Juan Cole: US troop deaths are up this year ... but Iraq is fading as an issue?





[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

Edward Luce of FT argues that Iraq has faded as a campaign issue in the 08 presidential election. He attributes this lower profile for the issue to a drop in US military deaths in Iraq and to the rise of Iran as an issue instead.

I may have been the first to point to the new salience of Iran to the race, in my Salon column last week, so I do not disagree with that assertion.

But I think it is way too early to write Iraq off as an issue. In fact, given the current crisis at the northern border with Turkey, it is a little bit bizarre to suggest that things have all calmed down, either over there or domestically.

First of all, the assertion that US troop deaths have fallen is extremely misleading. In fact, It is only late October and already more US troops were killed in Iraq in 2007 than in all of 2006. Indeed, 2007 will almost certainly hold the record for the year of the most US military deaths since the war began.

According to the Iraq Casualties Site, these are the yearly numbers of death of US military personnel in Iraq:

Year       US Deaths
2003       486
2004       849
2005       846
2006       822
2007       832

It is true that October is on track to be the least deadly for US troops since March of 2005.

It is, however, not clear why exactly US troop deaths have fallen so much in October. It is possible that they are being given few military missions and spending more time on base.

Indeed, the sort of ground missions that might involve hand to hand fighting and high US casualties may have been replaced by air strikes against suspected insurgent targets. US air strikes on Iraq are up by a factor of four in 2007 over 2006, according to Newsay. The US launched 1,140 bombing missions in 2007 through the end of September, as opposed to 229 in all of 2006. The US has flown as many as 70 such air missions a day this October, more than at any time since the November, 2004, assault on the Sunni Arab city of Fallujah.

Obviously, for an Occupation military to bomb a densely-populated city that it already largely controls is a violation of human rights law. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq has just condemned the US for using this tactic, which inevitably kills children, women and other non-combatants. You can't drop a bomb on an urban apartment building without killing lots of people, not only inside the building but also all around it. The bomb turns bits of the building into deadly projectiles. I am told that the US Air Force takes no responsibility for these aerial strikes when they are called in by army troops on the ground, and makes no assessment as to whether proportional force was deployed or excessive civilian casualties were incurred. So you have a convoy of soldiers in humvees driving through deeply hostile Sadr City, and someone starts sniping at them from a building. Obviously, running into the building is dangerous; it could be booby-trapped, or snipers could have set up there. I wouldn't want to do it. So the tendency would obviously be to take out the snipers by taking out the building they are using. That makes military sense. It doesn't make sense in the international law of occupations.

The US military spokesmen are always going on about precision strikes and reducing civilian casualties. I know they are sincere in thinking they can do that, but they just aren't dealing with a simple reality. They are bombing apartment buildings in densely populated cities!

The US military, then, may be artificially keeping US military deaths down this fall by resorting to many more aerial bombings. These bombings have repeatedly drawn forth powerful condemnations from the elected Iraqi political authorities and are unlikely to be viable much longer.

Evidence that US troops are being extremely careful also comes from the new policy on checkpoints. All vehicles are going to be stopped from now on except those of a high-ranking Iraqi politician such as the prime minister. One reader observed to me in an email of this story, that apparently the US in Iraq has fallen on such hard times that it can't trust anyone below the rank of prime minister.

The use of curfews and bans on vehicle traffic also seems to have expanded. The large northern city of Mosul (pop. 1.5 million) was put under curfew after bombings in late September. Several neighborhoods of Diwaniya are under curfew after clashes between the Mahdi Army and local police.

The entire city of Falluja appears to continue to labor under a ban on the operation of private vehicles (i.e. you cannot drive your car there). This policy has produced 80% unemployment. Basically keeping an entire city under lockdown has allowed the drawdown of US Marines from the city, with only 250 left. But it is crazy to think that this policy can be kept in place forever, and when the cars start circulating again, won't there be trouble?

That US reporters put such a positive spin on stories like the vast increase in aerial bombardment or the lockdown in Falluja just boggles my mind. Have they all drunk the Kool-Aid?

Reuters reports civil war violence for Tuesday. Major incidents:


' SAMARRA - The U.S. military said six Iraqi civilians were among 11 people killed in an air strike by an attack helicopter near Samarra, 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, after five men were seen planting a roadside bomb. Iraqi police said 16 civilians, including women and children, were killed and 14 wounded.

NEAR BAQUBA - A roadside bomb exploded near a minibus, killing three people, including one woman, and wounding 10, including five women, on the main road near the city of Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, police said.

NEAR FALLUJA - Police found 15 men shot, bound and blindfolded, in a deserted building on Monday in a town near Falluja, 50 km (35 miles) west of Baghdad, police Lieutenant Colonel Jubair al-Dulaimi said.

BAGHDAD - A roadside bomb wounded two people in the eastern Zayouna district of Baghdad, police said. .

BAGHDAD - U.S. forces killed one insurgent and detained 10 suspected insurgents during military operations on Oct. 20-22 in the areas of Baghdad, Mosul, Thar Thar and Rabiae, the U.S. military said. . .

BAGHDAD - U.S. forces killed one insurgent and wounded five in an air strike on Monday in northern Baghdad on men planting a roadside bomb, the U.S. military said.'


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