Many of you probably already know this, but just in case you don’t, Reidar Visser now has a blog. What was supposed to be “an occasional supplement” to his excellent website Historiae.org has quickly become the place to visit for deep and up-to-date information on Iraq. There’s a lot to absorb there, but if you have at least one scholarly bone in your body, it’s hugely rewarding. Commenters include heavyweights like Sam Parker and Michael Hanna.
Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category
There is much to recommend in Joost Hiltermann’s article in The New York Review of Books about the daunting challenges that may yet lead to Iraq’s unraveling. Money quote from a Western aid worker living in Baghdad’s “red zone”:
Some four hundred to five hundred people are killed per month. Compared to other countries, this is extremely high, but here, that’s quite good. There is a feeling things are almost normal. Bombs are going off all the time, but we could call it a ‘banalization’ of violence: people sitting in one room no longer pay attention to the bomb going off next door, so to speak.
I’ve heard it called “residual violence” and “the irreducible minimum”, but never banal. The brutalising impact, of course, remains just as deadly as ever. As long as the madness continues, the nation will not heal. Hence, it’s not so much a question of why the Arabs and the Kurds would go to war as it is of why the hell not.
At least 155 people are dead in the latest bout of residual violence in Baghdad. Merely an expected minor hiccup, of course, and nothing to be worried about, but apparently loud enough for the prime minister himself to put on his wellingtons and hazard a day trip:
In a rare personal appearance at a bombing site, Prime Minister Maliki arrived at the provincial council building about an hour after the explosion, his face ashen as he surveyed the carnage.
Around Mr. Maliki, paramedics carried the wounded to Red Crescent ambulances, workers wearing plastic gloves scooped body parts into plastic bags, and rescue teams pried open scorched cars in a desperate search for signs of life.
Surrounding streets had been blocked off and were under more than a foot of water because the blast had apparently also damaged a water main. Pools of water were red with blood.
Mr. Maliki did not venture far from his armored sport utility vehicle. He made no public comment before being driven away.
A new report from the Fund for Peace offers food for thought:
A commonly used metric for a ‘civil war’ used by scholars and the UN is one thousand victims per year killed in political violence. If the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count civilian death figures are taken as a basis, violence in Iraq surpassed the ‘civil war’ criterion in the first six months of 2009. Whether characterized as a ‘civil war,’ ‘low intensity conflict,’ or the remnants of radical forces trying to resurrect sectarian antagonism, the nomenclature is not important. What is significant is that sectarian violence remains a fact of daily life in Iraq, despite the military achievements of the 2007 ‘surge.’
No doubt Obama’s left-wing supporters* will be quick to point out that horrific though the bombings may have been, in the larger scheme of things they will be but a bump in the road to everlasting peace. I just wish you guys would apply the same carefree logic to Afghanistan.
[* Full disclosure: I once thought I was one of them.]
Not that anyone’s interested, but I thought I’d mention that yesterday was the deadline for the Iraqi Parliament to pass an electoral law crucial for the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 16. Alas, parliament adjourned for the weekend. Reidar Visser explains:
Many of the biggest parties secretly want to keep a closed-list system instead of the new arrangements adopted in the latest provincial elections, so-called open lists. The difference between the two should be noted. It is not, as one of the biggest US newspapers recently suggested, that voters don’t know the names of the candidates on the closed list “for security reasons”! That is misleading: Candidate names are known to voters under either system and voters can find the names not only of the candidate but also his or her father, grandfather and great-grandfather in publicly available registers. The closedness has to do with the ability of voters to rank the candidates. Under the closed list, this is decided by the parties whereas under the open list voters can promote favourites of their own, even if the party gave them a less prominent position far down on the list. The introduction of this system proved universally popular in the latest provincial elections and the new device was widely used by Iraqis (who promoted many local councillors from non-winning positions), quite regardless of the fact that the Iraqi electoral commission in practice undermined the system by not printing full candidate lists (voters instead had to use tables of correspondence on display in the polling stations). On the other hand, the established parties and politicians are worried about the new system – above all for fear of being deselected.
Of course, parliament took its sweet time passing the provincial elections law, too, yet in the end good sense prevailed and by all accounts the elections were a success. So lets not get all gloomy just yet.
I cannot often claim to have been prescient about anything, so forgive me for advertising my own stuff a little.
