Monday, October 22, 2007

Shias The Problem In Southern Iraq

Tallil, near Nasiriyah, southern Iraq - Another day another dollar in the so-called war on terror.
Our humvee grinds its way across a bleak landscape of the southern Iraqi desert, near a major base at Tallil. We jolt across furrows in the ground. The sand stretches away on either side. It is beige - intensely beige. As beige as beige could ever be, with the bright sun burning down and reflecting back into the blue sky.
It's only 95 degrees, which makes me glad I wasn't here in the summer, when it routinely reached 125, 130, 135 degrees.
But of course I have been here in the summer time. I have been here in the winter time as well. Then the bright beige of sun-drenched sand gives way to a cold greyish tan, as the weather turns often cloudy and rainy.
This week is the beginning of my tenth trip to Iraq. Time flies, as they say.
My first trip was in July, 2004, just over a year after the invasion.
Back then the insurgency was beginning to hit really its stride. Back then we often rode in humvees with jerry-rigged armor, likely as not. Back then, on my first night in Iraq, I drove from Baghdad north to Taji on one of the worst stretches of roads in the country, with a 1st Sergeant still recovering his nerve from being almost blown up a few weeks before.
Some things have changed, some have not.
That stretch of highway is still one of the worst stretches of road.
Gone now are the official denials, the story line that the insurgency is in its last gasp, that the continuation, uptick and tenacity of attacks is a sign of an insurgency "in its last throes." That is replaced by a watchful eye on the body count, both military and civilian, which is the grim but accurate indicator of the state of the war.
Some major improvements: The success in Mosul, a city once in very real danger of being lost. A big win in Anbar, due mainly because the Sunnis cannot abide the dead, Orwellian hand of Al Qaeda on their throat, dictating even the mundane details of daily life.
Some major disasters: The hands-off approach taken by the Americans that has allowed Iraqi government ministries to be taken over by the Shias and thereby deny essential services to many ordinary Iraqis. The continuing gangster nature of Iraqi life. The stupidity that allowed a painfully slow re-constitution of the Iraqi Army; the failure to pay the police enough and its subsequent problem of rampant corruption; the failure to fire corrupt police and public officials. And the hands-off approach that has seen the Shia militias develop to the point that half of the US casualties around Baghdad are caused by Shias extremists.
That said, it is heartening to look on the map and see whole swathes of the country that used to be just terrible now "enjoying" an "acceptable level of violence." Anbar. Tikrit. Mosul.
Not so heartening is the fact that 2 years ago, here in Tallil in southern Iraq, this area was quiet - dead quiet. The local Shia sheikhs used to keep a lid on any violence. It's a Shia area and any arrival of Sunni insurgents was reported quickly to the security forces.
No more. Now this area sees sporadic violence. A Romanian soldiers was killed a few weeks ago on a nearby road by a roadside bomb. Now the violence is caused by the Shias.
Rockets hit this base. They are transported from the Shia areas around Basra to the south (where the British are slowly pulling out). And the roadside bombs are exclusively the nasty, deadly EFPs (platter charges) once seen only in east Baghdad, fabricated from Iranian components and Shia in character.
The US cannot do everything at once. But as our humvee bumps across the sandy desert pan of southern Iraq, it seems here the biggest long-term threat is from the Shias extremists, not the Sunnis.
This threat has yet to be addressed seriously.
Three years, ten trips.
If that's "sufficient" progress I'll eat my hat.

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