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The Myth of the Surge

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URL: Rollingstone.comThe Myth of the SurgeNIR ROSEN

Posted Mar 06, 2008 8:53 AM

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It's a cold, gray day in December, and I'm walking down Sixtieth Street in the Dora district of Baghdad, one of the most violent and fearsome of the city's no-go zones. Devastated by five years of clashes between American forces, Shiite militias, Sunni resistance groups and Al Qaeda, much of Dora is now a ghost town. This is what "victory" looks like in a once upscale neighborhood of Iraq: Lakes of mud and sewage fill the streets. Mountains of trash stagnate in the pungent liquid. Most of the windows in the sand-colored homes are broken, and the wind blows through them, whistling eerily. House after house is deserted, bullet holes pockmarking their walls, their doors open and unguarded, many emptied of furniture. What few furnishings remain are covered by a thick layer of the fine dust that invades every space in Iraq. Looming over the homes are twelve-foot-high security walls built by the Americans to separate warring factions and confine people to their own neighborhood. Emptied and destroyed by civil war, walled off by President Bush's much-heralded "surge," Dora feels more like a desolate, post-apocalyptic maze of concrete tunnels than a living, inhabited neighborhood. Apart from our footsteps, there is complete silence.

My guide, a thirty-one-year-old named Osama who grew up in Dora, points to shops he used to go to, now abandoned or destroyed: a barbershop, a hardware store. Since the U.S. occupation began, Osama has watched civil war turn the streets where he grew up into an ethnic killing field. After the fall of Saddam, the Americans allowed looters and gangs to take over the streets, and Iraqi security forces were stripped of their jobs. The Mahdi Army, the powerful Shiite paramilitary force led by the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, took advantage of the power shift to retaliate in areas such as Dora, where Shiites had been driven from their homes. Shiite forces tried to cleanse the district of Sunni families like Osama's, burning or confiscating their homes and torturing or killing those who refused to leave.

"The Mahdi Army was killing people here," Osama says, pointing to a now-destroyed Shiite mosque that in earlier times had been a cafe and before that an office for Saddam's Baath Party. Later, driving in the nearby district of Baya, Osama shows me a gas station. "They killed my uncle here. He didn't accept to leave. Twenty guys came to his house, the women were screaming. He ran to the back, but they caught him, tortured him and killed him." Under siege by Shiite militias and the U.S. military, who viewed Sunnis as Saddam supporters, and largely cut out of the Shiite-dominated government, many Sunnis joined the resistance. Others turned to Al Qaeda and other jihadists for protection.

Now, in the midst of the surge, the Bush administration has done an about-face. Having lost the civil war, many Sunnis were suddenly desperate to switch sides — and Gen. David Petraeus was eager to oblige. The U.S. has not only added 30,000 more troops in Iraq — it has essentially bribed the opposition, arming the very Sunni militants who only months ago were waging deadly assaults on American forces. To engineer a fragile peace, the U.S. military has created and backed dozens of new Sunni militias, which now operate beyond the control of Iraq's central government. The Americans call the units by a variety of euphemisms: Iraqi Security Volunteers (ISVs), neighborhood watch groups, Concerned Local Citizens, Critical Infrastructure Security. The militias prefer a simpler and more dramatic name: They call themselves Sahwa, or "the Awakening."

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At least 80,000 men across Iraq are now employed by the Americans as ISVs. Nearly all are Sunnis, with the exception of a few thousand Shiites. Operating as a contractor, Osama runs 300 of these new militiamen, former resistance fighters whom the U.S. now counts as allies because they are cashing our checks. The Americans pay Osama once a month; he in turn provides his men with uniforms and pays them ten dollars a day to man checkpoints in the Dora district — a paltry sum even by Iraqi standards. A former contractor for KBR, Osama is now running an armed network on behalf of the United States government. "We use our own guns," he tells me, expressing regret that his units have not been able to obtain the heavy-caliber machine guns brandished by other Sunni militias.

The American forces responsible for overseeing "volunteer" militias like Osama's have no illusions about their loyalty. "The only reason anything works or anybody deals with us is because we give them money," says a young Army intelligence officer. The 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, which patrols Osama's territory, is handing out $32 million to Iraqis in the district, including $6 million to build the towering walls that, in the words of one U.S. officer, serve only to "make Iraqis more divided than they already are." In districts like Dora, the strategy of the surge seems simple: to buy off every Iraqi in sight. All told, the U.S. is now backing more than 600,000 Iraqi men in the security sector — more than half the number Saddam had at the height of his power. With the ISVs in place, the Americans are now arming both sides in the civil war. "Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems," as U.S. strategists like to say. David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. Petraeus, calls it "balancing competing armed interest groups."
But loyalty that can be purchased is by its very nature fickle. Only months ago, members of the Awakening were planting IEDs and ambushing U.S. soldiers. They were snipers and assassins, singing songs in honor of Fallujah and fighting what they viewed as a war of national liberation against the foreign occupiers. These are men the Americans described as terrorists, Saddam loyalists, dead-enders, evildoers, Baathists, insurgents. There is little doubt what will happen when the massive influx of American money stops: Unless the new Iraqi state continues to operate as a vast bribing machine, the insurgent Sunnis who have joined the new militias will likely revert to fighting the ruling Shiites, who still refuse to share power.

"We are essentially supporting a quasi-feudal devolution of authority to armed enclaves, which exist at the expense of central government authority," says Chas Freeman, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush. "Those we are arming and training are arming and training themselves not to facilitate our objectives but to pursue their own objectives vis-a-vis other Iraqis. It means that the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that are now suppressed are likely to burst out with even greater ferocity in the future."

