Iraq Is Coming Apart at the Seams
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Iraq is splintering along a dozen fault lines, and the prospects for a political solution are slim. Experts in conflict negotiation -- veterans of civil strife in places like Northern Ireland and Cambodia -- talk about the need for a clash to "ripen," to come to a point when combatants are exhausted with the violence and see that whatever they might gain from continued fighting is outweighed by the costs. Before they get to that place, a political settlement is all but impossible.
Iraq's armed factions, sadly, aren't close to that point. The stakes are too high -- Shiites are fighting for the majority rule that has long eluded them, Sunnis are fighting to hang on to some political influence and retain a piece of the country's oil wealth and the Kurds are fighting for some degree of independence. Iraqis are fighting against occupation by foreign troops, and they're fighting to keep their country together. Neither government troops nor coalition forces have been able to protect civilians; they're being cut down by death squads and plagued by rampant criminality. Iraqis are battling for their homes and for their lives.
This week saw the first signs of open civil war, as Shiite and Sunni militias battled it out in Balad, a city north of Baghdad, as well as a sharp spike in violence in the Iraqi capital. In the south, Shiites battled Shiites in Amarah, while Sunni militias held military parades in Haqlaniyah and Haditha. There are at least 23 independent militias operating in Baghdad alone.
It's hard to imagine what policy makers here or in Iraq can do to change the risk-benefit calculations to a degree that would lead dozens of armed factions to lay down their weapons and trust their futures to a political process. In Washington, those tasked with trying to come up with the right policy are hobbled by a stunning degree of ignorance about the region -- essentially viewing the Middle East as roiled in a conflict between "good" and "bad" Arabs. The New York Times' Jeff Stein found that most policy makers overseeing the U.S. effort don't even know which countries in the region -- or which armed groups in Iraq -- have Shiite or Sunni majorities.
Today the government elected last December is hanging by a thread. Iraqi lawmakers reached by phone earlier this week reported that Baghdad is awash in rumors of an impending coup. There's widespread anticipation that a "government of national salvation" -- a junta -- will seize power and dissolve Iraq's Parliament at any time. Those rumors are being echoed in Washington.
The most commonly discussed scenario is of a council of four or five influential leaders headed either by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi -- a secular, pro-American Shiite with a violent background -- or Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the Sunni National Dialogue Front and a former constitutional negotiator, taking power in a bloodless coup.
Mutlaq was visiting neighboring capitals this week, reportedly to gain support for the plan. According to the Washington Post, he spent this summer pushing the idea in meetings across the Middle East. He's been promising American support for the coup.
The official line is that the U.S. opposes any action against Iraq's democratically elected government. But if the coup comes to pass, it will be with some level of American approval -- the Iraqi government is entirely within the U.S.-controlled and heavily defended Green zone. "The [coup] scenario is not a bad scenario for the United States," Robert Killebrew, a retired Army colonel and national security analyst told the Washington Times. "U.S. policy issues in the Middle East and Iraq do not require a democratic Iraq, it only requires a stable and friendly Iraq," he said. Killebrew predicted that there'd be "a certain amount of sanctimonious hand-wringing and saying that we don't agree with the overthrow of a democratically elected government," after which the administration would reluctantly voice its support for the new regime.
This would allow the U.S. to withdraw on a timetable it finds acceptable while assuring that its two main goals -- developing Iraq's vast oil wealth in partnership with Western multinationals and preventing a haven for Muslim extremists from developing just 500 miles from Israel -- are secured.
Alternatively, it might allow the U.S. to remain in Iraq without resistance from Iraqi lawmakers. Occupation and democracy are not compatible; two different resolutions demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces have gained broad support in the Iraqi Parliament. In December, Baghdad must ask the UN to extend the American-led coalition's mandate, or the occupation will effectively be over. A group of Iraqi lawmakers are considering blocking the request.
But if that's the thinking, it would likely backfire. Lacking the legitimacy of elections, the junta would have little choice but to ask the U.S. for a timetable for withdrawal. If they didn't do so, they'd be viewed as little more than American puppets
According to the Washington Times, the new regime would likely be aided by remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Disaffected Baathists "purged" from the military and the bureaucracy are believed to provide the backbone of the Sunni insurgency. In an event of some significance that went unnoticed by the American media, former high-level Baathists made their first public appearance since the invasion last week, holding a conference on "national reconciliation" in Mosul.
In Washington, American officials are largely discounting the rumors. The speculation here centers on a so-called "course correction" after the midterm elections in November. Former Secretary of State James Baker -- long a close advisor to the Bush family and a man with decades of experience in the Middle East -- heads the Iraq Study Group, a working group that's been analyzing policy alternatives for the administration. Earlier this week, the plans they've been considering were leaked to the neoconservative New York Sun. According to the Sun, the group is considering a phased withdrawal of American troops over a 20-month period, with reserves held in neighboring countries positioned to strike insurgents in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, and an initiative to bring Iran and Syria into a peace process, a move that seems inconceivable for this administration and would earn intense scorn from conservatives.
