The Effect of the U,S, Occupation of Iraq
Z MAGAZINE ONLINE-ONLY ARTICLE
A primary stated justification for continuing the U.S.-led military occupation of Iraq is that a withdrawal of Western forces would result in a “bloodbath.” Without the responsible, “benevolent oversight” of the U.S.-led forces, the rhetoric goes, Islamo-fascists in Iraq would slaughter each other. Iraqis’ “propensity” for violence, hatred, and “irrationality” necessitates, in Hillary Clinton’s words, that we “baby-sit” them until they are responsible enough to govern themselves (although Clinton laments that we need to do so). Apart from their blatant racism and paternalism, these images make two basic assumptions: that the U.S. presence in Iraq is reducing violence, and that a U.S. withdrawal would bring a dramatic increase in violence levels.
Almost never are these two claims scrutinized in much detail. In fact, politicians and mainstream media have gone to great lengths to ignore or trivialize the few serious studies that have attempted to trace mortality and violence levels in Iraq. The October 2006 Johns Hopkins study published in the Lancet medical journal is the most systematic attempt thus far to measure the Iraqi death toll, concluding that the U.S.-led invasion had resulted in 655,000 “excess deaths” as of late Summer 2006. Although most informed scholars of the Middle East—and most Western researchers with experience measuring death rates during war—accepted the study’s methodology and results, President Bush dismissed the study immediately, saying that “600,000, or whatever they guessed at, is just—it’s not credible.” Following suit, most journalists, editors, and pundits dismissed the figure as outlandish and asked no further questions. The 300 plus Iraqis estimated to have been killed by U.S. forces each day during 2006 remained virtually absent from news coverage in this country.
Upon a review of these studies, it becomes quite clear why they have generally been ignored or dismissed by politicians and corporate media outlets in this country: they link the U.S. presence to increased violence levels and mortality rates while revealing humanitarian crises of staggering proportions and consistent hostility toward the occupation among the Iraqi people.
U.S. politicians are currently boasting that the “surge” which sent 20,000-30,000 extra U.S. soldiers to Iraq starting in January 2007 has been responsible for reducing the violence in Iraq; major newspapers and TV stations have compliantly repeated this argument many times. While most knowledgeable observers agree that since Summer 2007 there has been a small but significant decline in violence levels, the additional U.S. troops have not been the cause for that decline. A majority of the Iraqi population remains staunchly opposed to the U.S. presence and continues to say that the U.S. incites more violence than it prevents.
The Johns Hopkins Studies
The only two systematic studies of trends in Iraqi mortality rates over time were conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, and were published in October 2004 and October 2006 in the medical journal the Lancet. The first study estimated “about 100,000 excess [Iraqi] deaths”—meaning 100,000 more Iraqis died than would have had the invasion/occupation not occurred; the October 2006 report estimated 655,000 excess Iraqi deaths.
Just as significant as the numbers, the studies concluded that the U.S.-led forces were largely responsible for those deaths: the first study found that “[v]iolence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.” Therefore, the 100,000 excess deaths could be “mainly attributed to coalition forces.”The October 2006 follow-up found that “[t]he proportion of deaths ascribed to coalition forces” had diminished to 31 percent by 2006, “although the actual numbers ha[d] increased every year.” And U.S.-led forces were still found to be responsible for a higher percentage of deaths than any other group or cause in Iraq.
These two studies aroused a variety of hostile reactions from the war’s proponents upon their release. As mentioned, the Bush administration immediately dismissed the second study’s mortality estimate as a “guess” with no basis in reality, instead suggesting a figure of 30,000. A few more scrupulous observers also criticized the studies’ estimates, questioning the methodology employed and pointing out that all other mortality estimates had estimated far lower figures for Iraqi deaths.
The latter point is true but misleading, because most other mortality estimates have based their findings only on deaths which have been officially registered in hospitals or morgues and/or reported in news media. The Johns Hopkins researchers note that in past conflicts in other countries, news reportage and official estimates have usually been drastically below estimates based on population surveys and interviews, sometimes recording as few as 5 percent of all deaths.
