Surge and Destroy


The Brutality Escalates in Iraq

By Michael Schwartz*

March 12, 2007

If you are trying to figure out how the new Bush strategy is progressing, or just trying to figure out what is happening in Iraq, here is a diagnosis and a bit of a prognosis. In his speech, Bush promised three prongs to his new strategy: (1) attacking and neutralizing Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia; (2) confronting Iran; and (3) a new offensive against the Sunni insurgents.

Neutralizing the Mahdi Army: Since 2004, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has been the Shiite the Bush administration has most loved to hate. Early in the war, occupation officials tried to have him arrested and fought three large battles (two in Najaf, one in the vast Baghdad slum of Sadr City) in an attempt to suppress his guerrilla militia, the Mahdi Army. Each time, he and his forces, deeply entrenched in Sadr City, have bounced back stronger and more popular than ever. In its fourth manifestation, the intention to dislodge, disrupt, or destroy the Mahdi Army appears guaranteed to fail. It is just a matter of what sort of failure the U.S. will choose.

As the new strategy has so far been implemented, American military tactics seem designed to yield a relatively modest failure, though one that may prove indirectly responsible for significant Iraqi civilian casualties. U.S. troops have begun operations in Sadrist strongholds (notably Sadr City), which were, until late last year, American "no-go zones." But they are not attempting to pacify them, as they have been Sunni neighborhoods in the capital. Instead they are mounting raids designed to arrest specific Sadrist leaders, while leaving the rest of the community alone. So far, Sadr's men have decided to lay low and not resist the American intrusions (though the targeted individuals are frequently gone when the Americans arrive, often resulting, evidently, in the arrest of any fighting age man in the vicinity). There are even rumors that Sadr is cooperating with at least some of the arrests, allowing the Americans to apprehend "rogue" Mahdi Army leaders who have not been following his orders.

Whatever the story may be, this strategy will leave the strength of the Mahdis, -- who are not just a militia but, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, a social movement with deep and complex ties to, and support from, poor Shiite communities -- unimpaired. It cannot generate sufficient arrests to decapitate the militia; nor can its "hit and run" tactics undermine the political and military domination exercised by the Sadrists in these neighborhoods. At best, it is a kind of ongoing harassment, a symbolic denial of Sadrist power.

It will not be surprising, therefore, if the U.S. escalates these raids into larger-scale attacks on Sadrist strongholds. If this were done, it would involve the sort of brutal invasions currently being undertaken in Sunni neighborhoods. Typically these attacks begin when U.S. troops close off an area, demand that all women and children leave, and then initiate a house-to-house sweep, treating the community, in essence, as a "free fire zone." Each house is inspected for lurking insurgents or other suspicious characters (sometimes simply any men of fighting age) and searched for arms caches (which are plentiful). Anyone that evades the invaders, hinders the search, or offers any sort of resistance may be considered an enemy combatant. The level of destruction can be quite awesome.

If the U.S. tries this in Sadrist strongholds, the Mahdis will have no choice but to fight back; they will not sit by while their communities are savaged. This could trigger a guerrilla confrontation in Shiite communities much like the ferocious fighting that has been seen in Sunni areas. The battle of Tal Afar, which, in 2005, turned parts of that city into ghost neighborhoods and reduced a quarter of it to rubble (still not cleared away), has been explicitly mentioned as a "model" for these sorts of offensives.

It is one thing to mount such attacks against Iraq's Sunni minority. Used against the 60% majority Shia community, these tactics would likely spur a response that would spread around the country and prove disastrous for American plans, which are already in tatters. The Mahdis would certainly retaliate in other neighborhoods; wherever, in fact, the Americans are vulnerable. If the U.S. military is already almost drowning in the Sunni insurgency, imagine the predicament of American troops should they suddenly have to fight any significant number of Shia as well.

Such a development would have two clear consequences: an exponential growth in the strain on an already overstretched American military and a dramatic increase in the use of air power to back up embattled troops on the ground. Together, these could result not just in massacres, but in the rubble-ization of significant parts of Baghdad and possibly other Iraqi cities. If the U.S. military stays with its current strategy of surgical incursions, it might escape with only a modest defeat. If it escalates, it is courting unmitigated disaster in the wake of unprecedented brutality.

Confronting Iran: There are all sorts of symptoms of the new approach to Iran, including the (mostly trumped up) accusations about that country supplying Iraqi insurgents with advanced weaponry, the arrests of accused Iranian infiltrators and their Iraqi allies, and the stationing of a second aircraft-carrier task force in the Persian Gulf (with possibly two more on the way). And the U.S. and foreign media have been carrying a constant stream of reports about possible U.S. or Israeli air attacks on Iran itself.

