Not so quiet on the Middle Eastern front

A new surge in violence casts serious doubt on the notion that Iraq has taken a broad turn for the better.

Published April 22, 2005 5:58PM (EDT)

Dozens of bodies found floating in the Tigris river, a nearly successful assassination attempt on interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, yet another lethal car bomb attack (there've been more than 20 in the past week in Baghdad alone), and a civilian helicopter shot down, reportedly culminating in an execution.

Though the rate of U.S. casualties has been declining lately, violence in Iraq is on the rise again. Perhaps today it's a little easier for Bush cheerleaders and media naysayers to see why there haven't been so many stories eagerly declaring "mission accomplished" since Iraqi elections in January. While U.S. military officials, following a recent period of relative calm, have been chattering about some success in pounding the insurgency, is the case more that they've been knocking it around? The Christian Science Monitor's Jill Carroll reports from the volatile Salman Pak area inside the notorious Sunni Triangle, where kidnappings and a general state of terror continue to reign:

"Abu Mohammed was chatting with a friend in an auto repair shop in Salman Pak two months ago when masked gunmen surrounded him and stuffed his 260-pound frame in their trunk and sped away. He spent the next 10 days locked in a bathroom with a hood over his head, marking the passage of time by listening to his captors' prayers. A wealthy businessman who traveled daily from Baghdad to Salman Pak for more than 20 years, Mr. Mohammed survived after paying $60,000 to the kidnappers that he says were extremist Sunnis.

"Mohammed and local residents say a raft of insurgents have flooded the Salman Pak area, located about 18 miles south of Baghdad and inside the Sunni stronghold known as the 'Triangle of Death,' since January, just over a month after the U.S. Marine siege on Fallujah sent insurgents scattering to find new havens. In Salman Pak the result is a spate of violence and kidnappings that are stoking ethnic tensions.

"While the occasional kidnapping of a foreigner here makes international headlines, Iraqis are kidnapped regularly to little notice. Criminal gangs have turned it into a cottage industry. But in a more troublesome development, ideologically driven insurgents are using it to cleave ethnic groups in areas such as Salman Pak -- already an uneasy mix of Sunnis and Shiites.

"'This area has for some time been a troubled area,' says Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. 'In the past there have been killings and revenge killings ... what happened was this situation was exploited by terrorists [who know] this is a good area to stir things up.'

"An accurate count of Iraqi kidnappings is hard to come by as these numbers aren't kept by the interior ministry and often Iraqis do not report kidnappings to authorities."

Also hard to come by is an accurate count of Iraqi civilian casualties, which the U.S. military claims it doesn't keep -- even though there is now compelling evidence to the contrary. Between the Pentagon's prettied-up assessments and the latest wave of violence, at this point we'd look on certain media accounts from Iraq with a degree of skepticism, too -- the ones that say the tide has turned for the better.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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Iraq Iraq War Middle East Terrorism U.s. Military War Room