Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     May 6, 2008
Page 1 of 2
The last war and the next one
By Tom Engelhardt

The last war won't end, but in the Pentagon they're already arguing about the next one.

Let's start with that "last war" and see if we can get things straight. Just over five years ago, American troops entered Baghdad in battle mode, felling the Sunni-dominated government of dictator Saddam Hussein and declaring Iraq "liberated". In the wake of the city's fall, after widespread looting, the new American administrators dismantled the remains of Saddam's government in its hollowed out, trashed ministries; disassembled the Sunni-dominated Ba'athist party which had ruled Iraq since the 1960s, sending its members home with news that there was no coming


back; dismantled Saddam's 400,000 man army; and began to denationalize the economy. Soon, an insurgency of outraged Sunnis was raging against the American occupation.

After initially resisting democratic elections, American occupation administrators finally gave in to the will of the leading Shi'ite clergyman, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and agreed to sponsor them. In January 2005, these brought religious parties representing a long-oppressed Shi'ite majority to power, parties which had largely been in exile in neighboring Shi'ite Iran for years.

Now, skip a few years, and US troops have once again entered Baghdad in battle mode. This time, they've been moving into the vast Sadr City Shi'ite slum "suburb" of eastern Baghdad, which houses perhaps two-and-a-half million closely packed inhabitants. If free-standing, Sadr City would be the second-largest city in Iraq after the capital. This time, the forces facing American troops haven't put down their weapons, packed up, and gone home. This time, no one is talking about "liberation" or "freedom" or "democracy". In fact, no one is talking about much of anything.

And no longer is the US attacking Sunnis. In the wake of President George W Bush's 2007 "surge", the US military is now officially allied with 90,000 Sunnis of the so-called Awakening Movement, mainly former insurgents, many of them undoubtedly once linked to the Ba'athist government US forces overthrew in 2003. Meanwhile, American troops are fighting the Shi'ite militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose spokesman in Najaf recently bitterly denounced Iran for "seeking to share with the US in influence over Iraq". And they are fighting the Sadrist Mahdi Army militia in the name of an Iraqi government dominated by another Shi'ite militia, the Badr Corps of Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, whose ties to Iran are even closer.

Ten thousand Badr Corps militia members were being inducted into the Iraqi army (just as the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was demanding that the Mahdi Army militia disarm). Last week, an official delegation from that government, which only recently received Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad with high honors in Baghdad, took off for Tehran at American bidding to present "evidence" that the Iranians are arming their Sadrist enemies.

At the heart of this intra-sectarian struggle may be the fear that, in upcoming provincial elections, the Sadrists, increasingly popular for their resistance to the American occupation, might actually win. For the past few weeks, American troops have been moving deeper into Sadr City, implanting the reluctant security forces of the Maliki government 500-600 meters ahead of them. This is called "standing them up", "part of a strategy to build up the capability of the Iraqi security forces by letting them operate semi-autonomously of the American troops". It's clear, however, that, if Maliki's military were behind them, many might well disappear. (A number have already either put down their weapons, fled, or gone over to the Sadrists.)

How the reverse body count came - and went
The fighting in the heavily populated urban slums of Sadr City has been fierce, murderous and destructive. It has quieted most of the talk about the "lowering of casualties" and of "violence" that was the singular hallmark of the "surge" year in Iraq. Though never commented on, that remarkable year-long emphasis on the ever-lessening number of corpses actually represented the return, in perversely reverse form, of the Vietnam era "body count".

In a guerrilla war situation in which there was no obvious territory to be taken and no clear way to establish what our previous secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, once called the "metrics" of victory or success, it was natural, as happened in Vietnam, to begin to count. If you couldn't conquer a city or a country, then there was a certain logic to the thought that victory would come if, one by one, you could "obliterate" - to use a word suddenly back in the news - the enemy.

As the Vietnam conflict dragged on, however, as the counting of bodies continued and victory never materialized, that war gained the look of slaughter, and the body count (announced every day at a military press conference in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) that reporters labeled "the five o'clock follies") came to be seen by increasing numbers of Americans as evidence of atrocity. It became the symbol of the descent into madness in Indochina. No wonder the Bush administration, imagining itself once again capturing territory, carefully organized its Iraq war so that it would lack such official counting. (The president later described the process this way: "We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team.")

With the coming of the "surge" strategy in 2007, frustration over the president's unaccomplished mission and his constant talk of victory meant that some other "metric", some other "benchmark" for success had to be established, and it proved to be the reverse body count. Over the past year, in fact, just about the only measure of success regularly trumpeted in the mainstream media has been that lowering of the death count. In reverse form, however, it still held some of the same dangers for the administration as its Vietnamese cousin.

