Think for a moment of what has happened in Iraq
since the Bush administration's shock-and-awe invasion in March 2003. There
are, by now, perhaps a million dead Iraqis, give or take a few hundred thousand.
If a typical wounded-to-dead ratio of 3:1 holds, then you're talking about up
to 4 million war, occupation, and civil-war casualties. Now, add in the estimated
2-2.5 million who went into exile, fleeing the country, and another estimated
2.3 million who have had to leave their homes and go into internal exile as
Iraqi communities and neighborhoods were "cleansed." Despite a growing number
returnees, these internal refugee figures increased significantly in 2007,
between the beginning of the "surge" in February and the end of September, according
to the Red Crescent Society, with up to 83 percent of them being women and children
(with, in turn, most of those children being 12 or under). The Special Inspector
General for Iraq Reconstruction, in a recent report to Congress, estimated
that 14 percent of the population, or one out of every seven Iraqis, has been
"displaced by war." So perhaps you have 6-8 million Iraqis put out of action
in one way or another from of a pre-invasion population that was only an estimated
26 million to begin with. A striking percentage of those who remain are children,
and conditions remain grim. This is certainly one way to pacify a country –
by setting off one of the true disasters of our time.
It's within this context that new
figures on what is clearly a real decrease in violence for the first time
in years in Iraq – whether against Americans or Iraqis – are coming in. Various
partial explanations have been offered for this (or sometimes none at all),
but no one has put this changing moment together better, or more provocatively,
than Robert Dreyfuss, author of Devil's
Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. Tom
Who's the Enemy?
In Iraq, it's getting harder to find any bad guys
by Robert Dreyfuss
Who is the enemy? Who, exactly, are we fighting
in Iraq? Why are we there? And what's our objective?
Nearly five years into the war, the answers to basic questions like these ought
to be obvious. In the Alice in Wonderland-like wilderness of mirrors that is
Iraq, though, they're anything but.
We aren't fighting the Sunnis. Not any more, anyway. Virtually the entire Sunni
establishment, from the moderate Muslim Brotherhood-linked Iraqi Islamic Party
(which has been part of every Iraqi government since 2003) to the Anbar tribal
alliance (which has been begging for U.S. support since 2004 and only recently
got it) is either actively cooperating with the American military or sullenly
tolerating what it hopes will be a receding occupation. Across Sunni-dominated
parts of Iraq, the United States is helping to build army and police units as
well as neighborhood patrols – the Pentagon calls them "concerned citizens"
– out of former resistance fighters, with the blessing of tribal leaders in
Anbar, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces, parts of Baghdad, and areas to the
south of the capital. We have met the enemy, and – surprise! – they are friends
or, if not that, at least not active enemies. Attacks on U.S. forces in Sunni-dominated
areas, including the once-violent hotbed city of Ramadi, Anbar's capital, have
Among the hard-core Sunni resistance, there is also significant movement toward
a political accord – if the United States were willing to accept it. Twenty-two
Iraqi insurgent groups announced the creation of a united front, under the leadership
of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former top Ba'ath Party official of the Saddam
era, and they have opened talks with Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia who was Iraq's
first post-Saddam prime minister.
We aren't fighting the Shia. The Shia merchant class and elite, organized into
the mostly pro-Iranian Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the Islamic Dawa Party,
are part of the Iraqi government that the United States created and supports
– and whose army and police are armed and trained by the United States. The
far more popular forces of Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army aren't the enemy
either. In late August, Sadr declared a cease-fire, ordering his militia to
stand down; and, since then, attacks on U.S. forces in Shia-dominated areas
of Iraq have fallen off very sharply, too. Though recent, provocative attacks
by U.S. troops, in conjunction with Iraqi forces, on Sadr strongholds in Baghdad,
Diwaniya, and Karbala have caused Sadr to threaten to cancel the cease-fire
order, and though intra-Shia fighting is still occurring in many parts of southern
Iraq, there is no Shia enemy that justifies a continued American presence in
And we certainly aren't fighting the Kurds. For decades, the Kurds have been
America's (and Israel's) closest allies in Iraq. Since 2003, the three Kurdish-dominated
provinces have been relatively peaceful.
We're not exactly fighting al-Qaeda any more either. Despite President Bush's
near-frantic efforts to portray the war in Iraq as a last-ditch, Alamo-like
stand against Osama bin Laden's army, U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq
are having a hard time finding pockets of al-Qaeda to attack these days, though
the group still has the power to conduct deadly attacks now and then. In recent
weeks, Gen. David Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and other authorities have
pretty much declared al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) dead and buried. That happy funeral
is the result not of brilliant U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, but of the determination
of our newfound Sunni allies to exterminate the group. No lesser authority than
Gen. Petraeus himself now admits that al-Qaeda has been expelled from every
single one of its strongholds in Baghdad. In Anbar province, according to Crocker,
"People do feel the weight's off. Al-Qaeda is simply gone."
