BAGHDAD – Iraq’s civilian body count in October was less than half that at its height in January, reflecting both the tactical successes of this year’s U.S. troop buildup and the lasting effect of waves of sectarian death squad killings, car bombings and neighborhood purges.
October also marked the lowest monthly death toll for American troops, 36 fatalities, since March 2006, when 31 were killed, according to the Web site icasualties.org.
American commanders credit the buildup, which reached full strength during June, with slowing sectarian bloodshed.
They say the decision to send 28,500 more troops to Iraq has made a difference by allowing them to send soldiers to live on the fault lines between Sunni Arab and Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, and to conduct sweeping offensives in provinces east and south of the capital against strongholds of Shiite Muslim militias and Sunni militants linked to foreign insurgents.
But others say that the picture is more complicated and that the civilian death toll, which plummeted nationwide from 2,076 in January to 758 in October, according to the Iraqi health ministry, has dropped in large part because those seeking to cleanse their neighborhoods of rival religious sects by and large have succeeded.
“Everyone in our neighborhood is Sunni; even the birds flying above us are Sunni,” said Mohammed Azawi, a resident of the formerly mixed district of Ghazaliya.
A year ago, his street was a battleground between Shiite and Sunni militants. Now it is segregated between its Shiite northern tip and its Sunni south.
Moreover, American forces have felt it necessary to make tacit deals with groups that have been involved in the ethnic cleansing, and many Baghdad residents who have not been killed have fled. The number of people displaced internally in Iraq has risen to 2.25 million, while another 2 million have left the country.
“Certainly the presence of (U.S.) soldiers in insecure neighborhoods in Baghdad could stabilize the neighborhood, resulting in less violence and fewer people fleeing the neighborhood,” said Dana Graber Ladek, Iraqi case officer for the International Organization for Migration. “In addition, as neighborhoods become homogeneous, violence is likely to decrease and fewer people are likely to flee these areas.”
American military leaders say that Iraq and its capital, where much of the sectarian violence has taken place, are significantly safer than at the height of Shiite-Sunni warfare last year – although even at its reduced level, the violence results in nearly 200 deaths a week.
“What happened this time is we stayed … so now the people said, ‘Hey you’re staying,’ and once they see we’re staying with Iraqis, and the Iraqis (army and police) are staying with us and getting much better and treating the people with dignity and respect, they start coming forward with tips,” said Brig. Gen. John Campbell, U.S. deputy army commander for Baghdad.
At the same time, with an Iraqi national government that remains riven with sectarian strife, the future remains unclear, American authorities acknowledge.
Despite professed optimism, Campbell acknowledges that he has fought to rein in a sectarian agenda during the American troop build-up. Early on, Campbell struggled to stop Shiite government officials from giving direct orders to arrest Sunni targets.
Campbell claimed that since Americans put Iraqis’ feet to the fire, Iraqi security commanders have started to police their own. Even so, last month an Iraqi national police unit active in the mixed district of Saidiya on Baghdad’s strategic southeastern rim was removed after repeated allegations of attacks against Saidiya’s Sunni population.
The relative calm has come in part through the U.S. military’s willingness to work with former Sunni insurgents to fight foreign extremists as well to work tacitly with the moderate elements of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia to stabilize neighborhoods.
Baghdad’s western Rashid district, for example, was once an area with a majority Sunni population. After years of violence, it now has an estimated 70 percent Shiite population.
Securing the area has meant coming to an understanding with the same militia responsible for expelling the Sunnis, American officials acknowledge.
“It’s the reality of western Rashid,” said Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, whose battalion is charged with the area. “Everyone we deal with is” a member of the Mahdi Army, he said.
In New Baghdad, Mohammed Ashraf, 28, described sectarian cleansing as the heavy price of safety.
“It’s a popular Shiite neighborhood, and therefore it’s only natural that they shall prevail. They work in coordination with both the Iraqi police and army,” Ashraf said. “Sure, there are some negative aspects in them, but the positive ones outweigh those, such as providing essential services and security to the people.”
In the largely Sunni enclave of Ghazaliya, residents say the protection they receive from American troops has made a world of difference. Where Shiites were forcibly and bloodily evicted, Sunni men now stay outside till 10 or 11 p.m., sitting in lawn chairs.
“I expect to live in Ghazaliya the rest of my life This is our home,” said Azawi. “Now that it is pure Sunni, it is better for us.”