U.S. casualties, which are at a post-invasion high: According to an
Press analysis, more American troops were "killed in combat in Iraq over
the past four months – at least 334 through Jan. 31 – than in any comparable
stretch since the war began"; and February, with 34
American deaths in its first nine days, is exceeding this pace. These loses
are largely due to roadside bombs (IEDs) and to the fact that U.S. troops are
now engaged in almost continuous urban warfare. Before the invasion of Iraq,
the possibility of fighting an urban war in the Iraqi capital's streets and
alleys was the American high command's personal
nightmare. Now, it's their reality – and the president's surge plan can
only make it more nightmarish.
Downings of U.S. helicopters, six in less than three weeks: With road
travel, even in convoys, now so dangerous, thanks to IEDs, the helicopter has
been a transport workhorse for the U.S. military in Iraq. The sudden surge in
downed helicopters raises the specter of new
tactics by the insurgents as well as the possibility that they have new,
advanced missiles in their hands. It raises a warning flag of the first order.
Let's not forget that the beginning of the end of the Russian occupation of
Afghanistan in the 1980s came when CIA-supplied Stinger missiles began to take
down Russian helicopters in significant numbers.
Iraqi and American no-shows: The first Iraqi army units promised by
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the beginning of the February surge in the
capital have shown up. But as with everything involving that Green Zone government
and Iraqi forces generally, there is a catch: The initial Iraqi brigades are
evidently at only
55-65 percent troop strength. Undoubtedly, these no-shows are Kurds and
Shi'ites who didn't want to leave their home areas to fight in Baghdad. In addition,
according to McClatchy's Tom Lasseter, who went
out on patrol with Iraqi forces in Baghdad recently, despite the $15.4 billion
the American military has so far poured into "standing them up," they are militia-infiltrated,
incompetent, and exceedingly corrupt. "Two weeks with American units that patrolled
with Iraqi forces in west and east Baghdad found," he wrote, "that Iraqi officers
sold new uniforms meant for their troops, and that their soldiers wore plastic
shower sandals while manning checkpoints, abused prisoners, and solicited bribes
to free suspects they'd captured." Nor have most American troops designated
to surge into Baghdad arrived yet. Louise Roug of the Los
Angeles Times estimates that only 20 percent of the promised surge forces,
Iraqi and American – about 5,000 troops in all – have even made it to the capital.
(The fifth and final American brigade in this plan isn't scheduled to arrive
until May!) In the meantime, senior
American diplomats, voting with their analytic feet, are resisting taking
posts in Iraq, assignments which, unlike military personnel, they are not obliged
to accept. (They are evidently doing so on the same basic what-the-hell-am-I-going-there-for
principle as the Kurdish and Shi'ite troops.)
Iraqi refugees: One out of every seven Iraqis has by now "fled his
or her home or sought refuge abroad," reports the UN High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR). "Every day," according to McClatchy's Warren
Strobel, "violence displaces an estimated 1,300 more Iraqis in the country;
every month, at least 40,000." According to UN officials, in surging Iraq, things
are only expected to worsen. "The UNHCR projects that the number of internally
displaced in Iraq could grow to about 2.7 million by year's end." An in-depth
assessment conducted by the
International Medical Corps, a humanitarian organization, suggests that
"over one million residents of Baghdad could be driven from their homes in the
next six months if Iraq's sectarian violence continues at its current level."
That would be a surge indeed.
The devastation of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad: Some of these are
being turned into ghost areas, as Ilana Ozernoy and Ali Hamdani indicate in
a limited survey of one street in a Sunni area of the capital that appeared
recently in the Atlantic.
Other accounts seem to verify this. For instance, New
York Times reporter Damien Cave, in a piece on how the vast Shi'ite
slum of Sadr City is beginning to thrive under the protection of Moqtada al-Sadr's
Mahdi Army and with reconstruction money from the Maliki government, comments
in passing that, in contrast, "middle-class Sunni enclaves are withering into
abandoned ghettos, starved of government services."
