What Does Iraq’s ‘Good News’ Really Mean?

More than seven weeks ago, US media attention on Iraq peaked as Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ray Crocker delivered their much anticipated evaluation of the George W. Bush administration’s "surge strategy" before Congress.

By most official and media accounts, security in Baghdad and in surrounding provinces has improved markedly since then, with US commanders attributing much of the decline in violence to successes in driving al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni extremist groups from Baghdad. Iraqis are said to be experiencing some sense of normalcy after being victimized by the kidnappings, bombings, and wholesale slaughter that marked the last few years.

Then, armed bands of Shi’ite and Sunni gunmen roamed the streets, seizing people at illegal checkpoints and dumping bodies by the dozens. But the picture that is emerging today is one of improved security and slight hints of optimism, unimaginable more than a year ago.

The recent developments out of Iraq give some credibility to the oft-fictional "good news" diet fed by the White House to US citizens. The muscular argot of neoconservative idealism has crumbled under the weight of reality – Bush’s "Mission Accomplished" speech, Vice President Dick Cheney’s pronouncement that the insurgency was in its "last throes," Rumsfeld’s "pocket of dead-enders" – so it should come as no surprise that the newest "good news" out of Iraq is falling, for the moment, on incredulous ears.

While there may be a reduction in violence in Iraq, opposition to the war in the US public is at an all-time high, with 68 percent of those polled in opposition, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last week.

"Forget the briefings from generals, the intelligence evaluations and the Pentagon status reports. There is a handy indicator for whether the war in Iraq is going well – its relative absence from the front pages," wrote Richard Lowry, editor of the conservative biweekly National Review.

The drop in deaths relating to violence is indisputable. Last December, 2,172 Iraqi civilians died violently, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press (the US military does not "do body counts" of Iraqis, General Tommy Franks, who directed the Iraq invasion, has said).

Following a spike in June, AP reports, violence in the capital has ebbed. Nationwide civilian deaths dropped from 1,791 in August to 878 in September and 750 in October. As of Sunday, 189 Iraqi civilians had died violently in November.

US military deaths have also fallen significantly, although the 852 US servicemen killed thus far makes 2007 the deadliest year of the war for US troops. In addition, the US military says rocket and mortar attacks nationwide have fallen to their lowest level since February 2006. In Baghdad, such attacks rose from 139 in January to 224 in June – before falling to 53 last month.

Last week, the commander of US troops in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, said bombings and killings had been declining steadily since a spike last June and "it continues to come down every month".

And there are hints of optimism coming from the Iraqi government, following a tense month that included the scandal concerning the US security contractor Blackwater and the impending Turkish invasion of the Kurdish north.

On Sunday, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said terrorist acts in Baghdad had declined by 77 percent this year. "We are all realizing now that what Baghdad was seeing every day – dead bodies in the streets and morgues – is ebbing remarkably," he told reporters. Recent developments suggest "that sectarianism intended as a gate of evil and fire in Iraq is now closed," the prime minister said.

But some analysts question the rush to make declarative statements about perceived "surge" successes, in large part because the US-led strategy is seen as a way to generate political breathing room to promote reconciliation among Iraq’s disparate political factions.

"So much of the Iraq debate has now turned into exactly what we once promised to avoid: political arguments about body counts, while completely ignoring the political dimension which the Petraeus counterinsurgency manual recognized as so crucial," wrote Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at George Washington University, on his widely read blog, abuaardvark.com.

"Even worse, it seems like the US is committing the cardinal sin of once again falling victim to our own propaganda, believing our own spin, and substituting domestic public opinion management for hard thought about where we’re heading. The relatively uncritical approach to the good news narratives now coming out of Iraq is eerily reminiscent of so many earlier periods of ‘good news from Iraq.’"

During an Oct. 30 House Appropriations Committee hearing regarding a recent Government Accountability Office study that found that overall attacks in Iraq have declined, director of international affairs and trade, Joseph A. Christoff told the committee that the GAO’s figures do "not tak[e] into consideration the fact that there might be fewer attacks [on civilians] because you have ethnically cleansed neighborhoods."

The US successes have not come through pure military force alone. Part of the Patreaus strategy involves reaching out to the disenfranchised political actors who have fought the US as part of the insurgency.

It wasn’t too long ago that US forces viewed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army as one of the main obstacles to Iraqi security. Since declaring a cease-fire with US troops in August, Sadr’s fighters lave lain low, and Newsweek reports that US commanders, who have publicly "applauded" the move, have made attempts to reach out to Sadr’s deputies, some of whom have met with Petreaus.

In the provinces, the US is encouraging tribal and other Sunnis to form regional associations, such as al-Sahwa (the Awakening) to counter al-Qaeda and ostensibly build support for the Maliki government. Tribesmen and former insurgents who join are paid 600 dollars a month to fight al-Qaeda, and US forces have recruited thousands of men, who are given uniforms and paid 300 dollars a month to act as guards in the neighborhood, according to the BBC. These are referred to as Concerned Local Citizens.

While the strategy has played out well on paper, the tactics of reconciliation are not without their consequences. The new alliances are comprised of political actors who, until fairly recently, fought US troops, and there remains the concern that, by allying with Sunni insurgent groups to fight al-Qaeda, the US is unwittingly arming groups for possible sectarian conflicts in the future.

A recent Guardian newspaper profile on one of the US-sponsored "Ameriya Knights," Abu Abed, is illuminating. Abed is one of a new breed of Sunni warlords who are being paid by the US to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. While he is crucial to the US strategy, his methods – summary beatings and imprisonments – exhibit all the signs of petty criminality.

"The Americans lost hope with an Iraqi government that is both sectarian and dominated by militias, so they are paying for locals to fight al-Qaeda. It will create a series of warlords," said a senior Sunni sheikh, according to the report.

"It’s like someone who brought cats to fight rats, found himself with too many cats and brought dogs to fight the cats. Now they need elephants."