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New Exit Strategy for Iraq: Civil War
I t’s state-sponsored civil war,” says journalist Dahr Jamail, describing the sectarian conflict engulfing Iraq. From the beginning of the U.S. occupation, most observers argued that while civil war was a distinct possibility between Kurds and Sunni Arabs, a Sunni-Shiite conflict was highly unlikely because of factors such as nationalism, high rates of intermarriage, and the moderating influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
Jamail, for one, wrote just four months ago that “civil war seems… remote.” He now says that while average Iraqis are still strongly opposed to internecine warfare, the use of ethnic-based militias against the Sunni Arab insurgency has ignited a dirty war that threatens to spiral into a conflict on the scale of Lebanon or the Balkans.
With the war stalemated, repeated deployments wearing down morale of U.S. troops and too few new recruits to maintain force levels, the Bush administration may be deliberately provoking civil war as its “exit strategy.” The goal is not so much to exit Iraq, but leave behind a skeletal military force that would maintain the network of permanent bases under construction throughout Iraq while maintaining access to massive oil deposits in the North and South. Breaking Iraq into a series of mini-states, a strategy being pushed by some White House allies in the media, is seen as one way to ensure these goals.
Civil war has already begun, with almost daily reports of bodies turning up bearing torture marks. The new Iraqi government has unleashed Shiite militias allied with ruling parties, such as the Badr Brigade, the military arm of the powerful Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and another with Dawa, the party of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari, as well as the Kurdish Peshmerga, resulting in a wave of death-squad killings, tit-for-tat assassinations of Shiite and Sunni clerics, and deteriorating communal relations.
Yet, in the words of the New York Times , the insurgency appears “to be growing more violent, more resilient and more sophisticated than ever.” Attacks by insurgets have increased to almost 70 a day and U.S. soldiers continue to die at a rate of two a day despite a counterinsurgency campaign that keeps growing harsher.
Ultimately, responsibility for the sectarian conflict lies with the Bush administration, says Christian Par- enti in The Freedom , his account of occupied Iraq. “Every single thing the U.S. did led to civil war.” Parenti describes the occupation as a disaster from the start. “The failure of reconstruction, the firing of the army, the blatant theft of Iraqi oil money, the use of the Badr Brigade, the use of Peshmerga, the use of death squads, the use of indiscriminate detention and torture, the destruction of Falluja and other towns in Al Anbar province,” says Parenti, created a raging insurgency and sparked civil war.
The communal divide was also widened by the U.S.-managed election process. Political parties were required to form slates for last January’s election. However, with violence rampant, few candidates campaigned in public so most Iraqi voters cast ballots based on ethnic allegiance. At the same time, the U.S. military was trying to crush resistance in Sunni Arab regions, ensuring their alienation from the new government. After the balloting, government posts were divided according to ethnic quotas, similar to Lebanon’s system of government.
Parenti says, “Because the major Shiite parties did run in the election,” some insurgents view them as collaborators. “There was a heavy Islamization of the Baathists and army after the first Gulf War. A lot of the Sunni Baathists in the resistance think the Shia are animals. They think they’re Iranian scum.” This has led to a wave of sectarian violence against Shiites, a phenomenon that is not just Pentagon propaganda, Parenti adds. The bombing of a Shiite mosque south of Baghdad that killed almost 100 people in mid-July led some Shiite politicians to call for the formation of local militias. Parliamentarian Khudair al-Khuzai said, “We need to bring back popular security committees.” Al-Khuzai claimed he was supported by 50 other MPs.
By various accounts, death squads are already up and running. Writing in the Independent , Patrick Cockburn reports, “Many Sunni military officers and Baathist officials believe they are on a death list of the Badr Brigade which is operating through the [police] commandos.” The commandos are “an aggressive paramilitary force controlled by the Interior Ministry.”
