2006 July 16 Sunday
Baghdad Decaying Into Civil War

Shia dominate the Iraqi government's military.

RAMADI, Iraq - Their televised graduation was supposed to be a moment of national celebration: A class of 1,000 Sunni Arab soldiers emerging from basic training would show Iraqis that the country's worsening religious divide was not afflicting the national army. Two months later, only about 300 of them have reported for duty, U.S. officials say.


The 1,000 graduates were part of a program to recruit 6,500 Sunnis from restive Anbar province. But with two classes of enlistees trained, only 530 soldiers have been added to the ranks, said Lt. Col. Mike Negard, a spokesman for the U.S. training command.

So the Iraqi Army is heavily weighted toward the Shia. Many of those Shia maintain their loyalty toward Shiite militia groups which they were members of before joining government forces. Even Shia soldiers who haven't been members of militia see the Sunnis as their enemies. The Shia militias in Baghdad are bigger than the Sunni insurgency. Plus, the Shia-dominated army strongly sympathizes with the Shia militias.

Writing for the Daily Telegraph Aqeel Hussein describes how Shia militiamen at a roadblock who were trying to decide whether to kill him killed a Sunni driver. The Iraqi soldiers a half mile away were indifferent to the existence of Shia militia killing Sunnis so close by.

"As they were talking to me I saw a young man dragged out of a BMW car and pushed into the side street," he said.

"He was Sunni, you could tell from his accent. He was forced to kneel on the ground and a Kalashnikov was placed against his head.

"The man was pleading for his life but the fighter, who had his face covered, was shouting 'You are a Sunni, you are a terrorist and you should die. Sit down now'. The next moment I heard the gun go off and there was blood everywhere. It was a few metres away."

After being released he drove to the Iraqi army checkpoint to warn them but his pleas were greeted with indifference by the soldiers on duty.

"I told them the Mahdi army are killing Sunnis in Jihad City. One of the soldiers said 'Oh really' and he was laughing. They didn't move, I couldn't believe it. You could here gunshots as we were talking."

Many of the recruits to Iraq's fledging armed forces are drawn from al-Sadr's militias.

The creation of a national Iraqi army, the Bush Administration's ballyhooed solution to the Iraq war, is feeding the process of ethnic cleansing. The article describes Baghdad's Highway 60 as the first clear conventional front in the civil war. Sunnis and Shias bombard each others' neighborhoods across Highway 60 using mortars. The neighborhoods are now sufficiently ethnically purified to allow them to fire with confidence knowing only members of the opposing group will get killed.

James Hider of the Times of London reports on the rapid decay of Baghdad.

The previous night I had had a similar conversation with my driver, a Shia who lives in another part of west Baghdad. He phoned at 11pm to say that there was a battle raging outside his house and that his family were sheltering in the windowless bathroom.

Marauding Mahdi gunmen, seeking to drive all Sunnis from the area, were fighting Sunni Mujahidin for control of a nearby strategic position. I could hear the gunfire blazing over the phone.

We phoned the US military trainer attached to Iraqi security forces in the area. He said there was nothing to be done: “There’s always shooting at night here. It’s like chasing ghosts.”

In fact the US military generally responds only to request for support from Iraqi security forces. But as many of those forces are at best turning a blind eye to the Shia death squads, and at worst colluding with them, calling the Americans is literally the last thing they do.

West Baghdad is no stranger to bombings and killings, but in the past few days all restraint has vanished in an orgy of ethnic cleansing.

Shia gunmen are seeking to drive out the once-dominant Sunni minority and the Sunnis are forming neighbourhood posses to retaliate. Mosques are being attacked. Scores of innocent civilians have been killed, their bodies left lying in the streets.

How far can the Shia militias go with their drive against the Sunnis? How rapidly will it play out? US forces are too small to do much to slow this process. Could the US military ally itself with the Sunnis to defend the Sunnis? At this point I bet the Sunnis in Baghdad would welcome a powerful ally even if it was the United States. Or would that unleash such a hostile Shia response that the Shia government would teeter?

Some Sunnis think the Shias are trying to drive all Sunnis out of Baghdad. Certainly not a few Shia militiamen would be happy to achieve that outcome.

Most Iraqis believe that it is already here. “There is a campaign to eradicate all Sunnis from Baghdad,” said Sheikh Omar al-Jebouri, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni parliamentary group. He said that it was organised by the Shia-dominated Interior Ministry and its police special commandos, with Shia militias, and aimed to destroy Mr al-Maliki’s plans to rebuild Iraq’s security forces along national, rather than sectarian, lines.

The article recounts an episode where Iraqi police drive up to a mosque and start blasting away at it with machine guns. The Shias might well succeed in driving the Sunnis out of Baghdad. The Shias have more militia fighters and control of the government's military and more supplies.

The current death rate makes the times of Saddam Hussein look relatively peaceful.

