More Troops but Less Control in Iraq

BAGHDAD — More U.S. troops are expected to be deployed in Iraq in the New Year. Despite obvious rethinking, there is no decision on withdrawal of occupation forces.

The presence of troops may be raised just for their own protection. According to a Pentagon report, U.S. and Iraqi forces are facing close to 1,000 attacks a week now. U.S. forces comprise more than 90 percent of the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.

According to the White House, 49 countries joined that coalition at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. That number has shrunk to 32, after countries like Italy and Canada withdrew troops this year.

Britain is expected to withdraw its 7,500 troops next year, after pulling out 1,300 earlier this year.

Whatever the numbers, the vital question is whether U.S. troops will continue to do next year what they have been doing this year.

Under the increasing number of attacks and the escalating chaos, it has apparently become U.S. military policy to bulldoze or bomb houses whenever attacks are launched on their patrols. This is particularly the case in places like Fallujah, Samarra, Siniya, Ramadi and other Sunni dominated areas. Sectarian conflict has roared between Shias and Sunnis, who follow different beliefs within Islam.

This year has shown how the U.S. military is dealing with sectarian violence. While it carried out collective punishment in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, it has ignored Shia death squads. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki leads a Shia-dominated government.

Many Sunnis believe the U.S. military has long been favouring Shia politicians and their militias.

“They are just pretending they are concerned about sectarian war, and they are trying to convince the world that they are dealing with it seriously,” Yassir Mahmood of the Beji city council told IPS. Beji is located 200 km north of Baghdad in an oil-rich area where attacks on U.S. troops are commonplace.

Sunnis are concerned how far U.S. forces will take that tilt next year. “They (the U.S. military) lifted their checkpoints around Sadr City in Baghdad saying it was ordered by Maliki,” Mahmood said. “Yet, when it comes to our Sunni areas they increased killing of innocent civilians.”

Most of the victims of death squads are Sunnis, whose bodies are found on the streets of Baghdad every day. Many bodies show signs of torture, particularly holes drilled into them, and wounds and deformation caused by acid.

U.S. forces ignore such killings, and carry out their own, in moves to crush Sunni resistance. And they are looking for reinforcements to carry out this job. Since the middle of December, the Bush Administration has been discussing sending an additional 20,000-50,000 troops to Iraq in a “temporary” move. There are currently 141,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, with at least 5,000 U.S. “advisors”.

The U.S. military is also reported to be considering a major offensive against Muqtada Sadr, the Shia cleric the U.S. administration says is impeding the functioning of the Iraqi government.

But under the increasing attacks, the military itself feels unsafe. U.S. troops are now going for fewer but larger bases in Iraq. From more than 100 bases earlier, the U.S. now has 54.

The bases are becoming like forts within which the U.S. forces stay. Camp Anaconda in Balad, just north of Baghdad, is an air base with more than 20,000 soldiers, less than 1,000 of whom ever leave the base, according to local reports. About 250 aircraft are located at this base.

The situation in southern Iraq is also becoming difficult, with signs of fighting between the two largest Shia militias, the Badr group and Sadr’s Mehdi Army.

“The Shia-Shia fight will be destructive,” Dr. Ghassan al-Atiya, a liberal Shia in London told IPS. “With all parties armed and longing for ruling the rich southern region of Iraq, the whole Gulf area will explode, and a real civil war will be a certain consequence.”

Through the occupation, each time the U.S. has increased troop levels, there has been a corresponding increase in attacks on the forces, and consequently an increase in civilian casualties. Or, troop levels have been increased in response to rising attacks. By either pattern, next year could get much worse.