I had a post recently in which I wondered aloud… are the reduced casualties we’re seeing in Iraq a sign the Surge is working, or a sign that ethnic/sectarian cleansing is working? I noted a simple test… if reduced violence is due to US policy, moving those who fled back to their homes won’t cause a renewed spike in violence…
Here’s a story in today’s LA Times:
Iraq’s civilian body count in October was less than half that at its height in January, reflecting both the tactical successes of this year’s U.S. troop buildup and the lasting impact of waves of sectarian death squad killings, car bombings and neighborhood purges.
October also marked the lowest monthly death toll for American troops, 36 fatalities, since March 2006, when 31 were killed, according to icasualties.org.
American commanders credit the buildup, which reached full strength in June, with slowing sectarian bloodshed.
But others say that the picture is more complicated than that because those seeking to cleanse their neighborhoods of rival religious sects have largely succeeded. The civilian death toll plummeted nationwide in the last two months; the toll was 2,076 in January but 884 in September and 758 in October, according to the Iraqi Health Ministry.
“Everyone in our neighborhood is Sunni, even the birds flying above us are Sunni,” said Mohammed Azzawi, a resident of the once mixed district of Ghazaliya.
A year ago, his street was a battleground between Shiite and Sunni militants. Now it is segregated between its Shiite northern tip and its Sunni south.
Moreover, American forces have felt it necessary to make tacit deals with groups that have been involved in the sectarian cleansing, and many Baghdad residents who have not been killed have fled. The number of people displaced internally in Iraq has risen to 2.25 million, and an additional 2 million have left the country.
“Certainly the presence of [U.S.] soldiers in insecure neighborhoods in Baghdad could stabilize the neighborhood, resulting in less violence and fewer people fleeing the neighborhood,” said Dana Graber Ladek, Iraqi case officer for the International Organization for Migration. “In addition, as neighborhoods become homogeneous, violence is likely to decrease and fewer people are likely to flee these areas.”
Over four million people fled, out of a population of less than 30 million. And then there are those who died.
And this is what success looks like:
American military leaders say that Iraq and its capital, where much of the sectarian violence has taken place, are significantly safer than during the height of Shiite-Sunni warfare last year — although even at its reduced level, the violence takes a toll of nearly 200 deaths a week.
Baghdad’s Rashid district, for example, was once an area with a majority Sunni population. After years of violence, its population is about 70% Shiite.
Securing the area has meant coming to an understanding with the same militia responsible for expelling the Sunnis, American officials acknowledge.
“It’s the reality of western Rashid,” said Army Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, whose battalion is responsible for the area. “Everyone we deal with is” a member of the Mahdi Army, he said.
The Mahdi Army has turned the west Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriya into a haven for Shiites driven out of nearby Sunni areas like Adil during last year’s sectarian cleansing. The local militia had also expelled its own Sunni population. Now the Mahdi Army rules the area in cooperation with the U.S.-sponsored neighborhood council.
“Did you hear of stealing cooking gas, tanks, cars or motorcycles in the Shiite areas? There is none. It never happens. It is very rare. This is because of the Mahdi Army,” said resident Hazim Muhsin.
And in the largely Sunni enclave of Ghazaliya, residents say the protection they receive from American troops has made a world of difference. Where Shiites were forcibly and bloodily evicted, Sunni men now stay outside till 10 or 11 p.m., sitting in lawn chairs. The light spills outside from a barber shop open late. One night, a string of cars from a wedding party drives down the street, passengers honking their horns.
“I expect to live in Ghazaliya the rest of my life. This is our home,” Azzawi said. “Now that it is pure Sunni, it is better for us.
You know, if we had dropped a few nukes on Baghdad and it was nothing but paved glass, there would be a lot of people touting the reduced violence as a success story.