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Tell Me How This Ends — II

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There were at least 70 people killed in Iraq on Sunday — twin car bombs, suicide bombers, pulling passengers from another sect off a bus and shooting them — just an average day in an endless chain of carnage. Last night, CBS’ 60 Minutes featured a segment by Lara Logan on what life is like for two families trying to survive in Baghdad.

Earlier in the week, the WaPo followed General Petraeus, who once asked a reporter, “tell me how this ends,” as he flew around Baghdad looking for signs of progress.

“On a bad day, I actually fly Baghdad just to reassure myself that life still goes on,” he said. . ..

The article quotes him as spotting positive changes in some areas — markets open, people shopping, traffic moving in some areas — and problems elsewhere. But I have to wonder how he thinks the whole strategy can succeed, even in the occupying framework in which US forces function.

For example, part of the pacification strategy is to secure endangered sectarian neighborhoods by essentially walling them off, limiting the points where people can enter or exit so that US and Iraqi forces can concentrate security on the limited check points. But in one prominent Sunni district of the capital, the local Sunni leaders objected strongly to being walled in, forcing Prime Minister al Maliki to order the US to stop building the wall:

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s prime minister said on Sunday he had urged the U.S. military to halt work on a wall separating a Baghdad Sunni enclave from nearby Shi’ite areas after sharp criticism from some residents.

The cement wall around the district of Adhamiya is part of a new U.S. military tactic to protect flashpoint neighborhoods with barriers, in a security crackdown in the capital that is seen as a final attempt to halt civil war between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs. . . .

Speaking in Cairo at the start of an Arab tour to drum up support for Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite Islamist, said he objected to the 5-km (3-mile) wall, which residents said would isolate them from other communities and sharpen sectarian tensions.

“I asked yesterday that it be stopped and that alternatives be found to protect the area,” Maliki said in his first public comments on the issue.

“I said that I fear this wall might have repercussions which remind us of other walls, which we reject,” he added.

Some Adhamiya residents have compared the wall to barriers erected by Israel in the occupied West Bank.

Having his principal security measure compared to the Israeli treatment of Palestinians is probably not the frame Petraeus had in mind. Over at Talk Left, Big Tent Democrat naturally asked, “is there a Plan B?” Continuing the Reuter’s story:

The U.S. military sought on Sunday to play down any hint of friction between Maliki and American commanders behind the Baghdad plan, saying it would coordinate with the Iraqi government and Iraqi commanders on how best to establish security measures.

“The government of Iraq and MNF-I (Multinational Force-Iraq) do agree that we need to protect the people of Iraq. How that is done is always being discussed and we will continue that dialogue,” the military said in a statement.

Okay, but is the US military now telling us that there was no coordination with the al Maliki government before US engineers starting building the wall around the Adhamiya district? Or did al Maliki give his approval without asking the local district leaders, who are all Sunnis? [Update: the locals were told, but had not giving their consent, according to this report. (h/t cbl) And Juan Cole has more on al Maliki’s likely role.] Either way, it is not a good sign when a key component of the US strategy, intended to create a climate for reconciliation between the Shia majority and Sunni minority, moves forward without either coordination or the consent of the affected Iraqi officials on either side.

Another key part of the strategy is to “sweep” through neighborhoods and “clear” them of “insurgents.” But what does this mean? If you watched the PBS series, America at a Crossroads (which I found generally excellent except for the Perle propaganda film) you might have seen the segment called Warriors, which followed an American infantry company as it performed these functions. What we saw were heavily armed US troops going house to house and searching them for weapons and insurgent sympathizers. These are not police actions, using warrants; they are military raids, with our troops breaking down entry gates and front doors, rounding up everyone inside, searching everything and everywhere, questioning everyone in the family about whether they know where the “enemy” is hiding, and arresting anyone they believe to be suspicious. But who, exactly, are the enemy is this scene?

The warriors have every reason to be aggressive and suspicious; they are the targets and victims of daily bombing and sniping attacks, as we see in the film. But the question is whether the overall strategy can succeed. In a country occupied by an unpopular foreign power, with soldiers who don’t speak the language, know little of the culture and probably have little respect for the customs and religious beliefs of the residents, these house to house tactics do not seem calculated to “win hearts and minds.” Try to imagine an analogous situation of hated foreign troops raiding your home, turning everything upside down, frightening your family, and possibly arresting your son/brother merely because he is known to be opposed to having foreign armies in his country.

In the US press, these tactics are sanitized: we’re just “clearing” out the “enemy” or the “terrorists,” and who could complain about that? But I can’t imagine that any self respecting people, Americans or Iraqis, would see it that way if they were on the receiving end.

Another article from this Saturday’s New York Times fills in more of the picture. It seems that US forces, while now clearly directed (after Abu Ghraib) to avoid torturing those they arrest, are routinely turning over arrested Iraqis to the Iraq security forces — who then torture their fellow countrymen to get intelligence. If the Americans think the intelligence is worthwhile, they may look the other way regarding the torture.

“I prepared him for the Americans and let them take his confession,” Capt. Bassim Hassan said through an interpreter. “We know how to make them talk. We know their back streets. We beat them. I don’t beat them that much, but enough so he feels the pain and it makes him desperate.”

As American and Iraqi troops set up these outposts in dangerous neighborhoods to take on the insurgents block by block, they find themselves continually facing lethal attacks. In practice, the Americans and Iraqis seem to have different answers about what tactics are acceptable in response.

Beatings like this, which are usually hard to verify but appear to be widespread given the fears about the Iraqi security forces frequently expressed by ordinary Iraqis, present the Americans with a largely undiscussed dilemma.

Apparently, General Pace’s direction (remember when he overruled Rummy?) that US troops have an affirmative duty not merely to report but to stop mistreatment by the Iraqis when they see it is no longer operative.

I’m sure the Administration finds it easy to excuse this behavior if, as the article reports, the “intelligence” actually leads to discoveries of hidden arms and further suspects. But we need to remind ourselves that mistreatment of prisoners and torture are crimes under the US military code — and a war crime under international law — and an occupying force cannot stand back when it know this is happening during its operations and claim it was not responsible.

With US casualties rising, the Republican talking heads spent all weekend trying to focus attention on Harry Reid saying “the war is lost.” Arguing that we’re “winning” is not much to run on, but it’s better than facing Petraeus’ query: Tell me how this ends.

Tristero at Hullabaloo has more.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley

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