Baghdad Divided

by Claudio Guler for ISN Security Watch

9 Nov 2009

US soldier in Iraq climbs over a wall, courtesy of Soldiers Media Center

A US soldier climbs over a wall during a reconnaissance operation in Baghdad, May 2007.
(Public Domain) US Army

Maps detailing the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad question the utility of the US surge in Iraq as a template for Afghanistan, Claudio Guler writes for ISN Security Watch.

Analysis suggests that the US surge in Iraq, and the troop increase in particular, did not bring about an end to Iraq’s civil war in 2006-2007. Rather, the surge dovetailed a series of converging dynamics on the ground, facilitating more so than engendering a cessation of hostilities.

Iraq’s civil war was foremost about the country’s violent post-invasion shift from a Sunni minority-run state under Saddam Hussein to a Shia majority-run country. Maps developed by Dr Michael Izady for Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) Gulf/2000 Project, an information center on Persian Gulf countries, which have tracked the sectarian make-up of Baghdad in the post-invasion period illustrate this sea change.

''Ethnic Groups in Baghdad' - a set of five maps – depict the all but complete sectarian cleansing and segregation of Baghdad during 2006-2007.

Surges and sahwat

The US surge in Iraq or “The New Way Forward,” announced by President George W Bush on 10 January 2007, included three components. First, US commanders on the ground reformed their tactics, focusing on safeguarding the civilian population and adopting a ‘clear-hold-build’ versus a more rudimentary ‘clear’ strategy for counterinsurgency.

Second, the US surge successfully embraced the Sunni ‘awakening’ movements or sahwat. Lastly, the surge called for the deployment of an extra 28,000 US troops, the lion’s share to Baghdad.

The first two components helped temper the bloodletting. The third likely played a marginal role in stamping out smoldering embers.

Starting in 2005 and gaining momentum through much of 2006 and 2007, the sahwat, an alliance led by Sheikh Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, played an integral role in ending Iraq’s civil war.

The fall of Saddam Hussein robbed Sunni tribal sheikhs of their longtime patron. An influx of foreign fighters, many with jihadi ambitions, links to al-Qaida and an appetite for indiscriminate violence complicated their predicament.

Welcomed at first and harbored by Iraq’s Sunni population, the sheikhs and their constituents eventually determined that the foreign fighters, many fighting under the guise of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), were hindering more so than advancing their cause. AQI began challenging the authority of the Sunni sheikhs, and increasingly, egged on a civil war with the Shias that the Sunnis could hardly expect to win.

Many Sunnis also disagreed with AQI’s ideological aspirations. Whereas most of Iraq’s Sunnis favored a nationalist agenda, AQI yearned for the reactionary Islamization of Iraq.

By late 2006 and moving in to 2007, the US embraced the sahwat, put them on Uncle Sam’s payroll, encouraged the tribes to stop providing safe haven to AQI and urged them to curtail their own use of force. It worked. By May 2007 the sahwat had largely expelled AQI and curbed their fighting. Analysts and journalists have since attributed much of the decline in violence to their exertions.

But some observers, including Dr Izady, point out that this account, though accurate in the main, fails to explain why the Sunni tribes so willingly acceded to US support, in effect tying their fate to US magnanimity.

The answer rests with Sunni fears of imminent Shia vengeance and hegemony.

The Baghdad purge

Eight-tenths of the violence in Iraq befell Baghdad and its surrounding areas. An explosion in Baghdad paid high political dividends and was quickly reported around the world. More significantly, pre-invasion Baghdad was the most ethnically diverse region of Iraq.

Dr Izady developed his maps using dozens of itinerant civilian informants in Baghdad. What his maps show is that from early 2006 to mid 2007 – the al-Askari mosque bombing in the city of Samarra in February 2006 marked the start of Iraq’s civil war – the Mahdi army and affiliated Shia militia groups cleansed Baghdad of Sunnis, forcing diehards into Sunni stronghold neighborhoods in the western part of the city.

The gains were astounding. Izady explained to ISN Security Watch, “Judging by the body counts at the time in the Baghdad morgues, three Sunnis died for every Shia. Baghdad - basically a Sunni city into the 1940s, by the end of 2008, had only a few hundred thousand Sunni residents left in a population of over 5 million.

“However regrettable,” continued Izady, “if the massive Shia killing of the Sunnis and comprehensive ethno-sectarian cleansing had not taken place, the prospect of the Sunnis ‘awakening’ and sensing their imminent destruction or subjugation by the Shias would not have transpired.

“The surge was the psychological marker that the US could and in fact might leave and let the Sunnis deal with the Shias alone. From 2003 when the Sunnis saw the US and coalition forces as enemies to be ejected from Iraq, to fall 2007 where the Americans were seen as the only force standing between them and the vengeful Shias in their millions, a 180-degree transformation had taken place.”

In August 2007, Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi army declared a unilateral ceasefire. Although the motives for his decision were manifold, including increased US military pressure, the sectarian cleansing and consequent shift in the balance of power was complete.

A bomb killed Sheikh Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi on 13 September 2007; suspicion fell on AQI, not Shia militia groups. Nonetheless, the Sunni alliance had lost its charismatic leader.

By August/September 2007, Iraq’s civil war was over. Since US troops withdrew from Iraq’s cities on 30 June 2009 the violence has not returned. Baghdad remains divided.

In a 3 November 2008 report, IWPR quoted Iraqi defense ministry spokesperson Brigadier General Muhammad al-Askari as saying, “I do not think al-Sahwa elements have the ability or desire to take up arms against the government, because they are now in need of protection from [the groups they have been fighting].”

Did the civil war of 2006-2007 lay the groundwork for a new dictatorship - in this case, a dictatorship of the majority? Izady reckons, “The Kurds are safe in their mountains, and all but independent since 1991; the Shia are having a field day with their newfound (and absolute) power, and the Sunnis - whose numbers might have been reduced to just about 12 percent of the Iraqi population (due to massive emigration to Syria and Jordan) – are the ‘endangered species.’ An odd turn of events, where the dominant force in Iraq since its inception in the 1920s is now a tertiary force at the mercy of the primary Shias, whose idea of democracy is a ‘dictatorship of the majority’?”

The Afghan version

The dissimilar contexts of Iraq and Afghanistan aside, advocacy of a US troop surge in Afghanistan based on the perceived efficacy of added boots in Iraq is likely just that – a perception.

The civilian/ethno-sectarian death toll in Iraq peaked in December 2006-January 2007, suggesting US soldiers were unable to check the sectarian bloodshed at its high point, and the preponderance of the sectarian cleansing occurred well in advance of the US troop increase to Baghdad.

The troop increase became operational a short time before the end of the civil war, in mid-June 2007. Enough time, roughly two months, to nudge the various Shia militia groups to back down, but insufficient time to end a civil war the US did not control.

Claudio Guler is an ISN Security Watch correspondent based in New York. His areas of expertise include international criminal justice and climate change. Guler holds a degree in political science from Oberlin College, Ohio, USA.