Call it “unconventional,” “muted” or “low-grade,” but civil war in Iraq has begun. A Los Angeles Times investigation published on May 7 documented at least 3,800 violent deaths, many of them execution-style murders, in Baghdad alone during the first three months of 2006. The reason for each and every killing is unknowable, but most are clearly sectarian in motivation. The tent cities for displaced Shi‘a outside Kut and Najaf guarded by militias, the downed palm trees barricading neighborhoods of the capital, the truckers with one set of identity papers for the road north from Baghdad and another set for the road south — all these survival strategies are evidence that Iraqis know that civil war is here.
Two years ago, we were told that the US had to keep its hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Iraq to prevent a civil war. Now we are admonished that US troops must remain so that communal violence does not get worse.
So it is worth recounting the US policies that sowed the dragon’s teeth: dissolving the Iraqi army; allying with the sectarian Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; bandying about the term “Sunni triangle” to describe areas of strong anti-occupation sentiment; divvying up seats on the Iraqi Governing Council and interim ministries by sect and ethnicity; allowing ministries to become communal party fiefdoms; describing anti-occupation guerrillas as “anti-Iraqi forces”; pushing a schedule of elections and constitution writing driven by US rather than Iraqi politics; and training clandestine “counter-terrorism” units that are now government death squads. The list could be much longer. As US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad put it in March, “We have opened Pandora’s box.”
In light of this history, Khalilzad’s urgings that the new “national unity” government be “inclusive” are particularly grating. Thanks to the incompetence of the US when it governed Iraq, the die has been cast. Sectarian-ethnic tensions were a predictable legacy of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule, but it was not inevitable that they would become so exacerbated as to overpower secular ideas in the political arena. Formal politics in the country now operate largely according to a Lebanon-style confessional system, and militias — not the “national” army and police — provide what little security Iraqi communities have. The only ways for the US to alter the existing balance of power in Iraq are to depose the elected government or to withdraw. Otherwise, and despite all protestations to the contrary, the US is effectively backing one side in the civil war.
It offends the American can-do mentality to admit that the US cannot always fix what it has broken. So Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) proposes to “decentralize” Iraq, which he says would save “unity” in the country because it would “give Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds room to breathe in their own regions.” The ignorance is breathtaking — after several senatorial junkets to Baghdad, Biden still sees Iraqis as neatly apportioned by identity among three regions. Sectarian cleansing has already occurred in the capital and surrounding provinces, but such a plan would double it by lending it official license. Iraq’s territorial integrity is not sacred — no borders ought to be — but for the US to decide this question on Iraqis’ behalf would be more arrogant than the invasion itself.
Washington failed to build the Iraq of the neo-conservatives’ fevered imaginations, and now it is failing to build the Iraq of the realists’ cold-eyed calculations — a state that functions, pumps the oil and signs contracts that it will be around in a few years to honor. So the US military is stuck in the middle of a civil war it cannot quell, supporting an Iraqi government it cannot control, in a country whose natural resources render it too strategic to abandon to fate. This magazine supports a US withdrawal, but we suspect that many thousands of US troops will be in Iraq for a long time to come.