2006 March 26 Sunday
Nir Rosen For US Withdrawal From Iraq

Nir Rosen, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a guy who has spent a fair amount of time in Iraq, says that if the US forces leave that will eliminate the main motivation for the insurgency: revenge.

But if American troops aren't in Baghdad, what's to stop the Sunnis from launching an assault and seizing control of the city?

Sunni forces could not mount such an assault. The preponderance of power now lies with the majority Shiites and the Kurds, and the Sunnis know this. Sunni fighters wield only small arms and explosives, not Saddam's tanks and helicopters, and are very weak compared with the cohesive, better armed, and numerically superior Shiite and Kurdish militias. Most important, Iraqi nationalism—not intramural rivalry—is the chief motivator for both Shiites and Sunnis. Most insurgency groups view themselves as waging a muqawama—a resistance—rather than a jihad. This is evident in their names and in their propaganda. For instance, the units commanded by the Association of Muslim Scholars are named after the 1920 revolt against the British. Others have names such as Iraqi Islamic Army and Flame of Iraq. They display the Iraqi flag rather than a flag of jihad. Insurgent attacks are meant primarily to punish those who have collaborated with the Americans and to deter future collaboration.

Wouldn't a U.S. withdrawal embolden the insurgency?

No. If the occupation were to end, so, too, would the insurgency. After all, what the resistance movement has been resisting is the occupation. Who would the insurgents fight if the enemy left? When I asked Sunni Arab fighters and the clerics who support them why they were fighting, they all gave me the same one-word answer: intiqaam—revenge. Revenge for the destruction of their homes, for the shame they felt when Americans forced them to the ground and stepped on them, for the killing of their friends and relatives by U.S. soldiers either in combat or during raids.

Is Rosen correct? Is the Sunni insurgency aimed mainly at the US troops? Or mainly at the Shias? But the Shias can stick up for themselves if need be. The Mahdi Army could defeat the Sunnis. So why are we still there?

Even though Rosen thinks there is no point in the US continuing to fight in Iraq Rosen is not optimistic about what will follow a US pull-out.

The United States should leave, as Barry Posen and many others now realize, but I am less sanguine than Posen about the likely results of an end to the American occupation. Much damage has been done. Iraq is a failed state. The three governments that have existed since Saddam was removed have been unable to impose themselves outside of the fortified military base they inhabit, the Green Zone, now renamed the International Zone. Iraqi society has suffered yet another blow, after having been destroyed by dictatorship, wars, poverty, and sanctions. The brutal presence of hundreds of thousands of foreign soldiers, the redistribution of power they caused, and the ethnic and religious forces they released have further destroyed Iraqi society. Power was distributed not only from one group, the Sunnis, to others, the Kurds and Shia, but also to everybody, that is, to anybody with a gun. In the absence of any political or civil authority, religious and tribal leaders gained supreme power. In places where there was no religious or tribal authority, criminal gangs took over. Elsewhere, the lines between the three were difficult to distinguish.

I figure the place is going to lack even minimally decent government for many years to come whether the US troops stay or leave.

Rosen talked with an Iraqi Sunni who works in the Ministry of Interior who repeats a claim that keeps popping up: Badr Militia men are joining the Ministry of Interior and from there hunting down and killing suspected Sunni insurgents.

Haidar was concerned about the presence of foreign fighters in the resistance and its growing sectarian violence. He told me that members of his intelligence unit had infiltrated resistance groups, praying with them and participating in their planning. "Some of the resistance are organized gangs like mafias," he said. "They use religion and claim they are the resistance. Some of the resistance has good goals. The real resistance won’t kill Iraqis. They attack the occupier, and they attack them in remote places and don’t use civilians as cover." He explained that the real resistance just wanted the Americans to stay in their bases and not enter houses or cities. "If they get inside my house, what is left for me?" he asked in the voice of the Iraqi resistance. "I can’t even protect my own house."

But—possibly because of the influence of foreigners—Sunnis were killing Shia civilians, and Shia, often under official cover, were retaliating. I asked Haidar if the rumors I’d heard were true—that the Ministry of Interior had been infiltrated and dominated by the Badr Organization Militia, the military forces of the radical Shia Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, or SCIRI. Yes, he said, and added that Ministry of Interior members affiliated with Badr were assassinating Sunnis throughout Iraq. Sunni officers were being removed and replaced by unknown Shias.