Massive publicity about the details of the slow-to-happen surge operation:
These have been offered copiously by the supposedly security-conscious Bush
administration, giving Sunnis and Shi'ites opportunity to prepare both defenses
and evasions. It has meant, according to early
American military assessments, that in the first search operations in key
neighborhoods, they are finding little or nothing. ("'I don't know if it's bad
information, bad intelligence, of if they knew we were coming and left,' said
Capt. Isaac Torres of the Army's 3rd Brigade Stryker Combat Team. 'They were
all dry holes.'")
Oh, as for the surge plan itself, Michael Schwartz, whose TomDispatch
pieces on U.S. and Iraqi strategies and tactics in the complex struggle
engulfing that country, have regularly been significantly ahead of the mainstream
analytic curve, points out that the president's new surge plan has already
been tested in the last few weeks and found to be most successful – in further
depopulating Baghdad neighborhoods as well as creating more destruction, greater
sectarian violence, and new levels of animosity. His is a devastating piece
on another bit of Bush administration planning that takes us right through the
"gates of hell."
First Results from the President's Offensive
by Michael Schwartz
In his Iraq
policy address on Jan. 10, President Bush promised three new initiatives:
a "surge" of American troops accompanied by a new "clear, hold, and build" strategy
in Sunni insurgent strongholds; an offensive against Shia militias, particularly
Mahdi Army, which "U.S. military officials now identify as the greatest security
threat in Iraq"; and forceful action to prevent Iran from further increasing
its influence in Iraq and the Middle East.
Events in the last few weeks make it clear that all three prongs of this strategy
are being enacted, even while the Congress is engaged in a prolonged debate
over its (non-binding) opposition to the "surge" part of the new regional plan.
The "surge" strategy was actually initiated one day before the speech was even
given – in an offensive on Baghdad's Haifa Street that briefly dominated the
headlines. The new initiative aimed at Shia militias appears to have begun with
outside of Najaf in which about 200 members of the al-Hawatim and al-Khazali
tribes were killed by American and Iraqi forces – apparently because the tribal
militias had been involved in a growing (if underreported) "anti-U.S. and anti-Baghdad"
guerrilla war that "has
been spreading like wildfire" in the Shia south. And the new aggressiveness
towards Iran is now being played out not only in Iraq, but in the increasingly
of an American or Israeli, or combined American and Israeli, air assault on
We may have to wait weeks, or even months, to evaluate the consequences of
American actions against those Shia militias and Iran. But the Haifa Street
offensive, now almost a month old, already offers us a vivid portrait of the
horrific consequences that are the likely result of the Sunni insurgent part
of the president's "surge" strategy.
Haifa Street as an Enemy Stronghold
Haifa Street, a moderately prosperous two-mile-long avenue just
outside the American-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad, has been a center of
Sunni resistance since early in the war. Despite the imagery of constant violence
associated with the neighborhood in the media, it has, like most insurgent
areas, largely been quiet – except when American troops attempted to pacify
Soon after the fall of Baghdad, anti-American forces became the
military and political leadership in the Haifa Street neighborhood, setting
up local militias to combat a wave of criminal violence that swept through
the capital after the Americans dismantled the Iraqi military and police.
By 2004, the insurgents were the local government in the area, institutionalizing
their form of Sunni fundamentalism but at that early date still tolerating
the presence of a Shia minority, who continued to live peacefully among the
Sustained violence only occurred when American patrols entered the
area. Then snipers, IEDs, and gun battles would – often successfully – be
brought into play to divert the Americans from their goal of arresting or
killing suspected insurgents. The ferocity of the resistance led American
soldiers to dub the area "Death
Street." After one abortive attempt at conquering the neighborhood, the
number of U.S. patrols dwindled as Haifa Street became one of many virtual
"no-go" areas in the capital (not to speak of the country), "off-limits for
American and even Iraqi soldiers."
In November 2004, an IED exploded near one of those occasional American patrols,
demolishing a Humvee and triggering a cascading set of events that culminated
in an American helicopter shooting into a crowd and killing Mazen
Tomeizi, a Palestinian reporter for the al-Arabiya satellite news network
of Dubai. Because Tomeizi was filming his follow-up to the earlier incident
when he was shot, his death became one of the most horrific, widely viewed images
of the war – at least in the Middle East – with his blood splattering on the
camera as he cried, "I'm going to die, I'm going to die." This incident, apparently,
convinced the American military command to make another attempt to pacify Haifa
Under the headline, "A Violent Street Finds Calm," Christian
Science Monitor reporter Scott Peterson described how the Americans
took control of the neighborhood in a six-month military offensive, involving
"rooftop snipers" and other "tough measures that reportedly included abuse of
detainees." This running battle, which began in January 2005, qualifies as the
most violent period in recent Haifa Street history – until the latest offensive.
