Its strategies shattered, a desperate Washington is reaching out to the late dictator's henchmen.
Patrick Graham | Sep 20, 2007 | 10:04 am EST
It was embarrassing putting my flak jacket on backwards and sideways, but in the darkness of the Baghdad airport car park I couldn’t see anything. “Peterik, put the flak jacket on,” the South African security contractor was saying politely, impatiently. “You know the procedure if we are attacked.”
I didn’t. He explained. One of the chase vehicles would pull up beside us and someone would drag me out of the armoured car, away from the firing. If both drivers were unconscious—nice euphemism—he said I should try to run to the nearest army checkpoint. If the checkpoint was American, things might work out if they didn’t shoot first. If it was Iraqi . . . he didn’t elaborate.
Arriving in Baghdad has always been a little weird. Under Saddam Hussein it was like going into an orderly morgue; when he ran off after the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003 put an end to his Baathist party regime, the city became a chaotic mess. I lived in Iraq for almost two years, but after three years away I wasn’t quite ready for just how deserted and worn down the place seemed in the early evening. It was as if some kind of mildew was slowly rotting away at the edges of things, breaking down the city into urban compost.
Since 2003, more than 3,775 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, while nearly 7,500 Iraqi policemen and soldiers have died. For Iraq’s civilian population, the carnage has been almost incalculable. Last year alone, the UN estimated that 34,500 civilians were killed and more than 36,000 wounded; other estimates are much higher. As the country’s ethnic divisions widen, especially between Iraq’s Arab Shia and Arab Sunni Muslims (the Kurds are the third major group), some two million people have been internally displaced, with another two million fleeing their homeland altogether. Entering Baghdad I could tell the Sunni neighbourhoods, ghettos really, by the blasts in the walls and the emptiness, courtesy of sectarian cleansing by the majority Shias. The side streets of the Shia districts seemed to have a little more life to them.
As soon as I arrived, I tried calling old acquaintances. Many of these were from Falluja and Ramadi, and had once been connected to the insurgency that had raged across the Sunni Arab province of Anbar since 2003. In the past few years, though, many in the insurgency had become disillusioned with the direction of the anti-occupation fight—and concerned over the future of Arab Sunnis in Iraq. In Anbar, the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, initially a partner in the Sunni insurgency, had alienated many by trying to overthrow traditional tribal and power structures to impose an alien interpretation of Islam, a Salafist fundamentalism that had few adherents before the arrival of the Americans. In Baghdad, the militias supporting the Shia-dominated central government—in effect a sectarian regime—were cleansing Arab Sunni neighbourhoods. Now, Anbari Sunnis view the government as deeply infiltrated by their traditional enemy, Shia Iran. So with few allies left in Iraq, they began allying themselves with their former enemies, the U.S. Army—which also seems to be running out of friends.
This “Anbar Awakening” has been a slow process, beginning long before the recent U.S. “surge” that increased the number of American troops in Iraq by 30,000, to 180,000. But it is still a shaky union, a desperate marriage of convenience based on shared enemies: Iran, and the Sunnis’ former-friend-turned-foe al-Qaeda. Many of America’s new allies are former insurgents and Saddam Hussein loyalists (Saddam was a Sunni) who only a short while ago were routinely called terrorists, “anti-Iraqi fighters,” and “Baathist dead-enders.” They are suspicious of one another and strongly anti-American, although willing to work, for the moment, with the U.S. The leader and founder of the Anbar Awakening Council, Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, was recently killed by a roadside bomb outside his house in Ramadi, clearly an inside job of some kind for which al-Qaeda claimed credit. Only 10 days earlier, Abu Risha had met with George W. Bush during the President’s visit to Iraq, the photo op of death, apparently.
I kept phoning Iraqis but few answered. When I told a friend in Baghdad that no one was taking my calls, he suggested that people didn’t answer unknown numbers because they were afraid of threats. Apparently, according to Arab custom, if you warn your victim before an attack, it’s not a crime. Perhaps—but you can read too much ancient custom into Iraq. My suspicion was that they were dead. My hope was that they were avoiding embarrassing calls from girlfriends when they were with their wives. Iraqis’ love lives can be as complicated as their politics.
When I finally got through to one friend, he was in Damascus, along with several million of his countrymen. “Come to Falluja,” Ahmed said. “You can kill al-Qaeda with my troop.” It wasn’t clear how I was supposed to get to Falluja from Baghdad, although it is only 50 km west of the capital. Ahmed wasn’t sure it was a good idea to try. Passing through Abu Ghraib, a large suburban area outside the capital where Saddam and then the Americans ran a notorious prison, could be a real problem, he said. There, both insurgents and Shia militias often set up checkpoints and kidnap travellers. The Americans, mind you, have a more optimistic view of the Abu Ghraib situation. A few weeks later, I would watch Ambassador Ryan Crocker tell Congress of a real milestone in co-operation between former Sunni insurgents and their enemies in the Shia-dominated administration: over 1,700 Sunni tribesmen in Abu Ghraib were officially hired by the government as security forces. Ambassador Crocker may have been accurate—it’s just that the positive steps happening in Iraq shouldn’t be called milestones. They are more like yard-pebbles. Or even inch-dust.
“Come to Damascus—we can drive from here and the road is safe,” Ahmed said. He listed the various tribal militias controlling the 450-km road through Anbar province from the Syrian border to Falluja that could protect us. It seemed to be typical of the recent over-hyped success of the Anbar Awakening that you would have to fly from Baghdad to Damascus, and then drive six hours back across the desert, to get only 40 minutes outside Baghdad in order to see it for yourself (you could go with the U.S. Army as well, but you learn mostly about Americans if you are with Americans and end up sounding like a visiting columnist for the New York Times). Ahmed said that when he and his “troop” (his quaint word for what sounded death-squadish to me) captured al-Qaeda fighters around Falluja, they shipped the leaders to the border for interrogation by Syrian intelligence. So far, he’d sent 12. You can’t blame him—even the Americans send suspects to Syria when they want them tortured. Just ask Maher Arar.
I first met the tribal militias that make up the Anbar Awakening during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when a family I knew smuggled me out to a small village between Ramadi and Falluja. Saddam’s army had virtually disappeared from the countryside, and these militias, trusted by Saddam’s regime and at the time still loyal to it, controlled the roads and villages of Anbar just as they do today. I spent a lot of 2003 and 2004 around Falluja and Ramadi, getting to know a group of insurgents fighting the U.S. occupation. I’m fairly certain that if the tribal militias had been intelligently treated—i.e. paid US$10 each per day the way they are now—and the U.S. Army hadn’t driven around Ramadi and Falluja shooting wildly in the spring of 2003, many would have been American allies from the beginning. Instead, a lot of them became insurgents, hooked up with their cousins from Saddam’s former security services, and eventually allied themselves with the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda. That relationship was symbiotic at first, but al-Qaeda soon became destructive parasites, jihadi body snatchers who killed anybody opposed to their control and strict Islamic codes.
When Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the multinational force in Iraq, appeared before Congress with Ambassador Crocker to testify about the results of President Bush’s “surge” strategy, he talked a lot about these tribal militias and the success of Anbar. It is the only progress the U.S. has made in Iraq for years. It’s unclear whether the additional 30,000 troops that make up the surge have had much effect on the Anbar Awakening. But watching Gen. Petraeus, I was struck by how familiar his words sounded. The general talked like every Sunni I’ve ever met in Iraq—hell, he sounded a bit like Saddam. The old tyrant would have had one of his characteristic chest-heaving guffaws watching Petraeus as he intoned the old Baathist mantra about the dangers to Iraq: Iran, Iran, Iran. Bush took up Gen. Petraeus’s views a few days later in a nationally televised speech about Iraq, in which he talked about the threat Tehran posed. It seems that Petraeus and Bush have come to the same conclusion as Saddam: the main enemy is Iran, and you can’t govern Iraq without the Sunni Arab tribes, even as you encourage anti-Iranian nationalism among the Shia. This is what Saddam did during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and what Washington is trying to do now. One of the main problems with this strategy is that both the Sunni tribes and Shia nationalists are profoundly anti-American and don’t trust each other—a potential recipe for further disaster.
Going back to Iraq is like sitting through a depressing Scheherazade, 10,001 Nights of Horror Stories. Everybody had them. Do you want to see a picture of someone’s 10-year-old boy, chopped up in pieces and put in a cooking pot because his parents couldn’t pay the Shia militia’s ransom? Here, look at the burns on my body, inflicted by the bodyguards of the Sunni politician who sold my eight-year-old son and me to al-Qaeda. Let me tell you about being kidnapped in Falluja by a gang that pretended to be al-Qaeda—they made me drink urine and had a fake beheading studio where they set up mock video executions to scare us into raising ransoms. As a friend of mine kept saying over and over—“Where do they get these people? What kind of a person does this? Where do they get them?”
Sadly, these stories are true, while so much that is said about Iraq is myth and delusion. As the famous American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn wrote about armed conflict, there is “the real war and the propaganda war.” During the congressional hearings about the surge, I kept thinking of Tattoo on Fantasy Island, half expecting Ambassador Crocker to tug on Gen. Petraeus’s sleeve and say, “Look, boss, da plane.” Smiles, everyone, smiles! Sometimes I think Iraq doesn’t exist at all. It’s just a series of preconceptions, a country invented to keep the West’s intelligentsia busy arguing and pontificating, fighting over facts about a place that is so clearly a work of fiction. Frankly, I wish it didn’t exist, at least for the sake of Iraqis. First Saddam, now this.
Certainly the notion of there being any cohesive central power in Iraq is a myth. Whatever is running the country, it’s not a government. Iraq’s body politic has some kind of autoimmune deficiency syndrome in which the antibodies designed to defend it have turned on its own organs. It’s a perfect environment for opportunistic parasites, in this case Iraq’s neighbours. So it seems almost unfair to criticize Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s failure to govern, as if somehow he was in charge of anything that could be called a state.
In many ways, this is Saddam’s fault. Like most tyrants, he turned the Iraqi government into a series of fiefdoms loyal only to him. That’s why it was called a regime. But today, it’s really a set of regimes. Each of the ministries is controlled by a sectarian or ethnic group and, like Saddam, they hire people mostly loyal to themselves (although some are fought over by competing factions). The ministries are important because that’s where the money is—apart from oil, Iraq has no industries, unless you consider murder a job, and that is a heavy industry at the moment. As an Iraqi doctor who left medicine to work for one of the many foreign companies losing money in Iraq (most of them are) said to me: “There are only two ways to make money in Iraq—working for the ministries, or working for the U.S. Army.”
The level of corruption in the ministries is astonishing, but according to U.S. government reports they are often “untouchable” because the prime minister’s office protects allies from investigation. The Ministry of Finance is run by Bayan Jabr, the former minister of the interior who hired thousands of Shia militiamen as police and set up death squads and torture prisons. His successor had to fire 10,000 employees, and today various factions fight for control of each floor of the Interior Ministry building.
At least US$10 billion has been embezzled, according to Iraq’s Commission on Public Integrity, which is itself underfunded (12 of its members have been murdered). After a U.S. report surfaced detailing how the prime minister blocked the commission’s investigations of corrupt officials, Maliki accused the head of the commission of corruption and threatened him with arrest. Luckily the man was already out of the country. Corruption in the Oil Ministry—Iraq’s nationalized energy sector is its only real source of revenue—has resulted in shortages that have only increased the long lineups for gasoline in a country brimming with oil. Senior Iraqi army officers complain that when they organize raids on Shia militias, they are stopped on orders from the prime minister’s office. Iraq was a disaster under Saddam, but it has turned into Nigeria.
Maliki has been accused of running an “ethno-sectarian” government, but accusing him of running a pro-Shia government is like accusing Bush of running a pro-Republican administration. Like Karl Rove, who hoped to make the Republican party supreme, Maliki seems to want to set up Shia-dominated rule that will control Iraq for generations. And like Rove, he focuses on his base, with little regard for any other point of view unless the U.S. pressures him (even then he pouts and makes vague threats about looking for other allies—by which he obviously means Iran).