The Interior Ministry’s Wolf Brigade is allegedly behind many of the death-squad killings. A report on Jamestown.org claims that many of the brigade’s commanders are from the Badr Organization (the renamed Badr Brigade). Bayan Sulagh, the new head of the Interior Ministry, is from the Badr Brigade. According to Patrick Cock- burn, Hadi al-Amery, the head of Badr, “is influential within the ministry.”
The Times of London added on July 18, “Hardline Shia militias…are patrolling large parts of Baghdad, often rounding up suspected Sunni insurgents and imprisoning or even killing them.” The U.S. took the sectarian strategy a step further in May with Operation Lightning, using 40,000 mainly Shiite troops to sweep through Baghdad and round up hundreds of Sunni males. (After the U.S. general in charge of Baghdad announced in early July that the ability of the insurgents to conduct “sustained” operations in the capital had been eliminated, 12 car bomb attacks occurred in a day.)
The New York Times noted that Iraqi units sent to “hotspots,” which are almost always Sunni Arab regions, “are often dominated by Shiites and Kurds, some recruited from sectarian militias deeply hostile to Sunni Arabs.” Shaikh Harith al-Dari of the Association of Muslim Scholars, which is believed to have close ties to the insurgency, said in May, “The parties that are behind the campaign of killings of preachers of mosques and worshippers…are the Badr Brigades.”
Since April, death squad killings have proliferated with “nearly 1,000 people—most of them Sunni Muslims”—killed in the southern city of Basra alone, according to the Christian Science Monitor . In May at least 10 Sunni and Shiite clerics were the victims of what appears to be politically motivated assassinations.
Once the victorious Shiite parties cobbled a government together in April, they placed the Interior Ministry under the control of the Badr Brigades. The Pentagon is also keeping a big finger in the Interior Ministry in the form of “advisors,” such as James Steele and Steve Casteel, both of whom were active in counterinsurgency wars throughout Latin America. As for the Ministry of Defense, a report in the Guardian states, “Both Iraqi and American officers say that the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad has fallen under the control of Kurdish political parties.”
The northern part of the country, known as Iraqi Kurdistan, is effectively its own state. With U.S. backing, whole Peshmerga units have been rechristened as army or police units. The effect can be seen in the city of Mosul, with a population of 1.7 million of which 70 percent are Arab. According to a report published on Salon.com, Kurdish forces refer to Sunni Arabs “as murderous ‘dogs,’ two-faced liars, animals and other epithets that indicate…hatred of a group clearly regarded as an enemy.” The same report estimates that more than 40,000 Peshmerga have been transferred wholesale into the “national” security services.
The Kurds are even running their own network of secret prisons, according to the Washington Post . With the knowledge and cooperation of U.S. forces, the Kurds have seized hundreds of Arabs and Turkmen in the city of Kirkuk, and possibly Mosul, and illegally transferred them to prisons further north. The police chief in Kirkuk told the Post that his officers were participating in the abductions, adding that “40 percent of Kirkuk’s 6,120-member police force was loyal to the two Kurdish political parties.” He explained that these officers “obey the parties’ orders and disobey us.”
A similar situation prevails in southern Iraq, which is transforming into a de facto religious state: alcohol is banned, rigid dress codes are being enforced, and local governments and security forces are under the sway of competing Shiite parties and movements. Just like the North, the South has massive oil reserves that are fueling a separatist movement. “We want to destroy the central system that connects the entire country to the capital,” one Shiite autonomy campaigner told the New York Times .
There are questions as to whether the unraveling of Iraq is part of the Bush administration’s exit strategy. The White House initially resisted deploying the ethnic-based militias against insurgents. But with the war stalemated, the Bush administration is becoming increasingly desperate. A report leaked to media in early July stated that the Pentagon plans to draw down its forces from 138,000 to 66,000 by early 2006 and the British are planning to make similar-sized cuts in its force of 8,000. Analyst and historian Juan Cole writes, “The withdrawal plan implies a willingness to turn the five northern provinces over to the Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitary, and the nine southern provinces over to a combination of Shiite militias and new Iraqi government security forces.”