As for the studies’ methodology, researchers employed techniques which are typical for conflict mortality studies, and the U.S. government in the past has accepted the validity of similar studies by the very same researchers. Even right-wing observers like the Financial Times have noted this fact, admitting that “[t]his survey technique has been criticized as flawed, but the sampling method has been used by the same team in Darfur in Sudan and in the eastern Congo and produced credible results.” The second study, the more controversial of the two because of its extraordinarily high estimate of 655,000 excess Iraqi deaths, involved a survey of 1,849 households in 47 random “clusters” all around the country (a relatively large sampling). Researchers collected data on familial deaths occurring since the invasion, verifying 92 percent of those fatalities with death certificates. Notwithstanding a few scattered scholarly critiques of the methodology and/or conclusions of the 2006 study, dozens of well-known and respected epidemiologists, statisticians, pollsters, and public-health officials from around the world applauded the researchers’ methodology and analysis. Most scholars who carefully analyzed the 2006 study—including some who had doubted the methodology of the 2004 study—agreed that the second studies results were “statistically reliable” and “extremely credible,” and that “[t]he methodology is as good as it gets.”The Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Ministry of Defense likewise noted that the 2006 study’s methodology and design were “robust” and “close to best practice.” Another British official admitted privately that the methodology used “is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones.”
If the testimony of numerous scientists and experts is worth anything, the Johns Hopkins studies (especially the latter one) are credible ballpark estimates of Iraqi mortality levels up to October 2006. The studies were ignored or rejected by the U.S. government not because of their methodology but because of their high estimates and “because they identified Coalition violence as responsible for a large proportion of the deaths.”As scholars at the New York-based World Policy Forum argue, “Critics have used the divergent estimates to argue that the studies’ results are inconsistent. But all these estimates reflect high and rising mortality trends every year of the occupation. Whether the number for the 39 month period is 655,000 or 500,000, or even less, the overwhelming reality is that the occupying forces have failed to protect Iraqi civilians from violence under their Geneva Convention obligations.”
The World Policy Forum’s statement is in fact a very generous one, blaming the U.S. for “failing” to protect civilians when a more reasonable accusation might be deliberate disdain or even contempt for Iraqi civilians and their rights. In any case, we can accept as reasonable the WPF’s two central implications: that mortality rates accelerated in each successive year of the occupation from 2003-2006 and that the U.S. military presence (at best) did nothing to quell that violence and (more likely) actually led to increased violence in Iraq during that period.
Mortality and Other Indicators of Violence
Following the period covered by the 2006 Johns Hopkins study, violence by all major indicators continued at high levels. Such indicators include:
- insurgent or “enemy-initiated” attacks
- numbers and intensity of mortar and bomb attacks
- numbers of active insurgents
- U.S. and coalition fatalities
- Iraqi Security Force (ISF) fatalities
- Iraqi civilian casualties (to the limited extent that figures are available)
Within the period from 2006 to 2007, violence in Iraq seems to have increased throughout 2006 and the first half of 2007, peaking in the spring and summer of 2007 before declining in late summer. In the three and a half months from May 20 to August 4, 2006, there was an average of 113.4 insurgent attacks per day; from August 12, 2006 to May 4, 2007, there were between 148 and 160 daily attacks; from May 5 to July 20, 2007 there was a record 162 per day. Military sources also reported in June that insurgents were using “increasingly sophisticated and lethal means of attack” and were more often targeting U.S. troops rather than Iraqi forces. Multiple-fatality bombings remained frequent during this time, totaling 43 in July despite having peaked at 69 in December.The increase in insurgent attacks contributed to a dramatic jump in U.S. deaths: during the three-month stretch from April-June 2007 U.S. deaths (331) were higher than in any other 3-month period during the war. Total U.S. deaths in Iraq were higher in 2007 than in any other single year of the war and occupation.