But in American reportage, the emphasis was on the pacification and quiescence
achieved, once – by the late spring of 2005 – the Americans had suppressed the
Sprinkled in with the positive stories of grateful residents welcoming the
end of the fighting were telltale signs of an unpopular military occupation:
Some residents would "glower" when American troops passed by; "tensions [were]
a little higher" whenever American troops entered a street; and graffiti proclaiming,
"Long Live the Mujahedeen," were quickly restored after American soldiers tried
to obliterate them. Nevertheless, in June of 2005, ABC
reporter Nick Watt declared that "Death Street is indeed a thing of the
That battle, now two years past, was a perfect example of how the new "clear,
hold, and build" strategy that President Bush announced in his recent speech
is supposed to work. An American clearing-and-holding operation was to be followed
by a transfer of power to Iraqi military units, supposedly already "stood up"
through intensive American training and advising. This particular turnover operation
was hailed at the time by
occupation authorities as "a high-profile example of how Iraqi National
Guard troops – trained, supported, and let loose by U.S. advisers – can claw
back territory from insurgents." It was heralded as a giant step forward, "a
template for spreading government control across Iraq and undercutting the insurgency."
The template, however, ultimately collapsed because the Haifa Street
guerrillas did what guerillas normally do: They melted into the population
and awaited new opportunities to attack the occupation. Just before the declarations
of success were issued, they initiated their own "surge of violence" before
again melting into the neighborhood. And even at the moment when ABC reporter
Watt was offering an obituary to "Death Street," American troops and their
Iraqi protégés were conducting dozens of weekly patrols, breaking
into homes in the Haifa Street neighborhood to arrest or kill suspected insurgents.
These patrols, together with a massive increase in unemployment, the precipitous
deterioration of public services, and economic shocks generated by the removal
of government food and fuel subsidies only led to increased support for, as
well as membership in, the resistance.
This ever growing resistance ensured that the "build" part of "clear, hold,
and build" remained unbuilt. In February 2006, the Americans finally left without
securing the neighborhood, probably because the troops were needed for a new
Baghdad-wide offensive, which began at about that time.
Soon after, the guerrillas resurfaced and expelled the Iraqi army, thus putting
an end to all military patrols, home invasions, arrests, and detentions as well
as the sporadic fighting they had generated. Haifa Street once again became
a quiescent enemy enclave, and – with the rise of sectarian violence – was suspected
of "harboring terrorists" of an anti-Shi'ite variety. As New
York Times reporter Marc Santora put it:
"For the past two years, [Haifa Street] has been relatively quiet, but in
recent months, as the sectarian fighting has intensified, Iraqi and American
military officials suspected it was being used as a base of operations for insurgents
concentrating on the Shi'ite civilian population and American forces."
The Americans Reenter, Bringing Sectarian Violence with Them
Haifa Street's calm was sustained even while ferocious sectarian
violence erupted elsewhere in the capital. Ethnic cleansing, so prevalent
in other parts of the city, had not yet invaded the neighborhood and most
of the Shia members of the community remained in their homes.
When adjoining Shia neighborhoods also calmed down, an uneasy but genuine peace
settled over the area. The foundation of this truce was no mystery: Haifa Street
militia members, freed from defensive fights against the American military and
strengthened by their victory over the Iraqi military, were mobilized to protect
and defend the community against Shia death squads. In fact, all around Baghdad
militias have become a critical protection for Sunnis. As Asia
Times commentator Mahan Abedin put it, "The residents widely welcome
the presence of the guerrillas as vital protection against Shi'ite paramilitaries
(often operating as Iraqi security forces)."
The work of the local mujahedeen was complemented by the work of Moqtada
al-Sadr's Mahdi's army in neighboring Shia communities. Since al-Qaeda
in Mesopotamia began its car-bombing campaign against Shia civilians in
late 2004, the Mahdis had been patrolling the vast Shi'ite slum of Sadr City,
and – for the most part – successfully preventing
such suicide bombings. As the violence spread in Baghdad, the Mahdis also spread,
and their arrival in the Shia neighborhoods around Haifa Street insured mutual
deterrence on both sides of the sectarian divide.
