Iraq’s Unconventional Civil War

Sometimes I hate calling it right. Granted, I have been sometimes wrong with my prognostication in the past. Last I looked President Kerry was not in the White House. Nevertheless, I hit the bullseye on Iraq. I called it right even before the war started. Winning a prediction would normally make me want to gloat. Yet as I watch Iraq descend into the civil war that I predicted, I just feel sick over the whole thing. Moreover, I feel almost nauseous knowing that my country recklessly lit the fuse.

Arguably, there has been a minor civil war going on in Iraq since around 2004. At first American forces were the principle targets of the insurgency. We are still hit regularly by insurgent forces. Seven Americans died from IEDs just the other day. Of course, American forces are now harder to target. We have adapted to losses by keeping many of our forces in their bases instead of patrolling or fighting. It makes for lower casualty counts for our increasingly antiwar public, but it probably does not improve Iraq’s security.

No one knows for sure who is causing the violence. That alone is telling. If forces were really in control, there would be no anarchy. Yet here we are nearly three years after our invasion and we are still operating with our blinders on. It appears that our intelligence today is not much better than the virtually nonexistent intelligence used to start this war.

The best guess is that the current anarchy in Iraq is mostly caused by a myriad of sectarian forces, each hoping to expand their own power by cutting down opposing sects’. Of course, when hardly anyone is minding the store, it becomes easier for the entirely wrong elements to become unleashed. One hundred forty thousand American troops were clearly not enough boots on the ground to prevent anarchy. Therefore, al Qaeda and affiliated elements easily crossed borders and set up shop, possibly aided by Iran and Syria. It would be a good bet to assume they are responsible for this most egregious act: the destruction of the Askariya shrine in Samarra. However, it could also have done by a small sect of Sunni insurgents.

If we were to do a risk assessment of what would trigger an Iraqi civil war, you would think blowing up some of the holiest Shia and Sunni shrines in the country would do it. Forces sufficient to repel attacks should have been securing these sites. But since war is hell, it must lead to a lot of muddled thinking. It must be hard to think tactically when you are not even sure you can get down the street safely. While not quite to the Shia what St. Peter’s Church in the Vatican is to the Roman Catholics, the Askariya shrine is nearly as important. Think how outraged Catholics would feel if the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s precious frescos were turned into rubble by terrorists.

Not surprisingly, the attack had the desired effect. The Shia, who have always been in the majority, found that with an incident this egregious they could no longer sit on their hands. Numerous Sunni mosques were quickly damaged or destroyed, although with all the anarchy it is hard to quantify the size of the destruction. That in turn led to the destruction of some Shia mosques. Hundreds of people have been killed. Iraqis will be fortunate if only thousands more are killed as a direct result of this incident.

As for the nascent Iraqi constitutional government, it is likely gone with the wind. A major Sunni sect will no longer participate unless some extremely onerous demands are accepted. Perhaps they will think more clearly with time. Rather than expecting unity, expect Iraqis to become passionately sectarian. This one nation ideal is just no longer a good fit. When push comes to shove, you have to make unpleasant choices. In Iraq that means that clan loyalty trumps over national loyalty. Rather than seeing the united and pluralist Iraq of America’s dreams, Iraq will devolve into heightened civil war and ruthless sectarianism. The result will mean what is has arguably already occurred: the end of Iraq as a country. Instead, there will be Eastern Iraq. Since it is predominantly Shia, it will likely end up as part of Iran. The Kurds will have their own country, if Turkey will allow it. The Sunnis will form either their own impoverished nation or affiliate with Syria, Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Iraq as we have known it since the British assembled it after World War I is effectively history. We are too blinded by our predispositions to see this yet. What should concern us more is whether the civil war in Iraq will spill outside its borders, inflaming the whole Middle East.

This civil war is unlikely to look like most civil wars. I will grant that insurgents have been attacking the Iraqi army and police at levels that suggest a civil war started years ago. Yet there does not appear to be a united insurgency. Therefore, “civil war” may not be the right label. Then what exactly do you call it when a nation descends into anarchy and chaos and sects fight other sects in the street? To call it an insurgency is absurd. We may need a refined definition of civil war for our modern age.

I believe that what we witnessed in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s is what we will see in Iraq for at least the next decade. Perhaps as in Lebanon, the factions at some point will have released their entire animus. Perhaps even the insurgents will get so sick of fighting that they will either demand peace or go home. Perhaps. However, this day is a long way off.

I believe that this civil war was destined to happen. Saddam Hussein the chess player set up the violence we are witnessing by inflaming sectarian tensions during his dictatorship. Sunni and Shia have lived peacefully together for many years. Their relationship was not always in perfect harmony. However, prior to Saddam Hussein each side rarely saw reasons to get violent with the other. Much of what we are now witnessing is a sad denouement of Saddam’s dubious legacy. One thing is clear: by invading, we added gasoline to this smoldering fire. It is unlikely that history will look kindly at our noble intentions.

One response to “Iraq’s Unconventional Civil War”

  1. Actually, I’m not all that sure that “No one knows for sure who is causing the violence.” The signs are pretty clear. Baathists and sectarian Sunnis form the core of the harshest violence–blowing up parades of Shi’ites and then car bombing the funeral processions for Shiites killed by prior attacks. Those are still the biggest villains in this convoluted plot. They had it sweet under Saddam and they’d sure like to have a chance to get back in power.

    The suspects for the Askariya Mosque bombing are the same Baathists–the same ones who spent months, or perhaps years, storing secret cashes of weapons all around the country (we still see news items from time to time about US troops uncovering those secret caches–and yet there’s no sign of insurgents running out of ordnance).

    The only major actions of Shiite violence are reprisal killings, such as the most recent wave has been, and the occasional police execution, as has been seen in the area around Basra. The only Shiite factions initially inclined toward widespread civil war were the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, who’s been more or less pacified for the past year… until this latest incident. He’s being brought into the mix too, when his people are the ones being killed by the anti-Shiite violence over there. The Shiites have been putting up with a LOT of violence directed at them without doing close to proportional retaliation. Obvisously that’s about to change.

    There is also a very small contingent of alQaeda fighters there, but they don’t amount to much… yet. Every day that US presense there creates more chaos makes their crazy world view make a little more sense to the Arab street. For right now they are a lesser problem.

    Please don’t think that the factionalism is Iraq is too byzantine to understand. We may not know all the names of the leaders of the violence, but we do know who they are. Their interests are not too hard to figure out and their motives are not beyond comprehension.

    The only tough thing to figure out is how to end it. Sadly, I think you are right on the money with predicting the end of Iraq. Until this al-Askariya Mosque incident, I still thought there was a chance that a pluralistic state could be hammered together. Today I don’t see how these people can ever come to live with each other. The scars are just too deep.

    I do think Iran is probably too smart to directly annex the Shiite areas of Iraq. Puppet states are the future here. With their own Kurdish problem to deal with, they have every motive in the world to keep the lid on any drastic redrawings of the local maps.


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