Let’s start with that “last war” and see if we can get things straight. Just over five years ago, American troops entered Baghdad in battle mode, fellingthe Sunni-dominated government of dictator Saddam Hussein and declaring Iraq “liberated.” In the wake of the city’s fall, after widespread looting, the new American administrators dismantled the remains of Saddam’s government in its hollowed out, trashed ministries; disassembled the Sunni-dominated Baathist Party which had ruled Iraq since the 1960s, sending its members home with news that there was no coming back; dismantled Saddam’s 400,000 man army; and began to denationalizethe economy. Soon, an insurgency of outraged Sunnis was raging against the American occupation.
After initially resisting democratic elections, American occupation administrators finally gave in to the will of the leading Shiite clergyman, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and agreed to sponsor them. In January 2005, these brought religious parties representing a long-oppressed Shiite majority to power, parties which had largely been in exile in neighboring Shiite Iran for years.
This time, the forces facing American troops haven’t put down their weapons, packed up, and gone home. This time, no one is talking about “liberation,” or “freedom,” or “democracy.”
Now, skip a few years, and U.S. troops have once again entered Baghdad in battle mode. This time, they’ve been moving into the vast Sadr City Shiite slum “suburb” of eastern Baghdad, which houses perhaps two-and-a-half million closely packed inhabitants. If free-standing, Sadr City would bethe second largest city in Iraq after the capital. This time, the forces facing American troops haven’t put down their weapons, packed up, and gone home. This time, no one is talking about “liberation,” or “freedom,” or “democracy.” In fact, no one is talking about much of anything.
And no longer is the U.S. attacking Sunnis. In the wake of the President’s 2007 surge, the U.S. military is now officially allied with 90,000 Sunnis of the so-called Awakening Movement, mainly former insurgents, many of them undoubtedly once linked to the Baathist government U.S. forces overthrew in 2003. Meanwhile, American troops are fighting the Shiite militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, a cleric who seems now to be living in Iran, but whose spokesman in Najaf recently bitterly denounced that country for “seeking to share with the U.S. in influence over Iraq.” And they are fighting the Sadrist Mahdi Army militia in the name of an Iraqi government dominated by another Shiite militia, the Badr Corps of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose ties to Iran are even closer.
Ten thousand Badr Corps militia members were being inducted into the Iraqi army (just as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was demanding that the Mahdi Army militia disarm). This week, an official delegation from that government, which only recently received Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with high honors in Baghdad, took off for Tehran at American bidding to present “evidence” thatthe Iranians are arming their Sadrist enemies.
At the heart of this intra-sectarian struggle may be the fear that, in upcoming provincial elections, the Sadrists, increasingly popular for their resistance to the American occupation, might actually win. For the last few weeks, American troops have been moving deeper into Sadr City, implanting the reluctant security forces of the Maliki government 500-600 meters ahead of them. This is called “standing them up,” “part of a strategy to build up the capability of the Iraqi security forces by letting them operate semi-autonomously of the American troops.” It’s clear, however, that, if Maliki’s military were behind them, many might well disappear. (A number have already either put down their weapons, fled, or gone over tothe Sadrists.)
How the Reverse Body Count Came — and Went
The fighting in the heavily populated urban slums of Sadr City has been fierce, murderous, and destructive. It has quieted most of the talk about the “lowering of casualties” and of “violence” that was the singular hallmark of the surge year in Iraq. Though never commented upon, that remarkable year-long emphasis on the ever lessening number of corpses actually represented the return, in perversely reverse form, of the Vietnam era “body count.”
In a guerrilla war situation in which there was no obvious territory to be taken and no clear way to establish what our previous Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, once called the “metrics” of victory or success, it was natural, as happened in Vietnam, to begin to count. If you couldn’t conquer a city or a country, then there was a certain logic to the thought that victory would come if, one by one, you could “obliterate” — to use a word suddenly back in the news — the enemy.
With the coming of the surge strategy in 2007, frustration over the President’s unaccomplished mission and his constant talk of victory meant that some other “metric,” some other “benchmark,” for success had to be established…
As the Vietnam conflict dragged on, however, as the counting of bodies continued and victory never materialized, that war gained the look of slaughter, and the body count (announced every day at a military press conference in Saigon that reporters labeled “the five o’clock follies”) came to be seen by increasing numbers of Americans as evidence of atrocity. It became the symbol of the descent into madness in Indochina. No wonder the Bush administration, imagining itself once again capturing territory, carefully organized its Iraq War so that it would lack such official counting. (The President later described the process this way: “We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team.”)
With the coming of the surge strategy in 2007, frustration over the President’s unaccomplished mission and his constant talk of victory meant that some other “metric,” some other “benchmark,” for success had to be established, and it proved to be the reverse body count. Over the last year, in fact, just about the only measure of success regularly trumpeted in the mainstream media has been that lowering of the death count. In reverse form, however, it still held some of the same dangers for the administration as its Vietnamese cousin.
As of April, bodies, in ever rising numbers, American and Iraqi, have been forcing their way back into the news as symbols not of success, but of failure.
As of April, bodies, in ever rising numbers, American and Iraqi, have been forcing their way back into the news as symbols not of success, but of failure. More than 1,000 Iraqis have, by semi-official estimate, died just in the last month (and experts know that these monstrous monthly totals of Iraqi dead are usually dramatic undercounts). Four hundred Iraqis, reportedly only 10% militia fighters, are estimated to have died in the onslaught on Sadr City alone.
American soldiers are also dying in and around Baghdad in elevated numbers. U.S. military spokesmen claim that none of this represents a weakening of the post-surge security situation. As Lieutenant General Carter Ham, Joint Staff director for operations at the Pentagon, put the matter: “While it is sad to see an increase in casualties, I don’t think it is necessarily indicative of a major change in the operating environment. When the level of fighting increases, then sadly the number of casualties does tend to rise.” This is, of course, unmitigated nonsense.
In April, of the 51 American deaths in Iraq, more than twenty evidently took place in the ongoing battle for Sadr City or greater Baghdad. Among them were young men from Portland, Mesquite, Buchanan Dam, and Fresno (Texas), Billings (Montana), Fountain (Colorado), Bakersfield (California), Mount Airy (North Carolina), and Zephyrhills (Florida) — all thousands of miles from home. And many of them have died under the circumstances most feared by American commanders (and thought for a time to have been avoided) before the invasion of Iraq — in block to block, house to house fighting in the warren of streets in one of this planet’s many slum cities.
For the Iraqis of Sadr City, of course, this is a living hell. (“Sadr City right now is like a city of ghosts,” Abu Haider al-Bahadili, a Mahdi Army fighter told Amit R. Paley of the Washington Post. “It has turned from a city into a field of battle.”) As in all colonial wars, all wars on the peripheries, the “natives” always die in staggeringly higher numbers than the far better armed occupation or expeditionary forces.
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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt