Progress in Iraq?

The Surge Was Not All it Was Hyped Up to Be

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 a writer and activist from Burlington, Vermont. He writes frequently for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at Read other articles by Ashley.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. maha said on January 4th, 2008 at 6:02pm #

    Your central theme of civil conflict and sectarianism is an oft repeated falacy –these Arabs just want to kill each other, right?
    You mix up the”iraqi elite” with the iraqi public. What is this nonsense? The Iraqi government does what it’s told to do by its US/UK handlers — not a single one in that whoring puppet government speaks or acts freely or for the Iraqi people. And when you talk of ethnic cleansing in areas of Iraq you need to be clear that each area has had a US backed, supported and installed little dictator who, with his gang of US paid gangsters, control and patrol that area — no ordinary person can move around the area without their say so. That is the reality. There are endless accounts of Iraqis forced out of their homes by US troops as well as US sponsored death squads. Also, the US backed and imported Saudi Wahhabis have a huge hand in the violence and chaos in Iraq and have seized control of institutions across the country. You have the US arming everyone and no group outside their control. Moqtada AlSadr, leading the Mehdi, for example, is and always has been working fo the CIA. This is not a sectarian battle. The separatists in the government are psychopaths waiting for their huge share of the pie. Ordinary Iraqis who are still able to think for themselves are not divided along sectarian lines, are intermixed and want their country, a united Iraq, back. So please stop talking your utter rubbish.

  2. Polack in Idaho said on January 4th, 2008 at 8:26pm #

    On the basis of a personal experience of living in a country (Poland) dominated by a superpower, I would argue that the only thing that can restore a dominated country to her rightful owners is an economic collapse of a superpower. At some point, an empire becomes unable – financially and organizationally – to maintain foreign possessions and withdraws with its tail between legs. It seems that current rulers of USA are hell-bent on repeating a demise of a Soviet Union, but they don’t have much time left, as economical, political, and ecological developments begin to overtake their ability not even to respond to events, but at least come up with a propagandistic explanation that would not be laughed at by anybody with half a brain. Sure, US can still go through a phase of a full-blown police-state – and they can be in Iraq for another 5 or 10 years – but it will be sayonara, sooner or later. The tragedy, of course, is that by the time Iraqis will get their country back, there will be not much left, aside from mountains of corpses. But a miracle is always possible – maybe Ron Paul will become the American Gorbachev…

  3. Mr. Forward said on January 4th, 2008 at 11:03pm #

    This is great, thanks for collecting almost all the leftwing lies, BS, and misinformation in one post. Ashley. you haven’t got a clue.

  4. ninjaDude said on January 7th, 2008 at 2:33pm #

    This is great, thanks for collecting almost all the leftwing lies, BS, and misinformation in one post. Ashley. you haven’t got a clue.

    That the best you got, Mr. Forward?

  5. Mr. Forward said on January 8th, 2008 at 5:03am #

    At this point that’s all your worth.

  6. Arch Mangle said on January 8th, 2008 at 4:21pm #

    Excellent Article, Ashley. Unlike the comment from Mr. Forward and the US State Department, it’s well research, grounded on provablefact, clearly reasoned and easily verified with empirical evidence, as well as backed by historical precendent.

  7. Michael Price said on January 8th, 2008 at 8:15pm #

    The US lost the war when it brought al-Sadr into the fold instead of destorying his forces. This demonstrated that the rational approach to the Americans is to resist them. Those who have resisted were given guns, money and/or political power, meaning that more people resisted. The results of the current “surge”, if there was one, further confirm this pattern.

    Guerilla wars are won by pavolian conditioning, people must see that when they do what you want they’re rewarded and they’re punished when they don’t. The US as usual is showing the opposite as it did in Vietnam.

  8. Shabnam said on January 11th, 2008 at 5:10am #

    In Iraq, majority of the killings, car bombing, death squad and other forms of violence are carried out by the United States, Israel and other states such as Saudi Arabia.
    Articles which do not reflect realities of the invasion are misleading.
    According to a former Iraqi collaborator who recalled: “I was a soldier in the Iraqi army in the war of 1991… decided to seek asylum in Saudi Arabia. That was how began the process whereby I was recruited into the American forces….to join them and be transported to America. I was one of those,” He tells others that he was transported to an island where most of the establishments were military. He along others received military training and English lessons and to carry out assassination of Iraqi people.
    Most of the car bombing is done and directed by Americans who placing a bomb inside cars as they are being searched at checkpoints. Another way is to put bombs in the cars during interrogations. After the desired person is summoned to one of the US bases, a bomb is place in his car and he is asked to drive to a police station or a marked for some purpose and then his car blows up. Since Americans are doing most of the killings, therefore, they can manipulate number of deaths to meet specific political goals. For example, in order to show that the “surge” is working so they can fool American to submission and make them a partner in killing of Muslims in large numbers, then they arrange a SHOW which is named the surge through which they can manipulate numbers of death to a desired result. Majority of rapes
    and torture are carried out by Americans and their collaborators.
    The Kurds have spied for Israel for the last fifty years and North of Iraq now is a spy network of Israel and US and they are cooperating fully with the occupiers.
    Only the fools believe that Bin Laden is hiding somewhere and directing al-Qaeda. Musharraf and Bhutto have already said that Bin Laden is DEATH. There is no al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is the United States where majority of the killings in Iraq are carried out by the occupier Israeli style.