Monday, October 23, 2006

Balad is Iraq

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Last month, I wrote about the nature and degree of Iraq's sectarianism -- see here. Responding to a (conservative) proposal that the U.S. send more troops to Iraq, I argued that there has been "an underestimation of the severity of the sectarian divides that have re-emerged in Iraq since Saddam's fall".

Like other tyrants, Saddam had brutally controlled Iraq's sectarian groups, often through mass murder, but the failure on the part of the U.S. to plan effectively, or at all, for post-Saddam Iraq, or rather for Iraq after the fall of Baghdad, was the glaring mistake, error of errors, that prevented a seamless transition of power to the coalition occupying force and, thereafter, to the Iraqi government: "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."

This is not to say that the current sectarian violence was inevitable. However, it was likely that these historical divides would, once Saddam's rule was removed, provoke violence, as they most clearly have, not least because Saddam himself had brutally oppressed two of the country's three major sectarian groups, the Shiites and the Kurds. It would have taken great sensitivity to and understanding of Iraq's history, religion, and culture for the eruption of violence to have been prevented, but the U.S., as we now know, didn't even try. America's civilian leadership, starting at the very top, wasn't sensitive and didn't understand. It still isn't and doesn't.

Which brings us to this: As The Washington Post reports in a must-read article today, the city of Balad has succumbed to Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence: "What brought this Tigris River city north of Baghdad to this state of siege was a series of events that have displayed in miniature the factors drawing the entire country into a sectarian bloodbath: Retaliatory violence between Sunnis and Shiites has soared to its highest level of the war, increasingly forcing moderates on both sides to look to armed extremists for protection."

What is happening to Balad is happening to Iraq generally: "[A]ll that was left holding Balad, and Iraq, together -- the desire for peace and normality still held by the great majority of Iraqis, and the generations of intermarriage and neighborliness between ordinary Shiite and Sunni Muslims -- was ripping apart."

Balad is ripping apart. Iraq is ripping apart. No amount of U.S. troops will put an end to this violence. Neither, at the moment, will any government in Baghdad. Which leaves us with a seemingly hopeless situation that may only end with partition or with the emergence of a new Iraqi strongman. Or perhaps, more hopefully, it will end through attrition. Perhaps once the U.S. leaves the violence will die down somewhat and the Iraqi government will be able to impose some sort of peace, however fragile, that contains the country's sectarian groups.

Surely the majority of the Iraqi people don't want to live with this violence, after all. And surely the violence is being driven by minorities on all sides. And yet -- one wonders -- will the experience of Balad become, in full, the experience of Iraq? If so, there may be no future for Iraq whatsoever. It will implode, with massive casualties, and some future peace will have to be found amid the rubble, amid whatever is left behind.

One wishes it were otherwise, that peace would prevail according to the majority of the Iraqi people, but those wishes, at present, are being crushed by the harsh realities of a country in collapse.

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