Iraq: the Human Cost

Iraq: The Bottom Line on Falling Casualties

by Wayne White, November 7, 2007

The media have focused heavily of late on the significant fall in U.S. military and Iraqi military and civilian casualties. This is a very welcome development which cannot be denied. Nonetheless, too much discussion has focused on whether casualties actually have fallen (they have) instead of how durable the trend is likely to be.

Live media in particular have provided precious little context about whether this success is likely to prove enduring or fleeting, especially concerning casualties among Iraqis. As usual, the print media has done a relatively better job in this respect, probing somewhat deeper. However, far fewer Americans get their news on Iraq from newspapers or higher quality newspapers.

First, the political compromises (most contained in the so-called "benchmarks") that the surge was supposed to make possible by taking down levels of violence in the greater Baghdad area have not been achieved and do not appear likely to be achieved.

Second, much of the decline in Iraqi casualties, most notably in Baghdad, relates to the physical separation of the respective parties by U.S. troops, the fact that many more neighborhoods are more homogeneous now as a result of prior sectarian cleansing, and U.S. military oversight of Iraqi army and police units suspected of participating in ethno-sectarian violence (or turning a blind eye).

With the latter in mind, a U.S. Army colonel who returned from Baghdad this summer where his battalion was "sitting on" various neighborhoods told me last month that when a Shi'a Iraqi Army battalion he was told to work with in a Sunni Arab neighborhood lost two soldiers to insurgents, the unit went on a rampage machine-gunning scores of homes before his troops could bring the situation under control.

That would not suggest &em;to say the least&em;that there has been a meaningful lessening in overall sectarian tensions. In fact, he said that if a Shi'a family stopped to shop in this Sunni Arab neighborhood and his troopers were not present, their life expectancy might well be measured in minutes.

Third, the surge was meant to address the serious problem of predominantly Shi'a militias and death squads in Baghdad. However, much of the Mahdi Army, other Shi'a militias, and their death squads cleverly decided (even prior to Muqtada al-Sadr's more recent order to stand down) either to maintain a low profile in Baghdad or to go south in large numbers to wait out the surge in sanctuaries largely beyond the reach of U.S. forces.

Fourth, Sunni Arab elements with which the U.S. military is cooperating against al-Qaeda in Iraq (tangible good news) are arming and organizing themselves in far larger numbers than ever before. This has created what Prime Minister Maliki recently denounced as "illegal" Sunni Arab "militias."

Fifth, when the surge winds down, there is every reason to expect Shi'a militias and their death squads will reactivate and return from the south to resume their grisly work.

Finally, these returning Shi'a elements will encounter much stronger armed Sunni Arab elements (or militias) that will doubtless push back hard against such activity themselves, quite possibly generating levels of violence not seen since 2006.

Wayne White, an Adjunct Scholar of the Middle East Institute, was Deputy Director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia. From 2003 to 2005, he was principal Iraq analyst and head of that office's Iraq Team.