Michael Schwartz, How to Disintegrate a City

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Once again last week, the President and his men surged into the headlines, announcing that we had just zipped past yet another of those Iraqi “turning points.” Or, as George W. Bush put it while speaking at the Pentagon (and perhaps dreaming of the days back in 2005 when he could still happily mention “victory” 15 times and “progress” 28 times in a speech about Iraq): “The surge is working. And as a return on our success in Iraq, we’ve begun bringing some of our troops home. The surge has done more than turn the situation in Iraq around — it has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror.”

A few years ago, of course, the Bush administration was still “turning corners” (around which, invariably, would be an unexpected group of insurgents armed with RPGs and IEDs). Now, in a change of linguistic pace, the corners have vanished (perhaps because we haven’t liked who’s lurking there) and we’re opening doors instead. If history is any guide, behind the President’s “door” will prove to be not the lady but the tiger.

In the meantime, our surly Vice President has just surged past the American people. In an interview in Oman with ABC’s Martha Raddatz, there was this pungent exchange:

“Q: Two-thirds of Americans say [the Iraq War]’s not worth fighting, and they’re looking at the value gain versus the cost in American lives, certainly, and Iraqi lives.


Perhaps the most revealing imagery of the week, however, came from the President’s candidate for the Oval Office in January 2009. On completing a visit to “Iraq,” Senator John McCain issued a ringing statement on the war that began this way: “Today in Iraq, America and our allies stand on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism.” The “precipice of victory” and, next perhaps, the “abyss of victory”?

Go back two years and that word “precipice” was a commonplace in Washington as a rattled Bush administration faced a sectarian civil war in Iraq. Now, as any independent or foreign journalist would tell you (though the American press has generally been more upbeat), the Iraqis are living in that abyss, down which Sen. McCain evidently stares and sees victory. They are living in a hell, a country so thoroughly dismantled that the brave British journalist Patrick Cockburn recently claimed “Iraq” was now little more than a “geographical expression.”

Outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, much of Baghdad is a nightmare. Just consider a walk that Nir Rosen took for Rolling Stone magazine in the Dora district of Baghdad (“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…”); or watch a video shot by Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for the British Guardian portraying the massive walls that now encase so many Iraqi neighborhoods, or the cemeteries he visited that hold some of Iraq’s recently slaughtered citizens.

Soon, General David Petraeus will report to the President and Congress on “progress” in Iraq. In the meantime, Senator McCain’s website just “re-released” “Fighting Islamic Extremists: Progress in Iraq,” which “features a four year timeline of John McCain’s unrelenting call for a new strategy for victory in Iraq.”

Knowing that this may be their future, Iraqis must finally be on the verge of erupting with joy in the streets of their capital, just as our Vice President predicted they would before this horror ever began. If, however, you want to grasp the real nature of what’s taken place in Baghdad these last years, check out the latest monumental piece by Tomdispatch regular Michael Schwartz, author of the upcoming book War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context. It’s surely the first history of the full “battle of Baghdad” from April 2003 to this moment. Tom

The Battle of Baghdad
Iraq’s Most Fearsome Militia, the U.S. military, on the Offensive
By Michael Schwartz

In early April, General David Petraeus, the flavor of the year in American military officers, will return to Washington to report to President Bush and the Democratic Congress on the state of post-surge Iraq. His report will be upbeat, with cautious notes thrown in, and the reception will be warm. The Republicans will congratulate the President, hoping that Americans will stop complaining and finally learn to tolerate, if not love, his war; the Democrats will be quietly unhappy because they would like Iraq to remain a major election issue.

In the meantime, the Iraqis will continue to endure the results of the surge, yet another brutal chapter in the endless war that once promised them liberation.