Bush administration accusations of Iranian "interference" in the Iraqi political and military situation are particularly ironic, and not just because the idea of the U.S. accusing anyone else of "outside interference" in Iraq is so absurd. The added irony derives from the administration's most dramatic claim -- that the Iranians are supplying the insurgency with a new type of IED that can pierce armor.

There is plenty of dispute over the accuracy of this charge, but if the Iranians are supplying sophisticated IEDs, it's to the Shia insurgents (even the U.S. military admits to that); and the U.S. is not (currently) fighting the Shia insurgents, it's fighting Sunni insurgents, who hate Iran just as much as -- possibly more than -- the U.S. However, this accusation is most often stripped of this critical "detail" in the media (especially on the TV news). Therefore, the impression is left that a large proportion of American casualties are somehow being caused by Iranian technology. That, too, is absurd.

The same can be said about most other administration claims against Iran, including those about that country's possible nuclear-weapons program. The latest U.S. intelligence reports indicate that the Iranians could develop a bomb in perhaps five to ten years, hardly the sort of immediate threat that might provide a handy justification for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. But the fact that these accusations are so spindly only adds to fears that the administration is constructing a web of lies, half-truths, and cherry-picked intelligence in order to justify an already-planned attack -- just as its top officials did four years ago in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

There are, unfortunately, plenty of indications that the U.S. might indeed be preparing to attack Iran or have the Israelis do it. The presence of two aircraft carrier battle groups is but the most visible (with a third and even a fourth one rumored to be en route); the appointment of the first Navy man, Adm. William J. Fallon, to head Centcom -- and he has a background in naval aviation at that -- is another; and the recent reports of behind-the-scenes protests over a possible air assault on Iran from top military officers (including unprecedented threats of high-level resignations) are all tangible signs of serious intent.

But many similar indications were present last spring and no attack occurred, presumably because saner heads inside the Bush administration prevailed. This reflects the fact that, even from the point of view of many of those who embrace the goal of American preeminence in the Middle East (which might indeed call for reversing the upward trajectory of Iranian regional power), such an attack might well appear to be counterproductive.

Instead of stabilizing the situation in Iraq and reducing Iranian leverage in the region, it would likely destabilize Iraq further (because Iran's Shia allies there would certainly respond forcefully and violently), and it might even undermine the viability of Saudi Arabia (because Shia rebellions could spread to the oil-rich areas of that country). Most significantly, instead of dislodging the Iranian regime, an American attack, no matter how powerful, would probably entrench it -- and at a terrible cost. Instead of restoring American credibility as an indomitable military presence in the Middle East, the failure of such an attack would further undermine it (as Israel's fruitless attack on Lebanon did for it last summer).

The logic of the situation suggests that all this is saber-rattling; an attempt to use the threat of war to wrest concessions from the Iranians. But we are dealing with the Bush administration, which has a habit of pursuing "counterproductive" policies. We must watch the events of the coming months, particularly the current talk about actual negotiations between the administration and the Iranian regime, carefully. This one could tip either way.

Attacking the Sunni insurgents: What might happen sooner or later in Shia neighborhoods is already the reality in Sunni communities and cities. For the most part, the new strategy in Sunni areas of Baghdad is the same old strategy, seen not only in major battles like those of Falluja and Tal Afar, but in various neighborhoods of cities like Ramadi, Mosul, or Samarra. There is, however, a new twist: The Americans now intend to keep troops at fortified mini-bases in many of Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods -- supposedly to establish long-term stability and facilitate reconstruction -- after (and sometimes even before) they are "cleared of insurgents." The small forward bases -- really glorified police stations -- will be placed in the middle of Baghdad "hot spots."

The first prong of this new policy is doomed. No area in Baghdad, or for that matter in Iraq, has been successfully pacified in this manner. That includes Falluja and Tal Afar, where this very strategy has been applied and has failed. About 1,000 American soldiers, supplemented by Iraqi (Shia) troops, have been in Falluja for 27 months since the city was "cleared" (that is, largely destroyed). They have established a particularly harsh form of martial law and yet the insurgency in the city, without ever having disappeared, has slowly grown again in strength. Falluja is not pacified and the Americans have never actually initiated a real program of reconstruction there. In other cities, with less comprehensive occupations, the insurgency is even more robust, and there isn't even talk of reconstruction.

American implementation of this plan in Baghdad has already begun, with a devastating offensive in the Haifa Street area, near the heavily fortified Green Zone, which quickly escalated into the wholesale destruction of the neighborhood. Once the initial onslaught was over, the offensive devolved into a case of Shiite ethnic cleansing; Sunni residents who left during the heavy fighting are not being allowed back in by the Shia police and troops who arrived with the Americans. We can expect a regular diet of such clashes, possibly marked by the liberal use of air power, guaranteed to devastate neighborhoods, followed by sectarian struggles over who will repossess the destroyed buildings, usually resolved in favor of the Shia allies of the American troops.

