Iraq at the Gates of Hell

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George Bush’s Iraq in 21 Questions
By Tom Engelhardt

Recently, in one of many speeches melding his Global War on Terror and his war in Iraq, George W. Bush said, “Victory in Iraq will be difficult and it will require more sacrifice. The fighting there can be as fierce as it was at Omaha Beach or Guadalcanal. And victory is as important as it was in those earlier battles. Victory in Iraq will result in a democracy that is a friend of America and an ally in the war on terror. Victory in Iraq will be a crushing defeat for our enemies, who have staked so much on the battle there. Victory in Iraq will honor the sacrifice of the brave Americans who have given their lives. And victory in Iraq would be a powerful triumph in the ideological struggle of the 21st century.”

Over three years after the 2003 invasion, it’s not unreasonable to speak of George Bush’s Iraq. The President himself likes to refer to that country as the “central front [or theater] in our fight against terrorism” and a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), part of which was recently leaked to the press and part then released by the President, confirms that Iraq is now indeed just that — a literal motor for the creation of terrorism. As the document puts it, “The Iraq conflict has become the ’cause célèbre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world, and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” A study by a British Ministry of Defense think tank seconds this point, describing Iraq as “a recruiting sergeant for extremists across the Muslim world”

So what exactly does “victory” in George Bush’s Iraq look like 1,288 days after the invasion of that country began with a “shock-and-awe” attack on downtown Baghdad? A surprising amount of information related to this has appeared in the press in recent weeks, but in purely scattershot form. Here, it’s all brought together in 21 questions (and answers) that add up to a grim but realistic snapshot of Bush’s Iraq. The attempt to reclaim the capital, dipped in a sea of blood in recent months — or the “battle of Baghdad,” as the administration likes to term it — is now the center of administration military strategy and operations. So let’s start with this question:

How many freelance militias are there in Baghdad?

The answer is “23” according to a “senior [U.S.] military official” in Baghdad — so write Richard A. Oppel, Jr. and Hosham Hussein in the New York Times; but, according to National Public Radio, the answer is “at least 23.” Antonio Castaneda of the Associated Press says that there are 23 “known” militias. However you figure it, that’s a staggering number of militias, mainly Shiite but some Sunni, for one large city.

How many civilians are dying in the Iraqi capital, due to those militias, numerous (often government-linked death squads), the Sunni insurgency, and al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia-style terrorism?

Over three years after the 2003 invasion, it’s not unreasonable to speak of George Bush’s Iraq. The President himself likes to refer to that country as the “central front [or theater] in our fight against terrorism” and a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), part of which was recently leaked to the press and part then released by the President, confirms that Iraq is now indeed just that — a literal motor for the creation of terrorism. As the document puts it, “The Iraq conflict has become the ’cause célèbre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world, and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” A study by a British Ministry of Defense think tank seconds this point, describing Iraq as “a recruiting sergeant for extremists across the Muslim world”

5,106 people in July and August, according to a recently released United Nations report. The previous, still staggering but significantly lower figure of 3,391 offered for those months relied on body counts only from the city morgue. The UN report also includes deaths at the city’s overtaxed hospitals. With the Bush administration bringing thousands of extra U.S. and Iraqi soldiers into the capital in August, death tolls went down somewhat for a few weeks, but began rising again towards month’s end. August figures on civilian wounded — 4,309 — rose 14% over July’s figures and, by late September, suicide bombings were at their highest level since the invasion.

How many Iraqis are being tortured in Baghdad at present?

Precise numbers are obviously in short supply on this one, but large numbers of bodies are found in and around the capital every single day, a result of the roiling civil war already underway there. These bodies, as Oppel of the Times describes them, commonly display a variety of signs of torture including: “gouged-out eyeballs wounds in the head and genitals, broken bones of legs and hands, electric and cigarette burns acid-induced injuries and burns caused by chemical substances, missing skin missing teeth and wounds caused by power drills or nails.” The UN’s chief anti-torture expert, Manfred Nowak, believes that torture in Iraq is now not only “totally out of hand,” but “worse” than under Saddam Hussein.

