Iraq – what lies behind the “surge”?


It wasn’t too long ago when the situation in Iraq appeared to just about everyone as a disastrous quagmire, with an ongoing civil war that appeared impossible to stem, let alone stop or even reverse. Iraq appeared to be an unmoveable albatross around the US Republican Party, a disaster of such scale that would make their defeat in the upcoming Presidential elections all but inevitable.

But recently, there’s been a definite turnaround in the portrayal of Iraq in the media, there’s less reports of car bombings, attacks on US forces, and somewhat more of a positive and optimistic mood about Iraq. The BBC have done reports detailing how life is, allegedly, slowly but surely getting better for most Iraqis. Baghdad is still the most dangerous city in the world, they accept, but then again levels of violence are down, aren’t they?

This transformation of Iraqi society from a Yugoslavia in waiting to a blossoming democracy, was not conducted using a magic wand or spell, but a term which has taken on the same meaning as “abracadabra” for the GOP faithful in the US – “The Surge”.

The Surge has been credited with stopping Al Qaeda in Iraq, ending sectarian violence and curbing Moqtada Al Sadr. John McCain, the US Republican Presidential candidate has on many occasions brought up The Surge with an air of confidence and authority that wouldn’t be found in Republican contributions on Iraq a few years ago. The Surge has been shown to have worked miraculously, and those politicians – Obama, allegedly – who opposed it have been shown to be pretty foolish. Iraq it seems can be won, all it took was one mighty hammer blow to do it.

It all sounds too good to be true – largely because it is.

Lets deal with indisputable facts first – violence in Iraq, both attacks on Occupation forces and sectarian attacks – have decreased in the wake of The Surge. On purely a personal level, alongside a Socialist viewpoint no one can watch the bombings of markets, or food queues and feel anything other than horror, regardless of whether or not it proves your arguments about the nature of the invasion of Iraq and what it would result in “right”.

So it’s a positive development for working class unity in Iraq to see any decline of sectarian violence. It’s vital to the strength of Iraqi worker’s organisations in defending their own interests and expelling the Occupation forces.

But in reality all The Surge has done in Iraq has been to keep the various militia forces in a state of “deep freeze” – co-opting some, making ethnic cleansing permanent and driving others underground. All the social forces that can – and almost certainly will – return to violence, whether it’s to carve out  and expand their influence in Iraq and/or to fight the Occupation forces. The new US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno has described the gains as “fragile and reversible” for precisely these reasons.

The Surge’s results can basically be summed up in four specific strategies the US made in relation to its enemies in Iraq,

* Co-opting Sunni tribal militia groups to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, dissuading them from attacking Occupation forces,

* US forces enforcing the partition of an ethnically cleansed Baghdad,

* Training Shiite Iraqi Govt forces to fight Al Sadr’s Mahdi army, till it agreed to a cease-fire, and 

* A massive program of death squads targeted against prominent members of those fighting the US Occupation in Iraq, mainly within the Sunni community.

To go through each point one by one – the co-opting of Sunni militia groups into “Awakening Councils” is part of classic divide and rule tactics used by occupying powers, which I will go into later. One other factor leading to the formation of these Awakening Councils is that Al Qaeda in Iraq have used barbaric and murderous attacks on civilian Iraqi targets.

This has generated hatred against Al Qaeda in Iraq from Sunnis who have no love for the Occupation or the Shiite dominated central Iraqi Government. This would make it understandable as to why Sunnis would collaborate with US forces to remove a gang of murdering psychopaths like Al Qaeda in Iraq.

But more importantly in determining why millitias who previously fought the Occupation now side alongside it, is the ethnic conflict and divide and rule tactics of the Occupation forces. Parties who rely on communal support from Iraq’s Kurdish and Shiite populations now form the Iraqi Government. Ironically, after the US it is the Iranians who are the biggest backers of Iraq’s current Kurdish/Shiite dominated Government.  Iraq’s current Prime Minister is Nouri Al Maliki, who is a member of the Islamist Dawa party – which celebrated the Iranian revolution and supported Khomeini.

This is all part and parcel of Iran flexing its muscles as a developing regional power – and trying to ensure that it won’t be attacked from US bases in Iraq.

This has led many Sunni Tribal leaders to consider whether or not the Occupation was the main enemy, and to consider how their own position could be under threat unless they can reach some agreement with the Occupation forces in carving out their own spheres of influence. Most of the Awakening Councils have cooperated only with the US forces, and have ignored the Iraqi Government which they see as Shiite controlled. Self-described leaders of the Iraqi Resistance have in the past declared Iran – not the US – to be their main enemy. Put in context, that means Iraq’s Shiite population.

