The Surge: Illusion and Reality

“Where the dead are ghosts on the fragile abacus used to calculate loss, to estimate tragedy.”
– from "Body Count," by poet Persis Karim

The narrative in the media these days is the success of the U.S. “surge,” which has poured an additional 30,000 U.S. troops into Iraq since early January 2007. In early December, war critic and close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi U.S. Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) said, “I think the surge is working.”

Polls indicate that concern over the economy has replaced the war as the major issue for voters and that, while a majority of Americans want the troops out, those saying that things are going better jumped from 33 percent to just under 50 percent.

Are they going better? Car bombings, sectarian violence, and attacks on U.S. troops are down, although 2007 has been the deadliest year of the war for the Americans. But does the reduced violence have anything to do with the “surge”?

As Patrick Cockburn of The Independent points out, Americans and the U.S. media tend to “exaggerate the extent to which the U.S. is making the political weather and is in control of events there.”

Take the attacks on Americans, which are down. The Sunni-based resistance carried out the majority of those. Sunnis, who constitute 5 million of Iraq’s 27 million people (there are 16 million Shi’ites and five million Kurds), dominated the country under Saddam Hussein.

Initially the Sunnis formed an alliance with al-Qaeda that turned out to be a disaster. Al-Qaeda, an extremist Sunni organization, targeted Shi’ites, whom it considers heretics. The relentless bombings and shootings culminating in the 2006 bombing of the Golden mosque in Samarra, spurred Shi’ite militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, to counterattack.

The Sunnis suddenly found themselves fighting a two-front war against the Americans and the Shi’ites, a war they cannot win. They soon were driven out of large sections of Baghdad by the Shi’ites while absorbing massive casualties from the U.S. military campaign.

These defeats forced the Sunnis to turn on al-Qaeda and to reach a détente with the U.S. In return, the new Sunni militias – like the Baghdad Brigade, the Knights of Ameriya, and the Guardians of Ghazaliya – were given vehicles, uniforms, flak jackets and $300 a month for each member by the Americans. Starting months before the “surge," the so-called “Sunni awakening” soon fielded 77,000 militia members, larger than the 60,000-member Mahdi Army and half the size of the Iraqi army.

But according to the Sunday Times, many of these Sunnis were formerly al-Qaeda members, and the current “truce” with the Americans is little more than a tactical maneuver to buy time. “Of course the coming war is with the [Shi’ite] militias,” Baghdad Brigade intelligence officer Abu Omar told the Times. “God willing, we will defeat them and get rid of them just as we did with al-Qaeda.”

The flashpoint may come if the Shi’ite-Kurdish government of Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki drags its feet in integrating the Sunni militias into the security forces. “If the government continues to reject them [the Sunni militias],” says Baghdad Brigade commander Abu Maroff in the Sunday Times, “let it be clear this brigade will eventually take its revenge.”

Baghdad is calmer because the city has gone from one of mostly mixed neighborhoods to a city of rigid ethnic enclaves guarded by sectarian militias. While this has reduced the level of violence in the short run, it hardly bodes well for the future.

In short, the “surge” has very little to do with the reduction of violence in Baghdad and virtually nothing to do with the relative peace in Western Iraq. Both are the quiet that follows in the wake of ethnic cleansing.

Iraq’s south has been mostly calm, but once again, this has nothing to do with the “surge.” The U.S. has few forces in the region, and the British have been driven out of Basra. They are currently bunkered down in an airport. Underneath the apparent calm is tension between rival Shi’ite factions, in particular al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s (SIIC) Badr Brigade. Sadr’s forces generally represent the bulk of the Shi’ite masses. The SIIC has fewer followers but much more money than the Badr Brigade and, more importantly, the support of the U.S. Army.

Following a major shoot-out in August between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade in Karbala, Sadr and SIIC head Abdul Aziz al-Hakim signed a cease-fire. For Sadr, the truce has more to do with avoiding a fight with the SIIC while the latter can call on the U.S. to back it up than with any sudden conversion to the “surge." Speaking in a mosque on Dec. 7, al-Sadr told the Americans, “Get out of our land. We don’t need you or your armies, the armies of darkness; not your planes, tanks, policies, meddling, democracy, fake freedom.”

The recent car bombings in the southern provincial capital, Amarah, were not the work of al-Qaeda – which has no presence in the largely Shi’ite south – but a sign of growing tension between rival Shi’ite groups. At stake is regional control over Iraq’s oil revenues and control of the country’s only port, Basra.

With the recent cross-border attack by Turkey, as well as growing internal tensions in the region, the peace in the north has all the stability of a powder magazine. Iraq’s north has been a place of relative calm since the invasion because it is controlled by the powerful Kurdish militia, the peshmerga. But violence is on the increase, in part because insurgents driven out of Baghdad have moved north. For example, attacks in Mosul during November jumped from 80 to 106 a week.

The most volatile issue in the north is Kurdish autonomy and a future referendum that will decide who controls the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and the strategic city of Mosul. An autonomous Kurdish region is something most Arab Iraqis – and all of Iraq’s neighbors – oppose. The Turks, Syrians, and Iranians worry that an autonomous “Kurdistan” will stir up similar moves for autonomy in their countries. And the Baghdad government fears that it will lose the revenues from the northern oil fields.

“We are now funding all the major Iraqi warring parties, the Sunnis, the Shias, and the Kurds,” says former CIA and National Security Agency official Bruce Reidel. “They are happy to take our weapons and our money, but they’ve not necessarily brought into the same strategy as we have.”

While the U.S. will have to begin drawing down troops this coming June, the Bush administration says it intends to remain in Iraq. Last month Bush and Maliki signed an agreement that, according to the Financial Times, “paves the way for a possible long-term U.S. presence in Iraq.”

Certainly the U.S. embassy in Baghdad is being built with that in mind. When finished, the $736 million project will cover 104 acres, with 21 buildings reinforced against bombs and mortars. The huge complex will cost $1.2 billion a year to run.

According to an ABC/BBC/NHK poll, with the exception of the Kurdish north, Iraqis not only oppose the U.S. presence, 57 percent of them support attacks against coalition forces. Even the Maliki government has to tread softly in this area. Speaking to the press last week, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said, “Permanent forces or bases in Iraq for any foreign forces is a red line that cannot be accepted by any nationalist Iraqi.”

The success of the “surge” is an illusion. “Nothing is resolved in Iraq,” says Cockburn. “Power is wholly fragmented. The Americans will discover, as the British learned to their cost in Basra, that they have few permanent allies in Iraq. It has become a land of warlords in which fragile cease-fires might last for months and might equally collapse tomorrow.”

This originally appeared at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Author: Conn Hallinan

Conn Hallinan writes for Foreign Policy in Focus.