US forces in Iraq are attempting to tame Fallujah with biometric ID, according to an NBC news report broadcast last week. The returning population of up to 250,000, reporter Richard Engel said on Tom Brokaw's last Nightly News, is to be allowed back in gradually, a few thousand at a time. "They'll be finger printed, given a retina scan and then an ID card, which will only allow them to travel around their homes or to nearby aid centers, which are now being built. The Marines will be authorized to use deadly force against those breaking the rules."
Get an ID card or we'll shoot you - a possible slogan for David Blunkett's ID card marketing campaign? But although that's pretty much the bottom line, the Fallujah effort is particularly interesting as an apparent attempt to use ID to control a large population which is at least uncooperative, possibly hostile, and possibly armed. Bearing these factors in mind it's difficult to see how it can possibly succeed.
The underlying theory of the effort can be identified fairly readily. The US has taken quite a few cues from Israel, which operates intensive ID checks (and massive strikes and punishment demolitions), and has been trying to implement an ID system in Iraq, operating small scale exercises in 'controlled access.' This draws on the 'secure hamlet' approach which was used by the British in South Africa (where we pioneered concentration camps, oops) and in Malaya, where it was at least rather better marketed.
Alex Jones of Prison Planet has a clip of the relevant broadcast, and in 1999 Jones covered a Marine Corps exercise in Oakland, California, where "resistance fighters" were contained in a mock camp and biometrically scanned. This was part of Operation Urban Warrior, an exercise which took place at several US locations and which also involved the UK, Australia, Canada, Holland and France (no, seriously - this was 1999-2000). Another eye-witness account, where the Marine Corps conducts some kind of census of the Chicago sewer system, can be found here.
Although most of the links from the Urban Warrior homepage have ceased to function, it makes it clear that the Marine Corps' training pre-Iraq was for rather different conditions, anticipating only "mid-intensity combat operation in an urban environment against a backdrop of civil unrest, [with the mission to] restore order." A 100-strong contingent from the UK's elite Comacchio Group (now the Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines, which guards the UK's nuclear capability against sundry threats, including demonstrators, was present at the Oakland operation, which was intended to simulate combat in urban areas, dealing with both an 'enemy' and a civilian population.
The plan underlying Fallujah's ID scheme and phased return may be an effort to stop it reverting to a hostile no-go area for security forces, but it's doubtful that this could entirely work. It won't be possible to stop arms and insurgents who haven't been issued with ID from infiltrating an area of this size, nor (once they have) will it be feasible to operate intensive ID checks that could maintain a 'clean' population. By keeping sufficient forces there and keeping a tight lid on the movement of the inhabitants it may be possible to stop Fallujah from blowing up again, but that isn't of major significance against the backdrop of the rest of Iraq, and most of the things governments anticipate they could do with biometric ID in a peaceful society aren't going to be particularly relevant.
At the moment, however, the biometric factor has a relevance in terms of producing some kind of local census backed up by a difficult to forge ID that can be tied to the individual. In areas that have been secured, it will be possible to do a local check on the ID, but that clearly only applies in secured areas where the population has submitted to the ID programme. And as the marines are not going to be able to secure, Fallujah-style, the whole of Iraq, it's difficult to see this one as anything other than a weird experiment without any obvious long-term pay-off. (Thanks to Garland and Cryptogon for drawing this one to our attention). ®