In 2003, President Bush told Americans that we had to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing nuclear weapons and stockpiling chemical and biological ones. We now know that those threats did not exist.
Three deadly years later, Bush is again misleading the American public about the threat emanating from Iraq. This time, however, the administration is understating the dangerousness of the situation on the ground.
The president has yet to concede that what is now taking place in Iraq is civil war, instead blaming the sectarian strife on Saddam Hussein. The deposed Iraqi leader, Bush argued last month, “undertook a deliberate strategy of maintaining control by dividing the Iraqi people” that today is still being followed by “Saddamists” in the insurgency.
The three main communities in Iraq, he implies, have no real grievances against each other, only against the former regime and its few survivors. Iraqis, however, disagree: the 92% of Iraqis who voted for communal parties this past December made very clear that they fear their communal rivals, not a regime three years gone.
While Bush focuses more on whom to blame than on what is happening, not one but two full-scale communal conflicts are raging in Iraq. In the north of the country, the Kurds are fighting several other communities for the oil-rich Kirkuk Province. Further south, Sunnis and Shiites are struggling for control of a roughly 100-mile-deep band of mixed settlement that runs across central Iraq, including Baghdad.
The president recently insisted that “the Iraqi security forces have not broken up into sectarian groups waging war against each other.” The main Shiite death squads, though, operate as part of the Iraqi police, as do Sunni death squads in areas where they dominate the police. Most army units are Kurdish or Shiite dominated, and they are loyal to their warlords and their communities, not to Iraq.
Bush has also argued that “the enemies of a free Iraq are trying to stop the formation of unity government.” In fact, the most obvious enemy of democracy in Iraq right now would appear to be the president himself.
Since January, Bush has been trying to coerce the strongest political force in Iraq, the Shiite United Iraq Alliance, to surrender the victory that it won at the polls in December and instead accept a national unity government including all factions. This effort is bound to fail, even if internal rivalries within the United Iraq Alliance soon succeed in bringing down Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. All important Shiite factions are determined to not share real power with the Sunni parties, whom they fear, or with the secularists favored by Washington, whom they detest.
To be fair to the Bush administration, the United States did not create Iraq’s communal divisions. But by deposing the authoritarian regime that had been suppressing them, we unleashed both of these wars.
Of the two Iraqi civil wars, the one in the north is the less serious. The side that is winning, the Kurds, are American clients. And the human toll has been low — at least by the standards of ethnic wars — because the Kurds have relied mostly on colonization, less on forced ethnic cleansing or on outright murder.
It is in Baghdad and the surrounding provinces, in the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, that the danger of humanitarian disaster lies. Although the violence has escalated dramatically since the bombing of the Al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra on February 22, the sectarian conflict has been burning for several years.
Sunni terrorists and death squads have been killing Shiite civilians since 2003, while the Shiites have been retaliating on an ever increasing scale, including using Iraqi police as death squads. In the last six weeks alone, roughly 3,000 deaths have been attributed to sectarian violence, according to American press outlets. Figures reported by Arabic-language media are even higher.
According to the Iraqi government, more than 40,000 Iraqis have become refugees in the last month. As if the number were not enough cause for concern, consider that this estimate is almost certainly low, since it implies a ratio of deaths to refugees of about 1 to 10. Typical ratios in ethnic cleansing campaigns — except in genocides, which is not what is happening in Iraq — are closer to one to 100.
And it will get worse. Once communal violence passes a certain threshold, it ceases to matter why or how it started. Today all members of both the Sunni and Shiite communities face real security threats — whether or not they personally want to fight the other community for power, out of hatred or for revenge.
The danger is especially great where settlement patterns are intermixed, as in Baghdad and in much of central Iraq. No Sunni can any longer feel safe in any place that Shiite-controlled Iraqi police or Shiite militias can reach, and no Shiite is safe anywhere that a Sunni suicide bomber or an execution squad can get to.