Iraqi deaths also reached astronomical levels in 2006 and the first half of 2007, even by partial estimates which include only registered or officially-reported civilian casualties. Conservative estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths for September and October 2006 are over 3,000 per month, while the UN estimates 6,376 civilians killed in November and December. In January 2007, the UN reported 34,452 civilian deaths during 2006 (not including unregistered deaths). The level of violence remained high or even accelerated upward through the spring of 2007, with 1,856 civilian casualties per month over the first eight months of the year by conservative estimates. As journalist Tom Clifford observed in April:
- almost half (44 percent) of all violent civilian deaths after the initial invasion phase occurred in the just-ended fourth year of the conflict
- mortar attacks that kill civilians have quadrupled in the last year (from 73 to 289)
- massive bomb blasts that kill more than 50 people have nearly doubled in the last year (from 9 to 17)
- fatal suicide bombs, car bombs, and roadside bombing attacks have doubled in the last year (from 712 to 1,476)
- Iraqi Security Force (ISF) fatalities also increased from their late-2006 levels, peaking in April at 300, the second-highest one-month total since the invasion, and averaging 209 per month from May through July
The dramatic increase in violent deaths had much to do with the explosion in sectarian violence following the February 2006 bombing of the Shia al-Askari mosque, an upward swing to which the increase in U.S. forces starting in January 2007 likely contributed. In addition to killing large numbers of Iraqi civilians, U.S. forces and policies have intensified sectarian divisions in the country and have helped incite insurgent violence and terrorist attacks—points on which most knowledgeable observers and Iraqis have agreed for the last several years.
However, since September 2007 the common refrain among U.S. government leaders, mainstream commentators, and everyday news articles on Iraq has been that violence in Iraq has decreased dramatically in recent months owing to the “surge” of extra U.S. soldiers introduced into Iraq starting in January 2007. Although U.S. leaders started claiming that the surge had reduced violence while in fact violence levels were still at their all-time high (in mid-Summer 2007), it is true that in fall and early winter 2007 there has been a relative decline in violence according to the indicators examined above. In mid-fall official sources reported a decline in monthly insurgent attacks from roughly 5,000 to 3,000 a month since June.Multiple-fatality insurgent and terrorist bombings decreased from 43 in July to 22 in November. U.S. fatalities dropped from 84 in August to 65 in September, 38 in October, 37 in November, and 23 in December. Partial estimates of Iraqi civilian fatalities also show the civilian death rate declining from 1,598 in August to 752 in September, 565 in October, 471 in November, and 462 in December. (These figures are low because they reflect only officially registered deaths, but they nonetheless reveal a downward trend.)
Effects of the “Surge”
Citing these figures for fall 2007, the vast majority of news reportage in the U.S. has accepted without questioning the notion that “the surge has worked” and that the increased U.S. military presence has reduced the violence in Iraq. But while the figures do suggest a recent decline in violence, the massive publicity accompanying that decline is highly misleading on two fronts. First, it hides the fact that violence has only decreased relatively from its astronomical levels of 2006 and the first half of 2007; by most statistics, violence remains at levels similar to those observed in the first two years of the war. As noted, U.S. fatalities in Iraq were higher in the year of the “surge” than in any other single year of the occupation, though they did decline significantly starting in September 2007. Yet the fall 2007 figures are still similar to U.S. death rates in 2003 and early 2004. Iraqi civilian casualties have also declined recently, but fall 2007 estimates suggest that the level of civilian deaths is similar to the levels recorded throughout 2005. By most estimates the insurgency has not decreased in size and has probably increased since 2004 (although reliable estimates for fall 2007 are not available). The relative weakening of al Qaeda since summer 2007 says little about the insurgency as a whole, since al Qaeda’s 1,000 or so members constitute only a small fraction of the insurgency.
