After the surge in Iraq: has the US won?

September 27, 2008

"The surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated", US Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama told Fox News on September 4. Obama's claim echoed Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain. Both candidates claim that the surge, which involved sending more than 20,000 extra US troops into Iraq, has reduced violence and "stabilised" Iraq, rescuing the occupation from the indigenous resistance.

The claim has been repeated by the corporate media in the US and elsewhere. "The surge, clearly, has worked, at least for now ... The result, now visible in the streets, is a calm unlike any the country has seen since the American invasion", was how the New York Times put it on August 21.

However, a recent study by members of the Department of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles — titled "Baghdad Nights: Evaluating the US Military 'surge' using nighttime light signatures" — seems to indicate otherwise. The abstract for the article, which was published in Environment and Planning on September 19, notes: "Using free satellite imagery from the Department of Defense, researchers tracked electricity use in Iraq before, during, and after the surge took place. Electricity use (as measured by visible night-light) in Baghdad fell, notably in certain outlying neighborhoods where incidents of ethnic violence were documented by The Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces in Iraq."

The Foreign Policy blog quoted Thomas Gillespie, a co-author of the study, as explaining: "If the surge had truly 'worked,' we would expect to see a steady increase in night-light output over time." John Agnew, another co-author, said: "By the launch of the surge, many of the targets of conflict had either been killed or fled the country, and they turned off the lights when they left." "Essentially, our interpretation is that violence has declined in Baghdad because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the surge was beginning."

According to the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration in 2007, almost 5 million Iraqis had been displaced by violence; the vast majority of them have fled since 2003 when the US-led "coalition of the willing" invaded.

Behind this exodus has been the US's violent attempts to crush resistance to the occupation and the resulting devastation of infrastructure and destruction and dislocation of entire communities. But less visible has been the ongoing semi-"secret" war waged by US-trained death squads. A February 2006 article in the British Independent, for instance, noted that "Hundreds of Iraqis are being tortured to death or summarily executed every month in Baghdad alone by death squads working from the Ministry of the Interior, the United Nations' outgoing human rights chief [John Pace] in Iraq has revealed".

The conclusion of "Baghdad Nights" is backed by journalist Patrick Cockburn, who wrote in a September 14 article for the Independent: "Life in Baghdad certainly is better than it was 18 months ago when some 60 to 100 bodies were being found beside the road every morning, the victims of Sunni-Shia sectarian slaughter. The main reason this ended was that the battle for Baghdad in 2006-7 was won by the Shia who now control three quarters of the capital. These demographic changes appear permanent and Sunni who try to get their houses back face assassination."

Cockburn added: "Ongoing violence is down but Iraq is still the most dangerous country in the world. While violence has spiked sharply in Baghdad in the last two weeks, leading the Iraqi army to spread troops throughout capital. While the majority of Iraq still receives less than 2 hours a day of electricity."

US casualties this year are lower than all other years since the war began. Part of this can be attributed to the success of constructing the paramilitary group "Sons of Iraq", which is estimated to have up to 100,000 fighters across the country, with 54,000 of them currently in Baghdad. The US arms and heavily funds the group. Most of the membership once took up arms against the US occupation. This leaves the occupation with a long-term problem: a September 26 Reuters article reported that "Iraq's government must find jobs for tens of thousands of mainly Sunni Arab patrolmen after it takes responsibility for them next week, or al Qaeda may try to recruit them, a senior U.S. commander said on Friday ...

"The U.S. military currently pays patrol members about $300 a month. Iraq says it has room in its army and police to give security jobs only to about 20 percent of the patrol members, but has pledged to help the rest train or find civilian jobs."

The US has also engaged in a series of bribes of Iraqi tribal leaders to secure their aid, or at least their neutrality, in the attempt to wipe out opponents of the occupation. This ensures that the future of the occupation regime remains uncertain at best.

Moreover, the reduction in US casualties can be partly attributed to the ceasefire ordered by Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr, which a September 27 Associated Press article reported has "been cited by the U.S. military as a key factor in a steep drop in violence nationwide".

However, supporters of Sadr have been staging weekly protests against the proposed security pact that will give a legal fig leaf to the occupation after the expiration of the UN mandate at the end of this year.

Current US plans call for the withdrawal of 8000 US troops in February. This will leave 138,000 troops in the country — more than when the "surge" began.

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