Rosen talks to a large range of Iraqis and goes places most reporters are reluctant to travel when not embedded with US forces. Rosen's full article is worth reading to get a sense of how the various factions see the conflict. The Sunnis and Shias are becoming steadily more distrustful of each other.

Until the Samarra mosque bombing the Shias demonstrated a great deal of restraint toward the Sunnis even as both groups have come to view each other in increasingly negative terms.

Iraq’s Sunnis, unsurprisingly, felt intimidated, and they increasingly came to view Shias as Iranians or Persians, refusing to recognize that Shias were the majority or that Shias had been singled out for persecution under Saddam. Sunnis were the primary victims of American military aggression and viewed Shias as collaborators. As Shias became the primary victims of radical Sunni terror attacks against Iraqi civilians, they came to view Sunnis as Baathists, Saddamists, or Wahhabis. Yet Shias showed restraint amid daily attacks meant to provoke a civil war; they knew the numbers were on their side.

As the ethnic cleansing and bombings continue I think the Shia restraint is evaporating.

Rosen thinks that radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, might be the only person who can hold Iraq together.

But Sunnis preferred to view Muqtada as "the good Shia," and he was becoming the only bridge between Iraq’s Shias and Sunnis. Muqtada opposed the Baathists but had established an excellent working relationship with radical Sunnis immediately following the war, and like them he demanded a centralized Iraq, in part perhaps because he has so much support in Baghdad. SCIRI, on the other hand, saw no need for compromise, preferring to impose a new order on Iraq that directly clashed with Sunni aspirations and reinforced all their fears. It was fighting an open war with the Association of Muslim Scholars as well as former Baathists and Iraqi military officers, singling out former fighter pilots for retribution.

Muqtada al-Sadr, once the most divisive figure in Iraqi politics, was becoming the only hope for halting the civil war. Muqtada was the only Shia leader respected by Iraq’s Sunnis.

But Mahdi militiamen hunted down and killed a lot of Sunnis after the Samarra mosque bombing and probably continue to do so. Therefore Muqtada is becoming less the uniter every day. Still, Rosen says that Muqtada agrees with the Sunni on many important questions.

On the crucial issues that divide Shiite and Sunni, Muqtada sides with the Sunnis. He opposes federalism, which he believes will lead to the breakup of Iraq, and supports amending the constitution. SCIRI and the other main Shiite party, Dawa, support federalism and refuse to amend the constitution. For Sunnis, federalism means the loss not just of the old Iraq, which they dominated, but also of oil revenue, and they are determined to resist it. Muqtada is their only Shiite ally. Inexperienced in foreign affairs and barely experienced in politics, Muqtada may nonetheless be the only figure capable of halting Iraq's steady descent into a civil war that could ignite the entire region.

Of course the rise of Muqtada to power would make the whole neocon project in Iraq into a complete failure for Israel. He is a Muslim fundamentalist who is vehemently anti-Israeli. If you want to understand why the neocons wanted to invade Iraq then see their document A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm which they wrote (I think in 1996) to try to convince then Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to try to overthrow Saddam back in the 1990s. The rise of anti-Israeli fundamentalist Shia cleric Muqtada into power would make the "Clean Break" strategy into an absolutely complete failure for Israel.

You can read other articles by Rosen on Iraq.

Update: If the bulk of the insurgency's motivation is to get the United States out of Iraq then the longer the US stays the more likely Iraq will be partitioned.

Think about the dynamics at work here. The Sunni insurgency (both foreign and domestic) kills Shias. They kill some Shias for cooperating with US forces or the government. They kill other Shias just to scare them out of cooperation and to show them the Sunnis really are the boss. But in the process the Sunnis create more Shia enemies of the Sunnis and more Shias retaliate. This, in turn, motivates still more Sunnis to kill Shias. The cycle builds up. The ethnic cleansing also accelerates, making a split of the country along ethnic lines easier.

The larger the set of retaliators becomes the more ethnic cleansing will happen and the more the Sunnis and Shias will see each other as totally unaccceptable. Then the only way Iraq could be kept together would be by the Shias building up a highly motivated army, police, and intelligence apparatus to severely repress the Sunnis. Like Saddam but more religious. So what do you want in the non-Kurdish region of Iraq? A highly repressive theocratic Shia regime (whether elected or not)? Or two Arab countries, one for Shias and one for Sunnis?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 March 26 04:40 PM  Mideast Iraq Exit Debate


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