Similarly, the number of “enemy-initiated attacks” has fallen, but only to pre-2006 levels. That is, while the swell in sectarian violence that started in early 2006 seems to have abated at least temporarily, the number of monthly insurgent attacks is still at or above the average for 2003 through 2005. While emphasizing the decline in “enemy-initiated attacks” since August, reports from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) have continued to cite “persistent violence and sectarianism” as major problems, noting that “enemy-initiated attacks remain at high levels.”Likewise, the September 2007 Defense Department report to Congress claimed that the surge had “slowly eroded insurgents’ capacity to operate as freely as they did” previously, but then without any hint of irony admitted that the increased U.S. troop presence “ha[d] not degraded armed groups’ capabilities or motivations to conduct attacks against Coalition and Iraqi forces, the [Iraqi government], or Baghdad residents.” The next DoD report in December noted that although insurgent and terrorist attacks had decreased, the level of attacks was still comparable to levels experienced in 2005 and January 2006.
Likewise, the number of civilian deaths has decreased but remains at 2003 levels. The number of victims killed in multiple-fatality bombings declined considerably in the fall of 2007 but remains at a level comparable to that seen in 2003 and 2004. Although the U.S. government estimates upon which these trends are based drastically underestimate civilian casualties, I am assuming that government statistics give at least some rough idea of increases and decreases over time.
The publicity is misleading in a second way: in the causation it implies. There is little reason to believe that the U.S. escalation begun in January 2007 has been responsible for reducing violence. Patrick Cockburn, a veteran journalist who has lived in Iraq throughout most of the war, noted in December that “[t]he shape of Iraqi politics have changed over the last year though for reasons that have little to do with ‘the Surge.’” Rather, he says, the changes have had “much to do with the battle for supremacy between the Sunni and Shia communities.”In particular, many Sunni militants—including a significant number of former al Qaeda members—have turned against al Qaeda as a temporary strategic alternative to fighting the U.S. (who now pays them nicely for their cooperation despite their membership in al Qaeda until very recently). The decision of many Sunni fighters to align temporarily with the U.S. does not signal any lessening of Sunni animosity toward the U.S.: an astounding 93 percent of Sunni citizens still approve of attacks on U.S.-led forces. (Iraqi citizens as a whole tend to support attacks on occupying forces, yet they overwhelmingly condemn attacks on Iraqi government forces, with only about 7 percent approving.)The fall 2007 weakening of al Qaeda for which U.S. leaders have taken credit actually derives more from defections within al Qaeda.
The changing political stances of Sunnis have been one of several major developments accounting for the recent decline in violence. Another has been the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s decision to de-escalate his Mehdi Army’s military operations for the time being. Together, Sunni insurgents and the Mehdi Army constituted two of the biggest military actors and sources of violence in Iraq in 2006. The decisions of many Sunnis and al-Sadr to de-escalate hostilities toward the U.S. and the Iraqi government have led to reductions in overall violence, but those decisions had more to do with sectarian and intra-Iraqi developments than with the increased U.S. presence. The decline in violence during the last half of 2007 has occurred quite irrespective of the U.S. military surge (or more likely, in spite of it).
Few Iraqi civilians (18 percent) believe that the surge has helped reduce violence and political tensions. The three-month period (April-June) with the highest number of U.S. deaths since the war began came after the majority of extra U.S. troops had been deployed to Iraq (by May 1 there were 13,200 and by June 18 18,700 additional U.S. soldiers in Iraq). May to July 2007 was one of the most violent, if not the most violent, period of the war. Insurgent attacks had nearly doubled since early 2006, peaking at 162 per day. This increase was especially apparent in Baghdad (the focus of the surge), with attacks more than doubling since early 2006 and increasing by 28 percent since the surge started, to 58 a day by Summer 2007.
But also important in assessing the effects of the U.S. presence is the percentage of insurgent attacks directed at U.S.-led forces versus the percentages directed at Iraqi Security Forces and civilians. The U.S. and other foreign occupiers comprise about 29 percent of the total military and security forces fighting the insurgency in Iraq, yet they currently attract about 60 percent of “enemy-initiated attacks.” From 2003 to 2005 the ratio was far more lopsided, with the U.S.-led forces attracting an even higher proportion of attacks.
