Saturday, October 27, 2007

"Just A Slow, Somewhat Government-Supported Sectarian Cleansing"

There have been other articles describing how awful conditions are in Iraq, and the dangers U.S. troops face without any real hope of a positive outcome. This article by Joshua Partlow in today's Washington Post, though, is different in that it spotlights exactly what is wrong with all the glowing reports coming out of Central Command about "miraculous transformations" in Anbar, and how American soldiers in partnership with local Iraqis have "cleaned out" the "bad guys."

Less than a year and a half ago, the men of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, would have agreed with those glowing reports. Not now:

Their line of tan Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles creeps through another Baghdad afternoon. At this pace, an excruciating slowness, they strain to see everything, hoping the next manhole cover, the next rusted barrel, does not hide another bomb. A few bullets pass overhead, but they don't worry much about those.

"I hate this road," someone says over the radio.

They stop, look around. The streets of Sadiyah are deserted again. To the right, power lines slump down into the dirt. To the left, what was a soccer field is now a pasture of trash, combusting and smoking in the sun. Packs of skinny wild dogs trot past walls painted with slogans of sectarian hate.

A bomb crater blocks one lane, so they cross to the other side, where houses are blackened by fire, shops crumbled into bricks. The remains of a car bomb serve as hideous public art. Sgt. Victor Alarcon's Humvee rolls into a vast pool of knee-high brown sewage water -- the soldiers call it Lake Havasu, after the Arizona spring-break party spot -- that seeps in the doors of the vehicle and wets his boots.

"When we first got here, all the shops were open. There were women and children walking out on the street," Alarcon said this week. "The women were in Western clothing. It was our favorite street to go down because of all the hot chicks."

That was 14 long months ago, when the soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, arrived in southwestern Baghdad. It was before their partners in the Iraqi National Police became their enemies and before Shiite militiamen, aligned with the police, attempted to exterminate a neighborhood of middle-class Sunni families.

Next month, the U.S. soldiers will complete their tour in Iraq. Their experience in Sadiyah has left many of them deeply discouraged, by both the unabated hatred between rival sectarian fighters and the questionable will of the Iraqi government to work toward peaceful solutions.

Asked if the American endeavor here was worth their sacrifice -- 20 soldiers from the battalion have been killed in Baghdad -- Alarcon said no: "I don't think this place is worth another soldier's life."

While top U.S. commanders say the statistics of violence have registered a steep drop in Baghdad and elsewhere, the soldiers' experience in Sadiyah shows that numbers alone do not describe the sense of aborted normalcy -- the fear, the disrupted lives -- that still hangs over the city.

Before the war, Sadiyah was a bustling middle-class district, popular with Sunni officers in Saddam Hussein's military. It has become strategically important because it represents a fault line between militia power bases in al-Amil to the west and the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Dora to the east. U.S. commanders say the militias have made a strong push for the neighborhood in part because it lies along the main road that Shiite pilgrims travel to the southern holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

American soldiers estimate that since violence intensified this year, half of the families in Sadiyah have fled, leaving approximately 100,000 people. After they left, insurgents and militiamen used their abandoned homes to hold meetings and store weapons. The neighborhood deteriorated so quickly that many residents came to believe neither U.S. nor Iraqi security forces could stop it happening.

In a nutshell, the Americans came to realize, over time, that the Iraqi security forces were using the figleaf of "partnership" to carry out their own ethnic cleansing program -- right under the noses of U.S. troops:
The focus of the battalion's efforts in Sadiyah was to develop the Iraqi security forces into an organized, fair and proficient force -- but the American soldiers soon realized this goal was unattainable. The sectarian warfare in Sadiyah was helped along by the Wolf Brigade, a predominantly Shiite unit of the Iraqi National Police that tolerated, and at times encouraged, Mahdi Army attacks against Sunnis, according to U.S. soldiers and residents. The soldiers endured repeated bombings of their convoys within view of police checkpoints. During their time here, they have arrested 70 members of the national police for collaboration in such attacks and other crimes.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police, has said that officials are working hard to root out militiamen from the force and denied that officers have any intention of participating in sectarian violence.

But in one instance about two months ago, the American soldiers heard that the Wolf Brigade planned to help resettle more than 100 Shiite families in abandoned houses in the neighborhood. When platoon leader Lt. Brian Bifulco arrived on the scene, he noticed that "abandoned houses to them meant houses that had Sunnis in them."

"What we later found out is they weren't really moving anyone in, it was a cover for the INP to go in and evict what Sunni families were left there," recalled Bifulco, 23, a West Point graduate from Huntsville, Ala. "We showed up, and there were a bunch of Sunni families just wandering around the streets with their bags, taking up refuge in a couple Sunni mosques in the area."

As Edward Copeland puts it at The Reaction, our troops have been (inadvertently) "acting as proxies for the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government to cleanse areas of Sunnis."

This is how that much-vaunted "quiet" has been achieved -- by helping the people who are murdering and dispossessing their sectarian rivals, rather than helping the people who are being murdered, evicted from their homes, and forced to flee their neighborhoods.

Cactus at Angry Bear has more on this:
A while back, I noted that the killings in Iraq would stop once the ethnic (or rather, sectarian) cleansing was complete.

So how do you tell the difference between a strategy is working (i.e., right now, The Surge, but at this time next year, something else) and cleansing that has been completed? Because right now, in some parts of Iraq, there is quiet. Well, relative quiet. And some attribute it to the Surge.

I think the answer is obvious. You can tell a neighborhood has been pacified as a result of the policy du jour rather than cleansing if the folks who moved away (i.e., fled) move back. I believe estimates are that well over a million people have fled the country, and about that many are internally displaced. Whatever the precise number, in a country of under we're talking about, at a minimum, a figure equal to 5% of the country's current population (which the CIA factbook estimates at about 27.5 million). Most of those who fled aren't exactly living in luxury - a huge percentage are living illegally or on the fringes in Jordan or Syria. All of which is to say, there are a lot of Iraqis who would be ready and willing to move back, if the country was pacified, and pacified by virtue of something other than their absence.

But they're not moving back -- which clearly belies the Bush administration's claim that large areas of Iraq have been "pacified."
Why is American blood and treasure not going to help those who have had to flee, but rather those that have made them flee? At what point do we conclude, or do we even care, that American blood and treasure is going toward helping those that have done the cleansing, and is, in fact, helping them keep the place cleansed?

The implication here is essential. It's not our troops on the ground who are engaged in a policy of helping the people who are doing the harm rather than helping the people who are being harmed. It's the commanders and generals sitting in offices inside walled military compounds who are giving the orders that are carrying out that policy. The men and women who actually have to obey the orders are simply trying to stay alive, and hopefully get out of the military with a clean record. The boots on the ground are not the villains in this. The villains in this are the ones who don't have to count the days until their tour of duty ends and hope they don't get killed before that day comes.

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