Over the course of five years, Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, has been transformed from a metropolis into an urban desert of half-destroyed buildings and next to no public services, dotted by partially deserted, mutually hostile mini-ghettos that used to be neighborhoods, surrounded by cement barriers reminiscent of medieval fortifications. The most prominent of these ghettos is the heavily fortified city-inside-a-city dubbed the Green Zone, where Iraq’s most fearsome militia, the United States military, is headquartered. It is governed by the Americans and by the American-sponsored Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.

The remaining ghettos, large and small, are governed by local militias, most of them sworn enemies of the United States and the Maliki regime. In the expanding Shia areas of the capital, the local guardians are often members of the Mahdi Army, the militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that has opposed the American presence since the occupation began. In the shrinking Sunni-controlled parts of the city, the local guardians are usually members of the Sahwa forces (the “Awakening” or, in U.S. military jargon, “Concerned Local Citizens”). The Americans have ceded to them control of their cement-enclosed domains as long as they discontinue insurgent attacks elsewhere.

As Baghdadi citizens continue to flee the threat of violence, ethnic cleansing, and economic destitution, the city waits — whether for a definitive military confrontation or some less violent change that will bring its long ordeal to an end.

How did this all come to be?

Ethnic Cleansing Arrives in Baghdad

When the American occupation of Baghdad began in April 2003, about half of the city’s neighborhoods had no particular ethnic character. In late 2004, however, thousands of Sunnis, driven out of Falluja and other insurgent strongholds by American offensives, began arriving in Baghdad. In increasingly crowded neighborhoods, ethnic friction rose, as did Sunni anger at a Shia-dominated government that sent its troops into battle beside American ones.

Sunni militias, originally organized to deal with local crime (after the Americans dismantled the Iraqi police force) began to turn on Shia residents in some of the capital’s 200 mixed neighborhoods. Eventually, scattered acts of harassment were transformed into systematic campaigns of expulsion, justified by the housing needs of a rapidly growing multitude of Sunni refugees, and as retaliation for government-supported assaults on Sunni cities. During 2005, the first stream of displaced Shia began arriving in Baghdad’s vast, already overcrowded Shia slum of Sadr City and in the Shia cities of southern Iraq.

In January 2006, the bombing of the revered Shia shrine, the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra, triggered sweeping Shia reprisals against Sunni communities. In the capital, a struggle for the dominance of mixed neighborhoods began. Deadly battles between Shia and Sunni militias featured all weapons and methods of slaughter available, including car bombs and death squads. Whichever side expelled the other, minority groups including Christians, Kurds, and Palestinians found themselves unwelcome and began to flee (or die). Ethnic cleansing now lay at the center of the spiraling violence in Baghdad.

The Americans Enter the Battle

In May 2006, American forces first joined “the battle for Baghdad” in a significant way. With the initiation of Operation Together Forward, the U.S. military began transferring combat brigades to the capital in an attempt to take control of Sunni and Shia militia strongholds.

This strategy, however, quickly proved itself ineffective. In August 2006, the New York Times reported that sectarian violence was “spiraling out of control.” By the fall, the number of insurgents attacks in Baghdad had increased by 26%, and violent deaths reported at the city morgue had quadrupled. The seeming paradox of an American pacification campaign generating more violence can be explained by looking at the mechanics of the offensive.

Despite their involvement in ethnic violence, the Sunni and Shia militias that the Americans sought to root out were also the forces of law and order in Baghdad’s otherwise lawless neighborhoods. They directed traffic, arrested and/or punished common criminals, and mediated disputes. They also protected neighborhoods from outsiders, including American or Iraqi soldiers, suicide bombers, death squads, and criminal gangs.

Before the Americans entered the fray, the militia strongholds had been the least vulnerable to sectarian attack. After all, their streets were saturated with armed men on the lookout for their enemies. Ethnic violence was largely taking place in contested mixed neighborhoods.

In entering these strongholds, the U.S. military won tactical victories, chasing surviving militia members off the streets or even out of neighborhoods, which, without their local police and defense forces, were suddenly vulnerable to sectarian attack.