Bush is facing increasing anger from Republicans for allowing Iraq to threaten their hold on the Congress. Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John Warner, R-Va., recently expressed frustration with the inability of the Iraqi government to contain the increasing sectarian violence. In the hard-right Weekly Standard, the American Enterprise Institute's Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote: "It's a good guess that a majority of Republicans in Congress would dearly love to escape from Iraq if they could figure out how to do so without sounding like 'cut-and-run' Democrats."
Yet it's uncertain to what degree Bush is responsive to those pressures. On Oct. 16, Bush called Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki to assure him that the United States has no plans to withdraw anytime soon. He has long maintained that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq for the duration of his presidency. On Friday, Bush denied that a change in strategy was being considered.
It's also unclear how much longer the Shiites will tolerate U.S. troops' presence, regardless of what the administration wants or what government sits in Baghdad next year. Historian Gareth Porter made a compelling argument in Tompaine this week that even though the American forces have dominant airpower, the most powerful ground force in Iraq today is Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. With U.S. supply lines spread through the Shiite-controlled South, and pressure mounting on Tony Blair to pull the Brits out of the region, it's widely believed that the Shiites could force the issue whenever they choose to do so. It's likely that Iran is pressuring Shiite leaders to remain patient, in part because the regime in Tehran understands that 140,000 U.S. hostages next door is its best deterrent against an American attack.
Talk of a coup follows a controversial measure passed by the Iraqi Parliament last week that will allow each of the country's 18 provinces to make a decision -- in eighteen months' time -- to form into largely autonomous federal regions. There's a danger that this might set off a whole new round of violence between different factions as they vie for control of provincial governments before the decision is to be made. The resolution was backed by Shiites with close ties to Iran -- the Iranians see an opportunity to have influence in Baghdad and a great deal more in the south of the country -- and some Kurdish lawmakers. Sunnis, and many Shiite parliamentarians -- including those loyal to al-Sadr -- boycotted the session and the resolution passed by a single vote.
Interestingly, Iyad Allawi was an outspoken opponent of the measure, but while most legislators in his Iraqi National Accord boycotted the tally, four of them provided the decisive votes needed to pass the resolution. It's possible that he was setting up conditions that would lead to the rumored coup.
According to polls, majorities of all Iraqi ethnic groups are in favor of a strong central government. However, there are deep divisions within each one. The Shiites are split over regional autonomy -- between nationalists and supporters of Tehran -- and a group of Sunni tribal leaders this week declared war on insurgent groups that called for the creation of a Sunni "caliphate" encompassing eight provinces in central and Northern Iraq. And while a homeland has long been a dream of Kurds both inside and outside of Iraq, many fear that Kurdish independence could lead to a larger regional war.
Oil is fueling much of the conflict, both literally -- insurgent groups are believed to use smuggled oil to finance some of their operations -- and politically. Iraq faces a December deadline to pass its permanent oil law, and if it ends up granting long-term control over the country's energy reserves to Western firms, as is widely expected, it could prove a tipping point, validating many Iraqis' suspicions that the occupation is all about stealing the country's natural wealth and driving up the insurgents' numbers.
There's also a sharp debate going on about a somewhat vague clause in Iraq's Constitution. In oil-rich provinces, local leaders have interpreted the provision as allowing them to keep some oil revenue instead of sending it to Baghdad. That raises the stakes about who will ultimately control provinces with significant oil production even further. The Kurdish autonomous region has already signed three deals with foreign firms to develop fields in its territory, and Baghdad has denied the agreements' validity. Some Kurdish leaders have threatened to secede over the issue.
Kirkuk is likely to spark a new civil war if the country is partitioned, as Kurds and Arabs both claim the oil-rich city. "Ethnic cleansing" of Arabs and Turkmens in Kirkuk is common, and appears to be sanctioned by the Kurdish authorities.
There's a significant threat that the multilayered conflicts in Iraq might ignite a broader regional war. The Turks are frustrated that Baghdad -- and Washington -- are unable to control the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), a group that's launched attacks in Turkey from the Kurdish autonomous region. The PKK has also threatened to launch attacks within Iran, which, along with Syria, has a sizeable Kurdish minority. Ankara has not ruled out intervening militarily in northern Iraq, and is stepping up cooperation with the Iranians, according to The Turkish Weekly. Turkish officials view the creation of a Kurdish state with the oil wealth of Kirkuk as an unacceptable threat -- last week Turkey's foreign minister also held open the possibility of intervening in Kirkuk ostensibly to protect the Turkmens from oppression at the hands of the Kurds.
Supporters of the occupation still claim that the media doesn't report the "good news" from Iraq, but the fact is the country is an object lesson about the human costs of military adventurism. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died and many more have fled their homes to escape the chaos. According to the U.N., torture may well be more prevalent today than it was under Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi blogger Riverbend recently wrote: "We literally do not know a single Iraqi family that has not seen the violent death of a first or second-degree relative these last three years … There are Iraqi women who have not shed their black mourning robes since 2003 because each time the end of the proper mourning period comes around, some other relative dies and the countdown begins once again."
Raed Jarrar, director of the Iraq Project at Global Exchange, contributed to this report.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.