When General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testify before a Senate Committee this week, it’s likely they’ll point to “security improvements” and a “drop in violence” over the last year.

Here’s hoping members of the Senate Armed Services Committee seriously probe the reason for that drop.

The sad reality of daily life in Iraq is that in many areas ethnic cleansing has now become so complete that there are literally no minorities left to kill in formerly diverse neighborhoods of major cities like Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk.

As a journalist who reported from inside Iraq from 2003 to 2005, I can say that most of my Iraqi friends and sources have either been killed or fled their homes. The lucky ones with resources have left the country. Others have simply left their jobs in the city for their family’s ethnically mixed homes in the countryside.

When I hear stories about a “drop in violence” I think about people like Dr. Ali Falah. A young Shi’a Arab who spoke impeccable English, Falah worked as an emergency room physician in the Northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The city, which is ethnically mixed and dominated by two Kurdish militias, has been the scene of increased sectarian violence. Most doctors left the city in 2006 after one physician was gunned down inside the emergency room.

Dr. Falah hung on longer than most and was for a time the only doctor on the floor of an emergency room that receives 80 patients a day. In September 2007, Falah told me over the telephone he was ready to hang on and continue working, but someone dropped a note off at his home in a Shi’ite section of Kirkuk.

“They threw a letter in the house saying the residents who are Shia have to leave the city,” he said. “Otherwise, they said ‘What will happen, will happen.’ So most of the people left. Me also.”

Dr. Falah said that the last straw. He left for the southern province of Amara where he’s living nearby his fiance’s family. He’s given up medicine saying it’s too dangerous and is working for a company – he wouldn’t say which type.

Millions of Refugees

According to the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration, almost 5 million Iraqis have now been displaced by violence in their country. Over 2.4 million fled their homes for safer areas within Iraq, up to 1.5 million were living in Syria, and over 1 million refugees were inhabiting Jordan, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Gulf States.

This torrential refugee flow has slowed in recent months, but not because the situation inside Iraq has been improving. Instead, it’s slowed because Iraq’s neighbors have become so overwhelmed they’ve begun to close their doors. Iraqis now require a visa to enter both Syria and Jordan and are not allowed to work legally in either country.

“Unable to work, refugees’ resources are largely depleted, and many are also losing their refugee status.” the organization Refugees International reported last month. “Without income, adequate levels of aid, and immediate third country resettlement opportunities, some have returned to Iraq.”

At home, Iraqis have to deal with sectarian militias that have been strengthened considerably thanks to the largess of American taxpayers. Under the command of General David Petraeus, large sums of money and arms have been doled out to Sunni forces known as the “Awakening” or Sahwa. Most members of these militias were attacking U.S. forces when I was reporting there. Now, many these Iraqis have decided to put off attacks against the occupation army as long as the checks and guns keep coming. When that flow stops, or when these Sunni leaders see a change in tactics, violence will escalate anew. (And because of all the arms and money we’ve given these militias, it will increase faster than it would have had we not fed the fire).

Then there is the Badr Corps, the Iranian-trained militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Over the last five years, most members of the Badr Corps have joined the Iraqi police and military, where they — like the Sunni “Awakening” militias — have received weapons and training on the U.S. dime. This will also be spun as “progress” by General Petreaus because their presence in the Iraqi military can be used to show the Iraqi military is “standing up.”

Why al-Sadr Resonates

Finally, there is the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, which recently battled the U.S. and Iraqi militaries to a draw in the Southern Port City of Basra. Much of the so-called “success” of the surge had been directly due to a unilateral ceasefire called by Sadr, a powerful figure who commands loyalty from millions of poor Shi’ites across the county.

When the young cleric speaks out against foreign occupation and oppression it resonates in the streets because of his lineage and organization. Muqtada’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr was been gunned down by Saddam’s forces in 1998 along with most of his family, after he called for revolt against the Ba’ath regime during Friday prayers. His uncle, Mohammed Bakir al-Sadr, was one of the most important Shi’ite theologians of the 20th Century and was murdered by Saddam’s regime in 1980 after he refused to declare the Ba’ath Party in accordance with Islam.

Sadr has been a thorn in the U.S. military’s side throughout this long occupation in large part because his movement has been able to accomplish tasks the U.S. military has not. In a report issued in September 2003, for example, the International Crisis Group (headquartered in Brussels) credited al-Sadr’s organization for keeping the peace in primarily poor, Shiite sections of Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

“Within weeks of the regime’s collapse,” the report reads, “al-Sadr’s representatives claimed to have employed 50,000 volunteers in East Baghdad to provide refuse collection, hospital meals and traffic control. Religious seminaries run by al-Sadr’s followers have proliferated. In the absence of a functioning public judicial system, Mohammed Fartousi, al-Sadr’s agent in (the Baghdad neighborhood) al-Sadr city, used his Hikma mosque to establish rudimentary personal status courts. Al-Sadr’s wakils, or agents, distributed vests to traffic wardens emblazoned with the words ‘hawza police.'”

Given Sadr’s prestige and organization, it’s hardly surprising that, according to The New York Times, over 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen either refused to fight or simply abandoned their posts during the late March assault on Sadr’s militia in Basra. Many members of these forces are actually members of Sadr’s organization. Others are just regular people who signed up for the Iraqi Army for the regular paycheck, not to attack their neighbors.
In response to the attack on his militia, Muqtada al-Sadr has called for a million person march in Najaf on April 9, the fifth anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s fall. Like many Iraqis, Sadr was initially pleased at the dictator’s ouster but has since called for the U.S. military to leave Iraq.

“Some entities in the Iraqi government are trying to put us between drawing swords and degradation,” Sadr said in a statement. “That is why I say as the Imam Hussein said, ‘Never will we be subservient.'”

Sadr’s demonstration will be at least as important as General David Petreaus’ testimony before Congress the day before. If our Senators were really interested in peace and security in Iraq, they would send a delegation from Washington to meet with the Sadr movement rather than wasting their time grilling General Petreaus. There are many unsavory things about al-Sadr (his fundamentalism, the gang-linked activities of his followers, the role he has played in fomenting sectarian violence), but he’s no more unsavory in this than the Sunni “Awakening” we’re supporting or the Iran-linked Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

American politicians and generals need to stop thinking they can “win” this war by attacking major figures like al-Sadr. The only way out of America’s quagmire is to recognize the Iraqi people’s right to control their own destiny. Millions of Iraqi people support Muqtada al-Sadr.

Independent journalist Aaron Glantz, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, has reported extensively from Iraq throughout the U.S. occupation. He is author of How America Lost Iraq (Penguin) and the upcoming book The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans (UC Press). He edits the website warcomeshome.org.

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