Iraq's Ominous Numbers Game

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Kareem Raheem / Reuters

Residents try to push the wreckage of a vehicle away from the scene of a car bomb attack in Baghdad's Sadr City April 18, 2007.

With most of the U.S. military's surge troops already in place, the numbers are starting to come in on how well it has succeeded in its goal of reducing sectarian violence in Iraq. And they aren't encouraging. Sectarian violence is nearly back to its pre-surge levels in Iraq — and rising. Recent weeks have seen greater murder rates. And the numbers seem unlikely to go down with so much of Baghdad still uncontrolled; U.S. commanders recently acknowledged that two-thirds of the capital remain unsecured.

According to figures compiled by the Brookings Institution at the end of May, the number of sectarian murders, carried out mainly by Shi'ite death squads against Sunnis, has risen noticeably in recent weeks after a drop-off that began in the latter part of February. Sectarian deaths are often described as "extra-judicial killings" (EJKs) and involve the abduction, torture and murder of the victim, with the body usually left on the street. In May, says the Brookings report, citing Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace, there were roughly 700 EJKs across Baghdad. While still lower than the pre-surge figure of 800 in February, that's a substantial increase from the estimated 500 in each of March and April, the first two months of the surge. So far in June, about 20 bodies have appeared on the streets of Baghdad a day; at that rate, at least 600 murder victims will surface in Baghdad by the end of June. Meanwhile, the number of bombings targeting civilians in Baghdad, the chief tactic of Sunni extremists out to kill masses of Shi'ites, has remained roughly the same since the surge began, at about 50 per month.

Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the new spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, argues that the latest statistics don't represent a long-term trend. "It will periodically spike up, like we saw with violence in May," says Bergner, who stressed that the overall level of violence in Baghdad has lowered since January. Nevertheless, he says, "that doesn't mean it's going to be a steady, downward trajectory." Progress, Bergner explains, will continue to appear uneven for some time.

From the beginning, however, the surge strategy relied heavily on the idea that the increased presence of U.S. forces would deter sectarian violence. That worked, for a time. The Mahdi Army, the largest Shi'ite militia, tacitly agreed to suspend its campaign of murder and intimidation against Sunnis as the surge got rolling in March and April. For two months, Shi'ite death squads largely checked themselves, even while Sunni extremists pressed a campaign of bombings that left 617 Iraqis dead in March and 634 dead in April. (In May, the fatalities from bombings fell to 325).

But the restraint that violent Shi'ite factions showed early in the new U.S. military plan seems to be disappearing. As a result, the deterrence card has now been played, and the gamble appears to be lost, just as the last of the U.S. troops sent for the surge get into place. As of last month, 13,000 additional U.S. troops were deployed in Baghdad as part of the surge, which ultimately will bring the number of U.S. forces in Baghdad to some 30,000. Bergner says the last of the U.S. surge forces will be in place in about two weeks, adding that it could be up to 60 days before all the forces are fully effective in their areas. That means virtually all of the surge forces have arrived, only to see sectarian violence spreading anew.

U.S. commanders still hold out hope things will improve as the summer wears on. Military officials have said repeatedly that violence in Iraq will get worse before it gets better. That certainly appears to be true at this point. But how much worse Iraq can get before things might get better is a frightening calculation to consider. Does Iraq have the potential to become Rwanda, where up to 800,000 people died in the course of roughly 100 days in 1994? Or will the carnage be more like the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, where more than 100,000 people were left dead in a war that stretched from 1992 to 1995? No one can estimate that with any certainty. But millions of Iraqis have decided not to stick around to see how the numbers add up. More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the country, according to the most recent U.N. estimate. And about 30,000 more continue to leave the country each month.