Why Bush's troop surge won't save Iraq

The influx of U.S. troops brought a relative lull in violence -- but the failing state remains in political chaos and is headed for collapse.

By Juan Cole

Published December 4, 2007 12:00PM (EST)

Appearing on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia gave some needed perspective on the U.S. troop "surge" in Iraq. Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, recently returned from a visit to Iraq. He said that it was inaccurate to attribute the recent reduction in violence entirely to Bush's troop escalation. Moreover, Webb said that any security improvements in Iraq would only help if accompanied by political progress. He criticized the administration for "the failure for the last five years to match the quality of our military performance with robust regional diplomacy."

Webb was correct to point out that the only truly good news to come from Iraq would be good news regarding the political landscape. And there, Iraq is still beset with problems. In recent days, parts of northern Iraq have been invaded by Turkey, an ally of the United States. In Baghdad, Sunni members of parliament staged a walkout to defend their leader, whose bodyguards were implicated in fashioning car bombs. Proposed legislation reducing sanctions against Sunni Arabs who once belonged to the Baath Party nearly produced a riot in parliament. Meanwhile, Britain and Australia, among Bush's few remaining allies with combat troops in Iraq, are planning to depart in 2008, raising questions about security in the key southern port city of Basra, the major route for the country's lucrative oil exports.

What the recent publicity about the "success" of the troop surge has ignored is this: The Bush administration has downplayed the collapsing political situation in Iraq by directing the public's attention to fluctuating numbers of civilians killed. While there have been some relative gains in security recently, even there the picture remains dubious. The Iraqi ministry of health, long known for cooking the books, says that a few hundred Iraqis were killed in political violence in November. However, independent observers such as Iraq Body Count cite a much higher number -- some 1,100 civilians killed in Iraq in November. They reported that bombings and assassinations accounted for 63 persons on Saturday, the first day of December, alone.

Indeed, 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. Even if one accepted the official Iraqi government statistics, the average number of Iraqi deaths directly attributable to political violence in the past three full months has been around 700 per month. That pace, if maintained, would work out to about 8,400 deaths a year. (I am citing the kind of war statistics produced by passive information gathering such as in newspapers. Using a more comprehensive public health study such as the one that appeared in the Lancet last year, which takes into account deaths from criminal violence and insecurity generally, would result in much higher numbers.) In all of Northern Ireland's troubles over 30 years, only about 3,000 persons are thought to have been killed. In Kashmir since 1989, some 40,000 to 90,000 persons have been killed in communal and guerrilla violence; if we take the higher number, that's roughly 419 killed per month. Perhaps only Somalia and Sudan witness killings on that scale, and no one would say that "good news" is coming out of either of those places.

The current "good news" campaign from the Bush administration regarding the troop surge is only the latest in a long history of whitewashing the war since the 2003 invasion. First, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied that there was massive looting following the fall of Baghdad. Then he denied that there was a rising guerrilla war. Then, after the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani maneuvered an unwilling Bush administration into holding relatively free elections, the victory of Shiite fundamentalists close to Iran was obscured by the "purple thumb" good news campaign. That is, the administration focused on the democratic process and relative success of the voting, diverting attention from the bad news that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq had taken over.

Later, it was good news when the Iraqi parliament produced a theocratic constitution with all the weaknesses of the U.S. Articles of Confederation, even though all three Sunni-majority provinces rejected it in the subsequent referendum. What was in the constitution was not important, only that it existed. The Bush administration has heralded any number of such "milestones" reached, but not whether they led to worthwhile results.

Obscured by these "milestones" is that the orgy of violence in Iraq has displaced 2 million persons abroad and another 2 million internally, and left tens of thousands dead. But now the "good news" is that the guerrillas appear not to have been able to keep up the pace of violence characteristic of 2006 and early 2007, even if the pace they maintain today is horrific.

Moreover, 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 US 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?

Recent political developments have been ominous on multiple fronts. On Saturday, Turkey says it launched an attack inside Iraq on positions of the radical Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which is on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations. The Turkish press reported that 100 Turkish special operations troops went into Iraq. In short, there was a small invasion. Turkey charges that PKK guerrillas have conducted cross-border raids, killing dozens of Turkish troops. Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States -- but the Iraqi Kurds are virtually the only firm friends Washington has in Iraq, so the Bush administration is now caught between the anvil and the fire.

In Baghdad, politics are a mess. Critics of Bush's policy complain that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite fundamentalist, has not reached out with sufficient vigor to Sunni Arabs to seek reconciliation. In fact, the situation is far worse than that.

The case of one Sunni Arab leader is emblematic: On Saturday, the members of the Iraqi Accord Front in parliament staged a mass walkout, charging that the U.S. military had put their leader, Adnan Dulaimi, under house arrest. In Tikrit, a Sunni Arab city north of Baghdad known as Saddam Hussein's hometown, hundreds of citizens demonstrated on behalf of Dulaimi. The boycott ended on Sunday when U.S. troops brought Dulaimi to the Al-Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone, so that he could be safe enough to attend parliament.