As a result, Iraq is in the process of partitioning itself. Mixed towns and urban neighborhoods are becoming unmixed. No one knows how far this process has gone already; some reports suggest that many towns have already become mono-ethnic. In the last month both Shiite and Sunni militias have been inundated by new volunteers and the street price of a Kalashnikov assault rifle has more than doubled, developments that offer a decent indication of the direction in which the situation is heading.
Free movement between Sunni and Shiite areas will be more and more curtailed by checkpoints manned by local militias, if not by government forces. This is already happening, both within Baghdad and outside it. Eventually Iraq will develop a nearly solid demographic frontier.
Since the demography of Baghdad itself is far too complex to divide into just two parts, some neighborhoods will become isolated enclaves surrounded by barbed wire. This solution is ugly, but has worked before: in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia since 1974, and in Jerusalem, where Mount Scopus remained an isolated Jewish island from 1948 to 1967. The partition of Iraq will likely be de facto, not de jure, because many Shiite leaders still hope to eventually re-unify Iraq and no one in the region would tolerate formal independence for the Kurds.
For all its power, the United States cannot stop this civil war. Even if somehow an all-party unity government could be formed, it could not function. The sides’ demands and mutual distrust are far too great to be reconciled.
Nor can American military force succeed in restraining all the armed militias. We have never been able to do that except in very limited times and places, and lately our leverage has declined further. On March 26, for example, American troops mistakenly attacked a Shiite mosque in Baghdad, prompting spokesmen for the United Iraq Alliance to demand that security duties be transferred from American forces to the Iraqi government.
So why should we stay at all? We have one remaining obligation in Iraq: to minimize the human and other damage caused by ethnic cleansing. It is our moral obligation, but it is also in our national security interests. We are — and will continue to be — blamed by almost everyone worldwide for all of the harm that befalls the people of Iraq. The shorter that bill of indictment, the better.
This means using our military strength to protect those refugees who wish to move. We must defend the most vulnerable mixed towns and urban neighborhoods from both Sunni and Shiite ethnic cleansers long enough to organize transport for those who want it. The alternative is more months, or even years, of civil war still more intense than we have seen yet.
Even this limited mission will be difficult without Iraqi government consent. We will have to concede to the Shiites control of any towns they think they can hold, but reaching agreement will not be automatic. Two of the three main factions of the United Iraqi Alliance, the al-Da’awa Party and the Sadrists, still aim at a unitary Iraq.
There is some reason to hope, however, that recent events have convinced Shiite leaders that protection of their co-religionists must come first. Making clear that refugee protection will be our last mission in Iraq will also concentrate minds. Any settlements not under Shiite control when we leave will be lost to them — unless, of course, they are prepared to fight far more expensive battles than they have done so far or for which they are now ready.
The last step is to make sure that the Shiites will remain the stronger side militarily after we leave. Otherwise a future change in the balance of power, together with the flat terrain of central Iraq, could encourage Sunni factions to see if a new round of fighting might bring it a better result. Civil war outcomes are more stable when the more satisfied side and the stronger side are one and the same.
It will also help that the number of minorities still living on the “wrong” side of the de facto partition line will be small, which will reduce justifications for launching “rescue offensives” to save besieged minorities from real or imagined oppression. After a number of years — if the partition line holds and as memories of atrocities fade — perhaps the barbed wire may begin to be torn down and a federal Iraq reassembled.
Such a solution will enrage Sunnis even further, if that is possible, but they will not be able to do much about it. Sunni Arab states will also be angered, but the fact is that there is no course of action that would allow us to avoid that.
The rump Iraqi Sunni statelet will be disorderly and very poor, and will not able to prevent terrorists from operating on its soil. This, too, is unavoidable; three years of counter-insurgency in Iraq has stimulated more terrorism than it has suppressed. Over time, however, ordinary Iraqi Sunnis will come to realize that the greatest danger they face is no longer from Iraqi Shiites or from American soldiers, but from the armed foreign jihadists in their midst. It is only then that they will begin the fight to regain order in their country.