Iraq: Whatever You're Looking For


March 6, 2006: As Iraqis increasingly fight each other, there has been a sharp decline in American casualties. There were 6,790 U.S. troops killed and wounded last year, compared to 8,837 in 2004. That's a drop of 23 percent. But so far this year, the casualty rate for Americans is down 62 percent from 2005. Given that the main goal of the Sunni Arab terrorists is the expulsion of foreign troops, why the sharp reduction in attacks and casualties among the American forces? One of the least reported reasons is that U.S. troops have been winning the tactics and technology race with the terrorists. Although the media make much of terrorist innovations, less is said about the more frequent, and more effective, improvements in tactics and technology American troops are using. The cumulative effect has been steadily lower American casualties, and larger losses for the terrorists. Another reason for the decline is a sharp reduction in the number of Iraqis and foreigners committing terrorist attacks, and fewer Sunni Arabs fighting their government.

In order to deny the enemy information, the government and Coalition do not discuss terrorist casualties a lot, plus the media tends to avoid reporting terrorist losses. American losses, no matter how meager, are more sought after. But the arrest of terrorists has been increasing, and losses from fighting with Iraqi tribal groups have been high (if hard to count) as well. Many more men have been leaving terrorist groups. Numbers on this trend are kept secret, because of the sources and techniques used to acquire the information. But it is known that fewer foreigners are coming into Iraq as al Qaeda volunteers, and more of the Sunni Arab tribal militia who used to fight alongside the terrorists against the government, are now fighting the terrorists. Many of these battles are mistakenly reported as attacks on police or soldiers, when, in fact, the police and soldiers are just there for crowd control, and to pick and the wounded and arrest surviving terrorists.

If the government security forces are on good enough terms with the local tribal militia, they will sometimes cooperate in attacking al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, but usually the violence is strictly between the terrorists and the Sunni Arab tribes. The goal is often not to wipe out the terrorists, but to get them out of the tribal area. The police, on the other hand, want to kill or capture the terrorists. Rather than get into an argument, over tactics, with the armed tribesmen, the police just wait for the fighting to die down before going in. Since few foreign journalists get out of their secure compounds, and the Iraqi reporters they use to collect information know the foreigners want a certain type of news, the tribe versus terrorist battles frequently get reported as whatever the foreign journalist is looking for that day.

For the average Iraqi, the biggest complaint is crime. Murder, extortion, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, muggings and carjackings are things that every Iraqi, especially in Baghdad, have to worry about. There are thousands of criminal gangs in Iraq. Some of them are basically enforcers for tribal leadership or the local religious leader. These semi-legitimate gangs get "paid" by whatever they are given, or take, in return for their protective services. This is basically an extortion racket, and the police will often leave these guys alone as long as they don't get greedy, and more violent.

But the most worrisome gangs are those that kidnap, murder (for hire, or as a side effect of some other crime), rape and barge into, and loot, peoples homes. Many of the violent gangs are very temporary, either because the cops, or local vigilantes catch them, or because members find less stressful, and dangerous, employment.

The most common crime fighting tactic is to put more gunmen on the street, particularly at night. For most of Iraq, the police have brought peace to the streets in daylight. But night is another matter. That's when more of the criminals are about, and when they are harder to catch. Most police don't like to operate at night. There are several thousand special police (SWAT and the like) who are trained and equipped to go gangster hunting at night, and some of these are being assigned to that task. But for the moment, the priority is still taking down terrorist gangs.

It's becoming more common for neighborhoods to organize their own local security. In upscale areas, security guards are hired. In less affluent neighborhoods, volunteers form a night guard. This doesn't lead to as many shoot outs as you might think, because the word gets around, and the bad guys go hunting where there is less resistance. The two fold process of putting more security personnel on the street 24/7, and hunting down the hard core, career gangsters, will take years to bring the crime rate down to pre-invasion levels.

Who are the bad guys? Saddam released thousands of the worst criminals several months before he was forced from power. Thousands of Sunni Arabs have adopted the outlaw life in order to replace the paycheck they used to get as an enforcer for Saddam. Several hundred foreigners have set up shop as Islamic terrorists, who often resort to crime to raise money. All these have to be captured or killed before Iraqis can enjoy their new political freedoms. And, as Iraqis are finding out, they have to fix this problem themselves, or it isn't getting fixed.


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