Being Realistic About Iraq

Progress in Iraq?
by Ashley Smith, January 05, 2008, ISR

THE WHITE House, leading Democrats, and the media are all trumpeting the recent decrease in violent attacks in Iraq as a sign that Bush’s surge has worked. This Chicago Tribune report is typical of the new line: “Baghdad has undergone a remarkable transformation. No longer do the streets empty at dusk. Liquor stores and cinemas have reopened for business. Some shops stay open until late in the evening. Children play in parks, young women stay out after dark, restaurants are filled with families and old men sit at sidewalk cafes playing backgammon and smoking shisha pipes.”

Democrats like presidential frontrunner Hilary Clinton have conceded and even celebrated the success of the surge.

In order to present the surge as a success, the media have focused almost exclusively on the decline in Iraqi and U.S. casualties over the past few months. The fact that these numbers are comparable to 2005 figures—a period when no one was touting any great successes in Iraq—is perhaps the best indicator of how shallow the feel-good talk is. The fact remains that in Iraq 1.2 million people have died, 5 million have been driven from their homes, the central state is practically non-functioning, and the economy is in complete shambles.

2007: The deadliest year

Bush’s surge sent in 30,000 troops over the last year to bring the U.S. troop presence up to about 160,000, concentrated in Baghdad and Anbar province. The administration planned to defeat al-Qaeda, contain the civil war between the militias, and give space for political reconciliation between the Kurdish, Arab Sunni, and Arab Shia elites.

The surge initially caused a massive spike in violence, and in spite of the recent declines—which are likely to be only temporary—the overall picture is one of increased casualties. Lauren Frayer, a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem, reports that 2007 has been “the deadliest year for U.S. troops despite the recent downturn, according to an Associated Press count. At least 852 American military personnel have died in Iraq so far this year—the highest annual toll since the war began in March 2003.”

A Pew Research Center poll of American reporters who have worked in Iraq found that “nearly 90 percent of U.S. journalists say much of Baghdad is still too dangerous to visit.”

Iraqis see conditions getting worse, not better. An ABC/BBC poll found that in 2005, two-thirds of Iraqis said life was getting better, but by August 2007, that figure had declined to one-third of the population. Instead of supporting the surge and occupation, 47 percent want immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, and an overwhelming majority wants withdrawal within a year. Nearly two-thirds of Iraqis support attacks on U.S. soldiers.

Real causes of recent drop in violence

Only in the last few months have attacks on U.S. troops, the Iraqi Army, and civilians dropped. But, as Juan Cole concludes, “the ‘good news’ of a lull in violence is relative at best. In fact, Iraq’s overall death rate makes it among the worst civil conflicts in the world.”

Bush’s troop surge, moreover, is not even the cause of this recent decline. Rather, the drop seems to be the result of a shift in U.S. tactics combined with unforeseen changes on the ground in Iraq. The American forces have increasingly used air strikes instead of ground troops, thereby minimizing U.S. casualties. Pepe Escobar reports that the U.S. launched “four times more air strikes on Iraqis in 2007—the year of Bush’s ‘surge’—than in the whole of 2006.”

Similarly, instead of exposing U.S. troops to battle in Anbar, Bush opted to buy off tribal leaders of the resistance and arm their militias to fight al-Qaeda. Hala Jaber reports in the Sunday Times, “U.S.-backed Sunni militias have spread eastward from Anbar across Baghdad. They already number 77,000, known collectively as ‘concerned local citizens.’ This is more than the Shiite Mahdi Army and nearly half the number in the Iraqi army.”

The U.S. troops also did not have to weigh into battle against Sadr’s forces. Instead of risking open warfare with a buttressed U.S. troop presence, Sadr declared a cease-fire.

The recent decline in Iraqi civilian deaths followed a frenzy of sectarian killing earlier in 2007 that ethnically cleansed Baghdad and its neighborhoods. As a result, it has gone from a city that was 65 percent Sunni to 75 percent Shia. Charles Crain writes in Time magazine, “many neighborhoods have completed their brutal sectarian segregation, leaving fewer easy targets for intimidation and murder.” Juan Cole notes that the relative reduction in violence is artificial and probably cannot endure.

Blast walls enclose once posh Baghdad districts like Adhamiya, but although they keep out death squads they also keep out the customers that shopkeepers depend on. When a Baghdad pet market was bombed recently, it was revealed that the U.S. military had banned vehicles in its vicinity for some time, but allowed cars to drive there again just a few days before the bombing. Vehicle bans are effective, but not practical in the medium or long term. When they end, what will prevent the bombs from returning?