This vulnerability was all-too-vividly illustrated in Sadr City, the stronghold of the Sadrist movement. As the home base of the Mahdi Army, this city-within-a-city had not experienced a car bomb attack in two years until American troops sealed it off, set up check points at key entrance and exit points, and began patrols aimed at hunting down Mahdi Army leaders they suspected of participating in death squads and of kidnapping an American soldier. Local residents told New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise that the operation had “forced Mahdi Army members who were patrolling the streets to vanish.” Soon after, the first car bombs were detonated.

The violence reached a crescendo in November 2006, when a coordinated set of five car bombs killed at least 215 and wounded 257. Qusai Abdul-Wahab, a Sadrist member of parliament, spoke for many residents of the community when he told the Associated Press that the “occupation forces are fully responsible for these acts.”

Such events generated immense bitterness among Shia, who took them as proof that the Americans and the Iraqi government were concerned only with attacking the Mahdis, not suppressing jihadist attacks. This encouraged their support of the death squads, which sought to exact retribution on the Sunni communities they believed were harboring the bombers.

The Americans had also facilitated these retaliatory attacks. Sunni insurgents in the Baghdad suburbs of Balad and Duluiyah, for example, were suspected of slaughtering 17 Shia workers in a particularly well publicized instance of sectarian brutality. American troops and their Iraqi allies cordoned off the two districts and invaded the neighborhoods. The invading forces quickly silenced the insurgent militias, leaving the streets unpatrolled. Soon after, Shia death squads made their appearance. Some of them had apparently been organized inside (Shia) Iraqi military units that accompanied the Americans into the Sunni communities. According to the Washington Post, “A police officer in Duluiyah, Capt. Qaid al-Azawi, accused American forces of standing by in Balad while [Shia] militiamen in police cars and police uniforms slaughtered Sunnis.” In the face of these attacks, large numbers of residents began to flee.

And so the cycle of slaughter escalated on all sides, while neighborhoods began to be emptied of the members of whichever sect was losing ground locally. As with many other developments in the war, this unmitigated disaster for Baghdad residents was only a partial one for the American occupation. For the Bush administration, the storm of violence in the Iraqi capital had at least one silver lining: the occupation’s two main enemies were now at each other’s throats. As an American intelligence official told investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, “The White House believes that if American troops stay in Iraq long enough — with enough troops — the bad guys will end up killing each other.”

The Surge

As Operation Together Forward continued, intense violence spread across the city. American combat fatalities reached a two-year high of 113 in November 2006, not in itself surprising since American troops were entering militia strongholds. Other statistics, however, defied American expectations.

The number of insurgent attacks, which should have declined, increased dramatically. A little under 100 a day through the first half of 2006, they jolted up to 140 a day soon after the offensive started, and then hovered between 160 and 180 for the rest of the year. The number of lethal bombings, a main target of the offensive, also rose. According to U.S. military statistics published by the Brookings Institution, in late 2005 they rose from under 20 to over 40 per month, and then started upward again as the American offensive began in the late spring of 2006, reaching 69 in December of that year. Deaths associated with these bombings soared from under 500 per month in early 2006 to almost 1,000 in the second half of the year. Population displacement also reached new heights — especially in communities where the Americans were most active.

In response, the Americans sought a new plan for pacifying Baghdad. It would become known as “the surge.” Rather than altering the fundamental premises of Operation Together Forward, it diagnosed the ferocious response as evidence that insufficient force had been applied.

Now, tens of thousands of new American troops would be poured into Baghdad, and to Operation Together Forward’s strategy would be added tactics from the 2004 assault on the Sunni city of Falluja. Each target area would now first be surrounded to prevent insurgents from escaping. Then, once the battle was joined, overwhelming firepower would be brought to bear. As Captain Paul Fowler had explained to Boston Globe reporter Anne Barnard during the Falluja fighting, ”The only way to root out [the insurgents] is to destroy everything in your path.”

