Civil war: a new excuse for continued occupation?


Civil war: a new excuse for continued occupation?

By Nicolas J. S. Davies
Online Journal Contributing Writer

February 5, 2005—More and more Americans regret that we ever started the war in Iraq. Many of the government and media executives who sold us this war in the first place are now admitting that it was a serious mistake and some, like Richard Perle, have brazenly acknowledged that it is an outright violation of international law. (The Guardian, 11/20/03) What few of them will concede is that we now have any choice but to "stay the course" or to "win," whatever that may mean and whatever horrors it may involve. They insist that the alternative is unthinkable, and assert that Iraq minus U.S. occupation would quickly descend into "civil war."

Like "Weapons of Mass Destruction," "Liberation," and "Spreading Democracy" before it, preventing this hypothetical conflict is the new imperative for carrying on with the real one. Is there any rational basis for this, or are we once again confronting "inherent, even unavoidable institutional myopia" that makes "options and decisions that are intrinsically dangerous and irrational become not merely plausible but the only form of reasoning about war and diplomacy that is possible in official circles," as Gabriel Kolko put it so eloquently in Century of War?

One of the most insidious aspects of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, or of any hostile military occupation for that matter, is that it forces every citizen in the country under occupation to make the wrenching choice between collaboration and resistance. Although 70 percent of Iraqi civilian casualties are inflicted directly by U.S. forces, according to a recent Iraqi Health Ministry report (Miami Herald, 9/25/04)*, there are also daily acts of violence committed by Iraqis against other Iraqis. The question is whether these are essentially a by-product of our military occupation, or whether they are the expression of a latent competition for power between Sunni and Shia ethnic groups that would erupt into civil war if the occupation were to end now.

I have reviewed 113 such acts of violence described in the international press between the 1st and 25th of January. Of these, 55 were directed at the armed forces of the "interim government" (army, national guard, police or Ministry of Interior "special forces"), 25 were election-related, aimed at candidates, election workers or polling places, 16 targeted interim government officials, 12 were against local employees of the occupation forces, and the victims were not identified in the remaining five cases. Not one incident was reported as a case of straightforward ethnic violence. Even the bombing of a Shia mosque in Baghdad was clearly election-related, as one of the survivors noted that people in the neighborhood had just received threatening letters urging them not to vote.

At present, most active resistance to the occupation is from Sunni Iraqis, but this has not always been the case. After Shia militiamen from Sadr City in Baghdad set up a base in Najaf to protect the Shrine of the Imam Ali, they fought two fierce battles with U.S. forces in April and August 2004. Now safely back in Sadr City, they have undisputed control of a large sector of Baghdad with at least 2.5 million inhabitants. They have an undeclared truce with U.S. forces, whereby the militia refrain from attacking the Americans as long as they in turn stay out of the effectively independent urban territory. Sadrist literature condemns collaboration and "terrorism," but the militia has never clashed with Sunni resistance fighters and has given them vocal and physical support in Fallujah and elsewhere (The Taming of Sadr City, Asia Times, 1/11/05).

In 1922, it was the Shia who boycotted Iraq's first election, designed by the British to produce a Constituent Assembly that would support the British mandate. Since then, the history of Iraq has had more than its share of tragedy, but one thing that has never happened is a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. Many Sunnis were privileged under Ottoman rule, and others who had fought in the Sharifian forces with the British against the Turks formed the officer corps of the Iraqi Army and a new privileged class under King Faisal. The Shiite, however, were prominent in opposition parties during the monarchy and were well represented in the republic that was formed after the military coup of 1958.

The Shiite also occupied a majority of leadership positions in the Baath Party before it came to power in 1963, and continued to be represented at all levels in proportion to their numbers in the population and to hold a majority on the Revolutionary Command Council until the first Gulf War. When Iran invaded Iraq in 1982, its army was turned back by a mainly Shiite Iraqi force under a Shiite general. The Shiite then supplied 75 percent of the lower ranks throughout the war without a widespread mutiny in spite of intense Iranian propaganda appeals to their Shiite brothers to join their Islamic Revolution. The disastrous U.S.-inspired Shiite revolt in 1991 led to a reduction of their role in government, and the surviving leaders of the revolt now view their central mistake to have been their failure to involve Sunnis and Kurds in the uprising, which was politically motivated against the Hussein regime rather than ethnic in character. Shiite leaders today seem determined not to make a similar mistake, and they put together multi-ethnic slates of candidates for the election.