Refugees returning to peace and security?

Perhaps the biggest scam of the surge propaganda is the claim that refugees are returning to Iraq because of the improved peace and security. The Iraqi government now claims 46,300 refugees returned in October at the rate of 1,600 a day.

However, as Damien Cave writes in the New York Times, “Under intense pressure to show results after months of political stalemate, the government has continued to publicize figures that exaggerate the movement back to Iraq and Iraqis’ confidence that the current lull in violence can be sustained.”

The tiny minority of the 5 million driven from their homes is not returning willingly. Instead, the countries that have received most of the Iraqis—Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan—have all in various ways made it so difficult to enter or stay in their countries that most of the refugees are being forced back into Iraq as a result of persecution and poverty.

The New York Times reports that a UN survey of Iraqi refugees in Syria found “46 percent were leaving because they could not afford to stay; 25 percent said they fell victim to a stricter Syrian visa policy; and only 14 percent said they were returning because they had heard about improved security.”

Political failure of the surge

The surge’s political goal of reconciliation between the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish elites has also failed. The U.S. hoped to force them to agree on a central government, repeal the ban on Baath Party members’ participation in politics, hold regional elections, and pass the infamous oil law to open Iraq’s key industry to U.S. corporations.

All of these initiatives have stalled. The various Iraqi elites are completely at odds with one another on most of these issues and have mutually incompatible plans for a future Iraq. The Kurds want a separate nation. The Shia want to either control the central state on their terms or establish a majority Shia region. The Sunnis want a return to a central government so they are not cut out of oil revenues that are concentrated in the Kurdish and Shia regions.

The only point that the Arab elites agree on is opposition to the U.S. occupation and its aims. As Pepe Escobar writes, “As far as the key Sunni and Shiite factions are concerned they all agree on the basics. Iraq won’t be occupied. Iraq won’t have permanent U.S. military bases. Iraq won’t give up its oil wealth. And Iraq won’t be a toothless pro-Israel puppet regime.” The Kurds, by contrast, are still willing allies of the U.S. occupation.

Time bomb of resistance and civil war

U.S. policies enacted during the surge have set in motion dynamics that will spur greater resistance. U.S. troops now back Sunni tribal leaders and militias that recently had been fighting the U.S. in Anbar province; these newly armed and trained forces see themselves as temporary allies with the U.S. against al-Qaeda, but there is nothing that says they won’t resume at a future date active armed opposition to the occupation. The U.S. also supports the Shia parties that oppose the occupation. And the Sadrists are merely biding their time until the U.S. withdraws the 30,000 surge troops to assert their more effectively organized forces.

As one army officer stated, “the tactic of paying your enemy not to fight is not a new one, but it has limitations. If the plan is to leave Iraq, it’s a good solution. If the plan is to stay in perpetuity, and that seems to be the case with the Bush administration, history says it’s dangerous. Eventually, the underlying hatred for the foreign presence overwhelms greed.”

The surge has also set the stage for an even more destructive civil war. Because the U.S. has increasingly allied itself with Sunni forces and used them to pressure Shia parties to pass pro-Sunni legislation, such as ending the ban on ex-Baathists serving in government, they have further deepened the schisms between the Arab sects that could produce greater sectarian violence. Even worse, the U.S. has armed the Sunni resistance in Anbar to the teeth, making it more capable of taking on the Shia militias and Shia-dominated government that they despise. Moreover, if the surrounding countries expel greater numbers of Iraqis, the returning refugees will only further spark sectarian tensions. Most cannot return to their homes because families of other sects now occupy them. The sectarian forces will likely use their demands as a rallying point for a renewed civil war.

The civil war is also spreading to the previously stable Kurdish region. The Kurdish parties are trying to retake control of Kirkuk, one of the key centers of oil production, in order to establish the economic foundations of their autonomous region. This has brought them into conflict with not only the Iraqi Arabs but also U.S. ally Turkey which fears that the strengthened Kurdish region will inspire their own Kurdish population’s nationalist aspirations.

Surge triumphalism is merely the latest justification for the American occupation of Iraq. With bipartisan agreement, the U.S. has proceeded with the construction of five mega-bases, one hundred smaller ones, and its massive Baghdad embassy. From these redoubts they plan to rule Iraq as a neocolony and use it as a permanent base from which to police the region.

Ashley Smith is on the editorial board of the ISR. He can be reached at


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