Posted by: sean | August 2, 2005

The civil war in Iraq

There has been much talk of a possible Iraqi descent into internecine warfare; many commentators have talked of staving off the possibility of a civil war between Kurdish, Shi’ite and Sunni forces in Iraq. In this Washington Post article, via &c., David Ignatius tries to convince us that “Iraq can survive this”:

Pessimists increasingly argue that Iraq may be going the way of Lebanon in the 1970s. I hope that isn’t so, and that Iraq avoids civil war. But people should realize that even Lebanonization wouldn’t be the end of the story. The Lebanese turned to sectarian militias when their army and police couldn’t provide security. But through more than 15 years of civil war, Lebanon continued to have a president, a prime minister, a parliament and an army. The country was on ice, in effect, while the sectarian battles raged. The national identity survived, and it came roaring back this spring in the Cedar Revolution that drove out Syrian troops.

Ackerman at &c. correctly sizes this view: “In this blithe description, fifteen years of carnage and atrocity followed by a further fifteen years of foreign domination was merely a prelude to the hopeful scenes of Martyrs’ Square.” The truth of the matter is that Lebanon was a mess during the civil war, and although there was technically a central government, sectarian militias ruled, and countless war crimes were committed.

But even this seems to be missing the point, because for all intents and purposes, Iraq is already embroiled in a civil war. Without going all the way, former Prime Minister Allawi, while speaking in Amman last month, said, “[American] policy should be of building national unity in Iraq. Without this we will most certainly slip into a civil war. We are practically in stage one of a civil war as we speak.” Watching wave after wave of Sunni suicide attacks, now aimed at Shi’ite clerics and children and Shi’ite death squads roaming Sunni villages looking for revenge, it should be clear that just because there is a foreign occupation, which is also being combatted, does not mean that there is not already a civil war raging in Mesopotamia.

In Patrick Cockburn’s interesting piece in this issue of the London Review of Books, he reports from Baghdad on the violence between the different groups all vying, in one way or another, for power in Iraq:

Hatred between Sunni and Shia Arabs has been intensifying over the past few months. Iraqis used to claim that sectarianism had been fomented or exacerbated by Saddam. In reality the tension between Sunni, Shia and Kurd has always shaped Iraqi politics. All the exiled parties returning after the fall of Saddam had a sectarian or ethnic base. The Sunnis opposed the US invasion, the Kurds supported it and the Shias, 60 per cent of the population, hoped to use it to give their community a share of power at last.

The army and police recruits killed by the suicide bombers are mostly Shia. Al-Qaida in Iraq, the shadowy group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, denounces the Shia as apostates. There are also near daily massacres of working-class Shias. Now the Shias have started to strike back. The bodies of Sunnis are being found in rubbish dumps across Baghdad. ‘I was told in Najaf by senior leaders that they have killed upwards of a thousand Sunnis,’ an Iraqi official said. Often the killers belong, at least nominally, to the government’s paramilitary forces, including the police commandos. These commandos seem increasingly to be operating under the control of certain Shias, who may be members of the Badr Brigade, the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the country’s largest militia, with up to seventy thousand men.

The commandos, whose units have macho names such as Wolf Brigade and Lion Brigade, certainly look and act like a militia. They drive around in pick-up trucks, shooting into the air to clear the traffic, and are regarded with terror in Sunni districts. In one raid the commandos arrested nine Sunni Arabs who had taken a friend with a bullet wound in his leg to hospital. (The commandos claimed they were suspected insurgents, even though wounded resistance fighters generally keep away from hospitals.) The men were left in the back of a police vehicle which was parked in the sun with the air conditioning switched off: all were asphyxiated. Zarqawi has announced that he is setting up a group called the Omar Brigade specifically to target the Badr militia.

So to summarize, there is the Sunni insurgency, linked with al Qaeda, which is reported to be forming another paramilitary group called the Omar Brigade; there is the predominately Sunni counter-insurgency force, the Special Police Commandos (5,000 troops); there are also Shi’ite government commandos (similar to the death squads of El Salvadoran fame) linked to and perhaps commanded by the Badr Brigade; and finally there is the Kurdish army, Pesh Merga (somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 strong).

What we appear to have in Iraq is a weak central government, incapable of providing security to its citizens but allied with foreign soldiers, fighting an insurgency, made up largely of a different sect that has its own militias, while a third group has secured its own territory and voted overwhelmingly (98 percent) for independence from the rest of the country. While the names and other particulars are of course different, the situation is not too dissimilar to that in the DRC today or Lebanon in the 1980s.

In the New York Review of Books, Galbraith’s account of Iraq shows us to what extent things are fractured in Iraq and is worth quoting at length:

On June 4, Jalal Talabani, president of Iraq, attended the inauguration of the Kurdistan National Assembly in Erbil, northern Iraq. Talabani, a Kurd, is not only the first-ever democratically elected head of state in Iraq, but in a country that traces its history back to the Garden of Eden, he is, as one friend observed, “the first freely chosen leader of this land since Adam was here alone.” While Kurds are enormously proud of his accomplishment, the flag of Iraq–the country Talabani heads–was noticeably absent from the inauguration ceremony, nor can it be found anyplace in Erbil, a city of one million that is the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

Ann Bodine, the head of the American embassy office in Kirkuk, spoke at the ceremony, congratulating the newly minted parliamentarians, and affirming the US commitment to an Iraq that is, she said, “democratic, federal, pluralistic, and united.” The phrase evidently did not apply in Erbil. In their oath, the parliamentarians were asked to swear loyalty to the unity of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Many pointedly dropped the “of Iraq.” …

Days after the Kurdistan National Assembly convened in June, it elected Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masood Barzani as the first president of Kurdistan. Before so doing, it passed a law making him commander in chief of the Kurdistan military but then specifically prohibiting him from deploying Kurdistan forces elsewhere in Iraq, unless expressly approved by the assembly. … The assembly also banned the entry of non-Kurdish Iraqi military forces into Kurdistan without its approval. Kurdish leaders are mindful that their people are even more militant in their demands. Two million Kurds voted in a January referendum on independence held simultaneously with the national ballot, with 98 percent choosing the independence option. …

When he swore in his cabinet on May 3, 2005, Shiite Prime Minister Jaafari eliminated the reference to a “federal Iraq” from the statutory oath of office; this so angered Barzani that he forced a second swearing-in ceremony.

It seems unlikely that these three groups will be able to cease their fighting and come to a federal agreement any time soon. The points of conflict, most of which will need to be dealt with in any future constitution, include the strength of the central government and the autonomy of federal regions, the ownership of oil, the status of the governorate of Kirkuk, the role that Islam (and what brand of Islam) will play in the government, the sectarian and ethnic make-up of the military, what rights women will have, and what sort of relationship the state will have with the US and Iran. These are all complicated issues, which will require a fine balancing act, like the Taif agreement that ended the civil war in Lebanon, if Iraq wants to resolve its problems and steer away from internecine warfare. But in the meantime, Iraqi politics are being settled by bullets rather than ballots.


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