Instead of polls and data mining, the governing Shia parties have taken control by using militias to “sectarian cleanse” Baghdad, a retaliation against al-Qaeda’s spectacular car bombing campaign. By one estimate, Baghdad was once 65 per cent Sunni; today it is 75 per cent Shia. Deaths from sectarian killings are reportedly down, in large measure because there are few mixed neighbourhoods left. Almost the entire Sunni middle class lives in Jordan or Syria. If you are named Omar, a traditional Sunni name, chances are you are dead or living abroad. Under Saddam, no one on the streets of the capital ever uttered the word mukhabarat, meaning the feared security police. Today, no one says maktab, meaning “office,” but in fact referring to radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army’s bases from which members control neighbourhoods. Their preferred method of torture is the electric drill.
The great irony of Maliki is that under other circumstances a government like his—one that is: a) accused by the U.S. of close relations with an American enemy (Iran); b) running a strategically important country (like Iraq); c) involved in the oppression and murder of one of its minorities (the Sunnis), which is closely linked to an important U.S. ally (the Saudis)—is an administration that many Americans would want to eliminate. There is a good chance that if the U.S. Army wasn’t there already, Washington would have invaded to get rid of Maliki. But having toppled Saddam, lost thousands of soldiers, and so far spent some US$500 billion on combat operations alone, the U.S. is now in too weak of a position to do much.
Maliki, though, might fall of his own accord. In the end, having alienated Sunnis and secular Iraqis, his unwieldy coalition government will probably be brought down as a result of the growing rift between Shia parties that are now fighting for control of southern Iraq and Baghdad. (On Sept. 15, Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement withdrew from the ruling coalition because Sadr had been frozen out of power.)
One of the problems outsiders have in criticizing the present Iraqi government for its appallingly sectarian policies is that there is a tendency for people to think: “Well, what do you want—Saddam?” That’s absurd, of course, like criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and being accused of wanting a return of the Soviet Union. And the group in Iraq that seems to be most critical of this government—other than the Sunnis—is the U.S. Army.
U.S. soldiers have been up to their knees in the blood of Shia militia killings, as well as insurgent death squads and car bombs, and have few illusions about this government’s intentions. You can tell the military’s views not just by its enthusiasm for its new Sunni tribal allies, but the vehemence with which American politicians who have come through Iraq on this summer’s army-organized tours have come out against Maliki. Senators Carl Levin, a Democrat, and Jack Warner, a Republican, could barely contain their contempt for Maliki when they left Iraq in late August. Neither could the refreshingly undiplomatic French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, an outspoken advocate of human rights who supported the original invasion. It must drive him mad to see what Maliki is doing now, helping to destroy Kouchner’s robust, pro-human rights Western foreign policy model that was supposed to make the world unsafe for tyrants.
We all understand, in a very basic way, that a settling of scores by the Shia is impossible to avoid, especially with the car bombs and insurgent attacks on their neighbourhoods since 2003. But after a few years of patience, the Shia parties have shown themselves to be particularly motivated by revenge. Take Bayan Jabr. I met him before the war in Syria, when he was the representative of the Iranian-based Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (now SIIC, formerly SCIRI), and was struck only by his blandness. When the interview was over, I asked him how many members of his family had been killed by Saddam. Thirty-two, he said, shaking my hand. As minister of the interior, Jabr was responsible for at least as many deaths as the 148 people Saddam was convicted of killing after an assassination attempt outside the village of Dujail in 1982, murders for which the dictator was hanged. That doesn’t mean Jabr is as bad as Saddam, but I wouldn’t want to be his enemy.
Revenge is deeply woven into the foundations of this war, and not just on the Iraqi side. I remember looking inside the lead Humvee coming into downtown Baghdad on the day the Americans took the city on April 2003. Inside was an “I Love NY” sticker. How much of the American motivation for the war was payback for 9/11 is a question that can be asked every time Bush is quoted, as he was recently in Australia, saying “we’re kicking ass.” Misplaced payback, perhaps, but revenge is rarely rational.
Just as one is accused of being a pro-Saddam, Baathist sympathizer if you criticize the government in Baghdad, so one is accused of being a neo-con if you point out how deeply involved Iran has become in Iraq. The role Iran plays is as complex and shady as can be expected in a situation that is so murky on so many different levels, from neighbourhood turf wars to world oil strategies and a proxy war with America. But the U.S. government is right to be concerned, although it’s not clear they can do much except protest, threaten loudly, and fight a secret, dirty war.
