January 29, 2008

Death Squads Threaten Surge

Following up on AM's post regarding the fragility of the surge, veteran military correspondent Joe Galloway has a column up on the effect of targeted killings of CLC members by death squads.

In recent weeks, however, a wave of assassinations by al Qaeda in Iraq and by Shiite Muslim militiamen is threatening the American-paid tribal leaders and fighters of the Sunni Awakening Councils, which are at the heart of the reduced violence in some of the most dangerous places in Iraq.

The Awakening Councils and their Sunni sheiks have stopped the insurgent attacks on American troops in Anbar province and turned on the Sunni jihadists they'd sheltered for years.

This seismic shift virtually ended the violence in bloody Anbar and helped dampen the killings in Diyala province north of Baghdad and in some of the worst neighborhoods in the Iraqi capital. This and a six-month cease-fire by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia are far more responsible for the improved security in Iraq than the temporary increase in American troops is.

Two things to note here: as AM (and Colin Kahl) suggested yesterday, the reduction in violence was facilitated by the surge, but the Iraqis themselves (CLCs and Sadr) played the critical role. (Btw, we're keeping a close eye on the Sadr ceasefire.) And, in case you glossed over it, there seems to be evidence that that the CLC leaders are being targeted by Shiite militias, not just AQI elements. That doesn't play well with the current "national reconciliation" talking points, but shouldn't really surprise anyone who's been paying attention.

As readers of this blog well know, securing the civilian population is at the heart of good counter-insurgency campaigns. Protecting those actively supporting you--and labeled collaborators by opponents--is doubly important. (Which is why our previous clear-but-not-hold strategy meant that we literally lost a generation of moderate Iraqis: nearly all those who worked with us from 2003-2005 were killed because we couldn't provide security.) Joe Galloway understands this too:

If the U.S. commanders can't find some way to shield their new Sunni friends from the death squads -- both the Sunni militants and the Shiite militias -- then a rising tide of violence will sweep away both the surge and the shaky calm it has brought.