The newspapers are predictably filled with articles about how 52 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq last month—the highest toll since September. Iraqi civilian casualties are also said to be at the highest level since August. These losses are being used to cast aspersions on claims of progress in Iraq.
Even one death is too many and 52 deaths is tragedy multiplied 52-fold. But let’s keep some perspective. As the icasualties.org website makes clear, for better or worse, April was still one of the lighter-casualty months during the long war in Iraq.
More important, casualties cannot be looked at in a vacuum. A spike in casualties could be a sign that the enemy is gaining strength. Or it could be a sign that tough combat is under way that will lead to the enemy’s defeat and the creation of a more peaceful environment in the future.
The latter was certainly the case with the casualty spike during the summer of 2007. (More than a hundred soldiers died each month in April, May and June.) Those losses were widely denounced as evidence that the surge wasn’t working, but in fact they were proof of the opposite.
At the time, troops were engaged in hard fighting as part of Operation Phantom Thunder that eventually cleared most terrorists out of Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Babil and other provinces, leading to dramatic reductions in violence over the last year (more than 80% before the recent fighting).
The latest increase in casualties is the result of another coalition offensive: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to break the grip of militias in Basra. At first the results did not look promising: Iraqi troops were rushed in without adequate preparation, and shortly after the March 25 offensive began appeared stymied in their battles against the Mahdist Army. Mr. Maliki seemed to agree to an Iranian-brokered cease-fire with Moqtada al Sadr that left the Mahdists in control of much of the city. But as April progressed it became clear that the results of the initial clashes were more beneficial than most (including me) had initially suspected.
Iraqi security forces have not suspended their operations in Basra. In fact, since the “cease-fire,” they have continued to increase their area of control. An April 25 article by a London Times correspondent who visited Basra finds: “Raids are continuing in a few remaining strongholds but the Iraqi commander in charge of the unprecedented operation is confident that his forces will soon achieve something that the British military could not—a city free from rogue gunmen.”
The political repercussions in Baghdad have been just as positive and just as unexpected. First, by taking on Shiite militias, Mr. Maliki has gained new-found respect from Kurds and Sunnis who had viewed him as a hopeless Shiite sectarian. Not coincidentally, the main Sunni party has now announced plans to rejoin the cabinet.
Second, Mr. Maliki has managed to mobilize the other Shiite parties into an anti-Mahdist bloc, demanding that Moqtada al Sadr disarm his militia if his party expects to wield political power. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shiite cleric in Iraq, has backed that demand.
Mr. Sadr has so far refused to comply, but nor has he staged a major uprising across the country, probably because he knows it would not succeed. His plan to hold a “million man” anti-American protest in Baghdad on April 5 fizzled out at the last moment. Mr. Sadr appears increasingly isolated—as symbolized by the fact that he chooses to remain in Iran.
Finally, by exposing Iranian machinations in Basra, the recent offensive has sparked an anti-Iranian backlash even among Shiite politicians with longstanding links to Tehran. Thus a high-level Shiite delegation has gone to Iran to present the Iranian leadership with evidence of the nefarious activities of their Quds Force (as if they don’t already know!) and to demand that they knock it off.
The Iranian answer, notwithstanding some soothing words about wanting stability in Iraq, is coming in the shelling and rocketing of the Green Zone and other Iraqi and American bases. The Iranians have been providing longer-range rockets to their allies in the Special Groups and the Mahdist Army.
U.S. and Iraqi troops have been forced to push deeper into Sadr City than they have previously gone in order to take away launching sites. The Mahdists have had years to prepare defenses, and the subsequent battles account for much of the increase in casualties among Americans (and Iraqis) that have so disturbed the press.
The ongoing operations could still fail. But if they succeed, the result would be greater fracturing of the Mahdist forces and more government control of Sadr City, an area of some two million people that has been effectively run by the Sadrists since 2003.
This would represent a major achievement, because, as al Qaeda in Iraq has lost strength in the past year (thanks in large part to the surge), the Shiite extremists have become the major remaining threat. Unfortunate as the latest deaths are, they are in all likelihood a sign of things getting worse before they get better.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.