How many Iraqi civilians are being killed countrywide?

The UN Report offers figures on this: 1,493 dead, over and above the dead of Baghdad. However, these figures are surely undercounts. Oppel points out, for instance, that officials in al-Anbar Province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency “and one of the deadliest regions in Iraq, reported no deaths in July.” Meanwhile, in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad, deaths not only seem to be on the rise, but higher than previously estimated. The intrepid British journalist Patrick Cockburn recently visited the province. It’s not a place, he comments parenthetically, “to make a mistake in map reading.” (Enter the wrong area or neighborhood and you’re dead.) Diyala, he reports, is now largely under the control of Sunni insurgents who are “close to establishing a ‘Taliban republic’ in the region.” On casualties, he writes: “Going by the accounts of police and government officials in the province, the death toll outside Baghdad may be far higher than previously reported.” The head of Diyala’s Provincial Council (who has so far escaped two assassination attempts) told Cockburn that he believed “on average, 100 people are being killed in Diyala every week.” (“Many of those who die disappear forever, thrown into the Diyala River or buried in date palm groves and fruit orchards.”) Even at the death counts in the UN report, we’re talking about close to 40,000 Iraqi deaths a year. We have no way of knowing how much higher the real figure is.

How many American and Iraqi troops and police are now trying to regain control of the capital and suppress the raging violence there?

15,000 U.S. troops, 9,000 Iraqi army soldiers, 12,000 Iraqi national police and 22,000 local police, according to the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. James Thurman — and yet the mayhem in that city has barely been checked at all.

How many Iraqi soldiers are missing from the American campaign in Baghdad?

Six Iraqi battalions or 3,000 troops, again according to General Thurman, who requested them from the Iraqi government. These turn out to be Shiite troops from other provinces who have refused orders to be transferred from their home areas to Baghdad. In the capital itself, American troops are reported to be deeply dissatisfied with their Iraqi allies. (“Some U.S. soldiers say the Iraqis serving alongside them are among the worst they’ve ever seen — seeming more loyal to militias than the government.”)

How many Sunni Arabs support the insurgency?

75% of them, according to a Pentagon survey. In 2003, when the Pentagon first began surveying Iraqi public opinion, 14% of Sunnis supported the insurgency (then just beginning) against American occupation.

How many Iraqis want the United States to withdraw its forces from their country?

Except in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, strong majorities of Iraqis across the country, Shiite and Sunni, want an immediate U.S. withdrawal, according to a U.S. State Department survey “based on 1,870 face-to-face interviews conducted from late June to early July.” In Baghdad, nearly 75% of residents polled claimed that they would “feel safer” after a U.S. withdrawal, and 65% favored an immediate withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces. A recent Program on International Policy Attitudes or PIPA poll found 71% of all Iraqis favor the withdrawal of all foreign troops on a year’s timetable. (Polling for Americans is a dangerous business in Iraq. As one anonymous pollster put it to the Washington Post, “If someone out there believes the client is the U.S. government, the persons doing the polling could get killed.”)

How many Iraqis think the Bush administration will withdraw at some point?

According to the PIPA poll, 77% of Iraqis are convinced that the United States is intent on keeping permanent bases in their country. As if confirming such fears, this week Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish president of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government ensconced in the capital’s well-fortified Green Zone, called for Iraqis to keep two such permanent bases, possibly in the Kurdish areas of the country. He was roundly criticized by other politicians for this.

How many terrorists are being killed in Iraq (and elsewhere) in the President’s Global War on Terror?