As in Falluja, the new surge plan also called for the Americans to remain in the community to prevent the insurgents from returning and to supervise the Iraqi army units they had led into battle.

The Battle of Haifa Street

Even before the surge strategy was announced by President Bush, even before the new troops arrived, the first battle was launched. Before dawn on January 9, 2007, the Americans and Iraqis attacked a Sunni insurgent stronghold on Haifa Street just outside the Green Zone. Washington Post reporters Sudarsan Raghavan and Joshua Partlow described the kind of firepower brought to bear once the battle for the street began:

“From rooftops and doorways, the gunmen fired AK-47 assault rifles and machine guns. Snipers also were targeting the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. U.S. soldiers started firing back with 50-caliber machine guns mounted on their Stryker armored vehicles. They used TOW missiles and Mark-19 grenade launchers. The F-15 fighter jets strafed rooftops with cannons, while the [Apache helicopters] fired Hellfire missiles.”

After 11 hours of death and devastation, 1,000 American and Iraqi troops were able to begin house-to-house searches, arresting or killing suspected insurgents.

One week later, McClatchy News reporters Nancy Youssef and Zaineb Obeid visited Haifa Street. They found massive destruction, omnipresent U.S. military forces locking down virtually all activity, widespread suffering among residents, and ongoing fighting. Elements of the Shia-dominated Iraqi army had already begun a systematic campaign to push the Sunni majority from the neighborhood:

“A 44-year-old Haifa Street resident, who asked to be identified only as Abu Mohammed for security reasons, said that only three or four [Sunni] families of an estimated 60 families remained on his block. He said no vehicles were allowed to drive through the area and that there was no electricity, kerosene or running water. [U.S.] Snipers have taken positions on the rooftops.”

To the fleeing Sunnis, it seemed the Americans were sponsoring ethnic cleansing. A resident commented: “The Americans are doing nothing, as if they are backing the militias. If this plan continues for one more week, I don’t think you will find one family left on Haifa Street.”

By the end of January, before the first surge reinforcements even arrived, the battle of Haifa Street was over. A large contingent of American soldiers would remain in the area, while a vast cement barrier with a handful of heavily armored gates would be put in place, effectively separating the community from the rest of the city. The dislodged insurgents retreated into intermittent guerrilla war, organizing some 20 attacks on the Americans each month — a sharp reduction from the 74 much larger battles they had fought in January. U.S. forces would mount an average of 34 combat patrols each day aimed at capturing or suppressing them. In January 2008, plans for an American departure from Haifa Street were still tentative.

The Results of the Surge

Haifa Street would become typical of many Baghdad communities that soon felt the full impact of the surge offensive. A year later, the neighborhood would still bear all the marks of battle. There had been no effort to restore public services, including the electrical grid or the system that should have supplied potable water; there were no medical services, nor was there any public transportation.

The New York Post’s Ralph Peters summarized the posture of the Maliki government inside the Green Zone bluntly: “Iraq’s government isn’t much help — none, as far as Haifa Street’s revival is concerned.” The American military commander on Haifa Street told him that the U.S. was relying on “spontaneous economic development” — local citizens were expected to develop the area through their own efforts, with the help of a limited number of “micro-loans” (a few hundred dollars each) from the military’s meager non-combat funds. It was no surprise, then, that, aside from a few food markets, there was no economy to speak of.

In the meantime, tens of thousands of mainly Sunni residents had left, with large parts of the area transformed from Sunni to Shia, and smaller sections moving in the other direction.

In January 2008, Lieutenant Colonel Tony Aguto, the U.S. commander in Haifa Street, estimated that some 50,000 of the area’s 150,000 residents had been displaced in the previous year. In Baghdad as a whole, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees would estimate that the heavy surge fighting in the first half of 2007 was producing 90,000 refugees a month, the bulk from Baghdad; the 2007 total reached 800,000.