Presumably, the remaining U.S. troops would be concentrated in central Iraq where resistance is fiercest. It’s questionable whether Iraqi forces are up to the task. Trudy Rubin traveled to Iraq to determine if Iraqi forces could pick up the slack.
She wrote in the Baltimore Sun that after more than two years of training and support, “Today, there are more than 100 military and police commando battalions, totaling 169,000 Iraqis. But of the 80 military battalions, only three—at most—are fully capable of planning and carrying out counterinsurgency operations on their own.” This was confirmed by a Pentagon report in July that also concluded just three battalions were capable of independent operations.
The ineptness of the Iraqi security forces is in many ways due to the success of the insurgency. Par- enti says the insurgents he spoke to stated, “We’ve read Mao,” meaning they know how to conduct a sophisticated guerilla war. The resistance has successfully isolated the United States. No country beyond the UK has contributed substantial fighting forces and many have quit the “coalition of the willing.”
The resistance has consistently outwitted the occupation forces. They have forced out the United Nations and almost all international bodies. When the Marines assaulted Fallujah last November, the resistance took over Mosul, a city five times the size. They have assassinated more than 50 government officials since power was “handed over” on June 28, 2004. In the last few months, they have killed scores of mid-level officers in the security services, indicating they have thoroughly infiltrated the forces and are effectively eliminating the operational leadership. They nearly assassinated the commander of the Wolf Brigade, Abu Walid, in June and successfully killed the head of another Interior Ministry unit, Salam Lutfi, the commander of the Lion Brigade, on August 1. Insurgents also attacked at least four foreign envoys within a week, deepening Iraq’s and the United States’ political isolation.
The armed resistance has isolated Iraqis from the U.S. and the Iraqi government, too, by deliberately targeting the infrastructure. Services and quality of life are now worse than during the sanctions era. Electricity is reportedly down to two hours a day in Baghdad. The government is talking of rationing gasoline and other refined fuels, such as for cooking and running generators, which are hard to come by. The percentage of the population with access to clean water is steadily dropping. The only indicators seemingly on the rise are Iraqi deaths, outbreaks of disease, and childhood malnutrition.
But the insurgency cannot defeat the United States militarily. It needs a political wing to consolidate gains on the battlefield. Pepe Escobar of Asia Times argues that a national liberation front is emerging that includes the Association of Muslim Scholars and Shiites grouped around populist preacher Moqtada Al-Sadr. Escobar writes, “Many groups in this front have already met in Algiers. The front is opposed to the American occupation and permanent Pentagon military bases; to the privatization and corporate looting of the Iraqi economy; and to the federation of Iraq—i.e., balkanization.”
Federalism is one of the thorniest issues of the constitutional process, which threatens to alienate Sunni Arabs even further. One proposal would allow two or more provinces to form regions, such as the Kurdish North, with taxation powers and a semi-independent governing system. It would also allow them to tap oil revenues from their region.
According to Juan Cole, one Sunni parliamentarian, “Mishaan Jiburi…warned that for the Shiites and Kurds to run roughshod over the Sunni Arabs and their concerns would result in civil war. He said they would be driven in even greater numbers into opposition to the government and the foreign occupation.” Five clan leaders from the Falluja area, meeting with U.S. officers, echoed the concerns, saying, a “federal Iraq in which the Kurds got the oil of Kirkuk and the Shiites the oil of Rumaila in the south, would leave the Sunni Arabs with ‘the desert sands of Anbar.’”
I f the Bush administration is provoking civil war, it could create an even greater disaster. If Iraq starts to unravel, neighboring countries like Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran would move in to stake their claims. The White House is clearly afflicted with a gambler’s mentality: it keeps increasing the stakes to try to recoup its losses.
Parenti notes that domestically the entire “political class is united that the U.S. is not going to leave. They say the stakes are too high, and I think they’re totally correct. The U.S. will eventually lose and it will have a dramatic effect on its power worldwide.”
A.K. Gupta is a freelance writer and staff member of the Indypendent in New York City.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
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