The Real Story Behind the Falling Casualty Rate in Iraq

The Real Story Behind the Falling Casualty Rate in Iraq
By Brandon Friedman

As U.S. casualties have continued to drop, many people on the anti-Bush side of the aisle have begun to quietly panic in recent days over this question: "Could George W. Bush and Frederick Kagan have possibly been right about the surge?"

Simply put, the answer is no.The surge is not working and George W. Bush and Frederick Kagan were not right. Despite what right-wing blogs are saying, and despite what conservative observers are noting, the plunge in violence is actually the result of an Iraqi political decision made by and implemented by Iraqis -- and the drop has little to do with the "surge" -- an infusion of 30,000 troops (which wouldn't fill a Major League stadium) into Baghdad, a city of six million people.

What's happening is really simple -- and it's happening in plain sight, in the traditional media.  But it just so happens that, as far as I can tell, no one is connecting the dots.

When someone tells you that the "surge" is working, you must walk them through this chain of events:

On August 7, 2007, near the end of America's bloodiest summer in Iraq, the New York Times reported the following:
Attacks on American-led forces using a lethal type of roadside bomb said to be supplied by Iran reached a new high in July, according to the American military.
The devices, known as explosively formed penetrators, were used to carry out 99 attacks last month and accounted for a third of the combat deaths suffered by the American-led forces, according to American military officials.
"July was an all-time high," Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said in an interview, referring to strikes with such devices.
Such bombs, which fire a semi-molten copper slug that can penetrate the armor on a Humvee and are among the deadliest weapons used against American forces, are used almost exclusively by Shiite militants.
The "Shiite militants" described by the New York Times were, in fact, members of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. And, as we all saw this past summer, Muqtada's fighters were really doing a job on American forces -- despite the troop increase which began earlier in the year.

That was on August 7th. And remember, this was during a summer throughout which we were bombarded with news of Iranian/Shia efforts to kill Americans and destabilize the Iraqi government.

Then, barely three weeks after the New York Times article ran, 50 Muslim pilgrims were slaughtered in sectarian fighting in Karbala. In response, Muqtada al-Sadr announced that he had

ordered his militia to suspend offensive operations for six months.
No one saw this coming.

The surprise statement regarding his notorious Mahdi army, which is responsible for much of Iraq's sectarian blood-letting, not only caught British and American commanders off-guard but appeared to have surprised Baghdad officials too. Mowaffak al-Rubbaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said Baghdad would only welcome the move if Sadr's lieutenants stop attacks and their attempts to "blow up" the Iraqi government.
"I will see on the ground what is going to happen," he said. "It is good news if it is true. If it happens it will reduce violence in the country a great deal."
When this news was reported on August 30th, no one really believed it, much less expected the implementation of an actual cease-fire on the part of Iraq's Shia fighters.

On September 1st, even the U.S. military admitted that this could be an important -- if not the important -- development in the situation on the ground in Iraq. According to CNN,
"Muqtada al-Sadr's declaration holds the potential to reduce criminal activity and help reunite Iraqis separated by ethno-sectarian violence and fear," the U.S. military said.
An end to Mehdi Army "would also be an important step in helping Iraqi authorities focus greater attention on achieving the political and economic solutions necessary for progress and less on dealing with criminal activity, sectarian violence, kidnappings, assassinations, and attacks on Iraqi and coalition forces," the military said.
When that was said by the U.S. military on September 1st, the "surge" was never mentioned. It was all about an Iraqi decision that would succeed or fail on Iraqi actions. The U.S. military was only observing.

Lo and behold, U.S. troop deaths began plummet. American deaths dropped from 84 in August, to 65 in September, to 38 in October -- the lowest tally for a single month in over a year and a half.

Having argued for months that Iranian-supplied Shia fighters were the most serious threat to U.S. forces in Iraq, those same forces had suddenly stopped fighting. And it showed.

On November 2nd, the Washington Post reported that:

The number of explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) that have been detonated or found in Iraq has dropped by nearly half in recent months, from a peak of 99 in July to 53 last month, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander in charge of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, said yesterday in a videoconference with Pentagon reporters.

But rather than recognize this for what it was, notable Republicans and other right-wingers immediately began to spin the story as if this was the result of the "surge":

McCain told students at Coastal Carolina University that the United States has had "astonishing success" in Iraq as a result of the military strategy now in place.
Notice that Senator McCain never mentions the fact that our gravest enemy in Iraq--the Mahdi Army--has quit fighting. On November 3rd, the Los Angeles Times, reported of President Bush:

At the graduation ceremony, the president said that since the troop increase reached full strength in June, the number of roadside bombs had been cut by half. He said U.S. military deaths were at their lowest in 19 months.
Again, no mention of Muqtada al-Sadr, his Mahdi Army, or their decision to stop killing Americans. Instead, it was all about the "troop increase."