The U.S. government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) confirmed this pattern in September 2007, reporting that “[c]oalition forces are still the primary target of attacks,” although “the number of attacks on Iraqi security forces and civilians also has increased since 2003.” Military officials have also admitted that U.S. troops are disproportionately targeted by insurgents, saying in June 2007 that “the attacks are being directed at us and not against other people.” The fact that the U.S.-led forces attract such a disproportionate share of attacks, coupled with ordinary Iraqis’ support for attacks on U.S. forces, does much to discredit public U.S. government statements expressing concern for democracy and the popular will. Contrary to the claims of presidential speeches and other official sources, the U.S. military actually attracts much more violent hostility than do Iraqi military, police, and security forces. And more importantly, most Iraqis condone attacks on the U.S. but oppose attacks on Iraqi forces.
Though usually overlooked, these points are crucial to understanding the conflict in Iraq, and are particularly important when evaluating the recent claims of the Bush administration and mainstream media that the U.S. surge has reduced violence in Iraq. Even if the modest decreases in violence observed in late 2007 continue in the coming months, we must bear in mind several points which follow from the U.S. government’s own admission that U.S.-led forces “are still the primary target of attacks”:
(1) Because they actually incite the majority of insurgent attacks, it is unreasonable to credit the U.S.-led forces with reducing the level of violence in Iraq
(2) Since most insurgent attacks are directed against the U.S. and its allies, a U.S. withdrawal will deprive the insurgency of its primary target and significantly undercut its popular support
(3) The decline in violence does not signal that Iraqis are any less opposed to the presence of the U.S. military in their country, because insurgents’ animosities are still directed primarily against the U.S. and because a majority of Iraqi continue to support insurgent attacks on U.S.-led forces.The resentment of ordinary Iraqis toward the U.S. goes a long way toward explaining how a small insurgency numbering fewer than 30,000 Iraqis and 800-2,000 foreigners has successfully prevented U.S.-led and Iraqi government forces (which together total over 600,000) from establishing military dominance in Iraq for almost five years
Refugees, Displacement, and Public Services
In recent years several international agencies and organizations have been tracking the number of displaced Iraqis. The most prominent is the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). In April 2007 the UNHCR estimated around 4.1 million Iraqi refugees, 2.2 million outside Iraq, and 1.9 million within the country. By late November 2007 the number of total refugees was 4.6 million, with 3.6 million people displaced as a direct result of the invasion and subsequent violence. Upon the release of the November report, UN spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis noted that despite widespread media reports of refugees returning en masse to their homes, “there is no sign of any large-scale return to Iraq as the security situation in many parts of the country remains volatile and unpredictable.” Furthermore, a UNHCR survey at around the same time found that “there are many reasons for returns to Iraq other than considerations of improved security,” such as lack “of money and/or resources,” “difficult living conditions,” and the expiration of refugees’ foreign visas. Thus, while “there have been some returns among displaced people,” many of those who have returned have done so not because violence has declined but for other non-related reasons. As these recent reports make clear, small reductions in overall violence levels have not meant a greater sense of security for Iraqis.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has continually monitored displacement levels and living conditions in and around Iraq, draws similar conclusions. The IOM’s 2007 Mid-Year Review found that the drastic increase in sectarian violence over the course of 2006 (due in part to the February 2006 Sunni bombing of an important Shia mosque in Samarra) had caused a rapid rise in civilian displacement compared with the period 2003-2005. The report notes that “[i]n 2007 the largest displacements continue to originate from Baghdad,” which has of course been the primary target of the U.S. government’s troop build-up. The analysis concludes on a somber note: “The trends that were observed at the end of 2006—major displacement; increased strains on host communities and heightened competition for limited resources; deterioration in the sectors of health, education, water and sanitation; increased vulnerabilities; and augmented needs of basic items essential to human survival— are still evident and increasing six months later.”