A local journalist told me bitterly this week that Iraqis find it ironic that Saddam Hussein is on trial for killing 148 people 24 years ago, while militias loyal to political parties now in government kill that many people every few days. But it is not an irony that anyone here has time to laugh about. They are too busy packing their bags and wondering how they can get out alive.

Flights from Baghdad to Damascus have gone from 3 to 8 per week while the bus trips to Jordan through dangerous Anbar province have gone from 2 a day to as much as 40 and 50 a day. Keep these facts in mind when the Iraqi government quotes ridiculously low estimates for the number of refugees.

As the ethnic cleansing proceeds and neighborhoods become more purely one ethnic group or another the civil war will take on more of the characteristics of a fight for territory with clearer front lines. The Sunni Al-Karakh neighborhood might get overrun by Shia militia.

Shi'ite groups are trying to "conquer" the Sunni Al-Karakh neighborhood in western Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki said according to the daily online newspaper Al-'Arab.

Figure that the Christians and Kurds are going to continue to flee to northern Iraq. That'll leave the numerically more superior and better equipped Shias to duke it out with the Sunnis for control of Baghdad. If the Shias can capture Sunni neighborhoods then they will be able to purge the Sunnis and gradually make Baghdad into a Shia city.

The compassionate thing for the United States to do is to build housing in the Sunni Triangle for Sunnis who are getting forced out of Baghdad. If we can only admit to how bad the situation is in Iraq and how much worse it is going to get we could respond in ways that alleviate some of the pain and that reduce the death toll.

Peter W. Galbraith, a former US ambassador, has written a book arguing for the break-up of Iraq entitled The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. The Times of London has an excerpt of Galbraith's book.

How could a divorce be carried through? Arab Iraqi leaders have told me privately that they accept Kurdistan’s right to self-determination. Some seem to prefer that Kurdistan should leave, having grown weary of its refusal to make any concessions to a shared state. With settled borders, the split between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq could be more like Czechoslovakia’s velvet divorce than Yugoslavia’s wars.

Turkey — with many Kurds living within its borders — has long been considered the chief obstacle to Kurdish dreams for an independent state. Turkish attitudes have evolved significantly, however. Some Turkish strategic thinkers, including those within the so-called “deep state” comprising the military and intelligence establishments, see a secular, pro-western and non-Arab Kurdistan as a buffer to an Islamic Arab state to the south.

If the Shi’ite south forms a region, it can set up a theocratic government and establish a regional guard. Iran will be the dominant power and the Bush administration has no ability, and no intention, of countering Iran’s position there.

How much worse will Iraq have to get before the happy talker supporters of the Bush Administration snap out of their dreams? Reality on the ground in Iraq keeps getting uglier.

Update: An Iraqi doctor told the BBC 10,000 people are leaving Baghdad each week.

Over the past two days the conflict between Sunnis and Shias has really come out into the open. It was there before, but more hidden. Many people are leaving Baghdad for neighbouring countries or for the north, Kurdistan. A friend of mine who has a travel agency says at least 10,000 people are leaving the capital every day.

I'd like to know whether a larger proportion of Sunnis or Shias are fleeing Baghdad. 10,000 per week would work out to over a half million a year. In 2003 Baghdad was estimated to have a population of about 5.77 million. So it could lose a tenth of its population by next summer if the 10,000 a week estimate is correct and current trends continue. One estimate puts Shias as a majority in Baghdad. If they are a majority then that majority and their much larger military forces give them the advantage in the battle for Baghdad.

The Shias are fighting to protect the Shia minority in the al-Jihad neighborhood which is in the Western and therefore Sunni majority part of Baghdad.

Sunday's massacre in Jihad - three miles from the airport and the US military's sprawling Camp Victory - shows how Baghdad's seemingly random violence is spreading hatred and institutionalizing atrocity.

Tensions in the area - which is mostly Sunni but, unusually for suburbs west of the Tigris, still has many Shiites - have been running high all year. Until recently, the violence had been confined to assassinations of Shiite residents in ones and twos, notes slipped under doors warning Shiite residents to move or else, and roadside bombs.

But, recently, Shiite residents have been getting organized into their own militias, with the help of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, according to two residents of the area - one a Shiite, the other Sunni. Since the Askariya shrine bombing on Feb. 22, locals deemed to be salafiyah - a rigid Sunni ideology that has much in common with the Wahabbism of Saudi Arabia - have been taken away at night and murdered, though not as often as Shiite residents, they say.

After a recent string of explosions at Shiite mosques and Hosseiniya (Shiite prayer halls) to the west of the river, local Shiites have reportedly mounted their own intimidation campaign, with notes slipped under doors and murmured promises of revenge for future attacks.

A trend to watch for: Will the more powerful Shia militias manage to stop the ethnic purging of Shias from any neighborhoods in Western Baghdad? Will the Shias turn the tables on the Sunnis of Western Baghdad and even manage to purge Sunnis from any of those neighborhoods? The al-Jihad neighborhood in the west side of the Tigris River might be the place to watch to look for trends in the fight between Sunni and Shia groups battling for control of Baghdad.

