Baghdad’s sharp July spike in civilian deaths prompted two major responses from the elected Iraqi government and its coalition allies. One was Operation Forward Together, an intensive “clear and hold” operation in Baghdad’s most violent neighborhoods. The other was an Iraqi army initiative to defang Shi’ite militias south of Baghdad.
Evaluations of the effectiveness of these efforts varied. On August 31, NBC’s Nightly News, hardly a friend of Operation Iraqi Freedom, reported, “[T]he number of violent deaths in this country had dropped dramatically in August, down from 3,500 in July to just under one thousand this month. One reason why may be the 50,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops conducting security sweeps in the capital.”
The MNF-Iraq reported that from July to August, the murder rate in Baghdad decreased 46%.
Sources hostile to the war painted a different picture. Icasualties.org claimed that civilian deaths had declined by only 8%, while coalition casualties had increased. The first claim contests the extent of coalition progress, but not its direction. The second is unsurprising, given the dangers of patrolling Baghdad.
Sixty-five of our soldiers died in August – slightly over the 61-per-month average for the year-to-date, but under the 75-per-month average of 2005. In August, 2005, 84 coalition soldiers died in Iraq.
But coalition progress in Iraq is better understood operationally than in raw numbers. During the month’s first week, sectarian violence continued unabated. The al-Maliki government’s system of checkpoints had failed to limit the either the operations of terrorists, or the revenge killings inspired therefrom.
After August 9th, Iraqi Security Forces and MNF soldiers inaugurated the intensive security sweeps to which the NBC Nightly News report (above) alluded. These sweeps went after terrorists where they lived, killing and arresting them, and confiscating their weapons. The new strategy proved superior to the “defensive” check-point strategy it replaced. Its results were immediately felt. The bloodiest neighborhoods – al-Mansour and al-Doura — calmed down as Iraqi police established a controlling presence. Iraq enjoyed two weeks of relative peace.
Then, in the last week, violence spiked again. Some of it was Sunni terrorism launched from areas outside of Operation Forward Together. But much of it was of a totally different character — pitched battles waged between Shi’ite militias and the Iraqi Army (itself primarily Shi’ite.) For instance, 50 died in Diwaniyah as the Iraqi army defeated militiamen claiming allegiance to Muqtada al-Sadr.
Some observers – including General George Casey – regard this as a necessary evil. The growth of the prestige of Shi’ite militias was an inevitable consequence of al Qaeda’s campaign of terror against the Shi’ite civilian population.
We’ve described al Qaeda’s perverse strategy many times. The slaughtering of Shi’ite civilians, especially the poor in crowded slums, was tactically easy and risk free. These violent actions generated equal and opposite reactions. Shi’ite death squads, operating from afflicted neighborhoods, or from the Shi’ite-dominated Department of Interior, inflicted revenge atrocities on Sunni neighborhoods. This radicalized some Sunnis, making terrorist recruitment easier, even as it trashed the standing of the jihadist enterprise with the general population. Al Qaeda thus sacrificed legitimacy for expedience.
But the peripheral damage of random terror was perhaps more deleterious to the democratic enterprise than the attacks themselves. Mass-killings, inflicted on Shi’ite civilians, accelerated the growth of any-and-every form of self-defense among Baghdadis, who threw themselves upon the dubious mercies of their most ruthless fellow-citizens for their safety and survival.
The democratic government must monopolize force, or at least the sanctioning of force, and it must make that force conform to law. This means disarming the militias, or placing them firmly under civilian control. To some observers, the bloody events of late August marked the serious beginning of that enterprise.
Those Americans who regard this process as a symptom of Iraqi incompetence would do well to remember that the United States did not achieve the subordination of coercive force to a central power until 1865 – 77 years after our Constitution was ratified. The Iraqi democracy is attempting, with our help, to compress decades of history.
It won’t be easy. But neither is it impossible.