Sunday, December 05, 2004

Is Iraq headed for Civil War?

The New York Times, as usual, is in full defeatist mode regarding Iraq. Today's "Week in Review" section contains an analysis by Edward Wong titled simply "Mayhem in Iraq Is Starting to Look Like a Civil War". Wong's argument is as follows:

Common wisdom holds that if American troops withdraw anytime soon, Iraq will descend into civil war, as Lebanon did in the late 1970's. But that ignores a question posed by events of recent weeks:

Has a civil war already begun?

Iraq is no Lebanon yet. But evidence is building that it is at least in the early stages of ethnic and sectarian warfare.

Mr. Wong bases this on the breathless observation that:

The Americans have handed the bulk of authority to the Shiites, who represent a majority of Iraqis, and a lesser share to the Kurds, who are about a fifth of the population. This has increased the influence of the two major groups that were brutally suppressed by Mr. Hussein, and raised Sunni fears about sharing power with them as a minority.

At the risk of sounding flippant, so what? America did not go to Iraq in order merely to deal with Saddam and then leave the country in the hands of yet another dictator. We are there now to foster the creation of a democratic, pluralist Iraq that will hopefully help to transform the political culture of the Arab world. Yes, this involves empowering the majority of Iraq's people, as well as securing rights for a viciously oppressed minority. It also means that the Sunnis, who provided the bulk of Saddam's torturers, murderers, and thugs, will have to get used to accepting a political role proportionate with their population. This represents a sea change in the politics of the Middle East, and change is usually painful and messy. Had we simply installed another Sunni dictator, Mr Wong would no doubt be writing an analysis of our shameful betrayal of the Shia and Kurds, and justifiably so.

In further support of his thesis, Mr. Wong notes the following:

The Americans have added to the alienation of the Sunnis by relying heavily on Shiite and Kurdish military recruits to put down the Sunni insurgency in some of the most volatile areas. The guerrillas, in turn, reinforce sectarian animosities when they attack police recruits or interim government officials as collaborators. Many of these recruits are Shiites or Kurds, and the loss of life reverberates through their families and communities.

How is this surprising? The Shia and Kurds form about 75% of Iraq's population. Why wouldn't they form the overwhelming majority of Iraq's new security forces? Should only predominantly Sunni Arab forces be used in the Sunni Triangle? If so, then why not only Kurdish forces in the north, or only Shia troops in the south? The new Iraqi state needs national armed forces that reflect the country's makeup, not regional militias, and must have the right to use those forces anywhere.

There are elements of truth in Wong's analysis. The Iraqi insurgency is a primarily Sunni phenomenon. There are of course many among the Sunnis who are unhappy at the prospect of losing their traditional stranglehold on power. The insurgency also contains elements such as criminal gangs, tribal elements, and individual Iraqis with grievances against the US presence. Overall, however, the Sunni insurgency consists of three elements: former Baathists seeking a return to power, a homegrown Sunni Islamist Taliban-like movement, and foreign jihadists led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the Iraqi wing of al-Qaeda.

It is especially true that large parts of the insurgency seem to be deliberately pursuing a strategy of sparking ethnic and sectarian strife. Zarqawi wrote in January 2004 to the al-Qaeda leadership of his intentions to attack the Shia and provoke them into all out war, in a letter intercepted by coalition forces:

These in our opinion are the key to change. I mean that targeting and hitting them in [their] religious, political, and military depth will provoke them to show the Sunnis their rabies … and bare the teeth of the hidden rancor working in their breasts. If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death at the hands of these Sabeans.

(emphasis added-DD)

Zarqawi's goal of sparking an ethnic and sectarian war has been evident in many of the terrorist attacks of the last month. In Mosul, the AP reported on November 19 that the insurgents "have been trying to drag the Kurdish minority into their fight and set off a sectarian war". On the same day, the AP also noted that Sunni terrorists in the so-called "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad were being paid $1,000 for every Shia they murder.

Wong is thus correct in arguing that the Baathists and Wahhabists are trying to create a civil war. Is he also correct in assuming that they are succeeding? In my view, no. There have been tensions and a few violent incidents between Sunni Arabs and Kurds, and between Sunnis and Shia. Overall, though, there has been remarkably little ethnic and sectarian violence in post-Saddam Iraq, considering that country's long and troubled history. Almost all the examples of violent incidents Wong cites in his article are attacks by the insurgents. In fact, the only sign that Wong can point to of Shia-instigated violence, beyond the role of Shia and Kurds in fighting on behalf of the new Iraqi government, is the formation of a group called "the Anger Brigades", created to "kill extremist Sunni Arabs in the north Babil area". Wong presents no evidence that they've actually gotten started on this task.

The main problem with Wong's piece, then, lies in its tone and conclusions. This has been the problem with much of the reporting and analysis from Iraq. Events are described in overly dramatic, almost apocalyptic tones, while the conclusions drawn from them go well beyond what the evidence supports. The same New York Times that warns us that civil war has already begun proclaimed just as breathlessly back in April that Sunni and Shia were on the verge of joining forces to drive us from Iraq. This obviously did not happen, and it is unlikely that all-out civil war will occur either. As Greg Djerejian writes in one of his typically superb analyses:

Yes, many Shi'a would love to engage in some score-settling with Sunnis. Yes, Zarqawi will do his damnedest to kill peshmerga and Shi'a to help set off a civil war. But our presence on the ground, likely needed for a minimum of four or so more years, maintained in concert with the creation of federalist governance structures and relatively robust national instutions (per Pollack's recommendations above and others)--could set the conditions for a viable polity that doesn't descend into Yugoslavian style carnage. Put simply, civil war can't simply be treated as a present-day reality or foregone conclusion.


Post a Comment

<< Home