Friday, November 02, 2007

Death and Security Or Death or Security?

“Everyone in our neighborhood is Sunni, even the birds
flying above us are Sunni.”
Mohammed Azzawi
Baghdad resident

“Our destiny is to co-exist. Because we’ve done this for
the last 6,000 years.”
Raad Mullah Jameed al-Tamimi
Diyala province governor

At the three star military and ministerial level of government in Baghdad, October was a banner month. Total coalition force fatalities were 40 – including 38 U.S. service personnel – the lowest figure since March 2006. Iraqi fatalities for the month were put at 905. Considering that the official (and inevitably incomplete) reporting nine months ago (February 2007) registered 2,864 Iraqi civilian fatalities, this drop of just over two-thirds is welcome – as is the four-month trend of falling deaths from violence.

This “good news,” of course, is of scant consolation for the relatives and acquaintances of these 945 Iraqis and coalition forces – and for the 15 coalition troops killed in Afghanistan last month. But for the experts, the pundits, the spin-meisters who will appear on the weekend talk shows, the issue will be the living – specifically, why the rate of fatalities for October dropped off and can the causes underlying the decrease be extended further.

The most common explanation undoubtedly will be the 28,500-strong “surge” in U.S. troop strength that President Bush announced on January 10. The deployment of troops was completed in June, and with additional units rotating into Iraq in the normal replacement cycle, at one period (at least) the surge actually reached 171,000 U.S. military personnel, fully 39,000 over the pre-surge “steady state” average.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi political aspirants certainly would not disparage the effects of the Bush administration’s temporary reinforcement of this 132,000 steady-state status. But ministers and senior Iraqi military and police officials would and have attributed the decrease in fatalities in part to the improved effectiveness of Iraqi security forces. And as of this week, the Iraqis can substantiate this claim by simply pointing to British Defense Secretary Des Browne’s statement when he announced that responsibility for security matters in and around Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, would be returned to Iraqi forces by mid-December: “Unequivocally, I can see progress.”

Others, less sanguine about the reasons for going to war, remain skeptical. All too often in the past, military officers and civilian officials from Bush and Blair on down have proclaimed “mission accomplished,” victory is coming, or “a corner has been turned” and that “conditions” have improved, only to find two or three weeks later that conditions are actually worse.

And then there is Mohammed Azzawi, who lives in the Ghazaliy neighborhood of Baghdad. This was, under Saddam Hussein, one of the mixed Sunni-Shi’a areas that is now a stronghold of the Sunnis, patrolled by militia groups intent on keeping this part of the city “pure” – and Sunni.

Reading a wide range of domestic and foreign press reports, listening to interviews and speeches by administration officials, and watching the changing statistics, one could almost believe that the coalition and the current Iraqi government were, indeed, “winning” the security struggle. Yet the picture is incomplete; something (with apologies to Shakespeare) still smells “rotten in Iraq.”

The evidence for this comes not from Washington or Baghdad but from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Its latest estimate is that 4.4 million Iraqis have been displaced by the fighting, with 2.35 million internally displaced and the remaining 2.05 million – including most of the country’s educated and professional classes – classified as refugees. Iraqis now constitute the largest displaced population of any nationality that has its own internationally recognized country.

(Considering the large number of displaced Iraqis, it is ironical that 15,000 Palestinians displaced when Israel was created are still in Iraq where they are provided basic necessities by the UN.)

One can hardly fault Azzawi for feeling satisfied with the status quo. At least he can experience a sense of security, even if he and other “concerned citizens” must be the backbone of the forces protecting the neighborhood. A similar pattern is unfolding in Anbar province where tribal sheiks, most of whom are Sunni, are working with U.S. forces and have asked for U.S. assistance in upgrading the province’s police units.

And what of Governor al-Tamimi? His is a more comprehensive vision, but not one seen through rose-colored glasses. Few weeks ago, he was wounded when a bomb exploded at a meeting of provincial leaders, 24 of whom were killed.

The question is who will be the “last man standing.”


Blogger rasphila said...

Thanks for crystallizing my own feeling that at least some of the "success" in Iraq is due to a form of ethnic cleansing that is more like religious cleansing—removing Shia from Sunni areas and vice versa. Of course casualty rates in some neighborhoods will drop when all the "wrong" people have been killed. We may not be doing it directly, but it is our responsibility.

The U.S. has taken or been a party to a lot of shameful acts in the name of fighting terrorism. This is one of the more egregious examples. Once upon a time we tried to stop ethnic cleansing. Now we are citing its results as a success.

8:09 AM  

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