Less than are being generated by the war in Iraq, according to the just leaked National Intelligence Estimate. As Karen De Young of the Washington Post has written: “The war in Iraq has become a primary recruitment vehicle for violent Islamic extremists, motivating a new generation of potential terrorists around the world whose numbers may be increasing faster than the United States and its allies can reduce the threat, U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded.” It’s worth remembering, as retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, told a group of House Democrats this week, that Al Qaeda recruiting efforts actually declined in 2002, only spiking after the invasion of Iraq. Carl Conetta of the Project for Defense Alternatives sums the situation up this way: “The rate of terrorism fatalities for the 59 month period following 11 September 2001 is 250% that of the 44.5 month period preceding and including the 9/11 attacks.”

How many Islamic extremist websites have sprung up on the Internet to aid such acts of terror?

5,000, according to the same NIE.

How many Iraqis are estimated to have fled their homes this year, due to the low-level civil war and the ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods?

300,000, according to journalist Patrick Cockburn.

How much of Bush’s Iraq can now be covered by Western journalists?

Approximately 2%, according to New York Times journalist Dexter Filkins, now back from Baghdad on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. Filkins claims that “98 percent of Iraq, and even most of Baghdad, has now become ‘off-limits’ for Western journalists.” There are, he says, many situations in Iraq “even too dangerous for Iraqi reporters to report on.” (Such journalists, working for Western news outlets, “live in constant fear of their association with the newspaper being exposed, which could cost them their lives. ‘Most of the Iraqis who work for us don’t even tell their families that they work for us,’ said Filkins.”)

How many journalists and “media support workers” have died in Iraq this year?

20 journalists and 6 media support workers. The first to die in 2006 was Mahmoud Za’al, a thirty-five year old correspondent for Baghdad TV, covering an assault by Sunni insurgents on two U.S.-held buildings in Ramadi, capital of al-Anbar Province on January 25. He was reportedly first wounded in both legs and then, according to eyewitnesses, killed in a U.S. air strike. (The U.S. denied launching an air strike in Ramadi that day.) The most recent death was Ahmed Riyadh al-Karbouli, also of Baghdad TV, also in Ramadi, who was assassinated by insurgents on September 18. The latest death of a “media support worker” occurred on August 27: “A guard employed by the state-run daily newspaper Al-Sabah was killed when an explosive-packed car detonated in the building’s garage.” In all 80, journalists and 28 media support workers have died since the invasion of 2003. Compare these figures to journalistic deaths in other American wars: World War II (68), Korea (17), Vietnam (71).

How many U.S. troops are in Iraq today?

Approximately 147,000, according to General John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, significantly more than were in-country just after Baghdad was taken in April 2003 when the occupation began. Abizaid does not expect these figures to fall before “next spring” (which is the equivalent of “forever” in Bush administration parlance). He does not rule out sending in even more troops. “If it’s necessary to do that because the military situation on the ground requires that, we’ll do it.” Finding those troops is another matter entirely.

How is the Pentagon keeping troop strength up in Iraq?

4,000 troops from the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, operating near Ramadi and nearing the end of their year-long tours of duty, have just been informed that they will be held in Iraq at least 6 more weeks. This is not an isolated incident, according to Robert Burns of the Associated Press. Units are also being sent to Iraq ahead of schedule. Army policy has been to give soldiers two years at home between combat tours. This year alone, the time between tours has shrunk from 18 to 14 months. “In the case of the 3rd Infantry,” writes Burns, “it appears at least one brigade will get only about 12 months because it is heading for Iraq to replace the extended brigade of the 1st Armored.” And this may increasingly prove the norm. According to Senior Rand Corporation analyst Lynn Davis, main author of “Stretched Thin,” a report on Army deployments, “soldiers in today’s armored, mechanized and Stryker brigades, which are most in demand, can expect to be away from home for ‘a little over 45 percent of their career.'”

The Army has also maintained its strength in through a heavy reliance on the Army Reserves and the National Guard as well as on involuntary deployments of the Individual Ready Reserve. Thom Shanker and Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times recently reported that the Pentagon was once again considering activating substantial numbers of Reserves and the National Guard for duty in Iraq. This, despite, as reporter Jim Lobe has written, “previous Bush administration pledges to limit overseas deployments for the Guard.” (Such an unpopular decision will surely not be announced before the mid-term elections.)