There is still some uncertainty regarding the levels of displacement in the fall of 2007. Some figures suggest that displacements have ebbed since this past summer. If so, however, there is very little reason to believe that the U.S. military bears any direct responsibility for such a change. And again, any apparent decline in violence must also be kept in perspective; as noted, even if violence has decreased like many analysts have suggested, it has only decreased in comparison with 2006 levels, which were far higher than during any previous year of the war. According to a December 2007 UNICEF report on the current situation of Iraqi children, “[a]n estimated 2 million children in Iraq continue to face threats including poor nutrition, disease and interrupted education.”
The UNICEF report is one window into the massive health and infrastructural crisis that continues to face Iraq. Key indicators of public health and well-being like water availability, electricity levels, access to medical care, employment, and quality and availability of education remain at very low levels. Despite all the self-righteous talk about “reconstruction” coming from the U.S. and its allies, all of these indicators (which at least in the cases of medical care and water are necessary simply to sustain life) have been at crisis levels since the invasion. In some cases, individual factors recovered slightly by the end of 2003 or 2004, but then have virtually stagnated since. For example, while hovering at around half the population throughout 2003, the unemployment rate recovered modestly but by conservative estimates stayed at between 25 and 40 percent from mid-2004 to mid-2007. In other words, there has been virtually no improvement in employment levels since Summer 2004. Three of the indicators (water, electricity, and employment) have actually gotten worse since the U.S. surge began in early 2007, according to an August 2007 poll of Iraqis. Two prerequisites for significant long-term recovery—economic development and political stability—have not only been absent but have been hampered by the surge. In the same poll, 67 percent of Iraqis stated that the pace of economic development had gotten worse since the surge began (only 6 percent said it had improved). Politically, 65 percent said that “the ability of the Iraq government to carry out its work” had decreased (12 percent said it had increased). And 90 percent of Iraqis responded that “conditions for political dialogue” had gotten “worse” (70 percent) or had had “no effect” (20 percent).
Overall, 72 percent of Iraqis stated that U.S.-led reconstruction efforts had been “quite ineffective” or “very ineffective,” and 80 percent said that the U.S. had done “quite a bad job” or a “very bad job” with respect to its “responsibilities” since the invasion. To add further insult to the pathetic state of “reconstruction” in Iraq, the U.S. Defense Department announced in December 2007 that “Iraq will now be required to fund most future reconstruction projects.”
Iraqi Attitudes toward the Occupying Forces
Iraqis’ views toward the occupation—particularly regarding the effects of the U.S. presence on the level of violence, and the expected consequences of a U.S. withdrawal—are of utmost importance to anyone concerned about the well-being of the Iraqi people. Such views are accorded very little weight in the U.S. press (if they’re even reported), so they are worth a more in-depth examination now.
Polls can be tricky to interpret. Much depends on the identity of the interviewers, the phrasing of the questions, the pool of respondents, and multiple other variables which may not be apparent in the final report. But over the last four years, and in polls from a wide range of sources, Iraqis have been surprisingly unequivocal on one point: that the U.S. military occupation of their country produces more violence than it prevents. A May 2004 poll sponsored by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority found that roughly 80 percent of Iraqis had “no confidence” in U.S.-led forces to improve security and that most “would feel safer if Coalition forces left immediately.”A year later, in August 2005, a secret poll conducted for the British Defense Ministry found that “less than one per cent [sic] of the population believes coalition forces are responsible for any improvement in security.” Polls conducted over the past two years have continued to find strong majorities of Iraqis concurring in this view:
- January 2006: A poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) found that around two-thirds of respondents agreed that “‘day to day security for ordinary Iraqis’ would increase,” that “violent attacks would decrease,” and that “the amount of interethnic violence will decrease” if the United States withdrew by the summer of 2006