As ethnic cleansing in Haifa Street and elsewhere was completed, the rate of refugee production began to drop, declining to 30,000 by December 2007. Displaced Baghdadis searching desperately for places to settle faced the overwhelming challenge of supporting families in a largely dormant economy with dwindling government support. This was not, commented Lt. Col. Aguto, a problem the Americans needed to address. “It is,” he said, “the job of the Iraqi government to sort this out.” The Iraqi government remained mute on the subject.

The Ebb of the Surge

As the battle of Haifa Street illustrated, the surge amplified violence in the capital significantly, as for six months the Americans moved in on one neighborhood after another, using all the firepower at their command. When the heavy fighting ended in an invaded neighborhood, the Americans sought to consolidate their military victory by erecting those now-ubiquitous concrete barriers, ensuring the ethnic segregation of each neighborhood or partial neighborhood. These became demarcation lines and no-go boundaries in the city’s civil war, the borders of a dis-integrated city.

The walls insured that there would be little or no physical, social, or economic contact among ghettoized, ethnically cleansed neighborhoods, even ones that had previously depended upon such intercourse for daily sustenance. The city’s already compromised economy thus suffered another body blow. Residents of these newly defined ghettos, unable to get to jobs, became increasingly desperate, and, searching for solutions, lent support to the local militias that spoke and acted on their behalf.

As displacement efforts continued, the Shia militias essentially moved east to west across Baghdad, creating ever more Shia areas from previously mixed and Sunni neighborhoods. Mainly in the western and southern parts of Baghdad, the Sunni militias persevered, consolidating their control in areas that the Americans did not invade.

The ghettoization of Baghdad, which had begun relatively modestly in early 2005, reached a crescendo in early 2007 with the American surge and was largely completed by the fall of 2007. By that time, what had once been a city split between Sunnis and Shia had been transformed into a 75% Shia capital. The American military made its presence felt at checkpoints, at many small bases established around the city, and by patrols into neighborhoods now demarcated by cement barriers. The localities, however, were still governed by the local militias in what was no longer a city, but a ghettoized collection of micro-city-states.

The End of the Surge

After a spring and summer of heavy fighting, however, the Americans were hardly close to pacifying the city. In a way, the surge had worsened the situation. Before it began, in many neighborhoods neither Sunni nor Shia militias were dominant; by the middle of 2007, virtually every community had its own mini-government, usually dominated by a militia that was hostile both to the occupation and the central government. To assert centralized authority over the city, each neighborhood would have had to be invaded again.

Without announcing a change in policy, the Americans functionally abandoned the surge in the late summer 2007 in favor of a “live and let live” program of cooptation. On the Sunni side of the street, the Americans adopted a version of the Sunni “Awakening” movement that had arisen without American encouragement in Anbar Province the previous year, negotiating armed truces with their insurgent adversaries on a community-by-community basis. The Americans conceded to the militias the right to police their own communities, discontinued American offensives aimed at dislodging them, and halted the hated home invasions aimed at arresting or killing suspected insurgents. In exchange, the insurgents were to rein in attacks on American troops and suppress jihadist activity in their neighborhoods, thus curtailing the planning and execution of car bomb and other terrorist attacks on nearby Shia communities.

On the Shia side, the Americans essentially negotiated a ceasefire with the Mahdi Army, announced publicly as a unilateral stand-down by its leader Moqtada Al Sadr. The Sadrists curtailed the planting of lethal roadside bombs against the Americans and no longer sought to ambush American and Iraqi army troops moving through their neighborhoods. The Americans curtailed their raids and offensives in Sadrist neighborhoods and spent far less effort hunting down and arresting Sadrist leaders, except when they specifically broke the ceasefire.