Iraq, Iran’s neighbour to the west, is Tehran’s self-declared security zone. Iran has already been attacked once from Iraq—by a then-American ally, Saddam—and won’t let it happen again. Nor do the Iranians want, as the West does, a secular Iraqi government that could destabilize their own theocracy. For them, Iraq is a survival issue. U.S.-led invasions have conquered not only Iraq but Afghanistan on Iran’s eastern flank. The U.S. Navy is floating off Iranian shores. Every few weeks, Washington debates whether to bomb Iran. How could Iran afford not to be involved in Iraq? Following the American example, the Iranians have learned that it’s better to fight the U.S. on the streets of Baghdad than the streets of Tehran.
The real question is, what are Iran’s objectives in Iraq, and how will Iraqis react? If Iran wants economic, political and military domination, the problems are long-term. If Iran is in Iraq to fight a proxy war against the United States, then presumably it will leave when the U.S. does. In general, I have found Iraqis to be extremely suspicious of the Iranian government and its involvement in their country—not just the Sunnis, but the Shias and Kurds as well. But then again, even Iranians are suspicious of their own government.
Iran has a number of interests in Iraq that go beyond security. The most obvious is religious—Iraq contains some of the holiest sites of Shia Islam that have been cut off from Iranian pilgrims for decades. The other is economic. With a population of over 65 million people, Iran views itself as a regional superpower and expects the financial rewards that come from that position. And like any other superpower, it creates economic problems for its neighbours. When I was in Baghdad in August, people complained that Iraqi farm produce was being driven off of the market by Iran, which is dumping its fruit and vegetables in Iraq. This is a disaster for Iraqi agriculture, one of the few areas of employment in the country.
The actual influence of Iran on the Iraqi government is hard to gauge. The present administration is made up of mainly Shia parties, some of which are very nationalistic and anti-Iranian, like the Fadhila party, while others, like the SIIC, that was formed as an anti-Saddam party in Iran in 1982, are very close to Tehran. For the U.S., the most worrying Iranian influence is the authority that Iranian security services have over militias like the SIIC’s Badr Organization, which was based in Iran for 20 years until the fall of Saddam. Even Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, is thought to have one wing controlled by Iran.
These days, though, the biggest concern on the highways of Baghdad is not Sunni insurgent bombs, but the explosively formed penetrators that fire a molten copper slug through even American heavy armour. According to U.S. intelligence, they are provided by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to Shia militias. Of course, U.S. intelligence accusations are now as suspect as the Iranian government denials that they provoke.
America’s other main enemy is al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda what a cheap watch is to a Swiss timepiece—effective, easily reproduced, and disposable. Al-Qaeda did not exist in Iraq before the invasion, but today it, along with Iran, are the two strongest arguments the U.S. makes for “staying the course.” Al-Qaeda in Iraq is essentially a religious criminal gang that kills anyone who threatens its power or differs from its Salafist views on establishing a perverse form of an Islamic state. Its death squads and enormously destructive truck bombs have killed thousands of Shias, but Sunnis, too, have suffered al-Qaeda’s violent nihilism. Car bombs, assassinations and “religious punishments,” including decapitations and cutting off the fingers of smokers, have put Sunni Iraq under a Mordor-like shadow of terror and justified collective punishment from the Shias. In his testimony to Congress, Gen. Petraeus pointed out the lethal threat of al-Qaeda. But this should come as no surprise to an American general—because the U.S. Army helped create al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The American role in the promotion of the terrorist organization is not some mad conspiracy theory, but a well-documented attempt by the U.S. government to demonize the insurgency and make it appear to be the central front in the war on terror. This was as great a mistake as disbanding the Iraqi army, which the U.S. did in May 2003, or perhaps even greater, since it led to the sectarian downward spiral that has destroyed the country.
When the insurgency started in the summer of 2003, it was made up primarily of the same class of alienated Sunnis who are now part of the tribal Anbar Awakening. The insurgents I spent time with in 2003 and 2004 were, in essence, nationalists who didn’t like the U.S. Army driving around their villages, kicking down their doors and shooting their cousins at checkpoints. They were also deeply suspicious of American plans for democracy, because they feared it would lead to Iran taking over the government. Some hated Saddam, some liked him, but Saddam wasn’t the issue. For want of a better term, they are the equivalent of rednecks who believe in God, their country, and the right to bear arms.
