The Global Civil War
Two articles that deserve to be read together are the NYT's John Burns article on whether a civil war is brewing in Iraq (hat tip: Austin Bay) and the Economist's Iraqi survey "Worse and Maybe Better" (hat tip: MIG) Burns argues that the deep hostility between ethnic groups in Iraq may make the American vision of a single, peaceful and unitary nation impossible.
The new team called the departing Americans "the illusionists," for their conviction that America could create a Jeffersonian democracy on the ruins of Saddam Hussein's medieval brutalism. One American military commander began his first encounter with American reporters by asking, "Well, gentlemen, tell me: Do you think that events here afford us the luxury of hope?" ...
Now, events are pointing more than ever to the possibility that the nightmare could come true. Recent weeks have seen the insurgency reach new heights of sustained brutality. The violence is ever more centered on sectarian killings, with Sunni insurgents targeting hundreds of Shiite and Kurdish civilians in suicide bombings. There are reports of Shiite death squads, some with links to the interior ministry, retaliating by abducting and killing Sunni clerics and community leaders.
The statistics presented by the Economist confirm that the greatest upsurge in killing has been among Iraqis. While trends in US casualties have been flat or declining, the numbers of Iraqis killed by other Iraqi armed groups has risen at about twentyfold since 2003, from the Economist's graph.
But a further, more ominous, feature of the fighting is that it is taking on a more sectarian hue. More recently, Shia gatherings-weddings, funerals and crowds milling around outside mosques-have become particularly vulnerable. In response, the killing of prominent Sunni civilians, such as their clergy, has increased. Many Shias and Sunnis living in districts where they are a minority have moved out. Some people in Baghdad say a low-level civil war has already begun.
Some Shia members of parliament, casting doubt on the effectiveness and loyalty of police and army units, have been demanding a wider call-up of neighbourhood militias. Most peace-minded Sunni Arab politicians, for their part, fiercely oppose such an idea. They also say, gloomily, that Iran is meddling more than before, egging on the government's two main Shia parties, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa ("Call") party, to let their militias off the leash. In particular, they accuse SCIRI's militias, the Badr Brigades, of sectarian murders and of torturing Sunni detainees.
One point of view is that this is just the way things are. Burns says:
Despite these gloomy trends, American commanders have continued to hint at the possibility of at least an initial reduction of the 140,000 American troops stationed here by next summer, contingent on progress in creating effective Iraqi units. Some senior officers have said privately that there is a chance that the pullback will be ordered regardless of what is happening in the war, and that the rationale will be that Iraq - its politicians and its warriors - will ultimately have to find ways of overcoming their divides on their own. America, these officers seem to be saying, can do only so much, and if Iraqis are hellbent on settling matters violently - at the worst, by civil war - that, in the end, would be their sovereign choice.
However that may be, in all probability events in Iraq will be less and less about "resistance" to America and more about settling long standing political and ethnic grievances; increasingly to do with local issues and less to do with the events in New York four years ago. In assessing the prospects of Iraq, the Economist's sources cited local variables as determinant. The key wrangles were about the local division of power, the settlement of feuds, the legal rights of various groups and the division of money. None of the usual suspects so beloved of the media such as a 'just settlement in Palestine' or even Operation Iraqi Freedom itself, figured even tangentially. Speaking of the draft constitution the Economist said:
The drafters, in any case, have been beavering away. The shape of Iraq's federal structure is still at issue. So is the degree of Islam's influence over the law. Women's groups have expressed worry about some clauses leaked from the emerging draft. And several of the thorniest questions, such as where the disputed province of Kirkuk fits into the federation and how to disburse the country's oil revenue, may be addressed in generalities and, in effect, set aside. "Everything can be deferred until judgment day if we get consensus on a draft," says Adnan al-Janabi, another Sunni Arab on the committee.
More hopefully, out of Iraq's 18 provinces, only the four including Baghdad and surrounding it are relentlessly bloody. No less hopefully, the leaders of the newly dominant Shias, who comprise some 60% of Iraqis to the Kurds and Sunni Arabs at about 20% apiece, have so far refused to be drawn by the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab insurgents into a sectarian tit-for-tat that could presage an all-out civil war. In particular, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shia cleric, has restrained the angriest of the Shia militias. And even in the bloodiest provinces the mayhem is at least not worsening. "It's no more pear-shaped than it was six months ago," says a hardened foreign observer in Baghdad. "Maybe slightly less so."
The phrase "Global War on Terror" may, in retrospect, turn out to be the least descriptive of terms to apply to the worldwide upheaval since September 11. Perhaps future historians will find a more appropriate phrase to describe the changes that have remade the political and attitudinal landscape not only in the Middle East, but also in the West. In that tale Iraq will play a strange part. Never an obvious strategic an end in itself, the campaign against Saddam's former dominion served as the vortex around which forces defined themselves, dividing into one side or the other, in the process of remolding the world. The effects of the decision to invade are still rippling through Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Europe. And the odds are that if there is a settling of accounts in Iraq it will not be the last country in which this happens. The Times of London interview of President George Bush last month suggests that at the highest levels American leadership sensed rather than calculated that taking down the most powerful Middle Eastern state would set a tsunami in motion that only the US, in its power, might ride largely unscathed.
THE TIMES: Mr President, last night you mentioned the link between Iraq and 9/11, but there’s evidence of Iraq becoming a haven for jihadists, there’s been a CIA report which says that Iraq is in danger of — are you at risk of creating kind of more of the problems that actually led directly to —?
PRESIDENT BUSH: No. Quite the contrary. Where you win the war on terror is go to the battlefield and you take them off. And that’s what they’ve done. They’ve said, ‘Look, let’s go fight. This is the place.’ And that was my point. My point is that there is an ideology of hatred, an ideology that’s got a vision of a world where the extremists dictate the lives, dictate to millions of Muslims. They do want to topple governments in the Middle East. They do want us to withdraw. They’re interested in exporting violence. After all, look at what happened after September 11 (2001). One way for your readers to understand what their vision is is to think about what life was like under the Taleban in Afghanistan.
So we made a decision to protect ourselves and remove Saddam Hussein. The jihadists made a decision to come into Iraq to fight us. For a reason. They know that if we’re successful in Iraq, like we were in Afghanistan, that it’ll be a serious blow to their ideology. General (John) Abizaid (Commander of US forces in the Middle East) told me something very early in this campaign I thought was very interesting. Very capable man. He’s a Arab-American who I find to be a man of great depth and understanding. When we win in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s a beginning of the end. Talking about the war on terror. If we don’t win here, it’s the beginning of the beginning. And that’s how I view it.
And maybe that's the way it was.