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From Bad to Worse


Each day the occupation of Iraq goes on, the situation for most Iraqis gets worse. The trend is unmistakable, and has persisted through each of the many “turning points” announced by the Bush administration and its handpicked Iraqi clients, and then duly reported by a still overly deferential establishment media.

Consider the following:

  • In August 2006, the New York Times reported that “the number of daily strikes against American and Iraqi security forces has doubled since January.” The Times quoted “a senior Defense Department official who agreed to discuss the issue only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for attribution” as saying, “The insurgency has gotten worse by almost all measures, with insurgent attacks at historically high levels…. The insurgency has more public support and is demonstrably more capable in numbers of people active and in its ability to direct violence than at any point in time.”
  • The number of bodies that were processed in the central Baghdad morgue in May 2006 was double that of May 2005. But the May toll was soon surpassed by new records in the summer and early fall of 2006.
  • By September 2006, Iraq Body Count’s conservative estimates put the civilian Iraqi death toll at between 43,269 and 48,046. The real number, as research by the Lancet indicates, is likely far higher than that. The Lancet now estimates some 655,000 “excess deaths” of Iraqis since the U.S. invasion of March 2003.
  • The number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq passed two thousand seven hundred in September 2006. While the average monthly death toll for U.S. soldiers briefly declined in the spring of 2006, largely because so many troops had effectively retreated to their increasingly fortified bases, since then “the number of Americans wounded has soared,” and October is now on course to be the third deadliest month on record for U.S. troops in Iraq.
  • Prices of ordinary goods, including basic staples of the Iraqi diet, have spiraled higher, making life even more miserable for most Iraqis. “Fuel and electricity prices are up more than 270 percent from last year’s, according to Iraqi government figures,” the New York Times notes. “Tea in some markets has quadrupled, egg prices have doubled, and all over the country the daily routine now includes a new question: What can be done without?…. The inflation rate has reached 70 percent a year, up from 32 percent last year. Wages are flat, banks are barely functioning and the consensus among many American and Iraqi officials is that inflation is most likely to accelerate…. A gallon of gasoline cost as little as 4 cents in November [2005]. Now, after the International Monetary Fund pushed the Oil Ministry to cut its subsidies, the official price is about 67 cents. The spike has come as a shock to Iraqis, who make only about $150 a month on average–if they have jobs.”
  • Population displacement has accelerated, with more than 800,000 Iraqis — including many doctors, teachers, and professionals — fleeing to Jordan, Syria, and other countries. As the Los Angeles Times observes, “The U.S. military says violence in Iraq is concentrated in Baghdad, but statistics show that it has roiled the whole country.”
  • By summer 2006, many Iraqis reported being afraid to go to mosques because of fear of sectarian attacks. As Edward Wong reported in the New York Times, “Exploding sectarian violence has undermined the mosque’s traditional role as a gathering place, further unraveling the country’s communal fabric. Mosque attendance has plummeted, according to clerics and government officials, as tens of thousands of Iraqis … choose to pray at home out of safety concerns. Gatherings at Friday Prayer are sometimes one-tenth the size of what they once were, and parents no longer send their children to mosques for spiritual lessons.”

    None of these examples, though, can convey just how intolerable Iraq has become under occupation or the extent to which life for most Iraqis has been disrupted.

    Even President Bush now finds it hard to deny how bad things have become in Iraq, leading to some discussions about a “new strategy” for Iraq, including perhaps the partition of Iraq into three states or federated autonomous zones or the redeployment of troops in the Middle East. These discussions have been motivated by the growing recognition on the part of a number of military planners that Washington’s Plan B in Iraq is failing. Plan A had been the staggeringly arrogant idea that the United States would invade Iraq, quickly topple the dictatorship, install a stable client government, and then–having radically changed the balance of power in the Middle East–march on from Baghdad to confront the regimes of Iran and Syria. With that dream in tatters, the United States turned to Plan B: the manipulation of sectarian divisions in Iraq to form a Shia and Kurdish coalition government that would isolate the Sunnis (though the United States would seek to co-opt as much of their political leadership as possible) and impose order in the country. This government would serve the intended client role–if less effectively than Washington had hoped–allowing the U.S. to gain at least some foothold in Iraq and claim victory.

    But Plan B has not worked as Washington intended. The new Iraqi government has proved incapable of imposing order in Iraq. In addition, Nuri al-Maliki and his Shia Dawa party have maintained close ties with Iran, the country seen as perhaps the greatest challenger to U.S. interests in the Middle East and western and central Asia. Having invaded Iraq intending to weaken Iran and Syria, to strengthen its position and that of Israel and its Arab allies in the region, the United States instead achieved the opposite.

    Nonetheless, the United States has continued to pursue Plan B–while still looking for some way to achieve the maximal objectives that drove its 2003 invasion. The proposal to break up Iraq–a possible Plan C–is likely to gain more ground, though, as Plan B brings only diminishing returns. The United States could conclude that a divided Iraq is easier to control than a united Iraq aligned in a hostile Shia bloc with Iran. Or it may find other, more dangerous, ways of pursuing its original objectives, specifically by broadening the war in an effort to isolate Iran or topple its regime, thus breaking up the feared Shia alliance.

    The new position in which Washington finds itself could encourage the U.S. government to pursue a number of dangerous strategies, including: escalation of troop levels in Iraq; intensified “pacification” campaigns in Baghdad and other major cities (the so-called “El Salvador option”); greater use of air power against Iraqis; and an expansion of the field of conflict to include other countries seen as abetting the resistance in Iraq, most importantly Syria and Iran (as we recently saw with the U.S.-sponsored Israeli assault on Lebanon).

    But all of these strategies will never overcome the basic facts that Iraqis do not want to live under occupation, that the occupation is the source of the resistance Washington seeks to destroy, and that each day its actions only fuel more anger and resentment.

    New polls from the State Department and the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes show decisively that a strong majority of Iraqis, whether they are Shia or Sunni want U.S. troops to leave Iraq immediately; feel less safe as a result of the occupation; think the occupation is spurring not suppressing sectarian strife; and support armed attacks on occupying troops and Iraqi security forces, who are seen not as independent but as collaborating with the occupation.

    That is, if it were up to ordinary Iraqis, the occupation would end. The polls reveal what we knew all along, though: the occupation of Iraq is intended not to bring democracy to Iraq, but to deny it, as the U.S. pursues imperial aims that have nothing to do with any of the stated reasons — whether for going into Iraq in the first place (WMD, 9-11, al-Qaeda, preemption) or for staying (spreading democracy, combating terrorism, stopping civil war, rebuilding Iraq). Instead, the U.S. is staying on Iraq in pursuit of military bases, control of vital oil and natural gas resources, projection of power in the region and globally, and legitimizing U.S. imperial might. Bush officials speak openly about maintaining current troop levels in Iraq until 2010 or beyond.

    The real question now is: how many more Iraqis will die, how many more wars will be launched, how many more U.S. soldiers will kill or be killed in this criminal war?

  • Anthony Arnove is the author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (New Press), forthcoming this January in an updated paperback edition from the American Empire Project Series (Metropolitan Books).

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