Until the Americans arrived.
In early January, as part of President Bush's new strategy of attacking
Shia militias, American troops entered a border area near Haifa Street and
arrested a "senior member" of the Mahdi Army, apparently the local commander
in that part of the city. This attack seems to have disrupted the Mahdis' protective
patrols and left Shia communities in the area increasingly vulnerable to terrorist
attack. Quoting an American military official, New York Times journalist
"The arrest, the official said, created an opening for Sunni insurgents,
and they began aggressively singling out Shi'ites who had relocated south from
the neighborhood of Kadhimiya, the official said."
These attacks may or may not have originated in the Haifa Street neighborhood,
but when 27 Shia bodies were dumped there on Jan. 6, this became the occasion
for the first American offensive in Bush's not-quite-yet-announced "surge."
As U.S. military spokesman Lt.
Col. Scott Bleichwehl explained, "It's an area that needed to be brought
back under Iraqi security control."
Ali al-Dabaggh, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,
was blunter: "This area must be cleansed," he said.
Haifa Street residents believed al-Dabaggh, particularly after the
American commanders mentioned the 2005 battle of Tal Afar as the exemplar
of their new strategy. In Tal Afar, a city of about 300,000 near the Syrian
border, the entire population was moved out as part of the pacification process.
Iraqi military forces were sent in to Haifa Street first, but within
a couple of days, they had been repulsed. This battle, and the growing sectarian
violence in bordering areas, shattered the fragile foundation of sectarian
peace within Haifa Street, and Shia residents soon began receiving threats
that they would be killed "if they did not leave immediately."
Before dawn on Jan. 9, the Americans and Iraqis attacked in force, backed by
helicopters and jets. Washington
Post reporters Sudarsan Raghavan and Joshua Partlow offered this description
of the battle, quoting Maj. Jesse Pearson and Sgt. Israel Schaeffer:
"In the pre-dawn darkness, the joint forces took control of the buildings
surrounding Tallil Square, a key target of the operation.
"'We showed up in their living room for breakfast,' Pearson said.
"About 7 a.m., the trouble began. 'As soon as the sun came up, the insurgents
began shooting,' he said.
"'We started taking it from all sides,' Schaeffer recalled.
"From rooftops and doorways, the gunmen fired AK-47 assault rifles and machine
guns. Snipers also were targeting the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. U.S. soldiers
started firing back with 50-caliber machine guns mounted on their Stryker armored
vehicles. They used TOW missiles and Mark-19 grenade launchers. The F-15 fighter
jets strafed rooftops with cannons, while the Apaches fired Hellfire missiles."
After 11 hours of death and devastation, the Americans prevailed
and 1,000 American and Iraqi troops began house-to-house searches, arresting
and killing suspected insurgents.
One week later, McClatchy
News reporters Nancy Youssef and Zaineb Obeid visited Haifa Street to survey
the results of the first offensive action in the president's new strategy. Partly
what they found was a depressingly familiar scene: massive destruction, police-state
conditions, widespread suffering, and ongoing fighting. But partly they found
something new: Even as the threatened ethnic cleansing of Shias in the neighborhood
finally appeared to be completed, there was now a contrary campaign – mounted
by the mainly Shi'ite Iraqi Army with the support of the U.S. military – to
expel the Sunni majority:
"A 44-year-old Haifa Street resident, who asked to be identified only as
Abu Mohammed for security reasons, said that only three or four [Sunni] families
of an estimated 60 families remained on his block. He said no vehicles were
allowed to drive through the area and that there was no electricity, kerosene,
or running water. [U.S.] Snipers have taken positions on the rooftops.
"'They are shooting randomly,' he said. 'Today, they shot Raghad Marwan,
a 28-year-old young woman who was trying to get food. She got a bullet in her
shoulder, and now we don't know how to get her to the hospital.'
"He said several families were evacuating the neighborhood: 'I can see the
families with their children walking in the narrow streets of the neighborhood
taking nothing but small bags.'
