Iraq: why no news is bad news
Have you noticed how Iraq rarely makes the front pages any more? Maybe it means that, at last, things are getting better there?
Fraid not. Yes, for several months last year, as the US “surge” policy put more than 20,000 extra troops in and around Baghdad, violence fell. But now the trend is upwards again: on one day alone this week, more than 40 people were killed. It’s beginning to look as if the bombers are back.
I got a message this morning from a young medical student in Baghdad. This is how she movingly described what’s happening. “Do you know what the most difficult thing is? When you have cancer. And your doctors are assuring you that you're really getting better, and that the tumour is declining, but in reality it turns out that it's only a latent period for the cancer cells, and that those cells have exploited this latent period to gather their strength and start to become apparent again. Can you imagine the disappointment when you find out this horrific truth? You'll feel so alone. And because your loved ones have got used to the idea that you're actually getting better, then they'll need a lot of time before getting used to the idea that your condition is deteriorating.”
I spoke last night to a senior US military spokesman in Baghdad, Rear Admiral Greg Smith. As you’d expect, he put it rather differently – but he accepted that the death toll trend is upwards again. (You can hear the interview here, together with an assessment from the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Jessica Mathews.)
Here’s an account from last week of a day in the life of my Iraqi medical student friend. “Today I was supposed to have my big obstetrics exam. The majority of the main roads in Baghdad are blocked since yesterday because of the visit of [Iranian president] Mr Nijad to Baghdad. Early in the morning today at about 6:45am my driver came to my house to pick me up to go to college, my two girlfriends were in the car (it's extremely unsafe for Baghdadi girls to use the public transport to move around in Baghdad, so I and 3 of my best girlfriends have hired a private driver in order to take us to college). As we got closer to the district in which my college lies, a roadside bomb has exploded at a close distance ahead of us. So we all decided to go back home. On our way back home, another roadside bomb has exploded also at a close distance behind us. I saw the other car flying in the air. So in the end we got back home. And we missed our obstetrics exam. And that's a very ordinary day of our ordinary daily Baghdadi life.” (You can read her blog here.)
Within the next few months, the extra 20,000-25,000 US troops who made up the “surge” will begin to go home. It is likely that the upward trend in violence is the start of a new attempt by, in this case, mainly Sunni militias to reimpose their authority in areas where the Americans had, for a time, taken control. Over the past five days, 15 US servicemen have been killed.
But according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, as reported in the Washington Post today, fewer than one-third of US voters know that the total US military toll in Iraq since the invasion five years ago is now approaching 4,000.
So how long, I wonder, before Iraq returns to centre stage in the US presidential campaign? Because it may well be that by the time of the election in November, violence in Iraq will be considerably worse than it is now. According to Pew, in a single week last month, coverage of Iraq made up just one per cent of total US news coverage. I suspect that is about to change.