There is actually another split in Iraqi society that may be just as deep and significant as the Sunni-Shiite divide, and that is the one between secular and religious parties. In the later years of the Baath regime, Islamism became its principal rival ideology, commanding the allegiance of growing popular majorities in both ethnic groups. With the removal of the Baath regime, Islamists from Salafis to Sadrists now lead the opposition to U.S. occupation and are ready to take their share of power. They would be neither pro-American nor theocratic on the Iranian model, but the United States government is choosing to continue the war in the increasingly desperate hope that it can instead set up a pro-American "secular" government and build up local forces that will fight for it against Islamists and other opponents.

The greatest danger in Iraq today is that the United States will be partially successful in building and arming such a force, and that, with U.S. support, this force will continue to wage war against its own people, gradually destroying more of the country and continuing the "decomposition" of Iraqi society that former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin correctly predicted would occur without a true restoration of sovereignty in August 2003.

One feature of this decomposition has been the destruction of the educational system of Iraq, once the most extensive in the Arab world. Designating schools as polling places for the election ensured the demolition of dozens of them by the resistance, but even more disturbing has been the assassination of about 300 Iraqi academics, and the emigration of at least 2,000 others, since the occupation began (USA Today, 1/17/05). The murdered academics are from every ethnic group and political persuasion, and exile groups such as Dr. Iyad Allawi's have been implicated in some of these murders. Stephen Grey, a journalist from New Zealand, investigated the murder of Professor Abdullatif Ali al-Mayah of Baghdad University on January 19, 2004, and was told by a senior Iraqi police officer, "There are political parties in this city who are systematically killing people. They are politicians that are backed by the Americans and who arrived in Iraq with a list of their enemies. I've seen these lists. They are killing people one by one" (New Statesman, 3/15/04).

Iraqis call Dr. Allawi "Saddam without the mustache" and there is a persistent story that he personally summarily executed six captured resistance fighters soon after he took office. This story was recently "confirmed" by a U.S. official in a conversation with a former Jordanian government minister, according to Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker, who has also interviewed another witness to the alleged executions (Sydney Morning Herald, 1/19/05). Whether the story is true or not, most Iraqis and other Arabs are quite ready to believe that Allawi could behave with such brutality, and it is hardly surprising that they view George W. Bush's speeches about liberty and tyranny as rank hypocrisy.

The Kurds, the third major ethnic group, are heavily represented in the armed forces that have been recruited and trained by the Americans, and their part in the destruction of Fallujah has led to bloody reprisals against the Kurdish population in Mosul. A likely fallback plan for U.S. forces would be a retreat to permanent bases in South Kurdistan, from where they could continue attacks against other parts of the country and the region. However, such a course would only perpetuate the self-destructive pattern of U.S. policy in the region, gaining military bases and isolated allies while generating more widespread popular hostility to U.S. interests. The only legitimate course to a resolution of this crisis remains, as it has always been, a full restoration of Iraqi sovereignty with U.N. assistance and a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Americans have been led to believe that the persistent failures of U.S. military ventures in the "Third World" have been attributable to a lack of commitment of either money, blood or political will, and that, given sufficient investment of these commodities, there are no limits to American power. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is myth, not history. In reality, it is in the countries where the United States has made its most extensive commitments that it has experienced its greatest failures, from China in the 1940s to Korea, Lebanon (twice), Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, Iran, Somalia and now Iraq. In each case, policy has been formulated around myths of democracy and American power in place of accurate analyses of resources and interests relative to the history, politics and culture of the country in question, even though such analyses were always readily available. The result has been that popular movements in all these countries have frustrated American ambitions and won military and political victories in spite of huge economic and military imbalances in favor of the United States (Confronting the Third World, Gabriel Kolko, 1988). The only exceptions to this record of failure during the past half-century have been in small countries in the Caribbean basin that already had quasi-colonial relationships with the United States.

If institutional myopia continues to blind our leaders to the clear lessons of our own history, it is more important than ever that we learn these lessons for ourselves, teach them to our children and grandchildren, and engage our fellow Americans in serious conversations about our country's history and foreign policy.

* The report noted that the majority of these casualties are the result of aerial bombardment. It is important to understand that the "precision-guided" Paveway Mark 82 500 lb. bombs that are the weapon of choice for U.S. air forces in Iraq strike within 40 feet of their target only 80-85 percent of the time, and that they are in any case designed to inflict 50 percent casualties over a radius of 50 yards (an area the size of one and a half football fields).

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