But rather than come up with an intelligent counter-insurgency policy, reach out to traditional tribal social structures and try to understand why American soldiers were getting killed, U.S. military leaders did what Americans have gotten very good at doing in the last few years. They made up a story, which they repeated on the news for U.S. domestic consumption—and then started to believe themselves. In this story, evil foreign terrorists led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a chubby Jordanian freelance terrorist, were setting upon the popular U.S. Army. AMZ, as the U.S. Army jauntily called him, existed, but he was a minor figure unlikely to get much of a following on his own in Iraq. Jordanians are not greatly respected by Sunni tribal Iraqis, who tend to view them as the metrosexuals of the Middle East. I used to watch the nightly news with insurgents—they called themselves the “resistance”—and they would laugh at what U.S. spokesmen were saying about the insurgency and Zarqawi’s prominence. But from the U.S. perspective, “tribal freedom fighter,” as the former Sunni insurgents are described today, does not sound as good as “foreign terrorist” or “anti-Iraqi fighter” when you are trying to demonize people fighting your occupation.
The ploy backfired. As AMZ (he was killed in June 2006) got more and more airtime, he gained more and more legitimacy, money and volunteers. It was as if Japanese whalers were mounting a “Save The Whales” campaign on television. Thanks to the Americans, al-Qaeda in Iraq became the Greenpeace of the jihadi world.
AMZ’s foreign fighters were never more than a tiny percentage of the insurgency, but they got all the credit, especially when their car bombs began killing civilians. Al-Qaeda in Iraq also had a tremendous appeal among the Sunni Iraqi underclass, just as Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda appeals to poor, angry Muslims the world over. Provinces like Anbar are very poor and very hierarchical, with a large and resentful social stratum at the bottom. Local Iraqis were drawn to al-Qaeda’s Salafist fundamentalism because it freed them from the conservative, tribal oppression that governed their lives. Al-Qaeda was able to take over some of the insurgency—and still controls chunks of Iraq—precisely because it was revolutionary, not conservative, and offered poor people in Anbar a chance to kick some rich sheik and Baathist ass, as well as kill Americans and Shias. In part, al-Qaeda was part of a class war fuelled by profound anger and social resentment.
When my friend Ahmed, the grandson of an important sheik, invited me to “come kill some al-Qaeda” around Falluja, he didn’t mean hunt down Saudis who had trained in Afghanistan under bin Laden. He meant, “Let’s go shoot the uppity trash who took over my village.” Ahmed comes from an area outside Falluja where the same people who are now called al-Qaeda briefly kidnapped me in the spring of 2004. They would have shot my three Iraqi friends—one of whom was a sheik—and me if the U.S. Marines hadn’t attacked their checkpoint. After these people have kidnapped you, you understand where Ahmed is coming from.
The insurgents whom I knew at first tolerated al-Qaeda and its foreign volunteers, even though Salafism was alien to their beliefs in local Islamic traditions and their affinity toward the more mystical branch of Islam, Sufism, both anathema to Salafists. But al-Qaeda eventually turned against the other insurgent groups to consolidate its power, demanded their allegiance, and began killing anyone who opposed it or whom it thought might be a threat. In doing so, al-Qaeda extremists became like the Khmer Rouge, murdering any tribal sheik or former Iraqi military office or educated person not on their side (al-Qaeda’s attacks on the Sunni elite make many Sunnis believe that Iran, along with Syria, is funding the organization).
By 2005, the insurgents and their families, whom I had gotten to know, were fighting al-Qaeda as well as attacking the Americans. Today, they are working with the U.S. Army in the various tribal militias of the Anbar Awakening. But this recent success in Iraq is really just the proverbial “one step forward” following two earlier steps backwards. The former insurgents’ loyalty is not to the U.S. —the same people who make up the tribal militias probably killed the majority of American soldiers who have died in Iraq—nor can they tolerate the government in Baghdad. Now that there are Sunni militias to balance the Shia militias, the question is whether the Iraqi government will be forced to reconcile with the Sunnis—or turn up the volume in the civil war.