Update II: When Sunnis call the Interior Ministry for help they are treated like terrorists.

Saleh Muhammed, an Amiriyah resident, told a Post special correspondent that he dialed 130 into his cellphone, Baghdad's emergency number. "The Mahdi Army has attacked Amiriyah," he told the Interior Ministry dispatcher.

"The Mahdi Army are not terrorists like you," said the dispatcher at the ministry, which is controlled by a Shiite party and operates closely with militias. "They are people doing their duty. And how could you know that they are the Mahdi Army? Is it written on their foreheads?" He hung up the phone.

The whole article is worth reading. Both a Sunni and a Shia legislator say the civil war has begun. Says a Sunni legislator ""The parliament cannot reach practical solutions because their minds are concerned only with their sect and not the interests of the nation." Tribalism and consanguineous marriage make Iraq ungovernable by Western style democracy. Unfamiliar with consanguineous marriage's ramifications for politics? See my post John Tierney On Cousin Marriage As Reform Obstacle In Iraq and read the other posts and articles I link to from there.

Update III: I saw this one coming. Edward Wong and Dexter Filkins of the New York Times report that Many Sunnis want the US military to protect them from the Shia militias.

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 16 — As sectarian violence soars, many Sunni Arab political and religious leaders once staunchly opposed to the American presence here are now saying they need American troops to protect them from the rampages of Shiite militias and Shiite-run government forces.

By accident the US military and the Shia militias have become a more brutal equivalents of the "Good Cop, Bad Cop" routine. Imagine Sunni clerics calling out to not shoot because the Americans are coming.

In Adhamiya, a neighborhood in north Baghdad, Sunni insurgents once fought street to street with American troops. Now, mortars fired by Shiite militias rain down several times a week, and armed watch groups have set up barricades to stop drive-by attacks by black-clad Shiite fighters. So when an American convoy rolled in recently, a remarkable message rang out from the loudspeakers of the Abu Hanifa Mosque, where Saddam Hussein made his last public appearance before the fall of Baghdad in 2003.

“The American Army is coming with the Iraqi Army — do not shoot,” the voice said, echoing through streets still filled with supporters of Mr. Hussein. “They are here to help you.”

Sheik Abdul Wahab al-Adhami, an imam at the mosque, said later in an interview: “Look at what the militias are doing even while we have the American forces here. Imagine what would happen if they left.”

Unfortunately the US military isn't big enough to protect all the Sunnis from the Shia militias. But if the Sunnis were moved to areas further away from the Shias then providing protection wouldn't be as difficult.

The Sunnis are trying to reach an agreement with the central government that all Iraqi government raids on mosques and private homes will be accompanied by American forces. Too many of the raids are conducted by Shia militias on killing sprees.

Sunni Arab leaders in the strife-ridden neighborhood of Dawra recently secured an explicit agreement with Shiite-led commandos based there that says the Iraqi forces will not raid a Sunni mosque or private home without being accompanied by American forces. A new brigade of Iraqi forces has just moved in, and the Sunnis are likely to try to reach the same agreement with them.

The United States is enmeshed in a very complicated web in Iraq. This turn of the Sunnis toward the US for protection might seem like good news. But the Shia militias could respond to US efforts on behalf of Sunnis by launching more attacks on US forces than Sunni insurgents currently carry out.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 July 16 08:58 AM  Mideast Iraq Ethnic Conflict

gcochran said at July 16, 2006 9:47 AM:

US forces could stop this in a New York minute, just as they could have stopped looting back in 2003. The immediate problem is that the only 'side' we have in Iraq is the Shi'ites - and we figure they would turn against us, leaving us with no side at all, with 80% of the population, everyone but the Kurds, wanting us dead. Of course putting in a pro-Iranian Shi'ite theocracy means that the whole crazy venture leaves us _worse_ off strategically than before we invaded - this without even counting the multi-hundred-billion dollar cost - but at this point it's all about saving Bush's face, not the strategic interests of the United States. The Administration would rather 'succeed' in an own-goal rather than admit failure.

Bob Badour said at July 16, 2006 3:59 PM:

Isn't it sickening that we are snuffing out young american lives for no reason other than that dumb fuck's vanity?

Luke Lea said at July 18, 2006 3:57 AM:

I must say, Randall, you paint a convincing picture. Why do I have to come here to get it instead of in the pages of the NYT -- on this and so many other national and international issues? No one else pulls it all together the way you do. Great post number 489.

Randall Parker said at July 18, 2006 3:31 PM:


I think it helps to not feel a partisan stake in the debate one way or the other. It also helps to not embrace any of the secular religious faiths. Avoid beliefs that cloud your mind. Empirical reality comes before your hopes and dreams.

I have a dim view of human nature and spend a lot more time thinking about the internal dynamics of Iraq and less time thinking about the Beltway debates and the latest enthusiasms of the happy talkers.

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