The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The decline in Iraqi violence

November 20, 2007

Dan Drezner calls this piece in today’s New York Times “the story that will occupy the blogosphere for today — Baghdad is safer.”

Then, Dan excerpts a bit of the story by Damien Cave and Alissa J. Rubin that makes a point I’ve been stressing since General Petraeus made his optimistic report in September. Fewer Iraqis are dying because they fled the war zone:

About 20,000 Iraqis have gone back to their Baghdad homes, a fraction of the more than 4 million who fled nationwide, and the 1.4 million people in Baghdad who are still internally displaced, according to a recent Iraqi Red Crescent Society survey.

The last figures I saw suggested that 60 to 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing Baghdad per month — the return of 20,000 is background noise in that context.

Incidentally, though this story (like much of the right blogosphere) credits “the surge” with the reduction of violence in Iraq, two other credible theories are floating about:

First, in Iraq’s second largest city of Basra, violence may be down precisely because British troops have withdrawn. The AP, November 15:

Attacks against British and Iraqi forces have plunged by 90 percent in southern Iraq since London withdrew its troops from the main city of Basra, the commander of British forces there said Thursday.

The presence of British forces in downtown Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, was the single largest instigator of violence, Maj. Gen. Graham Binns told reporters Thursday on a visit to Baghdad’s Green Zone.

“We thought, ‘If 90 percent of the violence is directed at us, what would happen if we stepped back?'” Binns said.

Britain’s 5,000 troops moved out of a former Saddam Hussein palace at Basra’s heart in early September, setting up a garrison at an airport on the city’s edge. Since that pullback, there’s been a “remarkable and dramatic drop in attacks,” Binns said.

“The motivation for attacking us was gone, because we’re no longer patrolling the streets,” he said.

That’s a polar opposite explanation than the one offered by the US.

Second, Iran has been a moderating force in Iraq. This is from another Rubin story in The New York Times November 18:

The Iraqi government on Saturday credited Iran with helping to rein in Shiite militias and stemming the flow of weapons into Iraq, helping to improve the security situation noticeably.

The Iraqi government’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh…said that that government had helped to persuade the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr to ask his Mahdi militia to halt attacks. Mr. Sadr ordered his militia to stop using weapons in early September, and officials say that the militia’s relative restraint has helped improve stability. They say it also seems to have helped decrease the frequency of attacks with explosively formed penetrators, a powerful type of bomb that can pierce heavy armor.

Mr. Dabbagh’s comments echoed those of the American military here, who in recent days have gone out of their way to publicly acknowledge Iran’s role in helping to slow the flow of weapons into the country.

Dabbagh explicitly credited Iraqi diplomacy for this development, not “the surge.” Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki visited Iran in August and met with Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.