Monday, November 26, 2007

America's Iraqi death squads

By Michael J.W. Stickings

So -- what's really going on in Iraq? If the warmongers are to be believed, violence is down and the light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter and brighter, all hail Bush and Petraeus and the Surge of Surges. Sure, it's been a tough go, but now, at long last, success is at hand thanks to the sticktoitiveness of those who have been determined to guide the war through the tumult and the hardship, those resolute enough to stand firm in the face of massive opposition and partisan cowardice. Victory is near, the glory theirs.

The problem is, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, and, like Vietnam (like any war), this is not a war that can be judged by the numbers, and especially not by numbers selected and de-contextualized by those using them to support the warmongering case. Here's how I put it a few weeks ago: "While it is true that there has been some success, isolated and likely temporary success, in such places as Anbar, the numbers show clearly that the Surge has not worked. Some positive numbers can be found, but the violence continues, as does the instability, and, meanwhile, the political situation remains tenuous at best. Progress and reconciliation remain largely impossible goals at this point, as the Iraqis themselves admit, and no amount of surge is likely to turn the situation around."

Beyond the numbers, though, what is the current security situation in Iraq? To the extent that there is any genuine security, the U.S. is simultaneously backing a largely Shiite sectarian government in Baghdad and Sunni sectarian groups in, among other places, Anbar province. The former is closely allied with Shiite militias, so much so that the Iraqi police are largely seen, and rightly so, as an extension of those militias. The latter are newer allies with whom the U.S. has teamed up to beat back al Qaeda. In other words, the U.S. is playing both sides. The sectarian violence continues, but both the Shiites and the Sunnis seem to be biding their time, benefitting from U.S. support while refraining, for the most part, from engaging in outright civil war.

Which is to say, the violence may be down, but the success -- whatever success there has been -- is temporary, and largely a mirage. Which is precisely what many critics of the Surge, myself included, were predicting at the outset. There was bound to be some success, however measured, but it would not be lasting success. Time will (continue to) tell, perhaps, but what must be of great concern is not just that the Surge isn't working, or only working temporarily, but that the policy of supporting both sides, and especially of supporting certain Sunni groups in the fight against al Qaeda, seems to be deepening, and sharpening, the sectarian divide that still threatens to blow Iraq apart.

As The Sunday Times reported yesterday -- and it is hardly a bastion of anti-Americanism, nor of leftist criticism of the war -- the U.S. is funding (and actively supporting) Sunni militias across the country, including the so-called Baghdad Brigade:

Members of the Baghdad Brigade receive $300 a man each month from the Americans, who also provide vehicles, uniforms and flak jackets. In return the brigade keeps out Al-Qaeda, dismantles roadside bombs and patrols the area, a task performed with considerable swagger by many of its 4,000 recruits.

The US military is delighted with the results achieved by the brigade in Abu Ghraib and by similar groups in other former “hot spots” of sectarian conflict that have seen a sharp decline in violence.

For Shi’ites..., however, a Sunni militia represents another potential source of terror in a country where millions have been traumatised by ethnic cleansing.

A 50% cut in car and roadside bombs, shootings and rocket and mortar attacks since June has brought hope that some of the 5m Iraqis driven from home may soon be able to go back. Yet many... are too frightened of the new militias and the ethnic cleansers in their ranks to risk moving.

Officials in the Shi’ite-led government also fear the burgeoning of fresh forces beyond its control. The question being asked in government circles is: have the Americans achieved a short-term gain in security at a cost of long-term pain that may be inflicted by the Sunni militias, which are already threatening to go to war against their Shi’ite counterparts?

The western province of Anbar first witnessed the phenomenon known as “the awakening” – the turning of Sunni tribes against the largely foreign fighters of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

For General David Petraeus, the American commander, the awakening has proved a powerful force with which to increase the impact of his surge of 30,000 US troops earlier this year.

By allying the US forces with Sunnis opposed to Al-Qaeda, the general has engineered victories over the brutal foreign fighters that seemed almost unimaginable 12 months ago.

US-backed Sunni militias have spread eastwards from Anbar across Baghdad. They already number 77,000, known collectively as “concerned local citizens”. This is more than the Shi’ite Mahdi Army and nearly half the number in the Iraqi army.

Exotically named groups such as the Knights of Ameriya and the Guardians of Ghazaliya strut the streets in camouflage uniforms, brandishing new AK47s that the Americans say they have not supplied.

This is all-too-reminiscent of U.S. involvement in other international conflicts, from Latin America to Southeast Asia. These militias, after all, are a lot like the right-wing death squads once favoured by anti-communist zealots, and the answer to the question posed above is, quite clearly, yes.

Which means that the current U.S. military strategy in Iraq, including the Surge, has not just produced a mirage of success but contributed to the deepening and sharpening of the sectarian divide. These Sunni militias are using the U.S. just as the U.S. is using them, but, in the end, and perhaps before too long, they will turn their bloodthirsty attention fully to slaughtering Shiites and overthrowing the government in Baghdad, and the Shiite militias, whatever their relationship to the government, will do the same, rising up again to slaughter Sunnis and entrench their rule in Baghdad.

The U.S. may be playing both sides, but in so doing it is building up both sides and effectively forcing them into confrontation, a far more lethal confrontation than anything seen so far. The U.S. can, or at least try to, wash its hands of the situation, calling it a day and blaming the Iraqis for not doing enough to improve their own lot, but, of course, it will be the Iraqi people who end up suffering from a disastrous war that, with irresponsible U.S. policy heaped upon gross mismanagement from the outset, may be about to trigger massive and widespread instability and violence, U.S.-backed militias and death squads on the battlefield of civil war, innocent civilians targeted for extermination, a country in chaos, the U.S. refusing to take the blame for all the blameful things it has done.

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