January 27, 2005

A Gloomy Baghdad Dispatch from John Burns

Starkly put, Baghdad is not under control, either by the Iraqi interim government or the American military.

On the bright spring day in April 2003 when marines helped topple Mr. Hussein's statue in Firdos Square, Baghdad, more than any other place in Iraq, was the place American commanders hoped to make a showcase for the benefits the invasion would bring.

Instead, daily life here has become a deadly lottery, a place so fraught with danger that one senior American military officer acknowledged at a briefing last month that nowhere in the area assigned to his troops could be considered safe.

"I would definitely say it's enemy territory," said Col. Stephen R. Lanza, the commander of the Fifth Brigade Combat Team, a unit of the First Cavalry Division that is responsible for patrolling a wide area of southern Baghdad with a population of 1.3 million people.

In the week that ended Sunday, according to figures kept by Western security companies with access to data compiled by the American command, Baghdad was hit by 7 suicide car bombings, 37 roadside bombs and 52 insurgent attacks involving automatic rifles or rocket-propelled grenades. The suicide bombs alone killed at least 60 people and injured 150 others.

Although the American military command has cited surveys purportedly showing 80 percent of Baghdad's residents are eager to vote, many people interviewed by reporters are like Dr. Naqib who say they will stay away.

John Burns, in the NYT.

Just because John Burns says it's so bad doesn't make it so etc etc. But it means a hell of a lot more than, say, if Maureen Dowd did. As regular readers know, I firmly believe Burns is the best reporter the New York Times has in its employ. Indeed, I have the much faith in his abilities as a reporter to capture the realities of his environs with judiciousness and considerable intelligence. Still, I remain more optimistic of electoral turnout, even in non-Sadr City parts of Baghdad (turnout is likely to be highest there), than the article seems to allow. Well, we'll know soon enough, won't we?

But, and it bears stressing, articles like this should make manifestly clear that, if we are serious about Iraqi democratization, the effort (and significant committment of U.S. blood and treasure) is still to be measured in years (perhaps many), not months. I've seen some quite underwhelming blogospheric discourse here and there about a big draw-down of U.S. troops now being possible because we have upwards of 125,000 odd Iraqi forces trained. That number, in terms of truly trained forces that would really stand and fight when the shit hits the fan is much, much lower. More on the status of 'train and equip' here. Yes, things have gotten better since Lieutenant General David H. Petraeus arrived on the scene. But we are not where an increasingly ineffective Rumsfeld tries to portray we are during his entertaining little press gaggles.

Posted by Gregory at January 27, 2005 05:09 AM | TrackBack (10)

The Burns article is, indeed, gloomy. And I share your faith in his reportage. If he says it's bad, it's bad. What angers me is that we have, in essence, about 6,000 real ready-to-fight Iraqis under uniform right now. Why didn't we start recruiting and training them in earnest two years ago?

The other problem is the constitution of these good Iraqi units. Very few members of these units are Sunnis, from what I've seen. In fact, the Sunni army already exists - in the insurgency. If the new Iraqi army, tiny as it is, must defend the government, and the government is dominated by Shia and Kurds, how does civil war not follow? It matters little that the Sunni insurgents - who are really a reconstituted Ba'athist movement run by the old Mukhabarat with some Islamist firebrands from inside and outside the country for propaganda value and suicide bodies - have little popular support, even inside the Sunni heartland. Many successful insurgencies assume full power in spite of low popular support. Take the Bolsheviks in 1917, for example, or the Khmer Rouge in 1975. None had great support but their followers were very well-organized, expert at propaganda, and extremely ruthless. Whereas other parties fiddled and faddled the Bolsheviks and the Khmer Rouge stepped into action. So here in Iraq, the new government will fiddle around with inadequate troops and internal squabbling between secular and theocratic Shiites, and with Kurds demanding Kirkuk and autonomy, all of which will create a great deal of uncertainty. Under normal circumstance this uncertainty would be harmless. But under these circumstances the insurgents will exploit it to the hilt, pitting Sunnis against Shia (as they've already done, even if the Shia have exercised restraint up to now - something that one can't guarantee after elections nominally tip the balance in the Shia favor; could the Badr Corps be ready to strike the Sunnis the way Ansar al Sunnah and co. have attacked Shia holy sites?) I don't see elections stemming this tide at all. And I don't see the new-born Iraqi Army able to handle the insurgents any time soon. The only way out is to buy off Sunni tribal sheikhs so as to divide the Sunni population. Even promise major oil wealth and government power to the Sunni, disproportionate to their population of course. With that, the new government might convince some Sunni to join the new army, and thus exploit tribal ties in the insurgent belts. Over time, the insurgents could be marginalized. But this would take at least five years, probably more. And in the meantime the US must prepare to keep 150,000 troops to prevent an insurgent massacre of the new political set.

Posted by: Elrod at January 27, 2005 07:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yeah, Greg, I know - I, too, wish it wasn't so difficult. "So do all who live to see such times".

And what of it?

Follows the throng of posters here, below my post, who are on the wrong side of history.

It's not working.
We have no right.
There's going to be a civil war.
It's not legitimate.
They don't want us there.

There are going to be elections. There *is* an Iraqi Army. More importantly, There are *Iraqi* businessmen. Not Sunni businessmen, not Shia businessmen - Iraqi businesmen.

"Somethings wrong, brother(s), you better get your minds together" Said the fighter. People are being vitimized and denied the rights that their creator endowed them with. And I, for one, find the malevolent dis-interest western liberalism particularly distasteful this week, as we pause to remember the horrors of politically divested peoples at the mercy of tyrannical political movements, forever immortalized in the name of certain parts of occupied Poland.

Thankfully, they'll not live long enough to simply die of shame in 60 more years, as the reflect on where they stand in today's fight.

Posted by: Art Wellesley at January 27, 2005 01:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

How long will we be in Iraq? Considering that we still have over 50k in Germany and 30k in South Korea 60 and 55 years respectively ten years seems like an easy guess.

Posted by: Bullshark at January 27, 2005 03:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Surprisingly, I actually had a somewhat different take on the Burns piece. I respect his judgment and experience enormously--the man has las pelotas de acero--but if you look at his numbers they don't make it sound like Baghdad is under constant siege. Perhaps you could say that the bad guys have been able to force everyone to alter their behavior sufficiently and that's bad enough to warrant Burns' claim that nowhere is safe. Being safely ensconced in scenic Pittsburgh, however, it's hard for me to say.

Posted by: praktike at January 27, 2005 03:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Again and again, the sowings of an unnecessary war are now getting reaped.
Guilty consciences, any of you?
Nahh, I didn't think so. The "liberal media" is still lying abot Iraq.

Posted by: Steverino at January 27, 2005 09:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Posted by: dog apparel at January 28, 2005 05:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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