BAGHDAD – What the US has been calling the success of a "surge," many Iraqis see as evidence of catastrophe. Where US forces point to peace and calm, local Iraqis find an eerie silence.
And when US forces speak of a reduction in violence, many Iraqis simply do not know what they are talking about.
Hundreds died in a series of explosions in Baghdad last month. This was despite the strongest ever security measures taken by the US military, riding the "surge" in security forces and their activities.
The death toll is high, according to the website icasualties.org, which provides reliable numbers of Iraqi civilian and security deaths.
In January this year 485 civilians were killed, according to the website. It says the number is based on news reports, and that "actual totals for Iraqi deaths are higher than the numbers recorded on this site."
The average month in 2005, before the "surge" was launched, saw 568 civilian deaths. In January 2006, the month before the "surge" began, 590 civilians died.
Many of the killings have taken place in the most well guarded areas of Baghdad. And they have continued this month.
"Two car bombs exploded in Jadriya, killing so many people, the day the American Secretary of Defense (Robert Gates) was visiting Baghdad last week," a captain from the Karrada district police in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS.
"Another car bomb killed eight people and injured 20 Thursday (last week) in the Muraidy market of Sadr City, east of Baghdad, although the Mehdi army (the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr) provides strict protection to the city," the officer said. "There is no security in this country any more."
Unidentified bodies of Iraqis killed by militias continue to appear in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. The Iraqi government has issued instructions to all security and health offices not to give out the body count to the media. Dozens of bodies are found every day across Baghdad, residents say. Morgue officials confirm this.
"We are not authorized to issue any numbers, but I can tell you that we are still receiving human bodies every day; the men have no identity on them," a doctor at the Baghdad morgue told IPS. "The bodies that have signs of torture are the Sunnis killed by Shi’ite militias; those with a bullet in the head are usually policemen, translators or contractors who worked for the Americans."
The "surge" of 30,000 additional troops came to Iraq, mostly Baghdad, in February of last year. The total current number of US troops in Iraq is approximately 157,000. They were sent to end violence, and with a declared aim of helping political reconciliation.
But where peace of sorts has descended in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital city of six million (in a population of 25 million), it comes from a partitioning of people along sectarian lines. The Iraqi Red Crescent reports that one in four residents has been driven out of their homes by death squads, or by the "surge."
According to an Iraqi Red Crescent report titled "The Internally Displaced People in Iraq" released Jan. 27, 1,364,978 residents of Baghdad have been displaced.
The Environment News Service reported Jan. 7 that "many of the capital’s once mixed areas have become either purely Sunni or Shi’ite after militias forced families out for belonging to the other religious branch of Islam."
Some of the eerie calm in areas of Baghdad comes because togetherness has ended. Sunnis and Shi’ites who lived together for generations are now partitioned. This is not the peace many Iraqis were looking for, surge or no surge.
On Jan. 8, UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond announced that there were at least 2.2 million Iraqis internally displaced within the country, and that at least another two million had fled the country altogether. This, no doubt, would make many areas quieter.
The US military has erected three to four meter high concrete walls around several neighborhoods, forcing residents to choose either Sunni or Shi’ite areas in which to live. Such separation has brought large-scale displacement, and protests.
Sunni Muslims seem to have the worst of it. Many Iraqis are outraged by the number of Sunni detainees the "surge" has taken.
Residents of Amiriya district of western Baghdad demonstrated Feb. 11 against mistreatment by US and Iraqi forces involved in the "surge." The "surge" aims to eradicate al-Qaeda from Iraq, but this has meant that most military operations have been carried out in Sunni areas like Amiriya.
"We are here to protest against the unfair arrests and raids conducted against the innocent people of Amiriya," Salih al-Mutlag, chief of the Arab Dialogue Council in the Iraqi government told IPS at the demonstration. "This has gone too far under the flag of fighting terror."
Al-Mutlag said they were also demonstrating against arrests in the western parts of Baghdad, despite an apparently peaceful situation there as a result of residents’ cooperation with Iraqi army units. Large numbers of residents came out in the Dora region of southwest Baghdad to protest against the US military for arresting 18 people, including an 80-year-old man.
"We are the ones who improved the situation in western parts of Baghdad without any interference from the Americans and their puppet Iraqi government," former Iraqi Army Major Abu Wussam told IPS in Amiriya. "We negotiated with our brothers in the Iraqi national resistance who agreed to conduct their activities in a different way from the traditional way they used to work.
"It seems Americans did not like it, and so they are punishing us for it, instead of releasing our detainees as they promised."
Some of the apparent peace on the street is a consequence of rising detentions. In November last year Karl Matley, head of the Iraqi branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross, declared that more than 60,000 prisoners and detainees are held in prisons and other detention centers. A large number of these were taken during the "surge."
By August 2007, half a year into the "surge," the number of detainees held by the US-led military forces in Iraq had swelled by 50 percent, with the inmate population growing to 24,500, from 16,000 in February, according to US military officers in Iraq.
The officers reported that nearly 85 percent of the detainees in custody were Sunni Arabs.
Given that the majority of the detained are Sunnis, the "surge," rather than bridging political differences and aiding reconciliation between Sunni and Shi’ite groups, appears to have had the opposite effect.
And yet, there could be more dangerous reasons to doubt such success of the "surge" that is claimed.
Among the recent arrests in Baghdad, the US military counted six members of the Sahwa (Awakening) forces. This is a force of resistance fighters now ostensibly working with the US military. The US pays each member 300 dollars monthly. More than 80 percent of about 70,000 Sahwa members are Sunni.
The arrest of some Sahwa members is indication of US military doubts about the loyalties of some of these Sahwa fighters. Shi’ite political parties and militias already accuse them of being resistance fighters in disguise. Many believe that large numbers of Sahwa forces are resistance fighters simply riding the "surge."
"How come Sunni parts of Baghdad became so quiet all of a sudden," says Jawad Salman, a former resident of Amiriya who fled his house in 2006 after Iraqi resistance members accused him of being a government spy. "It is a game well played by terrorists to divert the fight against Shi’ite groups. I lived there and I know that all residents fully support what the US calls the terrorists."
The Sahwa strategy has brought down the number of US casualties – for now. But the US strategy seems to have done less for Iraq than for its own forces.