As of April, bodies, in ever rising numbers, American and Iraqi, have been forcing their way back into the news as symbols not of success, but of failure. More than 1,000 Iraqis have, by semi-official estimate, died just in the past month (and experts know that these monstrous monthly totals of Iraqi dead are usually dramatic undercounts). Four hundred Iraqis, reportedly only 10% militia fighters, are estimated to have died in the onslaught on Sadr City alone.

American soldiers are also dying in and around Baghdad in elevated numbers. US military spokesmen claim that none of this represents a weakening of the post-"surge" security situation. As Lieutenant General Carter Ham, Joint Staff director for operations at the Pentagon, put the matter, "While it is sad to see an increase in casualties, I don't think it is necessarily indicative of a major change in the operating environment. When the level of fighting increases, then sadly the number of casualties does tend to rise." This is, of course, unmitigated nonsense.

In April, of the 51 American deaths in Iraq, more than 20 evidently took place in the ongoing battle for Sadr City or greater Baghdad. Among them were young men from Portland, Mesquite, Buchanan Dam, and Fresno (Texas), Billings (Montana), Fountain (Colorado), Bakersfield (California), Mount Airy (North Carolina) and Zephyrhills (Florida) - all thousands of miles from home. And many of them have died under the circumstances most feared by American commanders (and thought for a time to have been avoided) before the invasion of Iraq - in block to block, house to house fighting in the warren of streets in one of this planet's many slum cities.

For the Iraqis of Sadr City, of course, this is a living hell. ("Sadr City right now is like a city of ghosts," Abu Haider al-Bahadili, a Mahdi Army fighter told Amit R Paley of the Washington Post. "It has turned from a city into a field of battle.") As in all colonial wars, all wars on the peripheries, the "natives" always die in staggeringly higher numbers than the far better armed occupation or expeditionary forces.

This is no less true now, especially since the US military has wheeled in its Abrams tanks, brought out its 200-pound guided rockets, and called in air power in a major way. Planes, helicopters and Hellfire-missile-armed drones are now all regularly firing into the heavily populated urban neighborhoods of the east Baghdad slum. As Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times wrote recently, "With many of Sadr City's main roads peppered with roadside bombs and its side streets too narrow for US tanks or other heavy vehicles to navigate, US forces often call in airstrikes or use guided rockets to hit their targets."

Buried in a number of news stories from Sadr City are reports in which attacks on "insurgents", "criminals" or "known criminal elements" (now Shi'ite, not Sunni) destroy whole buildings, even rows of buildings, even in one case recently damaging a hospital and destroying ambulances. Every day now, civilians die and children are pulled from the rubble. This is brutal indeed.

And it no longer makes any particular sense, even by the standards of the Bush administration; nor, in the post-"surge" atmosphere, is anybody trying to make much sense of it. That rising body count has, after all, taken away the last metric by which to measure "success" in Iraq. Even the small explanations (and, these days, those are just about the only ones left) seem increasingly bizarre. Take, for instance, the convoluted explanation of who exactly is responsible for the devastation in Sadr City. Here's how military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Steve Stover put it recently:
"The sole burden of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the militants who care nothing for the Iraqi people ..." He said the militiamen purposely attack from buildings and alleyways in densely populated areas, hoping to protect themselves by hiding among civilians. "What does that say about the enemy? ... He is heartless and evil."
Mind you, this comes from the representative of a military that now claims to grasp the true nature of counterinsurgency warfare (and so of a guerrilla war); and you're talking about a militia largely from Sadr City, fighting "a war of survival" for its own families, its own people, against foreign soldiers who have hopped continents to attack them. The Sadrist militiamen are defending their homes and, of course, with Predator drones and American helicopters constantly over their neighborhoods, it's quite obvious what would happen to them if they "came out and fought" like typical good-hearted types. They would simply be blown away. (Out of curiosity, what descriptive adjectives would Stover use to capture the style of fighting of the Predator pilots who "fly" their drones from an air base outside of Las Vegas?)

By the way, the last time such street fighting was seen, in the first six months of 2007, the US military was clearing insurgents ("al-Qaeda") out of Sunni neighborhoods of the capital, which were then being further cleansed by Shi'ite militias (including the Sadrists).

So, to sum up, let me see if I have this straight: The Bush administration liberated Iraq to send US troops against a ragtag militia that had nothing whatsoever to do with Saddam's former government (and many of whose members were, in fact, 

Continued 1 2 

The heat is on Muqtada (May 2, '08)

Muqtada's biggest battle already won
(Apr 23, '08)

1. How under-the-gun Iran plays it cool

2. Iran moving into the big league

3. Abandoning USS Titanic

4. Taliban claim victory from a defeat

5. China runs at its own pace

6. Bernanke takes one more gamble

7. BOOK REVIEW: America's university of imperialism

8. Funny numbers are no joke

(May 2-4, 2008)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110