Last May, after returning from Baghdad, I posted a bullet-point list of gloomy thoughts about the country’s immediate future. I was wide off the mark on one issue — predicting that the transition of security duties from U.S. troops to the ISF would be “much slower than news reports would let you believe” — but, alas, on target on two others.
Here’s what I wrote about the security forces:
Neither the Iraqi public nor the American officers I spoke to, nor the police themselves, believe the NP will be able to stop the wave of violence everyone seems to agree is imminent once there are no more Americans on the streets. The NP simply doesn’t have the manpower or training or tenacity to man their checkpoints day in and day out regardless of how badly they get hit. They are easily demoralised and lose focus when bombs start going off. After having seen how they live, and knowing how little they get paid, I can’t really blame them. Still, the sight of a fearful Iraqi police officer being literally led by an American platoon on a short presence patrol through his own neighbourhood isn’t exactly encouraging.
And about the removal of blast walls from Baghdad’s thoroughfares:
Here’s another stupid move: facing pressure from the local business community, the Maliki government has started to remove the life-saving but commerce-hindering T-walls in Baghdad’s central districts, supposedly replacing them with smaller Jersey barriers. Again, this is politics trumping security in the worst possible way. Talk to any American field officer and he will tell you it is premature and potentially disastrous, as the Iraqis haven’t had time to gauge the situation properly.
And about the logic behind the violence:
I find it hard to agree with Nir Rosen, who seems to think the recent mass-casualty bombings in Baghdad are basically pointless. They aren’t; their point is to take away from Maliki the only thing he has going for him in the next election — the credit for ending the violence.
Last week’s truck bombs, of course, not only laid waste to whole blocks in central Baghdad, they finally shattered the illusion that all was quiet on the Western front. Here’s how Jane Arraf, the Christian Science Monitor correspondent in Baghdad, describes the situation in a CFR interview:
On the security level, it has cast light on what really, truly does appear to be systemic failure of the Iraqi security apparatus. We’re talking about the ability of whoever was behind this to put together two huge truck bombs–these were four-ton trucks. The one that hit the foreign ministry was packed with two tons of explosives and they were allowed to drive through the streets on roads where you’re not supposed to drive any trucks in daylight hours. That says something about what the government believes is negligence, if not collaboration, by some of the security forces.
Those bombings indicated to a lot of people that we have to stop pretending that things are fine and that applies to the U.S. commanders as well. One Iraqi senior official told me literally that they can’t pretend that everything’s fine as they engage in a responsible drawdown. Because in some cases, Iraqi security cannot handle it. They don’t have the intelligence capability. They don’t have the technology to detect explosives.
They don’t have a lot of the more sophisticated skills and the technological assets they actually would need to be able to fight this insurgency. They certainly have what it takes in terms of cultural knowledge, obviously, but this is still an insurgency. When you can build two-ton truck bombs in the middle of Baghdad, which is, according the interior ministry, where it happened, and then drive them through the streets, there’s got to be something wrong there.
These were the worst attacks in more than a year and half, but it’s really the repercussions that will have as major an impact as the bombings themselves.
Indeed. And it will only get worse.
[h/t Captain's Journal.]
Meanwhile, in the Forgotten War:
Major Shiite groups have formed a new alliance that will exclude the Iraqi prime minister, lawmakers said Monday, a move likely to stoke fears of increasing Iranian influence and shake up the political landscape ahead of January parliamentary elections.
The coalition will include the largest Shiite party, the Iranian-backed Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc, which could give Tehran deeper influence in Iraq just as U.S. forces begin to withdraw.
Prime Minister al-Sadr?
During the spring there was a lot of cross-sectarian cooperation in the Iraqi parliament, but while this resulted in victories like the provincial elections law, nothing durable came out of all the promises of a monster national alliance. Maliki, for his part, will also need to go beyond what he accomplished in the local elections, which was more of a shift in rhetoric than a real integration of new political forces outside the Shiite Islamist core. So far there has been talk about an alliance between Maliki and the awakening forces of Anbar. As for the nationalists, there are signs of growing cooperation between forces like Iraqiyya, the Constitutional Party of Jawad al-Bulani, Tariq al-Hashimi, Salih al-Mutlak, Nadim al-Jabiri (from Fadila, which early on rejected the UIA makeover as political theatre but which now is reported as a last-minute convert to the project) and Mahmud al-Mashhadani (the former speaker of parliament, associated with the 22 July movement) – a trend that seems particularly significant in that it could potentially reverse a tendency of Iraqiyya to sometimes support ISCI in parliament even in cases where this runs counter to its own declared ideological principles (in early August there was even a visit by an Iraqiyya delegation to Iran). If two such grand cross-sectarian coalitions should emerge then the next elections could indeed become a step forward for Iraq.
