A while back, I noted that the killings in Iraq would stop once the ethnic (or rather, sectarian) cleansing was complete.
So how do you tell the difference between a strategy is working (i.e., right now, The Surge, but at this time next year, something else) and cleansing that has been completed? Because right now, in some parts of Iraq, there is quiet. Well, relative quiet. And some attribute it to the Surge.
I think the answer is obvious. You can tell a neighborhood has been pacified as a result of the policy du jour rather than cleansing if the folks who moved away (i.e., fled) move back. I believe estimates are that well over a million people have fled the country, and about that many are internally displaced. Whatever the precise number, in a country of under we’re talking about, at a minimum, a figure equal to 5% of the country’s current population (which the CIA factbook estimates at about 27.5 million). Most of those who fled aren’t exactly living in luxury – a huge percentage are living illegally or on the fringes in Jordan or Syria. All of which is to say, there are a lot of Iraqis who would be ready and willing to move back, if the country was pacified, and pacified by virtue of something other than their absence.
“When we first got here, all the shops were open. There were women and children walking out on the street,” Alarcon said this week. “The women were in Western clothing. It was our favorite street to go down because of all the hot chicks.”
That was 14 long months ago, when the soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, arrived in southwestern Baghdad. It was before their partners in the Iraqi National Police became their enemies and before Shiite militiamen, aligned with the police, attempted to exterminate a neighborhood of middle-class Sunni families.
While top U.S. commanders say the statistics of violence have registered a steep drop in Baghdad and elsewhere, the soldiers’ experience in Sadiyah shows that numbers alone do not describe the sense of aborted normalcy — the fear, the disrupted lives — that still hangs over the city.
American soldiers estimate that since violence intensified this year, half of the families in Sadiyah have fled, leaving approximately 100,000 people.
“It’s just a slow, somewhat government-supported sectarian cleansing,” said Maj. Eric Timmerman, the battalion’s operations officer.
The descent of Sadiyah followed a now-familiar pattern in Baghdad. In response to suicide bombings blamed on Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army, went from house to house killing and intimidating Sunni families.
The focus of the battalion’s efforts in Sadiyah was to develop the Iraqi security forces into an organized, fair and proficient force — but the American soldiers soon realized this goal was unattainable. The sectarian warfare in Sadiyah was helped along by the Wolf Brigade, a predominantly Shiite unit of the Iraqi National Police that tolerated, and at times encouraged, Mahdi Army attacks against Sunnis, according to U.S. soldiers and residents. The soldiers endured repeated bombings of their convoys within view of police checkpoints. During their time here, they have arrested 70 members of the national police for collaboration in such attacks and other crimes.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police, has said that officials are working hard to root out militiamen from the force and denied that officers have any intention of participating in sectarian violence.
But in one instance about two months ago, the American soldiers heard that the Wolf Brigade planned to help resettle more than 100 Shiite families in abandoned houses in the neighborhood. When platoon leader Lt. Brian Bifulco arrived on the scene, he noticed that “abandoned houses to them meant houses that had Sunnis in them.”
“What we later found out is they weren’t really moving anyone in, it was a cover for the INP to go in and evict what Sunni families were left there,” recalled Bifulco, 23, a West Point graduate from Huntsville, Ala. “We showed up, and there were a bunch of Sunni families just wandering around the streets with their bags, taking up refuge in a couple Sunni mosques in the area.”
“We were so committed to them as a partner we couldn’t see it for what it was. In retrospect, I’ve got to think it was a coordinated effort,” Timmerman said. “To this day, I don’t think we truly understand how infiltrated or complicit the national police are” with the militias.
The American people don’t fully realize what’s going on, said Staff Sgt. Richard McClary, 27, a section leader from Buffalo.
“They just know back there what the higher-ups here tell them. But the higher-ups don’t go anywhere, and actually they only go to the safe places, places with a little bit of gunfire,” he said. “They don’t ever [expletive] see what we see on the ground.”
Of course, the corollary to that last quote is the folks on the ground don’t see the big picture. But in this case, the big picture is easy to see: much of the country has been cleansed, and the populations have been separated. And the folks who have fled are not coming back.
Why is American blood and treasure not going to help those who have had to flee, but rather those that have made them flee? At what point do we conclude, or do we even care, that American blood and treasure is going toward helping those that have done the cleansing, and is, in fact, helping them keep the place cleansed?