Even the London Times got in on the spin, stating explicitly:
This has not been an accident but the consequence of a strategy overseen by General David Petraeus in the past several months.
Unfortunately, no one seems to be calling our elected officials or the traditional media on this nonsensical idea that the "Petraeus strategy" should be credited with stanching the flow of blood. No one seems to notice that, as with everything else in Iraq, the Iraqis are going to do what they want, when they want.  When al-Sadr lays down his arms, there will be relative peace. When he takes them up, Americans will die in dozens.

Regardless, the fortunes of Iraq will turn on Iraqi decisions made in Baghdad and Najaf, not in Washington, D.C. and the halls of Congress. As this situation shows, peace in Iraq lies in the hands of Iraqis. It cannot -- and will not -- be forced by Americans at the point of a gun.

Brandon Friedman is Vice Chairman of and the author of The War I Always Wanted.

IRAQ: Fewer Deaths Bring No Reassurance
By Ali al-Fadhily
IPS News

Despite claims by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Bush administration officials that violence in Iraq is decreasing, residents in the capital tell a different story.

Attacks by Iraqi resistance groups against the U.S. military continue in Baghdad and Iraq's al-Anbar province, despite U.S. military support for certain Sunni militias in the areas.

According to the U.S. Department of Defence, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in Baghdad and al-Anbar in October. In all 39 U.S. soldiers were reported killed in Iraq for the month, making it the lowest monthly total since March 2006.

Despite the relatively low October numbers, 2007 is on pace to be the deadliest year on record for U.S. troops since the invasion of March 2003. At least 847 U.S. military personnel have been reported killed this year in Iraq, making it the second highest toll yet.

The deadliest year was 2004, when 849 U.S. military members were killed.

But many Iraqis say that violence elsewhere continues unreported - and that where there is calm, it is hardly for reassuring reasons.

"Sectarian killings are less because all the Sunnis have been evicted from mixed areas in Baghdad," Salman Hameed, a teacher who was evicted from the al-Hurriya area west of Baghdad eight months ago told IPS. "All my relatives and Sunni neighbours who survived the killing campaign led by the militias under the eyes of American and Iraqi forces have fled either to Syria or to other Sunni cities."

On Nov. 5 Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared victory during a rare walkabout in Baghdad as night fell. "We have achieved victory against terrorist groups and militias," Maliki told reporters. "Things will not return to the way they were."

Many Iraqis feel that the reason for the relative calm is that many people have either fled, or been killed.

"There is no one left for them to kill," 55-year-old retired teacher Nathum Taha told IPS in Baghdad. "The Americans continue to use Arab Shia Iraqi militias to kill Sunnis, but most people have left by now."

Others blamed the media for lack of adequate reportage.

"Attacks against U.S. forces are not much less than they were last month, but media coverage has almost disappeared," Muhammad Younis from Mosul, in Baghdad on a business trip, told IPS. "The resistance is moving fast and changing locations in order to avoid intelligence provided by collaborators. Most Iraqis hate the Americans more than ever after the death and destruction caused by their occupation."

There was a reported five-fold increase in the number of bombs dropped on Iraq during the first six months of 2007 compared to the same period in 2006. Over 30 tonnes of these were cluster weapons, which take a particularly heavy toll on civilians.

"American air raids are increasing in a way that shows a total failure on the ground," a retired general of the dissolved Iraqi army told IPS. "A whole family was killed near Madayin, southeast Baghdad on Saturday (Nov. 3) just after the tragic bombing of houses south of Tikrit (about 100 km north of Baghdad) where more than 10 civilians were killed."

On Nov. 4, Iraqi army personnel backed by U.S. soldiers detained 12 people during a raid on the Sunni Abu Hanifa mosque in the Adhamiyah district of northern Baghad.

"Those American and government forces could not face the resistance fighters, so they arrest innocent people," Aziz Thafir, a lawyer who witnessed the arrests, told IPS. "They started their raid with nasty sectarian words against Sunnis, and then arrested every one who was around in the mosque."

Sectarian violence, which many Iraqis believe to be backed by the U.S., continues at many places where there are still mixed communities left.

In Duluiya, 150 km north of Baghdad, a U.S. army unit raided a house last week and killed a young man inside. Witnesses who arrived in Baghdad from the Sunni town complained that the media is not covering either the resistance activity there or the regular "crimes" committed by U.S. and Iraqi government forces against innocent civilians.

"They are more vicious than they were before," 44-year-old Abu Ahmed told IPS in the capital. "This is a religious war against Sunnis, who would not accept the occupation and division of the country."

Ali al-Fadhily is IPS' correspondent in Baghdad. Al-Fadhily works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, IPS' U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region.

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