And, nearly a year after President Bush proclaimed Iran to be Public Enemy
No. 1 in Iraq, blaming Tehran for supporting both al-Qaeda and Shia militias,
things are even getting better on that front. Last week, Secretary of Defense
Robert Gates declared
that Iran had quietly promised to halt the smuggling of weapons and advanced
roadside bombs into Iraq. "I don't know whether to believe them. I'll wait and
see," he said, in what was a rather dramatic downgrading of the White House's
warnings about Iran.
Confirming Gates' comments, Gen. Ray Odierno, the commanding general of the
multinational forces in Iraq, noted
a sharp decline in the use of EFPs (explosively formed penetrators), the sort
of IED that the United States blames Iran for supplying. In July, Odierno said,
there were 99 EFPs used against U.S. forces; in August, 78; in September, 52;
and in October, 53. Partly as a result, Crocker announced that he is resuming
a dialogue with his Iranian counterpart, Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, soon.
At the same time, the United States announced its intention to release a number
of Iranians detained in Iraq, a move seen as a goodwill gesture toward Tehran.
Surge or Not, Things Are Getting Better
All in all, violence in Iraq has dropped precipitously since late summer. With
al-Qaeda declared dead, former Sunni resistance fighters wearing American-supplied
uniforms, and the Mahdi Army lying low, killings in Iraq are way down. The security
situation in Iraq is far better than it's been at any time since 2005. Many
American antiwar critics, who are invested in the notion that no good news can
come out of Iraq and who (secretly or openly) revel in the Bush administration's
Iraqi failures, are reluctant to admit that things are getting better.
Perhaps they worry that, if the situation in Iraq improves, the prospect of
Democratic gains at the polls next November will diminish. Perhaps they've convinced
themselves that Iraq's ethnic and sectarian divide is so enormous that partition
is the only solution, and that Iraq doesn't deserve to be a country anyway.
Perhaps their distaste for President Bush (which I share) is so all-consuming
that they fear any improvement in the situation will be credited to the president
– something they can't tolerate.
If so, that's perverse. The fact is: There is a critical window of opportunity
opening for the United States to withdraw and for Iraq to hold itself together
and rebuild. To the extent that things are getting better, that's good news.
The majority of Americans – from the Left to conservative realists – who want
the United States to get out of Iraq quickly ought to seize this news and push
for an acceleration of the momentum for withdrawal. Certainly, as the polls
all indicate, this is the course Americans generally want their politicians
There's really no disputing the improvement since August. According to the
careful compilers at the website ICasualties.org,
both U.S. and Iraqi deaths have fallen dramatically. In May, June, and July,
more than a hundred Americans were killed each month; for August, September,
and October the totals were 84, 65, and 38. For Iraqis, the numbers have been
even more dramatic, with Iraqi military and civilian deaths falling from 3,000
per month earlier this year to 848 and 679 in September and October. There are,
of course, other counts, and reliable statistics are hard to come by in Iraq,
but there's no doubt that the numbers represent something real, that the violence
is down in Baghdad and most of the rest of the country.
There is other, anecdotal news to support the notion that security is better
these days. Last week, Iraqi officials announced that, since the summer, 46,000
Iraqis have returned to the war-torn capital. Hundreds of shops are reopening;
taxi drivers say the streets are far safer; and Christian Berthelsen and Said
Rifai the Los Angeles Times report
that "the booze business has rebounded" after years of puritanical suppression
by Islamists, another sign that al-Qaeda has been driven from the premises.
On Nov. 3, the Associated Press
reported that an entire day passed in Baghdad without a single bombing or
shooting. That same day, according to Agence France Press, the U.S. Air Force,
for the first time in memory, declared
that it had carried out not a single bombing raid or combat mission anywhere
in Iraq, due to an "improved security situation."
In Anbar province, including its capital, Ramadi, the news is rather remarkable.
In January, attacks on U.S. forces in Ramadi came at the rate of 30 per day;
today, there is less than one a day. During the recent month-long Ramadan holiday,
there were only
four attacks on U.S. forces; during Ramadan 2006, there were 442.
None of this means that Iraq has become Sweden. It's still a violent place.