Maj. Pat Garrett, who works with the 2-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment, is already having trouble figuring out what to do with all the new militiamen in his district. There are too few openings in the Iraqi security forces to absorb them all, even if the Shiite-dominated government agreed to integrate them. Garrett is placing his hopes on vocational-training centers that offer instruction in auto repair, carpentry, blacksmithing and English. "At the end of the day, they want a legitimate living," Garrett says. "That's why they're joining the ISVs."

But men who have taken up arms to defend themselves against both the Shiites and the Americans won't be easily persuaded to abandon their weapons in return for a socket wrench. After meeting recently in Baghdad, U.S. officials concluded in an internal report, "Most young Concerned Local Citizens would probably not agree to transition from armed defenders of their communities to the local garbage men or rubble cleanup crew working under the gaze of U.S. soldiers and their own families." The new militias have given members of the Awakening their first official foothold in occupied Iraq. They are not likely to surrender that position without a fight. The Shiite government is doing little to find jobs for them, because it doesn't want them back, and violence in Iraq is already starting to escalate. By funding the ISVs and rearming the Sunnis who were stripped of their weapons at the start of the occupation, America has created a vast, uncoordinated security establishment. If the Shiite government of Iraq does not allow Sunnis in the new militias to join the country's security forces, warns one leader of the Awakening, "It will be worse than before."

Osama, for his part, seems like everything that American forces would want in a Sunni militiaman. He speaks fluent English, wears jeans and baseball caps, and is well-connected from his days with KBR. Before the ISVs were set up, Osama and a dozen of his original men were known to U.S. troops as "the Heroes" for their work in pointing out Al Qaeda suspects and uncovering improvised explosive devices in Dora. Osama's men helped find at least sixty of these deadly bombs. In today's Baghdad, the trust of the American overlords is a valuable commodity. Osama's power stems almost entirely from his access to U.S. contracts.

As a result, members of the Awakening who had previously attacked Americans and Shiites are now collaborating with Osama. "To a large extent they are former insurgents," says Capt. Travis Cox of the 2-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment. Most of Osama's men had belonged to Sunni resistance groups such as the Army of the Mujahedeen, the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, named for the uprising against the British occupation that year. Even Osama admits that some of his men's loyalty is questionable. "Yesterday we arrested three guys as Al Qaeda infiltrators," he tells me. "They thought that they were powerful because they are ISV, so no one will touch them. You got to watch them every day."

Osama himself makes no secret of his hatred for the Shiite government and its security forces. As we walk by a checkpoint manned by the Iraqi National Police, which is comprised almost entirely of Shiites, Osama looks at the uniformed officers in disgust. "I want to kill them," he tells me, "but the Americans make us work together."

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Although Osama insists that he has no connections to Al Qaeda or other jihadists, his fellow leaders of the ISVs in Dora are directly tied to the Sunni resistance. Since the Americans often require that each mahala, or neighborhood, have two ISV bosses, Osama has given half of his 300 men to Abu Salih, a man with dark reddish skin, a sharp nose and small piercing eyes. "We know Abu Salih is former Al Qaeda of Iraq," a U.S. Army officer from the area tells me. In fact, when I meet with him, Abu Salih freely admits that some of his men belonged to Al Qaeda. They joined the American-sponsored militias, he says, so they could have an identity card as protection should they get arrested.

The other leader working with Osama is Abu Yasser, a handsome and jovial man who wears a matching green sweatshirt and sweatpants, with a pistol in a shoulder holster. "Abu Yasser is the real boss," says an American intelligence officer. "That guy's an animal — he's crazy." A former member of Saddam's General Security Service, Abu Yasser had joined the Army of the Mujahedeen, a resistance organization that fought the U.S. occupation in Mosul and south Baghdad. He still has scars on his arms from the battles, and he put my hand on his forearm to feel the shrapnel embedded within. Like Osama and Abu Salih, he views the Shiite-led government as the real enemy. "There is no difference between the Mahdi Army and Iran," he tells me. Now that he is working for the Americans, he has no intention of laying down his arms. "If the government doesn't let us join the police," he says, "we'll stay here protecting our area."
To watch the ISVs in action, I accompany U.S. soldiers from the 2-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment on a mission in the neighborhood. After meeting up with Osama, Abu Salih and Abu Yasser at a police checkpoint, we walk down Sixtieth Street to the Tawhid Mosque, followed by Stryker armored vehicles from the 2-2 SCR. First Lt. Shawn Spainhour, a contracting officer with the unit, asks the sheik at the mosque what help he needs. The mosque's generator has been shot up by armed Shiites, and the sheik requests $3,000 to fix it. Spainhour takes notes. "I probably can do that," he says.

The sheik also asks for a Neighborhood Advisory Council to be set up in his area "so it will see our problems." The NACs, as they're known, are being created and funded by the Americans to give power to Sunnis cut out of the political process. As with the ISVs, however, the councils effectively operate as independent institutions that do not answer to the central Iraqi government. Many Shiites in the Iraqi National Police consider the NACs as little more than a front for insurgents: One top-ranking officer accused the leader of a council in Dora of being an Al Qaeda terrorist. "I have an order from the Ministry of Interior to arrest him," the officer told me.

As Spainhour talks to the sheik at the mosque, two bearded, middle-aged men in sweaters suddenly walk up to the Americans with a tip. Two men down the street, they insist, are members of the Mahdi Army. The soldiers quickly get back into the Strykers, as do Osama and his men, and they all race to Mahala 830. There they find a group of young men stringing electrical cables across the street. Some of the men manage to run off, but the eleven who remain are forced into a courtyard and made to squat facing the walls. They all wear flip-flops. Soldiers from the unit take their pictures one by one. The grunts are frustrated: For most of them, this is as close to combat as they have gotten, and they're eager for action.

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