One of the worst things to happen to Iraq was the war in Bosnia, a misleading precedent of civil strife and international intervention that taught all the wrong lessons. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia gave the West the false impression that we could successfully interfere in complex disagreements because we were on the side of justice and immensely powerful.
We subsequently saw Iraq through a Yugoslav lens, but Iraq is not Yugoslavia. Instead, it has been balkanized by many of the journalists, intellectuals and diplomats who cut their teeth during the “invade and aid” strategies of the 1990s. Western journalists and intellectuals love a three-way civil war. It is a deeply satisfying morality play and makes everything simple—Bad Serbs, Good Bosnians, and Croats allied with the West. Or in Iraq’s case, Bad Sunnis, Good Shias, Kurdish allies. The easy trinitarian logic of the Balkans was applied to Iraq, even before the invasion, by advocates for the war on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.
But Iraq is not a collection of European nation-states, and sectarian identity here is far more complex than in the Balkans, too subtle for foreigners to easily grasp and yet easily exploited to justify invasions in bumper-sticker phrases (although Yugoslavs also endured a great deal of moralistic simplifications themselves). Iraq is like a French cheese that can’t be pasteurized for the palates of a reading public that has grown up on Kraft slices of Good Guy/Bad Guy. Of course, Iraq has good guys and bad guys; they just switch roles a lot depending on our perspective.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that some of the most sectarian people in Iraq are the foreign journalists, intellectuals and diplomats paid to interpret what is happening in the country. The Kurds were the first to find enthusiastic backers like Michael Ignatieff, who felt that their suffering under Saddam justified the invasion. The Shias, too, have their supporters. For a while after the invasion in 2003 there was a great deal of sympathy among foreigners in Iraq for their point of view after the decades they suffered under Saddam. But once elected, the Shia parties’ policies—militia infiltration of the security services, death squads, torture prisons, contempt for secular values and women, embracing Iran—have encouraged cynicism.
In the past, few outsiders have expressed much sympathy for the Sunnis, those Saddam-loving authoritarians, but that has recently begun to change. Now that the White House has labelled the Anbar sheiks “heroes,” and the Shia government is described as pro-Iranian and anti-American, we are beginning to see a sudden outpouring of sympathy for Sunnis in the Western press. This will probably be short-lived, because the Sunnis have a talent for making themselves despised. But intellectuals and journalists are, to an astonishing degree, sentimental, and fawn over cultures like high school kids with a new crush. If you protect us and tell us your story, we like you and are very sympathetic—for a while. If you try to kill us or, worse, treat us with contempt, we’ll demonize you. The Sunnis treated Westerners with contempt under Saddam, tried to kill us during the insurgency, and were vilified. Now they are weak and friendlier. It is the Shia government that is contemptuous, and its militias life-threatening, so journalists aren’t quite so enthusiastic anymore.
An enduring myth about Iraq is that it can be split into “nation” states based on ethnicity or sectarian differences, with a Shia south, a Sunni middle and a Kurdish north. But Arab Iraqis are far more nationalistic than you would guess from all the discussions of “ethno-sectarian” differences. Indeed, many Iraqis are astonished by the sudden emergence of Sunni and Shia divisions. As one Iraqi American said to me: “We never used to talk about it, but the other day a stripper asked me if I was Sunni or Shia.” And that was in California.
It’s true that many Kurds are keen on partitioning Iraq, but they are also keen on taking chunks of Iran, Syria and Turkey to make a Kurdish homeland. And at least some members of one Shia party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, promote a very decentralized federalism. But, for the most part, the vast majority of Arab Iraqis see Iraq as a strongly unified state. Shias and Sunnis may be chauvinists, violently so in some cases, but that doesn’t mean they don’t see Iraq as a nation.
If you look at recent polls, Shia support for partition runs around two per cent, while the majority, 56 per cent, support a strong centralized state. Some Shias in the south may want to create regional blocks, but this is more an expression of regional culture than sectarianism—they just don’t like Baghdad, the way western Canadians don’t like Ottawa. The Sunnis, for their part, want a unified, centrally controlled government because they view themselves as the country’s natural governing class. In fact, many Sunnis don’t view themselves as Sunni, just Iraqi. This is especially true in Baghdad, where every Sunni I know has a Shia parent or grandparent—until recently class was the primary division in Baghdad, not sect. The Sunnis think of themselves as Iraqi in the way that Torontonians think of themselves as Canadian, not English-Canadian—it’s the other guys who are hyphenated.