The second prong of the new policy -- the creation of a permanent U.S. presence in insurgent strongholds, is only now beginning to be implemented. Besides the fact that the planned number of outposts (not more than 50 in any published estimates), could not hope to purge the city of Sunni insurgents, this tactic will provide stationary targets for guerrilla fighters -- invitations for well-planned attacks. In Ramadi, where this strategy is being implemented, there has already been a successful car-bombing at the most important of the American posts, and it seems likely that this is only the beginning. We should expect reports of various forms of attacks against these bases as soon as the Sunni insurgents get their bearings and develop their strategic plans.

The Bottom Line: We are looking at desperate measures aimed at reversing the decline of American power in the Middle East. In all three areas designated by the surge plan, this desperation has led to the consideration of, or even the embrace of, more destructive strategies.

The immediate results on the ground already look disastrous in ways that -- though they shouldn't -- invariably seem to catch Americans officials off-guard. For instance, when they focus the limited forces available to them on Baghdad, the guerillas begin to look for less well guarded targets elsewhere as seems now to be happening in the city of Samarra. In addition, even the so far modest American incursions into Shia areas of the capital have had the horrifying effect of facilitating some of the most horrendous suicide car-bombings yet recorded. One instance of this was succinctly described by New York Times reporters James Wong and Wassam Habeeb: "On Feb. 18, just two days after Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki called the opening stage of the security drive a 'dazzling success,' two bombs ripped through a market in the New Baghdad neighborhood, where American soldiers had been on patrol just minutes earlier, killing at least 60 people."

The way an American patrol and a car bombing coincided was no accident. The New Baghdad neighborhood, like almost all Shia communities in the capital, has been policed by the Mahdi Army on an ongoing basis. Besides enforcing all manner of local law, the Mahdis are also vigilant about possible suicide bombers, quickly recognizing strange people or vehicles that enter their neighborhoods. At the same time, wary citizens are also on the look-out, alerting the local Mahdis whenever they see someone who looks suspicious.

When the Americans come through on patrol or -- even worse -- when they set up permanent checkpoints (either U.S. or Iraqi-manned), the Mahdis have to lie low, since the Americans (or their Iraqi sidekicks) will arrest or kill them. The community is then essentially left unprotected and open to intruders. The Sunni jihadists know this, and they also know that the Americans (and their Iraqi sidekicks) have neither the ability nor the inclination to spot and interdict suspicious looking outsiders. So they target precisely those Shia neighborhoods that the Americans are busy "pacifying." Very often, as in the case of the New Baghdad bombing, they time their attacks just after the Americans pass through, and before the Mahdis can return to the streets.

Since the surge policy began, there have been a rash of these almost coordinated bombings, including the sequential car bombs in Sadr City that killed 215, the demolition of the Baghdad booksellers market that killed at least 38, and the attack on Shiite pilgrims outside of Hilla that killed at least 70. In each of these cases, the bombings coincided with U.S. patrols that virtually "ran interference" (to use an unfortunately appropriate football term) for terrorist attacks. And in each case, local residents registered furious complaints that the Mahdi Army had been forced to "stand down."

All of this is unsettling enough. Worse yet, in the confrontation with the Sadrists, the Bush All of this is unsettling enough. Worse yet, in the confrontation with the Sadrists, the Bush administration appears to be edging toward search-and-destroy operations that will rubble-ize Shia neighborhoods; in the confrontation with Iran, it appears to be lurching toward a possible air assault on a remarkably wide range of targets inside that country, guaranteeing staggering levels of civilian casualties; in the confrontation with the Sunni insurgents, it is already mobilizing its ground and air power with the promise of the subsequent imposition of an extreme form of martial law. The hallmark of all these new strategies is the high level of destruction and mayhem they promise.

There is a larger pattern that should, by now, be clear in these developments, and all that have come before. The architects of American policy in the Middle East tend to keep escalating the level of brutality in search of a way to convince the Iraqis (and now the Iranians) that the only path that avoids indiscriminate slaughter is submission to a Pax Americana. Put another way, American policy in the Middle East has devolved into unadorned state terrorism.

About the Author: 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, and on American business and government dynamics. His books include Radical Protest and Social Structure, and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). His work on Iraq has appeared on numerous internet sites, including Tomdispatch, Asia Times , Mother Jones, and ZNet; and in print in Contexts, Against the Current, and Z Magazine.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Occupation and Rule in Iraq