Iraqi authorities are not only accusing Blackwater guards of an unprovoked shooting of 11 persons at Nisur Square on Sept. 16, but also of engaging in an hour-long firefight with Iraqi police later that day. The firm appears to have deployed attack helicopters in the firefights.
The NYT reports that a new congressional report on the Blackwater security firm in Iraq reveals many instances of guards killing Iraqis, and sometimes trying to cover it up. They are said to have been involved in nearly 200 shootings since 2005. Congress slammed the State Department in Iraq for exercising virtually no oversight over the private firm, which has a contract from State. In fact, State appears to have been part of the cover-ups.
The LA Times reports that Blackwater has fired 121 of its guards in Iraq, mostly for weapons-related issues, during the past 3 years. It has a little over 800 employees in Iraq.
P. W. Singer at Salon.com suggests that the use of private armies has harmed the US ability to win wars, including Iraq.
Although many commentators seem to find the use of private armies strange, they have been a feature of colonial wars all along. It is now often forgotten that the paramilitary of the British East India Company conquered North India in 1757-1764, not the regular armies of the British government. It has been argued that the Mughal Empire appointed the East India Company as its revenue minister (Divan), and that in essence this part of the government swallowed the rest. Once the company had much of India, the British government gave it a seat on the cabinet (so it went from being Divan of the Mughal Empire to cabinet minister in the British Empire). Don’t tell Bush and Cheney, or they’ll create a Secretary of Blackwater for the US government.
It will be excellent news indeed if this is the beginning of a trend. However, we cannot assume that it is and too much optimism about a single month would risk misleading us. The Iraq casualties site gives these numbers for the past fifteen months (though the compilers admit that they are counting only a fraction of the real casualty toll):
It is true that the September ’07 numbers are lower than at any time since June of 2006. But it is also true that June of 2006 was a fluke, followed by an alarmingly rising death toll in August and September. Deaths also fell in 2006 during Ramadan (which started 11 days later being as it is on a lunar calendar) compared to the previous period. Despite the widespread conviction that Ramadan is an especially violent month, in fact it is a time of fasting, prayer and family get togethers and not at all propitious for sneaking off to blow things up.
The other thing to observe is that the September death count for Iraqi civilians and security forces is 842! This is a number at the upper limits of averages for months during the year 2005. If you go back and look at the headlines and commentary in 2005, nobody thought that level of violence acceptable. That is, so far the numbers have fallen back down to merely horrible from having been, in much of 2006 and 2007, truly monstrous.
As many have pointed out, there are now many fewer mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, so that faction-fighting and death squad activity at that level has declined, because it was aimed at ethnically cleansing the neighborhoods. Baghdad was about half Sunni and half Shiite in 2003. By January of 2007, it was 65 percent Shiite. It is now 75 percent Shiite. A lot of the violence in the figures above was committed in the subterranean War for Baghdad, which the Sunni Arabs decisively lost in the past eight months. The American troop escalation does not appear to have interfered with the displacement of tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs. In fact, my guess is that it unwittingly abetted it, since the Americans disarmed or chased away the Sunni Arab militiamen who defended their neighborhoods from the Shiite onslaught. When the Americans weren’t looking, the Shiites took advantage of this weakening of their foe to push Sunni Arab families out of mixed neighborhoods.
If the trend toward less violence holds, and I hope it does, the question remains of whether it can be maintained when the temporary US troop escalation ends, beginning approximately 8 months from now. Some 30,000 extra US troops should make a difference, especially in Baghdad, but their sacrifices will only have been rewarded if Iraqi security forces can effectively continue their work. Likewise, without genuine progress on the front of political reconciliation, the improved security situation will risk deteriorating again.
The cholera outbreak in northern Iraq is still serious, with 500 new confirmed cases since Thursday and 15 deaths. Since cholera can kill as many as 50 percent of those stricken if they don’t get good treatment (rehydration with salt and sugar solutions and lots of liquids), this rate of death is remarkably low. It suggests that families are getting medical care promptly and also probably that they know how to treat the disease at home. The danger is that the disease will spread to parts of Iraq from which physicians have fled and where health care and literacy are low. US interdiction of chlorine trucks at the Jordanian border, for fear they will be used as truck bombs, appear to have played a role in the outbreak.
Al-Sharq al-Awsat reports in Arabic that the Iraqi Accord Front (Sunni fundamentalist: 44 seats in parliament) has challenged the US Senate to a debate about its resolution in favor of a soft partition of Iraq. One of its deputies said that whoever agrees with the Americans does not care about the unity of the Iraqi nation.
Turkey’s military chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, said Monday that Iraq was moving quickly toward becoming a loose confederation, and that there was an increased likelihood that Iraqi Kurdistan would secede. He called any such move a grave threat to Turkish security. The Turkish military, which has conducted many coups in the country’s history, is extremely frustrated nowadays. It faces a renewed Kurdish guerrilla movement in eastern Anatolia, abetted by the Iraqi Kurds. The center-right, Islamically-tinged AK Party won the recent snap election, and is planning on changes to the constitution. (The secular military fears that AK will damage Turkey’s secular national orthodoxy). And, under European Union pressure, the Turkish government may repeal a law that curbs freedom of expression. It is dangerous that Buyukanit clearly feels under siege this way, since that makes the Turkish military a potential threat to the country’s move toward greater democracy and its rapidly growing economy.
At the Napoleon’s Egypt blog important letters by Bonaparte showing his naval strategy after the defeat of the French fleet by Nelson. Oddly, he seemed more worried about the Ottoman navy at that point, perhaps because so many British vessels had been dismasted and/ or needed extensive repairs. He also hoped to keep Malta in French hands, as a stepping stone to the new French empire in the Middle East.