week, the public is going to start loudly demanding troop withdrawal (even more loudly than they are now). Is this why the Iranian smokescreen is being touted right now as a distraction?
(*) Why isn't the mainstream media asking more questions about these facts and speculations?
Like I said, lots of questions... but very few answers at this point. Feel free to draw your own conclusions, and look for this story to grow slowly in the next few months until it just can't be ignored anymore.
For now, I just can't get out of my head the image of the Mighty Oz, belching smoke and fire about Iranian IEDs, while strenuously objecting: "Pay no attention to those downed helicopters behind the curtain! The Great and Mighty Oz has spoken! Iran is the one supplying weapons to the Iraqis!"
I sure hope I'm wrong about all this....
[Note for regular readers: My 1/31/07 column, "How Congress Will Stop The War In Iraq" was prominently featured on the prestigious National Journal's daily web roundup "The Hotline" recently, just under Markos Moulitsas' piece. Thanks, Hotline!]
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