As of now, write Shanker and Gordon, “so many [U.S. troops] are deployed or only recently returned from combat duty that only two or three combat brigades — perhaps 7,000 to 10,000 troops — are fully ready to respond in case of unexpected crises, according to a senior Army general.”

How many active duty Army troops have been deployed in Iraq?

Approximately 400,000 troops out of an active-duty force of 504,000 have already served one tour of duty in Iraq, according to Peter Spiegel of the Los Angeles Times. More than one-third of them have already been deployed twice.

How is Iraq affecting the Army’s equipment?

By the spring of 2005, the Army had already “rotated 40% of its equipment through Iraq and Afghanistan.” Marine Corps mid-2005 estimates were that 40% percent of its ground equipment and 20% of its air assets were being used to support current operations,” according to analyst Carl Conetta in “Fighting on Borrowed Time.” In the harsh climate of Iraq, the wear and tear on equipment has been enormous. Conetta estimates that whenever the Iraq and Afghan wars end, the post-war repair bill for Army and Marine equipment will be in the range of $25-40 billion.

How many extra dollars does a desperately overstretched Army claim to need in the coming Defense budget, mainly because of wear and tear in Iraq?

$25 billion above budget limits set by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this year; over $40 billion above last year’s budget. The amount the Army claims it now needs simply to tread water represents a 41% increase over its current share of the Pentagon budget. As a “protest,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker chose not even to submit a required budget to Rumsfeld in August. The general, according to the LA Times’ Spiegel, “has told congressional appropriators that he will need $17.1 billion next year for repairs, nearly double this year’s appropriation — and more than quadruple the cost two years ago.” This is vivid evidence of the literal wear-and-tear the ongoing war (and civil war) in Iraq is causing.

How is Iraqi reconstruction going?

Over three years after the invasion, the national electricity grid can only deliver electricity to the capital, on average, one out of every four hours (and that’s evidently on a good day). At the beginning of September, Iraq’s oil minister spoke hopefully of raising the country’s oil output to 3 million barrels a day by year’s end. That optimistic goal would just bring oil production back to where it was more or less at the moment the Bush administration, planning to pay for the occupation of Iraq with that country’s “sea” of oil, invaded. According to a Pentagon study, “Measuring security and stability in Iraq,” released in August, inflation in that country now stands at 52.5%. (Damien Cave of the New York Times suggests that it’s closer to 70%, with fuel and electricity up 270% from the previous year); the same Pentagon study estimates that “about 25.9% of Iraqi children examined were stunted in their physical growth” due to chronic malnutrition which is on the rise across Iraq.

How many speeches has George W. Bush made in the last month extolling his War on Terror and its Iraqi “central front”?

6 so far, not including press conferences, comments made while greeting foreign leaders, and the like: to the American Legion National Convention on August 31, in a radio address to the American people on September 2, in a speech on his Global War on Terror to the Military Officers Association on September 5, in a speech on “progress” in the Global War on Terror before the Georgia Public Policy Foundation on September 7, in a TV address to the nation memorializing September 11, and in a speech to the UN on September 19.


This week, the count of American war dead in Iraq passed 2,700. The Iraqi dead are literally uncountable. Iraq is the tragedy of our times, an event that has brought out, and will continue to bring out, the worst in us all. It is carnage incarnate. Every time the President mentions “victory” these days, the word “loss” should come to our minds. A few more victories like this one and the world will be an unimaginable place. Back in 2004, the head of the Arab League, Amr Mussa, warned, “The gates of hell are open in Iraq.” Then it was just an image. Remarkably enough, it has taken barely two more years for us to arrive at those gates on which, it is said, is inscribed the phrase, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

[Note to readers: Among the many sites I found helpful in compiling this piece, I particularly want to recommend (as I so often do) Juan Cole’s Informed Comment,, and the War in Context. All three do invaluable work. ]

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The Last Days of Publishing, a novel, and in the fall, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt