On Friday, May 27, Iraqi military officials announced that as many as 40,000 Iraqi troops — supported by the U.S. military — would be sweeping through Baghdad and cleaning up the resistance fighters there. This huge operation is a response to the recent series of car bombings and relentless attacks against any and all signs of U.S. or Iraqi government presence in the city.
The New York Times coverage of the new offensive conveys the U.S. military rationale that this is another step forward in the long but successful march toward pacification, portraying it as “an important step by the government to convince Iraqis…that it is serious about taking on the insurgency”; and that “the goal is to ‘turn the government’s role from defensive to offensive.’”
But, as usual, this is another desperate measure, and even the coverage in the Times contains sad reminders of how problematic the war has become.
First of all, this is actually an attempt to accomplish what the recent Operation Matador offensive in the west failed to do. Almost forgotten after only a week, Operation Matador, which supposedly killed a hundred or so guerrillas, was designed to definitively cut the alleged routes by which the car bombing campaign in Baghdad was being supplied with ammunition and jihadists. The later coverage (after the victory headlines were over) revealed the bad news that the only battle was initiated by the resistance, that the guerrillas were fully forewarned of all the American maneuvers, and that by the time the American troops had arrived all the insurgents had disappeared, leaving only deserted houses and buried IEDs behind. But never fear, the U.S. military still utilized all its formidable weapons, including aerial bombing, artillery, housing invasions, attacks on mosques, and all the rest. Thus, its only accomplishment was alienating the local tribes people who were not already mobilized against the occupation. (For reviews of this debacle, see the May 23 TomDispatch or the May 15 Ellen Knickmeyer article in the Washington Post.)
When operation Matador failed to quell the car bombings, the U.S. military brain trust initiated this new effort, dubbed Operation Lightning, and — following its new policy of putting an “Iraqi Face” on military action — had the Iraqi military command announce it. But this plan is also doomed to failure.
They are attempting a modified version of the attack on Falluja on a city 20 times its size. U.S. troops will try to seal off all “escape routes” from the city while the Iraqi police and military will set up 675 checkpoints throughout the city and sweep through the city. “The troops will check identity cards in hotels and restaurants and patrol neighborhoods to check for bomb-making faculties.” And they will enter the homes of all suspects, just as they do in all their sweeps around the country.
The New York Times claims that these methods were successfully executed in a trial run through the suburb of Abu Ghraib (yes, site of the prison), and have also been used in Baghdad. According to U.S. military officials, the proof of their success is that “587 suspected insurgents had been arrested and about $6 million had been seized.” This sounds pretty impressive, until you unpack what these claims really mean.
1. First, consider the word “suspected” in the phrase “587 suspected insurgents.” Such sweeps regularly net “suspected” insurgents and even the U.S. military eventually concedes that virtually all of these suspects turn out to be innocent of any wrongdoing. Carl Connetta, in a comprehensive review of U.S. activities in Iraq for the Project on Defense Alternatives, offers several estimates from U.S. sources that over 70% of detainees are later declared to be held “by mistake,” with most of the remainder charged only with the crime of having some knowledge of who is in the resistance, and not with any actual participation. These sweeps have no promise of being any different.
2. As for the confiscated money, $6 million sounds like far too much cash for legitimate use, so it appears that it must be stockpiles designated for illicit purposes. But later in her article on the new offensive, Times reporter Sabrina Tavernese sneaks in the fact that most of the $6 million came from a single raid at the home of Saad al-Bunnia, Chairman of the Al-warka Bank. An official protest, filed by the bank and the pro-government National Dialogue Council, denounced this raid and claimed that the money belonged to the bank. And beyond this, see Connetta’s report for a more general discussion of why the cash economy in Iraq guarantees large amounts of cash will be found when houses are entered and ransacked. The fact that it is U.S. military policy to confiscate all this cash — often the life savings of Iraqi families — is a major source of anger towards Americans and feeds the already widespread conviction that the Americans are simply looting the country.
3. Finally, don’t lose track of the basic strategy: cordoning off the city and setting up some 600 checkpoints. This will completely disrupt whatever is left of city life in Baghdad. Already the ongoing violence and the existing checkpoints make everyone’s life miserable, make normal commerce virtually impossible, and make even a visit to family a life threatening experience. And, since checkpoints have been among the most volatile and dangerous places in the most dangerous city in the world, everyone who travels will be risking a fusillade as they approach each check point.
This new offensive will generate impressive statistics about weapons confiscated, bomb factories dismantled, and massive numbers of detainees; and — if the recent trend in reporting body-counts is sustained — a very large and pseudo-precise number of dead insurgents. There will, of course, be no reports of civilian casualties in the U.S. press, though these stories will circulate freely in Baghdad, ratcheting up anger there by at least one more degree, and maybe producing a highly visible (to Iraqis, not to embedded American reporters) set of protests and counter-violence that will make the U.S. position more untenable. Also, read newspaper articles carefully to find reports of defections from the Iraqi police and National Guard. These sorts of big military actions, in which the U.S. relies on its newly trained local military, usually result in meltdowns of the Iraqi forces, and even the embedded U.S. press has (unobtrusive) reports of such massive failures. Finally, when these failures occur, watch for the use of U.S. airpower to retrieve lost battles; it will produce masses of civilian casualties (again unreported in the U.S. and widely denounced in Iraq).
We can be almost certain that this offensive, like all its predecessors, will produce massive new civilian casualties. We can be almost certain that this offensive, like all its predecessors, will fail to snuff out the car bombings or the broader insurrection. And we can be almost certain that this offensive, like all its predecessors, will further alienate the Iraqi population and vivify the resistance. But there is one way in which this offensive may differ, at least in degree, from its predecessors: it may add dramatically to the already dangerous levels of ethno-religious conflict.
Times reporter Tavernese reports on the most dangerous new policy adopted by American military planners since last fall and applied to this new offensive: the vast majority of the Iraqi troops to be used in this operation are Shia and Kurd, while the vast majority of targets will be Sunni. Already, before the offensive started, Sunni officials were complaining that it would be a sectarian attack that would only heighten the sense of persecution in the Sunni community. On this point they are certainly right, because recent history — since the battle of Falluja — has featured exactly this pattern. In Falluja, for example, all the Iraqi troops were Kurdish and the current police force — accused by residents of horrendous acts of pillage — are Shia. All offensive action taken by the Iraqi army has centered on Sunni areas and all the troops have been Shia and Kurd. The Sunnis claim that these troops have been gratuitously brutal — even more brutal than the Americans — and that there has been systematic looting of Sunni neighborhoods. We can expect to see more of these claims (and more of the underlying brutality that causes these claims) in the coming offensives. At the same time, we can expect retaliation by resistance fighters. Perhaps the retaliation will be directed mainly or exclusively against U.S. and Iraqi armed forces, but there is at least some chance that it will also be directed at the Shia communities or cities from which these forces are recruited.
This offensive holds the promise of putting the lie to the U.S. claim that its presence is needed to prevent â€œchaosâ€ in Iraq. This offensive, like those before it, will most likely increase the level of chaos, and accelerate the downward spiral away from the peace and prosperity that Iraqis desire and deserve.
Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on the internet at numerous sites, including TomDispatch, Asia Times, MotherJones.com, and ZNet; and in print at Contexts, Against the Current, and Z Magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). His email address is [email protected].