Okay — at what point do we stop saying this is just expected and unavoidable “residual violence” and admit things don’t look so dandy? When the statistics come in? When Maliki is killed or Kirkuk goes up in flames?
My guess is never.
Iraq was never a country, it was the name of an American misadventure, and now that the lads are no longer dying over there, it has ceased to matter altogether.
From top news to a non-issue in less than two years — I guess congrats to Gen. Petraeus and his A-team are in order.
Despite the common perception that the armed conflict in Iraq is largely over, widespread violence and a lack of respect for human life continue to affect the Iraqi people. Civilians are the primary victims.
Mass explosions and indiscriminate attacks are claiming the lives of hundreds and leaving thousands more wounded every month, mainly in Baghdad, Ninewa and Diyala governorates.
‘In these three governorates, many Iraqis fear for their lives whenever they leave their homes, as anyone could be hit simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ said Juan-Pedro Schaerer, head of the delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for Iraq. ‘The level of insecurity remains high and should not be accepted as somehow ‘normal’ or unavoidable.’
The Iraqi government is quietly proceeding on new censorship laws, moving to ban web sites deemed harmful to the public, to require Internet cafes to register with the authorities and to press publishers to censor books, the New York Times reports:
[...] Opponents of the proposals question why Iraq would seek to impose the same sorts of censorship that had been among the most loathed aspects of daily life under Saddam Hussein and suggest that they are another example of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s working to consolidate his power. The new policies will put Iraq more in line with neighboring Islamic states.
Indeed. Next up, restrictions on foreign media.
To be clear, even in most Western democracies freedom of speech does not mean freedom to incite violence or insult your enemies in public. Some countries, like Finland, still penalise blasphemy. At the same time, however, our constitution forbids censorship — no one can tell you not to publish irresponsible shit, but you might end up in the can for it.
I wonder if the Iraqi government’s American advisors, when they still had leverage, could have maybe pointed out this rather important distinction.
I have argued over and again in this blog that the United States must stand up and take moral responsibility for its actions in Iraq, even if it means an open-ended military commitment in an increasingly hostile environment.
Even so, I have to admit I find it extremely hard to disagree with Baghdad Operations Command Advisory Team chief Col. Timothy Reese, when he concludes, in his now-public, painfully honest internal memo, that — I’m paraphrasing — Iraq is a toxic swamp, that the U.S. has done all it can to dry it, and that the sooner American troops go home the better for everybody.
What is most shocking about Reese’s memo is not its unflinching depiction of the rotting corpse that is the Iraqi state, but the way he describes U.S. forces as basically prisoners of a security agreement their own commander-in-chief negotiated:
It is clear that the 30 Jun milestone does not represent one small step in a long series of gradual steps on the path the US withdrawal, but as Maliki has termed it, a ‘great victory’ over the Americans and fundamental change in our relationship. The recent impact of this mentality on military operations is evident:
1. Iraqi Ground Forces Command (IGFC) unilateral restrictions on US forces that violate the most basic aspects of the SA
2. BOC unilateral restrictions that violate the most basic aspects of the SA
3. International Zone incidents in the last week where ISF forces have resorted to shows of force to get their way at Entry Control Points (ECP) including the forcible takeover of ECP 1 on 4 July
4. Sudden coolness to advisors and CDRs, lack of invitations to meetings,
5. Widespread partnership problems reported in other areas such as ISF confronting US forces at TCPs in the city of Baghdad and other major cities in Iraq.
6. ISF units are far less likely to want to conduct combined combat operations with US forces, to go after targets the US considers high value, etc.
7. The Iraqi legal system in the Rusafa side of Baghdad has demonstrated a recent willingness to release individuals originally detained by the US for attacks on the US.
If this is true — and I have no reason to doubt it –, there really isn’t much the U.S. can do but to prepare for an orderly departure. Without political leverage, and with its military stripped of its right to fight, America is of no use to Iraq. I can only hope Reese’s talk of “victory” is in jest, because victory this isn’t, it is an utter failure on all fronts. Not only will Iraq not be stable, it will not be a democracy, and it most certainly will not be a friend of America.