The result of this double détente was a dramatic reduction in violence in Baghdad. With the Americans keeping their side of the bargain, the huge running battles associated with American attacks on Sunni strongholds like Haifa Street disappeared, and even the smaller battles resulting from American attempts to capture specific insurgents subsided. In return, attacks against American forward bases and convoys in Baghdad dwindled, and the jihadists, largely expelled from Sunni insurgent communities, either demobilized or moved to northern Iraq where negotiations with the insurgents had not taken place.

This was, however, little more than an armed truce among enemies, a truce that actually strengthened the militias within their own communities. The Sunni insurgents, now validated as legitimate police and even paid and armed by the Americans, began making political demands for the restoration of services, as well as for infrastructure reconstruction and job-creation programs for their desperate constituents, all the while denouncing the Iraqi government as a creature of U.S. and Iranian policy.

The Mahdi Army militias, having extended their influence into previously mixed neighborhoods, used the truce to spread their own meager but meaningful social service programs and demand increased access to resources that might revive the economy of the city. Their national spokesmen continued to insist that the country could not begin genuine reconstruction until the Americans left, and that the barriers they had played such a role in erecting — sectarian as well as cement — were removed.

Though many Baghdad communities are now experiencing their lowest levels of violence in two years, their situations are neither viable, nor stable. The cement barriers, which help to reduce violence, also make social and economic life nearly impossible. Most Baghdadis are now locked into their individual ghettos, terrified of strangers, often afraid to send their children to schools across barriers and neighborhoods, and unable to reach previously held jobs. Employers, deprived of needed workers and customers, have shuttered their establishments. The economy has largely ground to a halt.

For most of Baghdad, the Iraqi government is simply irrelevant. It has no administrative apparatus in any of these communities or the capacity to restore needed services. Its only visible presence, the Iraqi army, is commanded or controlled by American officers; insofar as Iraqi soldiers do act independently, they follow the leadership of Shia militia commanders, not the central government. In neighborhoods even a few hundred feet from the Green Zone, the Iraqi government does not exist.

The Americans remain a major presence, but not a sovereign one. They maintain the most fearsome of the militias in Baghdad, capable of militarily overwhelming any adversary, but incapable of creating stable rule, even in cement-encircled ghost areas like Haifa Street. They cannot deliver electricity, or water, or jobs, or even, often enough, safe passage to the next neighborhood.

As early as May of 2006, Nir Rosen, one of the most informed and insightful journalists writing about Iraq, presciently described the American military’s unenviable position in this way: “[T]he American Army is lost in Iraq, as it has been since it arrived. Striking at Sunnis, striking at Shias, striking at mostly innocent people. Unable to distinguish between anybody, certainly unable to wield any power, except on the immediate street corner where it’s located [T]he Americans are just one more militia lost in the anarchy.” This description was never truer than today in Baghdad.

The residents of Baghdad are waiting. They are waiting for the walls around their neighborhood to come down, public transportation to be restored, and roads to be re-opened so they can begin to move around the city in something like a normal fashion. They wait for public services to be rebuilt so they can count on turning on the lights, having clean water come out of taps, and perhaps even being able to contribute to “spontaneous economic development.” They wait for employers to begin rehiring, so they can begin to support their suffering families.

They wait for the Americans to leave.

In a few weeks, General David Petraeus will tell the President and Congress that violence is dramatically reduced in Baghdad, that there are signs of political progress inside the Green Zone, and that these gains will be lost if the United States does not “stay the course.” He will not say that Baghdad is an urban desert of half-destroyed buildings and next to no public services, dotted by partially deserted, mutually hostile mini-ghettos that used to be neighborhoods, surrounded by cement barriers reminiscent of medieval fortifications.

Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency. This report on the battle of Baghdad is adapted from his forthcoming Tomdispatch book, War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context (Haymarket Books, June 2008). His work on Iraq has appeared on numerous Internet sites, including Tomdispatch, Asia Times, Mother Jones, and ZNET. His email address is [email protected].

Copyright 2008 Michael Schwartz