There is no real government; the economy is in shambles; basic services – electricity,
water, trash collection – are nonexistent; and most areas of the country are
ruled by militias, gangs, criminal elements, or local warlords. But for the
first time since the invasion in March 2003, there is a real opportunity for
the two main blocs of Iraqi Arabs, the Sunni and Shia communities, to strike
a deal. If such a deal were indeed struck, the Kurds would have little choice
but to buy into it. Problem is, the United States cannot broker the deal. Having
spent five years boosting sectarianism in Iraq, killing innocent Iraqis, busting
down doors in small villages, and trying to turn Iraq into an American colony,
the United States simply has no credibility left.
Any deal we broker, any leader we promote, any government we sponsor has just
gotten the kiss of death. What unites Iraqi Arabs, from the Sunni resistance
to the Mahdi Army, is opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, as well as
opposition to al-Qaeda and to Iran's heavy-handed interference in Iraqi affairs.
Next Step: A New Iraqi Accord?
A new, nationalist Iraq is emerging underneath the presence of 160,000 U.S.
troops. That nationalism extends from the current and former Sunni resistance
fighters to Sadr's Mahdi Army to a range of moderate, secular Sunni and Shia
politicians, all of whom – albeit under exceedingly difficult circumstances
– are talking to each other about a new political framework for a new Iraqi
Two urgent steps are needed in order capitalize on the reemergence of Iraqi
nationalism. First, the broad-based majorities among Sunni and Shia Arabs must
be reconciled under a new Iraqi constitution, with new Iraqi elections creating
a new Iraqi government untainted by American oversight. Second, Iraq's neighbors
– all of them, including Iran and Syria – have to underwrite the new Iraqi nationalism.
With its track record, the Bush administration is utterly incapable of accomplishing
either of these tasks. It's a job for the United Nations, the Arab League, the
Organization of the Islamic Conference, and other parties. And all of this,
in turn, depends on the United States announcing a timetable for withdrawing
its forces from Iraq.
As noted by countless observers, including official ones, the United States
has so far been unable to translate the decline in violence into political gains.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made exactly
that point, accusing the administration of failing to take advantage of
the improved security situation. With a great deal of understatement, the GAO
said: "U.S. efforts lack strategies with clear purpose, scope, roles, and performance
measures." (In other words, the United States doesn't know what it's doing.)
Similarly, the Center for American Progress, a think tank that has truly distinguished
itself from other establishment bodies by unequivocally calling for the total
and rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, picks up on this in an
astute memorandum called "Strategic Drift in Iraq." It notes (accurately
in my reading): "The United States' current Iraq debate has three key dynamics:
a lame duck president looking to hand Iraq off to his successor, a conservative
movement promoting fear over reason for perceived political gain, and a progressive
movement frustrated by a lack of change in Iraq policy and vague positions about
what to do."
In fact, the "strategic drift" that the Center for American Progress refers
to is beginning to look more and more like a Washington establishment with every
intention to stay put in Iraq for decades to come. Even if the more rabid neoconservative
calls for escalating the war into Iran and Syria are left aside, it's still
clear that many centrist Republicans and moderate Democrats expect a long occupation
followed by an even longer period in which the presence of U.S. forces will
remain significant. Former Centcom Commander Gen. John Abizaid, a realist-minded,
anti-neocon officer, recently
predicted that U.S. forces would have to stay in the Middle East "for the
next 25 to 50 years," and he was pretty blunt about the importance of oil. "I'm
not saying this is a war for oil, but I am saying that oil fuels an awful lot
of geopolitical moves that political powers may take there." Notably, it was
recently reported that U.S. legal advisers to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil helped
Iraq to cancel an enormous Russian oil deal with Iraq to develop its West Qurna
oil field, which the New York Times called
"one of a dozen or so supergiant oil fields in the world." Not that the war
had anything to do with oil, mind you.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in a glum forecast, put forth two scenarios
for Iraqi war costs. The first – envisioning 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through
2017 – would cost an additional $570 billion over 10 years. The second – involving
a slow decline to 75,000 U.S. troops by 2013 and then the maintenance of that
force through 2017 – would cost an additional $1,055 billion, bringing the war's
cost to a conservatively estimated $1.7 trillion. CBO didn't project beyond
2017, so feel free to take out your calculator.
Robert Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist in Alexandria,
Virginia. He is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, The Nation,
The American Prospect, Mother Jones, and the Washington Monthly.
He is also the author of Devil's
Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry
Holt/Metropolitan, 2005). His Web site is RobertDreyfuss.com.
Copyright 2007 Robert Dreyfuss