That’s not such a ridiculous position, from the perspective of Sunni Tribal elites. The next action the US took to secure its objectives during The Surge was to send thousands more troops into the capital Baghdad. The influx of US soldiers into Baghdad is generally counted as being one of the major factors in the Surge’s victory, but it ignores the reality on the ground.

A study by the University of California examined, using satellite photography, the electricity use in Baghdad, shown below,

The data shows that in the weeks before the influx of US soldiers into Baghdad, the lights in Sunni communities in Baghdad gradually went off. This blackout wasn’t present in Shiite areas of Baghdad – put simply, the Sunnis were being ethnically cleansed out of Baghdad by Shiite militias, before The Surge sent in additional US forces.

It was ethnic cleansing, not The Surge that reduced sectarian violence in Baghdad. The additional US forces act as a buffer against any attempts by Sunnis to reopen hostilities against the Shiite militias. The most likely culprits behind the cleansing are the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of SCIRI – the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. They are present throughout the Iraqi Governments police forces, and were exposed a few years ago for running a torture centre in a Government Ministry.

Not all the Shiite militias are behind the Iraqi Government though. The biggest, best organised and most well known anti-Occupation force is the Mehdi Army, of Moqtada Al Sadr. One major part of The Surge was the “Iraqisation” of Iraq’s security – moving away from a reliance on US and UK forces to enforce security in Iraq, and turn the control of provinces over to the Iraqi Government.

Part and parcel of this was the British Army massively scaling down its operations in the south of Iraq, around Basra, and turning over control to the Iraqi Government. In order for the Iraqi Government to have effective control over this area – as well as for the Shiite Government parties to destroy a communal rival – it was necessary, as part of The Surge to eliminate the power of the Mehdi Army.

The subsequent truce the Mehdi Army signed with the Iraqi Government is recognised as being a major factor in the decrease in attacks on Occupation forces. But the Mehdi Army is far from being defeated, or a spent force in Iraq. The domestic Iraqi Security forces sent to fight the Mehdi Army in many cases either refused to fight, or actually defected to the side of the Al Sadr. The fighting itself shocked the US and it’s ally in the Iraqi Government in terms of the resistance the Mehdi Army was able to put up. The Mehdi army may have signed a truce, but this allows it to regroup and rearm, and the political support Al Sadr has – based on a mixture of opposition to the Occupation, and an authoritarian preservation of “order” in Islamist terms – has been untouched by The Surge.

The final factor in the “success” of The Surge is the most secretive part of the US plan – a massive program of executions, carried out by secret death squads in Iraq, targeting leaders of anti-Occupation forces. This claim does not come from the left or the fringe but from veteran journalist Bob Woodward of Watergate fame.

This secret killing programme shouldn’t be underestimated – Woodward did not reveal the assassinations as he was advised by US officials that it accounted for a “good portion” of the Surge’s success. Woodward is no critic of the Surge,likely to come out with an outlandish lie. He supported the assassination programme describing it as “a wonderful example of American ingenuity of solving a problem”.

This begs the question, if Saddam was overthrown to legalise death squads in Iraq then what was the point of overthrowing him? Will any of those murdered have redress to the law, to prosecute the killers? It’s not the first time mass human rights abuses have been committed by a US supported Iraqi Government – the UN’s Chief anti-torture expert claimed in 2006 that torture in Iraq was “worse than under Saddam”.

The Surge is a sticking plaster, designed to keep various ethnic groups and militias in Iraq co-opted, at truce or eliminated entirely. This allows the US to achieve what are probably its two most important strategic goals in Iraq; permanent military bases, and what is known as a Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) for Iraq’s oil, which will turn Iraq’s oil fields to private companies for the first time in decades. The PSA for Iraq is a con of monumental proportions – it will leave only 14 out of 80 oil fields in Iraqi control, with the rest in private hands. There are no other oil producing countries in the Middle East with such a con of an agreement.

Theres only one force capable of uniting Iraq’s various ethnic groups under a common banner of opposition to the US led occupation, theft of oil reserves and oppose the carving up of their country and decimation of Trade Union organisations in Iraq by sectarian militias – the Iraqi working class.

Socialists who want to help the heroic and embattled Iraqi workers movement advance a vision of their country beyond an Iraq held together by ethnic conflict and assassination, the real legacy of the Surge.

2 Responses to “Iraq – what lies behind the “surge”?”

  1. Alan G Says:

    The Washington Post has a map showing the population mix before and after the surge

  2. Andy Taylor Says:

    excellent info and visuals in this article Andy. Enjoyed learning.
    Andy Taylor

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