The bizarre dispute had begun Thursday night when U.S. forces were investigating violence against members of the local "Awakening Council," tribal fighters paid by the Americans to fight radical jihadis. (This is the strategy the U.S. has used with some success in the Anbar province.) U.S. troops traced the cars used in the attack to Dulaimi's compound, then found a rigged-up car bomb nearby, to which one of Dulaimi's guards had the key. The U.S. military detained some 40 of the Sunni leader's bodyguards, as well has his son, Makki.

On Sunday, the Iraqi government charged that chemical tests showed that seven of Dulaimi's bodyguards had been handling explosives. The most charitable interpretation one could put on the evidence released so far is that a terror ring was operating among Dulaimi's bodyguards without his knowledge. If that were so, it would suggest a shocking lack of judgment on his part. Or, as he himself suggested, it is not impossible that the rogue guards were planning to assassinate Dulaimi himself; several prominent Sunni Arab politicians have been attacked by their own security guards.

But of the three possibilities -- that Dulaimi or his son is actively implicated in political violence; that unbeknownst to him, his mansion was being used for bomb making; or that his household had been infiltrated by radical Sunni fundamentalists intent on killing him -- none qualifies remotely as the type of "good news" for which Bush's supporters are looking.

The bloc in parliament that Dulaimi leads had withdrawn this summer from the so-called national unity government of al-Maliki, with its six cabinet ministers resigning. Al-Maliki for a while declined to accept their resignations, then abruptly accused them of absenteeism and dismissed them, depriving them of pensions and perquisites. Then he attempted to appoint other Sunnis to his cabinet, from the tribal Awakening Councils that are on the U.S. payroll, but parliamentarians complained that these individuals had not been elected to office.

The Iraqi Accord Front comprises Sunni Arabs who until recently had been willing to serve in al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government. They have shown no inclination to rejoin him. The tribal Awakening Councils in al-Anbar Province and elsewhere have turned against the Salafi jihadis (who sometimes style themselves "al-Qaida," though they have no direct ties to Osama bin Laden). But most of their members are still deeply distrustful of the al-Maliki government, which they tend to view as Iranian. (Iranians are also Shiites, but unlike Iraqis do not speak Arabic.)

There are other signs that efforts toward political reconciliation are failing miserably. A significant element in the Sunni guerrilla movement around Mosul is the Izzat al-Duri faction of the Baath Party, which also has support in Baghdad neighborhoods such as Adhamiya. In a quest to mollify these guerrillas and their sympathizers and bring them in from the cold, the Bush administration has pressed the al-Maliki government to pass legislation softening the decrees that excluded tens of thousands of former Baath Party members from government employment. But when the cabinet presented such a bill to parliament last week, deputies loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr banged their desks and disrupted the proceedings. Parliament adjourned with shouting and scuffling. Indeed, there is some question about whether a measure so repugnant to the Shiite and Kurdish blocs in parliament has much chance of being passed.

In the deep south at Basra -- in the past cited as a more stable part of the country -- aides of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiites, have complained of a wave of some 200 assassinations. Security is not good in the city, with Shiite militias and tribal forces often battling one another for control of petroleum smuggling. Basra Province contains Iraq's only ports, and it exports most of Iraq's petroleum. The main guarantors of security in Basra and surrounding provinces had been the British, who are now leaving. By March, plans to diminish the number of British troops will leave only 2,500 of them at Basra airport, and some members of the British parliament are now worried that those troops will become increasingly vulnerable to attack as Britain's overall troop level dwindles. The 500 Australian combat troops in southern Iraq will also leave by next summer, according to newly elected Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

The lack of virtually any good political news from around the country is what drives the war boosters to cite death statistics. Obviously, the people of al-Anbar Province are tired of their young men being blown up by Saudi and Moroccan jihadis, and they have mobilized to stop the foreigners. But no one is arguing that al-Anbar's roughly 1 million predominantly Sunni citizens have suddenly become enamored of the Shiite government in Baghdad. Nor has the strategy of using local Awakening Councils to combat the so-called forces of al-Qaida been nearly as successful in Diyala Province, which is mixed, with Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Obviously, if the U.S. military wants to stop car bombings by banning vehicular traffic to certain markets, it can do so, especially using thousands of extra troops concentrated in specific areas. But although there has been a relative lull in violence in the U.S.-reinforced Baghdad, the U.S. military acknowledges that the Iraqi capital is still a very dangerous place. One question is whether the violence will explode again when U.S. forces inevitably withdraw. But the far more important question is this: How much longer can Iraq limp along as a failing state before it really begins to collapse?

Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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Iran Iraq Iraq War Jim Webb Middle East