- September 2006: A second PIPA poll found that 78 percent of Iraqis believe the occupation “is provoking more conflict than it is preventing”
- March 2007: A poll sponsored by U.S., British, and German news agencies found that “[m]ore than seven in ten Shiites—and nearly all Sunni Arabs—think the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is making security worse.” A separate survey by the UK-based Opinion Research Business found that most Iraquis expected the security situation in Iraq to improve (53 percent) or to stay roughly the same (21 percent) immediately following a withdrawal of occupation forces. Only 26 percent expected security to get worse
- August 2007: A poll sponsored by news agencies in the U.S., UK, and Germany found that around 70 percent of Iraqis “believe security has deteriorated in the area covered by the U.S. military ‘surge’ of the past six months…” Moreover, 67-70 percent “believe the surge has hampered conditions for political dialogue, reconstruction and economic development.”When asked how much confidence they had in the U.S.-led forces, 85 percent of Iraqis answered “not very much” or “none at all”—compared with 82 percent in February 2007, 78 percent in 2005, and 66 percent in 2004. When given a list of 14 individuals, groups, and factors influencing the level of violence in Iraq, 27 percent of Iraqis identified the U.S.-led forces or President Bush as the single biggest culprits for that violence—72 percent said that the presence of U.S. forces continued to make security worse, with another 9 percent saying it had no effect
- October 2007: A poll by the U.S. Defense Department found that 12 percent of Iraqis “had at least some confidence in the Multi-National Force to protect their families against threats”—evidently the most optimistic phrasing possible for such a dismal statistic. Curiously, the report also boasted of the “growing support of the local population” and marvelous improvements in security courtesy of the U.S. surge.
The progressive rise in popular hostility toward the U.S.-led occupation is confirmed by another crucial statistic: the percentages of Iraqis who approve of insurgent attacks on occupation forces. In January 2006, 47 percent approved of such attacks; by September 2006, the figure had risen to 61 percent; in August 2007, 57 percent continued to approve of such attacks, including 93 percent of Sunnis.
Not all polling results are so unequivocal. In particular, the dozens of polls taken over the last four years suggest disagreements among Iraqis over exactly when and how the occupation forces should withdraw. Although almost all Iraqis have consistently supported a “timeline” for withdrawal, many polls do not ask respondents to comment on how soon that withdrawal should occur or on what should happen afterwards to bring peace. The few polls that have worded their questions more specifically have found subtle disagreements, such as whether the U.S.-led forces should withdraw immediately, within six months, or within a year, etc. For example, a September 2006 poll by the U.S. State Department found that 65 percent of Baghdad residents favored an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops. However, another poll that same month found that 71 percent of Iraqis wanted the U.S. to withdraw within 12 months—with only 37 percent of that block favoring a U.S. withdrawal within six months. Such results suggest significant variations in Iraqi attitudes not just over time, but even from one poll to the next within a very limited time frame. These variations probably derive largely from the subtleties of the polling process: the phrasing of the questions, the options given, the identity of the pollsters, the regional foci of the poll, etc.
In contrast, though, Iraqi respondents have been remarkably consistent in stating that the occupation produces more violence than it prevents. They have constantly expressed deep mistrust of U.S. motives—most believe the U.S. is largely motivated by the desire for Iraqi oil and that it plans to leave permanent military bases in their country. And they have consistently argued that a U.S. withdrawal would not result in increased violence, but that it would actually help ease sectarian divisions and diminish the support bases of al Qaeda and other extremists. In the August 2007 poll 46 percent answered that a “full-scale civil war” would be “less likely” given the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, with another 19 percent saying that the withdrawal would “have no effect” in that regard. Only minorities of respondents stated that an immediate withdrawal would mean an increased terrorist presence or more power for Iran within Iraq. As journalist Patrick Cockburn noted in December 2007, “However much Iraqis may fight among themselves a central political fact in Iraq remains the unpopularity of the U.S.-led occupation outside Kurdistan.”
