Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An obstacle to peace: The nature and degree of Iraqi sectarianism

(Just another day in the life and death of Iraq XIII, part of our ongoing series.)

I turn to the BBC for a report of today's carnage in Baghdad:

Iraqi police say they have found in the space of one day 60 bodies of people bound, tortured and shot in the capital, Baghdad.

They were found all over the city, from Sunni areas in the west to Shia districts in the east -- but most were found in largely Sunni west Baghdad.

Sectarian killings are not unusual in the city but this is a large number for one day, a BBC correspondent says.

Meanwhile, car bombs killed at least 22 people in Baghdad.

The Washington Post has more (relegated to Page A16): "Nearly 100 people were killed or found dead in a series of bloody incidents throughout the Iraqi capital over the past 24 hours, authorities said." This includes "[s]ixty-two bullet-riddled corpses -- some of them beheaded and all bearing signs of torture" -- all part of "a wave of sectarian violence that has defied American efforts to thwart the carnage".

Would more U.S. troops help? That's what two prominent conservatives, The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol and National Review's Rich Lowry, argued yesterday in the Post: "Where more U.S. troops have been deployed, the situation has gotten better. Those neighborhoods intensively patrolled by Americans are safer and more secure... More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment."

I have supported the deployment of more troops in Iraq, and particularly in Baghdad, in the past. Whether going to war in the first place was the right thing to do or not -- and like many hawkish liberals I'm now against a war that I initially supported -- the failure to deploy a sufficient number of troops in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq after the fall of Saddam's regime, that is, for the occupation, has been one the most glaring mistakes committed by those who are responsible for this war.

It may now be too late, however. The deployment of more U.S. troops would likely be extremely unpopular domestically. Bush, it seems to me, would be foolish to send over more troops with the midterm elections less than two months away. Republicans would likely find that position indefensible with the electorate. More, it seems unlikely that the Iraqi government would support the presence of more U.S. troops. Should Bush force the Iraqis to accept an even greater U.S presence even after the failures of the occupation thus far?

Kristol and Lowry generally ignore these concerns, but one key problem with their argument, in my view, is an underestimation of the severity of the sectarian divides that have re-emerged in Iraq since Saddam's fall. Saddam had generally controlled those sectarian differences through heavy-handed brutality, as well as through a system that established the Sunnis as the dominant sect, one that brutalized both the Shiites and the Kurds. The collapse of Saddam's regime brought an end to that brutality but unleashed the sectarianism that had been controlled and that now tears Iraq apart.

During the occupation, the U.S. military has essentially taken over the position previously held by Saddam's regime. That is, it has been tasked with controlling, or at least policing, Iraq's sectarianism. No, the U.S. doesn't officially favour one sect over the other, nor, Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, does it brutalize the country in order to sustain itself in power. The U.S., in that regard, is not Saddam. But the U.S. is there to keep the peace, at least until the Iraqi government can take over, and such peacekeeping necessarily requires wading into the sectarianism that exploded after Saddam's fall.

The question is, is it possible for the U.S. to keep the peace? I have my doubts. First, the U.S. is viewed by many as a foreign occupier. Second, the sectarian violence is connected to an insurgency that directs much of its violence at the U.S. Third, the sectarian violence has reached such a degree that it may appropriately be called a civil war. At the very least, parts of Iraq have descended into anarchy. This development could have been avoided, or at least minimized, if the U.S. had been prepared for its occupation and the transition from Saddam's regime to that occupation had been, as much as possible, seamless. The failure to send enough troops to Iraq has been a glaring mistake, but the failure to prepare sufficiently for an occupation was an even graver one. The civilian leadership -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz -- failed to anticipate what an occupation would mean, as well as require, because on a more fundamental level they failed to understand Iraq, including the sectarianism that was bound to re-emerge upon Saddam's fall.


Kristol and Lowry also fail to understand this sectarianism, or at least its degree. Political considerations aside, it hardly seems likely that the U.S., even with a larger military presence in Baghdad, could ever keep the peace in the long run. The presence of more troops could provide for a sort of temporary peace, but eventually those troops, or at least many or most of them, would have to leave. The U.S. can't remain in Iraq in indefinitely, at least not with enough troops to keep the peace. Again, a seamless transition from Saddam to the U.S. (or some sort of allied force) in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's fall might have worked, but even that might not have been enough to control the sectarianism that was about to erupt all over Iraq, not just in Baghdad.

Kristol and Lowry claim that "American troops are more trusted and more welcome than Iraqis" and that "the chief fear of Iraqis in Baghdad neighborhoods patrolled by Americans is apparently that we will leave, not that we will remain". Is this true? Maybe for some Iraqis, but certainly not for all of them -- and certainly not for Iraqi nationalists and for those on all sides who are perpetrating and supporting the sectarian violence. The divides are deep, after all. They are religious, not merely political. It is simply naive to think that the presence of U.S. troops, even of many more of them, would overcome them.

So what to do? I don't know. The sectarianism is there to stay, with or without a U.S. presence, no matter what its size. Pulling out could lead to even greater chaos, but so could staying and so could sending more troops. The only hope is for a legitimate Iraqi government to police the country on its own or with minimal support from the U.S. and others. But is it too late even for that? And how long would it take for an Iraqi government to establish itself to the point where it would not just be seen as legitimate by the Iraqi people but where it could control the sectarianism that is anathema to peace and good governance?

The reality of Iraq -- past, present, and future -- may or may not be too much of an obstacle to overcome. Perhaps peace in Iraq will only come with a new political arrangement that decentralizes authority and allows the different sects to govern themselves as they see fit. Regardless, sending in more U.S. troops to control the sectarianism, to police Iraq so that the Iraqi government could secure legitimacy and authority of its own, wouldn't necessarily help and could ultimately exacerbate the "crisis" that has thrown Iraq into turmoil.

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For more on the issue of troop levels in Iraq, see Kevin Drum, Atrios, and Matthew Yglesias.

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Update (9/15/06): At Slate, Daniel Benjamin and Michèle A. Flournoy argue that "[i]t isn't clear that any conceivable increase in troops could stem the tide of sectarian violence". And: "The only problem with Kristol and Lowry's recommendation is that it is premised on an illusion: In fact, there are no more troops to send to Iraq" (italics mine). Read the whole piece.

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