In his Iraq policy address on January 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 the Sadrist 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 a battle 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 under-reported) “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 credible threats of an American or Israeli, or combined American and Israeli, air assault on Iran itself.
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 it.
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 Sunni majority.
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 Street.
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 active resistance.
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 Mujahideen,” 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 past.”
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 turn-over 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 US 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 protÃ©gÃ©s 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 insured 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-Shiite 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 Shiite civilian population and American forces.”
The Americans Re-enter, 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 mujaheddin 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 Shiite 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 Santora reported:
“The arrest, the official said, created an opening for Sunni insurgents, and they began aggressively singling out Shiites 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 January 6, this became the occasion for the first American offensive in Bush’s not-quite-yet-announced “surge.” As U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel 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 January 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 Major Jesse Pearson and Sergeant 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 Shiite Iraqi Army with the support of the US 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 website. 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 seen.”
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 neighbourhood… The American president said in 2003, ‘Mission accomplished.’ Now in 2007 he uses jetfighters 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 Haifa Street.”
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 airpower; 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 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.com, Asia Times, Mother Jones.com, and ZNet; and in print in Contexts, Against the Current, and Z Magazine. His email address is [email protected]
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]