The much-repeated line that Iraq is a phony country made up by colonial powers is itself a myth. Indeed, I’m always amazed by the extent of Iraqi nationalism in Arab Iraq, a nationalism that coexists with sectarian suspicions but which is very real. The historian Reidar Visser has written extensively about this, especially the diverse Shia sense of being Iraqi, and the long history of Iraq as a governed unit. But it is too complex an argument to be put forward in the media, and blaming previous colonial governments is easy. As Visser points out, U.S. Democratic party supporters have found the argument for partition to be a convenient solution for a problem they have no clue how to solve, but which makes them sound less clueless and cruel than saying, “Forget the Iraqis, let’s leave.”
But foreign interference in Iraq has greatly exacerbated the divisiveness among the various groups, which were already suffering years of grinding dictatorship under which citizens and sect were played off against each other. The process that began during the Saddam era has now turned into civil war—with outside help. Early on, the American-controlled occupying government created a “Governing Council” organized on sectarian lines, with money being funnelled through various groups according to their “ethno-sectarian” divisions. This only increased existing divisions, and once an actual Iraqi government was elected it governed purely along sectarian lines.
Ironically, the recent American support for Sunni militias is itself a classic Balkan solution to an Iraqi problem. In 1994, the U.S. quietly helped to build up the Croatian army, allowing the Croats to sweep through Serb-held Krajina the following year, viciously cleansing it of the Serbs. The newly pumped-up Croats then acted as a counterbalance to Serbian power; this, in turn, brought Slobodan Milosevic to the table and led to the signing of the Dayton peace accord. Today, the Sunni tribes are the Croats, backed by the U.S. and presenting an increasing military threat to the Shia government, which at some point may have to rely on Iran to defend itself.
To call this “Yugoslav solution” a risky strategy in Iraq is an understatement. Once the Sunnis are free of their own civil war with al-Qaeda, and are no longer wasting their strength fighting U.S. forces, you will see the re-emergence of the same coalition of Sunnis that supported Saddam, but which is increasily allied with the U.S. military. And then? My guess is that there will be a series of well-orchestrated assassinations of Shia government officials, especially in the Interior Ministry, who are viewed as responsible for killing Sunnis and the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad. The U.S. will be unable to stop this, just as in the aftermath of the invasion it was unable to stop the Shia parties from hunting down and killing former Baathists. Nor will there be much incentive for the Americans to step in, since the Sunnis will also target anyone in the government or government-sponsored militias who have close ties to Iran. When Prime Minister Maliki says he’s reluctant to have the tribal militias gain too much power, he knows that the old Saddam cadres of Republican Guards and intelligence officers with a base among the tribal militias in Anbar will be coming into Baghdad for a little payback. It will be a proxy war against Iran, masked by warring sectarian militias. And this is just the kind of problem partitioning the country cannot solve.
A few years ago, I was asked to speak about Iraq at a conference on insurgencies. At the end of the day, participants were asked to guess what might happen in five years. I said I thought the U.S. would be allied with the Sunnis and fighting Iran. In a limited way, that has turned out to be the case. To some degree, the military has switched sides in the middle of the fight.
So far, the plan has not been as successful as its proponents maintain. But it isn’t entirely a failure, either. It is probably the only major military strategy that has had any real effect since the original invasion. I’ve now been invited to “hunt al-Qaeda” in two other areas outside Anbar, which means there has been a ripple effect in the Sunni areas. But in the end, it may not matter much. The discussion in Washington and New York has always drowned out the reality of Iraq. One of the terrifying aspects of the war is the monumental failure of analysis and action on the part of America’s political, military, journalistic and even business elites.
That problem may be systemic—the result of a “fact-based” America confronting a society it did not understand and simply making up an alternate reality, guns ablaze. So far, the Republicans have done an impressive job at failing in Iraq. Soon it may be the Democrats’ turn to fail, albeit in a different way. It’s a shame because Iraqi political parties are perfectly capable of doing that on their own. Indeed, they seem to be going out of their way to compete with the Americans on that score.