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The whirlwind

Thursday 3 April 2008, by Paul Roberts

A persistent drumbeat of optimism about the progress of the war in Iraq has been audible among some United States commentators in the last months of 2007 and the early months of 2008. The reduction in American military and Iraqi civilian casualties during much of this period has helped fuel this mood, and the notable decrease in US media interest in Iraq - partly owing to the blanket coverage of both an effervescent presidential-election campaign and a severe economic downturn - has further encouraged the subliminal sense of a gradual improvement.

Paul Rogers

Now, the extensive fighting between Iraqi government forces and the Shi’a militias of Muqtada al-Sadr in and around the southern Iraqi city of Basra - and an ensuing upsurge of violence in Baghdad itself - have forced less comfortable Iraqi realities back into the political and media consciousness. The impact of these events in Iraq, and on the contest for the US presidency, may be to replace the roseate view that had begun to prevail with a more realistic assessment.

After the surge

The United States military "surge" did have a substantial effect in 2007, and the increase in security in parts of Iraq that it delivered meant that thousands of civilian deaths and injuries that might otherwise have occurred were avoided - a very welcome outcome in an otherwise bleak situation. The indications from the January-March 2008 period suggest, however, that this improvement is not being maintained. The clearest evidence is the increasing casualty rate among both Iraqi civilians and American soldiers.

At the end of March, three Iraqi government ministries - health, interior and defence - published figures showing that 1,082 Iraqis had been killed that month; this total was significantly higher than the February toll of 721, and almost double the January number of 540 (see BBC News, "Iraqi death toll climbs sharply", 1 April 2008).

American military losses have also shown a marked if uneven rise in the first three months of the year, reflecting too more frequent insurgent attacks. The number of troops killed grew from twenty-three in December 2007 to forty in January 2008; there was then a decline to twenty-nine in February and a rise again to thirty-eight in March (see the Iraq Coalition Casualties website).

The sharp increase in attacks on US and Iraqi forces and civilians in Baghdad in late March - at the same time as the violence in Basra peaked - is especially notable. The mortar and rocket-propelled grenade attacks on the "green zone" in Baghdad have been widely reported, but these are just one part of a much bigger picture (see Dieter Bednarz, "Baghdad’s Green Zone Under Attack", SpiegelOnline, 31 March 2008). In the week from 24 March, for example, there were 728 attacks across Iraq, 430 of these in Baghdad (which had been the main focus of the US surge); this compares with an average of 326 attacks a week in Baghdad in June 2007, the fifth month of the surge (see Sudarsan Raghavan, "Attacks on U.S. Forces Soared at End of March", Washington Post, 2 April 2008).

In a fix

What is the explanation for this trend of events? It is becoming clear that much of the decrease in violence towards the end of 2007 was due to the decision by the Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to order his Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi army) to observe a six-month ceasefire. Indeed, this was at least as significant as the other developments championed by proponents of the "optimistic" narrative - the US surge itself and the associated US arming of Sunni militias against al-Qaida elements in central Iraq.

Moreover, the Sunni insurgents who remain in combat mode have demonstrated a resilience and capacity for innovation that have taken US forces by surprise. A prime example of this is their use of a new generation of sophisticated and deadly roadside bombs, termed "explosively-formed projectiles" (EFPs) or "shaped charges". These devices produce slugs of molten metal projected at extremely high velocities which are capable of penetrating most standard light armour. They have been in use in Iraq, and inflicted many casualties, in the past two years; but in the first three months of 2008 more powerful versions, often employing multiple charges, have begun to appear. This development has provoked the US army into a demand for fresh supplies of the new and heavily armoured "mine-resistant, ambush-protected" (MRAP) vehicles.

A reliable military journal reports that: "Yet more weapons are being used in each attack. Typically insurgents take multiple EFPs, position them in foam to look like the surrounding terrain and angle them to do most damage to a vehicle" (see Kris Osborn, "Powerful IEDs Renew U.S. Interest in MRAPs", Defense News, 31 March 2008).