For those of us who are U.S. citizens and who therefore bear at least partial responsibility for our government’s actions overseas, two points should stand out regarding the current situation in Iraq: (1) the U.S. presence causes more violence and conflict than it prevents, even taking into account the Fall 2007 decrease in violence, and (2) the Iraqi people want a near-term withdrawal of U.S. forces and bases from their country. All policies, political platforms, and activist actions which are motivated by genuine concern for the future of the Iraqi people must take these two realities as their starting points. The other major consideration that U.S. citizens understandably take into account—the well-being of U.S. soldiers—presents no contradiction with these arguments, since U.S. soldiers share the Iraqis’ interest in a near-term U.S. withdrawal; soldiers in Iraq have expressed as much in polls.
An immediate or near-term withdrawal of U.S. forces, which is the only moral and logical action for the U.S. at this point, is certainly not going to bring a magical end to all of Iraq’s problems. No knowledgeable observer would suggest that violent conflict will simply disappear once the U.S. leaves. Still, a U.S. departure will eliminate the primary justification for the violence among Iraqis, significantly eroding popular support for violent attacks and providing Iraq with, at the very least, a chance to heal its internal wounds and rebuild a stable society. Support for a full military withdrawal is therefore the best option available. Other U.S. actions would have to follow, such as working in good faith with Iraq’s neighbors in the Middle East to help reduce violence, providing massive humanitarian and economic reparations for the devastation that the invasion and subsequent violence have caused, and opening the political system to meaningful grassroots participation so that Iraqis can decide the future of their country. U.S. withdrawal is no panacea, but it is a necessary first step in what is sure to be a long, painful recovery for the Iraqi people.
With very few exceptions, prominent politicians in Washington are united around the need for some sort of long-term military presence in Iraq. (Even most Democratic proposals for “withdrawal” would entail leaving tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers there indefinitely.) Foreign proposals for a multinational Arab security force to replace the U.S. in Iraq have been “swiftly rejected and ridiculed” by the Bush administration.And as of January 2008, the Democrat-led Congress continues to fund the occupation despite the half-hearted criticism in many lawmakers’ speeches and statements.
The deliberate ignorance of Iraqis’ wishes is indeed a bipartisan phenomenon, and there is a clear reason why. Most members of Congress are opposed to a total withdrawal of U.S. forces because they believe their country has a need—and a right—to maintain effective control over the Iraqi government and economy (and its most profitable export); to acknowledge Iraqi public opinion would undercut that agenda. Most of our political leaders make frequent vague claims about how “Iraqis need us” and how “We would leave if they asked us to.” These statements are misleading on two counts: first, by “Iraqis” they mean the Iraqi government, not the Iraqi people, because a strong majority of the latter is opposed to the U.S. presence. Second, even within the conservative Iraqi government—which is supposed to behave like an obedient client state, and usually does—there have been some occasional murmurings of opposition to the U.S. occupation. In December 2006, Iraqi vice president blamed sectarian violence on the U.S.-led invasion and occupation, saying that sectarian strife would “be mitigated” if foreign forces were to announce a timetable for withdrawal. An even stronger sign of opposition has come from the Iraqi Parliament, which throughout 2007 refused to pass an oil law pushed by the U.S. that would open the vast majority of Iraq’s oil reserves to foreign corporations.
In a political climate where facts don’t matter or are selectively appropriated to serve the ends of government and corporations, where “war is peace,” “slavery is freedom,” and “ignorance is strength,” the usefulness of even trying to counter the official bipartisan propaganda may seem doubtful. However, I think there are two reasons why we should not give up hope just yet. First, given the U.S. public’s heightened distrust of the Executive and Congress—a distrust which has been slow to develop but is nonetheless higher than at any time since the late 1970s—there is real reason to believe that people will be receptive to information which runs counter to the Party line. Even some of the major media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post which have generally praised the illegal invasion and occupation have started reporting (albeit infrequently) some of the above studies and polls, a sign that even the corporate class in this country is getting fed up with the war. Second, our collective action or inaction with respect to the war stands to affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Americans. The fact that the war is entering its sixth year doesn’t make the situation any less urgent for the people whose lives are directly affected by it. In the words of one U.S. veteran who has bravely spoken out, “Opposition to this illegal war and occupation is not a cause—it constitutes a response to a state of emergency.”