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Barack Obama's presidency

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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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George W. Bush's presidency from 2005-06

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Records Cast Doubt on Iraq 'Surge'

By Robert Parry
October 24, 2010

Besides offering new details about the horrors that George W. Bush’s invasion unleashed on Iraq – where a severed head could be casually tossed into a busy intersection – the nearly 400,000 pages of secret U.S. military records released by WikiLeaks show that a variety of factors beyond Bush’s much-touted “surge” in 2007 contributed to the gradual drop in violence.

For instance, the records suggest that the sectarian slaughter of 2006 was burning itself out largely because brutal ethnic cleansing had separated the Shiites and the Sunnis. The indiscriminate violence also had turned many Iraqis against both the excesses of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the sectarian militias.

Also, in 2006, key insurgent leaders, such as al-Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, were killed and Sunni tribesmen in restive Anbar Province were signing up to accept American money in exchange for switching sides – all of these key developments preceding the “surge.”

Though the additional 30,000 U.S. troops in 2007 may have helped accelerate or consolidate these gains, the eventual drop in violence after the “surge” appears more coincidental than causal – and thus may not justify the acclaim given to President Bush and Gen. David Petraeus or the claims by neoconservative war strategists that they were vindicated.

A New York Times analysis of the WikiLeaks documents lends support to the more skeptical view of the “surge,” noting that the growing revulsion among Iraqis over the violence and a renewed hope for peace go a long way toward explaining why the killing slowed.

“A unique set of conditions had coalesced on the ground,” Sabrina Tavernise wrote for the Times. “The warring communities were exhausted from the frenzy of killing. Mixed neighborhoods and cities were largely cleansed. The militias, both Sunni and Shiite, long seen as defenders of their communities, had begun to cannibalize them, making local residents newly receptive to American overtures.

“The war that emerges from the documents is a rapidly changing set of circumstances with its own logic and arc, whose fluidity was underestimated by the military, the media and Washington policy makers.

“The troop increase … came around the time that many Iraqis were so fed up with their local militias that they were ready to risk cooperating with the Americans by giving them information. Two years earlier, they were not.”

In other words, the evidence supports analysts who stressed a mix of factors, rather than promoters of the simplistic Washington conventional wisdom of “the surge worked.”

The significance of understanding these factors remains important today because “the surge worked” proponents in the media and policy circles largely carried the day politically. After that, influential neocons began demanding that a similar “surge” strategy be applied to Afghanistan where their “surge” hero, Gen. Petraeus, was put in charge.

The “surge worked” conventional wisdom also influenced President Barack Obama’s review of the Afghan War policies in 2009, contributing to his decision to commit another 30,000 U.S. troops there, where a very different set of circumstances exist.

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

At, we have long challenged Washington’s “group think” about the Iraq War, including the pro-surge conventional wisdom. As we’ve reported previously, several other factors helped explain the eventual decline in violence, including:

--Vicious ethnic cleansing had succeeded in separating Sunnis and Shiites to such a degree that there were fewer targets to kill. Several million Iraqis were estimated to be refugees either in neighboring countries or within their own.

--Concrete walls built between Sunni and Shiite areas made “death-squad” raids more difficult but also “cantonized” much of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, making everyday life for Iraqis even more exhausting as they sought food or traveled to work.

--During the “surge,” U.S. forces expanded a policy of rounding up so-called “military age males” and locking up tens of thousands in prison on the flimsiest of suspicions.

--Awesome U.S. firepower, concentrated on Iraqi insurgents and civilian bystanders for more than five years, had slaughtered countless thousands of Iraqis and had intimidated many others to look simply to their own survival.

We also noted that many military analysts shared our doubts about the positive significance of Bush’s “surge.” For his book, The War Within, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward interviewed a number of military officials and concluded:

“In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge.”

Woodward reported that the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar province (which preceded the surge) and the surprise decision of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr to order a unilateral cease-fire by his militia were two important factors.

A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders. Woodward agreed to withhold details of these secret techniques from his book so as not to undercut their continued success.

As the extra U.S. troops arrived in 2007, the "surge" actually contributed to a spike in violence as both U.S. and Iraqi casualties reached some of the worst levels of the war. About 1,000 U.S. soldiers died during the Bush/Petraeus “surge.”

Petraeus also tolerated loose “rules of engagement” for killings Iraqi “military-aged males” For instance, a video, released by WikiLeaks earlier this year and entitled “Collateral Murder,” showed an American helicopter crew cavalierly gunning down a group of Iraqi men, including two Reuters journalists, on July 12, 2007.

Taking Credit

However, as the levels of violence gradually declined in 2008, the influential neocons of Washington were quick to claim credit for the “successful surge.” The Washington press corps fell into line, with prominent anchors like CNN’s Wolf Blitzer parroting the talking point.

During Campaign 2008, the news media then put Obama on the defensive for having opposed the “surge” while in the U.S. Senate.

When Obama tried to argue that the reasons for the decline in violence were more complicated than simply “the surge worked,” he was hectored by media questioners, including CBS anchor Katie Couric and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, demanding to know why he wouldn’t just admit that Sen. John McCain had been “right” about the surge.

Finally, Obama chose to retreat, admitting to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that the surge "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams." That assessment has continued to dominate in Washington two years later.

However, the latest trove of WikiLeaks documents is further proof that the reality in Iraq was much more complicated than Washington’s neocons and the U.S. news media have been willing to admit. The records show that the “surge” was not the panacea that the American people were led to believe.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to  

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