The multiple-charge capacity means that insurgents are now able to prepare devices where a single explosive charge will deliver up to seven armour-piercing projectiles. Many US soldiers have lost limbs to EFP devices; as one American sergeant is quoted as saying, "It’s just molten copper ripping through these Humvees. It goes in one side and out the other and takes everything in between with it" (see Darrin Mortenson, "Troops’ Recurring Nightmare in Iraq", Time, 15 October 2007).

This is part of a pattern that has emerged throughout the five-year war: of the United States responding to insurgent attacks by reconfiguring its equipment and tactics - including a much greater reliance on heavily-armoured personnel carriers - while the insurgents learn to upgrade their own operations at least as quickly. These latest developments suggest that the insurgent forces are a long way from being curtailed; indeed they appear capable of considerable innovation at precisely the time when neo-conservatives (and others) in Washington have been speaking of likely victory in Iraq.

The southern front

The United States role in Iraq, target of a continuing challenge from militants in the Sunni areas, is also central to the upsurge in fighting around Basra in late March 2008. The immediate cause of this was the Iraqi government’s decision to mount an offensive on 25 March 2008 against the Jaish al-Mahdi militias in the key oil-industry centre of Basra, which could not have been undertaken without the knowledge and support of the US military (even if the White House was quick to distance itself from the operation).

The result of the intense, week-long combat has been inconclusive, but it - and the multiple attacks on the green zone in response to the Basra campaign - are potent reminders of the Mahdi army’s capabilities, as of the complex power-struggles in the Iraqi south (see Reidar Visser, "Basra’s second battle decoded", 31 March 2008). When Muqtada al-Sadr announced his militia’s ceasefire at the end of August 2007, there was a presumption that his position had been weakened by the decay of some of its elements into what amounted to local warlordism. An extension of the ceasefire after the first six months was seen as a further sign of weakness. This, it seems, encouraged the Nouri al-Maliki government to use the opportunity to launch an assault on the militia’s activities in Basra (see Gareth Porter, "Muqtada’s fight puts US to flight", Asia Times, 1 April 2008).

The fact that US approval was needed for the government to go ahead means that US military planners are likely to have shared the Iraqi government’s assessment. At the very least, there was an active assumption that the Iraqi army units were capable of wresting some degree of control of Basra from several of the militias that had established control there, principally if not exclusively the Sadrists.

The failure to do so, compounded by reports of elements in the Basra police force switching sides to support the militias, is a major setback. It has already resulted in the British government’s announcement that it intends to maintain force levels near the city; and it will probably make US troop withdrawals that bring the total deployment to below the pre-surge levels of January 2007 even less likely than they already were (see Steven Lee Myers & Thom Shanker, "Bush Given Iraq War Plan With A Steady Troop Level", New York Times, 25 March 2008).

The war at home

What does all this mean for the United States presidential campaign? A curious aspect of the broadcast media presentation of the recent fighting in Basra and Baghdad in the US is the strong impression that what was happening was both distant and largely disconnected from the country’s own involvement in Iraq. Apart from a concern with the capital’s green zone (especially when three Americans were wounded there), the portrait suggested that this was all a local, Basra-centred and essentially internal Iraqi affair. True, broadsheets such as the Washington Post and the New York Times offered a wider view, but the network TV channels that are the public’s main source of news were remarkably consistent in reflecting this attitude.

The source of this approach may, again, be partly a by-product of the all-consuming coverage of the domestic election campaign and the economic crisis; though there may also be an element of reluctance to confront the realities of a dismal and inescapable conflict. The result is a mix of neglect and one-sidedness that is very different from the neocon picture of a winnable war, even if it offers no real insight into what is actually occurring in Iraq (see the illuminating interview with Iraq-based journalist Patrick Cockburn, "Who is Iraq’s ‘firebrand cleric’?", Mother Jones, 31 March 2008).

The institutional and even psychological barriers to consistent American attention on Iraq may be very great in this sixth year of the war. But the overall security situation in Iraq is so uncertain and fragile that this studious ignoring of the war is unlikely to last. There are in addition urgent calls for Nato reinforcements in Afghanistan at a time when attacks on Nato supply-lines have escalated and thousands of Taliban militia are moving from Pakistan into Afghanistan. It is therefore probable that some combination of Iraqi and Afghanistan crises will become inescapable even for those who thought the countries could be safely forgotten until after the election. The "long war" is not going to go away.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

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