"'The new security plan has given militias permission to go into our houses
and apartments and kill people,' Abu Mohammed said. 'This plan targets Sunnis
and forces them to leave their homes. And they are.'"
The next day, CBS News reporter Lara Logan provided horrifying visual evidence
of conditions on Haifa Street, in a report that only appeared on the CBS Web
site. It showed demolished buildings, deserted neighborhoods, and the results
of sectarian torture on both sides. It concluded with a resident who blamed
the Americans for the plight of his community:
"They told us they would bring democracy. They promised life would
be better than it was under Saddam. But they brought us nothing but death
and killing. They brought mass destruction to Baghdad."
According to the McClatchy reporters, "A U.S. military spokesman
said he had no reason to believe Haifa Street residents' accounts." U.S. Ambassador
Zalmay Khalilzad told a press conference, ''I am encouraged by what I have
One week later, the battle for Haifa Street continued. More and
more residents were fleeing the area, trying to escape American airstrikes,
avoid the crossfire between the Americans and the insurgents, or elude the
death threats from either side of the sectarian divide.
Reflecting on the battle for a neighborhood that "the United States
has now fought to regain from a mysterious enemy at least three times in the
past two years," Sgt. First Class Marc Biletski told New
York Times reporters Damien Cave and James Glanz, "This place is a failure….
Every time we come here, we have to come back."
In the meantime, the departing Sunni population viewed the still unfinished
battle as the latest episode in American sponsorship of ethnic cleansing. During
the first day of fighting, Harith
al-Dari, the leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), the political
arm of the Sunni resistance, called it, "a bloody sectarian massacre." Nine
days later, an AMS spokesman read the names of 12 men who had been killed in
the battle on al-Jazeera
television and then commented:
"All of their guilt was that they defended their neighborhood. … The American
president said in 2003, 'Mission accomplished.' Now in 2007 he uses jet fighters
a few meters from the Green Zone."
The final word for the present was perhaps spoken by another inhabitant of
the area, commenting on the ongoing assassination of neighborhood residents
by the Iraqi military and police: "The Americans are doing nothing, as if they
are backing the militias. This military siege is killing us. … If this plan
continues for one more week, I don't think you will find one family left on
The Early Returns Are Not Encouraging
Even before the Americans arrived on Haifa Street in January as
the vanguard of the new Bush strategy to pacify Baghdad, previous experience
strongly suggested that the effort was doomed to failure. A month later, that
expectation has certainly been fulfilled.
Unfortunately, there are some genuinely new, grim elements to the
battle for Haifa Street; elements that threaten to make the coming Baghdad-wide
"surge" dramatically more damaging than its predecessors. To begin with, there
is the far greater application of American air power; bombing runs and high
caliber assaults from helicopter gunships have dramatically increased the
death and destructiveness of the still ongoing battle, rendering much of Haifa
Street an unlivable graveyard.
Added to this is the systematic and largely successful effort of
the Sunni jihadists to expel the Shia minority from the area, an effort
triggered by the initial American incursions. And then, overlaid on top of
the cleansing of the Shia minority, came the contrary cleansing of the Sunni
majority; engineered by the Iraqi military that arrived in the neighborhood
with the Americans, and conducted their own purge with the support or acquiescence
of the U.S. military.
The Haifa Street battle sadly shows that Bush's new strategy will
measurably increase the violence in Baghdad above already intolerable levels.
With more troops at their disposal, American generals will try to pacify many
more neighborhoods like Haifa Street and cities like Tal Afar that need "to
be brought back under Iraqi security control." And when they do this, they
will bring the same mix of horror that they brought to Haifa Street, including
brutal air power, house-to-house searches and fighting, sectarian violence,
massive dislocation, and ethnic cleansing.
Like the other campaigns initiated by the U.S. occupation of Iraq,
this new strategy will make things measurably worse.
Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology and faculty director of the Undergraduate
College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, has written extensively
on popular protest and insurgency, as well as on American business and government
dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on numerous Internet Web sites, including
TomDispatch.com, Asia Times, MotherJones.com, and ZNet; and in print in Contexts,
Against the Current, and Z magazine. His books include Radical
Protest and Social Structure, and Social Policy and the Conservative
Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). His e-mail address is Ms42@optonline.net.
Copyright 2007 Michael Schwartz