Yesterday ended the month with the fewest Coalition casualties since nearly the beginning of the war in Iraq. There were only about 20 combat-related deaths during the whole of May. Hopefully portending even better things to come, only about five of those deaths occurred during the final two weeks of the month.
It isn’t about body counts, however, since one way to ensure a low casualty rate is to sequester American forces on forward operating bases. What makes the statistic even more impressive is that the low death total came even as the operational tempo was as busy as ever. Coalition Forces, now largely in a supporting role, spent the month busily fighting in three of the roughest areas of the country–Basrah, Sadr City, and Mosul–with impressive results.
In the southern port city of Basrah, the Iraqi government launched attacks in March against a thuggish mafia that controlled the city. Immediately some in the press announced that this was Iraq’s Tet–meaning that years into the war, the battle showed that the fledgling government and its American supporters were powerless to stop the insurgency. This time it was Tet as it really happened, not as it was portrayed. The insurgency quickly culminated. The extremist Shia militias destroyed themselves trying to attack the Iraqi government. And unlike what happened during the original 1968 version of Tet, the real story made it into the media. Basrah was a magnificent victory for an Iraqi government and its Army that few outside of Iraq had before afforded respect.
Meanwhile, Muqtada al Sadr, who nominally controls the JAM militias, stirred his extremists to action in Sadr City, a Shia slum on the eastern edge of Baghdad. Coalition and Iraqi forces hit back hard. Nearly 500 JAM fighters were killed during the month-long fight–many of them surgically removed by snipers and laser guided missiles, thus not putting the population at risk.
The Shia militias, however, exercised no such restraint. Dozens, if not hundreds, of bombs intended for American forces also took innocent Iraqi victims with them. Shia rockets and mortars launched toward the International Zone in the center of Baghdad fell short time and time again–especially as the insurgents were pushed further and further from town. Each errant round killed innocent Iraqis, while few ever reached their Coalition targets.
The Shia citizenry erupted–against the Shia militias. They sought out Iraqi and Coalition forces and told them where the fighters were and where they hid their weapons. Shop owners stopped paying protection money that they had been giving to the mafia militants. Just as the Sunni citizenry did in Anbar, the Shia citizens ceased living in fear of the militias, and turned on them.
In the northern Iraqi town of Mosul, Al Qaeda was being routed from its last stronghold. By month’s end, they had ceased to be an organized force there. Again, it was the Iraqi Army taking the lead. And thus June begins with an Iraqi government emboldened by its Army’s success over its two biggest internal enemies.
There are still obstacles. Coalition forces are now almost down to pre-Surge levels and still falling. By mid-summer there will be five less brigades in Iraq than there were a year ago. That presents challenges–although the recent successes of Iraqi security forces indicate there is room for optimism that they are up to taking over the role of departing Allies.
The economy is also a major challenge. Unemployment in Iraq is rampant. Nearly everyone depends on some form of government support. Luckily for Iraq the government is flush with cash since oil revenues are bringing in more than a billion dollars a week . But this is a new government not used to having more money than it can spend. Plus, fraud and corruption is a major danger here.
Probably the biggest obstacle, certainly its biggest remaining security obstacle, is Iraq’s neighbor to the east. Iran is simultaneously one of Iraq’s biggest trading partners and it largest external military threat. Increasingly Iranian munitions are turning up in Iraqi stockpiles, while its “Special Groups” forces are working hand in hand with the Shia militias. There have even been some reports of Iranian support for Sunni extremists–an illogical arrangement if one adheres to the view that the Iraqi conflict is a Sunni-Shia civil war. If it ever was a civil war, it isn’t now. Instead Iran is simply doing what Persia has always done: attempt to keep a weakened Arab state on its western border. Especially now, since weakening Iraq also means hurting American prestige in the Middle East, there is no enemy so reprehensible that Iran won’t potentially ally with it in order to keep Iraq in turmoil.
So as we begin June, Americans can be thankful that Iraq is well on its way to securing itself against internal threats. But there is still much work to be done–especially on the economy and countering Iran’s malign influence. Hopefully, a month from now I will be able to report successes in those areas as well.
It goes without saying that these views and opinions are mine and are not meant to be interpreted as the positiion of the Department of Defense, The United States Army, or Multi-National Forces Iraq.