Michael Schwartz (Tomdispatch.com)

In early April, General David Petraeus, the flavor of the year in American military officers, will return to Washington to report to President Bush and the Democratic Congress on the state of post-surge Iraq. His report will be upbeat, with cautious notes thrown in, and the reception will be warm. The Republicans will congratulate the President, hoping that Americans will stop complaining and finally learn to tolerate, if not love, his war; the Democrats will be quietly unhappy because they would like Iraq to remain a major election issue.

In the meantime, the Iraqis will continue to endure the results of the surge, yet another brutal chapter in the endless war that once promised them liberation.

The Republicans will congratulate the President, hoping that Americans will stop complaining and finally learn to tolerate, if not love, his war

Over the course of five years, Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, has been transformed from a metropolis into an urban desert of half-destroyed buildings and next to no public services, dotted by partially deserted, mutually hostile mini-ghettos that used to be neighborhoods, surrounded by cement barriers reminiscent of medieval fortifications. The most prominent of these ghettos is the heavily fortified city-inside-a-city dubbed the Green Zone, where Iraq’s most fearsome militia, the United States military, is headquartered. It is governed by the Americans and by the American-sponsored Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

The remaining ghettos, large and small, are governed by local militias, most of them sworn enemies of the United States and the Maliki regime. In the expanding Shia areas of the capital, the local guardians are often members of the Mahdi Army, the militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that has opposed the American presence since the occupation began. In the shrinking Sunni-controlled parts of the city, the local guardians are usually members of the Sahwa forces (the “Awakening” or, in U.S. military jargon, “Concerned Local Citizens”). The Americans have ceded to them control of their cement-enclosed domains as long as they discontinue insurgent attacks elsewhere.

As Baghdadi citizens continue to flee the threat of violence, ethnic cleansing, and economic destitution, the city waits — whether for a definitive military confrontation or some less violent change that will bring its long ordeal to an end.

How did this all come to be?

Ethnic Cleansing Arrives in Baghdad

When the American occupation of Baghdad began in April 2003, about half of the city’s neighborhoods had no particular ethnic character. In late 2004, however, thousands of Sunnis, driven out of Falluja and other insurgent strongholds by American offensives, began arriving in Baghdad. In increasingly crowded neighborhoods, ethnic friction rose, as did Sunni anger at a Shia-dominated government that sent its troops into battle beside American ones.

Sunni militias, originally organized to deal with local crime (after the Americans dismantled the Iraqi police force) began to turn on Shia residents in some of the capital’s 200 mixed neighborhoods. Eventually, scattered acts of harassment were transformed into systematic campaigns of expulsion, justified by the housing needs of a rapidly growing multitude of Sunni refugees, and as retaliation for government-supported assaults on Sunni cities. During 2005, the first stream of displaced Shia began arriving in Baghdad’s vast, already overcrowded Shia slum of Sadr City and in the Shia cities of southern Iraq.

In January 2006, the bombing of the revered Shia shrine, the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra, triggered sweeping Shia reprisals against Sunni communities. In the capital, a struggle for the dominance of mixed neighborhoods began. Deadly battles between Shia and Sunni militias featured all weapons and methods of slaughter available, including car bombs and death squads. Whichever side expelled the other, minority groups including Christians, Kurds, and Palestinians found themselves unwelcome and began to flee (or die). Ethnic cleansing now lay at the center of the spiraling violence in Baghdad.

The Americans Enter the Battle

In May 2006, American forces first joined “the battle for Baghdad” in a significant way. With the initiation of Operation Together Forward, the U.S. military began transferring combat brigades to the capital in an attempt to take control of Sunni and Shia militia strongholds.

This strategy, however, quickly proved itself ineffective…


Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency. This report on the battle of Baghdad is adapted from his forthcoming Tomdispatch book, War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context (Haymarket Books, June 2008). His work on Iraq has appeared on numerous Internet sites, including Tomdispatch, Asia Times, Mother Jones, and ZNET. His email address is Ms42@optonline.net.

Copyright 2008 Michael Schwartz

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