he explosion of outright
civil war in Iraq has left the country traumatized, the Iraqi government
crippled, and the U.S. occupation in ruins, but most ominously,
it may be the beginning of the end for Iraq as a nation.
Even before the mosque bombings in late February, the Kurdish north
had effectively separated while powerful Shiite politicians were
pushing for an autonomous region in the south. In mid-February,
lame duck Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari was selected to continue
in office precisely because he was beholden to the new kingmaker
in Iraq, populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Following the Iraqi
government’s inability to prevent communal violence, Kurdish
parties, with support from Sunni Arab politicians, issued a letter
calling on the bloc of religious Shiite parties—the United
Iraqi alliance (UIA)—to withdraw Jafari as their candidate.
Jafari’s party, Dawa, and parliamentarians affiliated with
Sadr, dismissed the demand, but some Shiite politicians were critical
of Jafari’s poor performance and he had also lost the support
of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which
had pushed for another candidate.
The significance of all the wrangling is that Iraq has been effectively
without a government since the December elections. Numerous observers
are saying a government won’t be in place until at least May,
if not later.
In the meantime, power has undeniably passed to Shiite militias,
particularly Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which was behind much of the
sectarian bloodletting after the Askariya Shrine in Samarra was
demolished on February 22 when Shiite death squads took to the streets
with impunity. The
reported on February 27
that the main morgue in Baghdad “had logged more than 1,300
dead since Wednesday [February 23]….” Most victims were said
to be Sunnis, with many dragged away at night—all during a
strict curfew. Another
report noted, “Shiite
militias are roaming the streets among and alongside Iraq’s
police and army, attacking and occupying dozens of Sunni mosques.”
Despite shrill U.S. and Iraqi government denunciations of the report,
the death toll is almost certainly a large undercount. It doesn’t
include other morgues or hospitals in Baghdad, tallies from the
rest of the country, families unable to bring bodies to the morgue
during the curfew, and corpses yet to be recovered. The violence
was said to be tapering off by February 27, but one Iraqi government
that on that day alone some 230
people—mostly Sunni—were killed in a single neighborhood
Numerous reports had Iraqi security forces either not interfering
or even participating in the sectarian war. Much of this is due
to the fact that the police are under the control of Shiite militias.
The bold display of power by Mahdi army fighters was underscored
by a chilling account in the
February 26 it described how “long convoys” of Mahdi Army
fighters made their way from Baghdad to Samarra. Despite a curfew
on road travel, one convoy joined by
was “nodded through almost 50 checkpoints, including one run
The initial wave of violence was followed by retaliatory strikes
on Sunni and Shiite mosques and clerics in a fit of ethnic cleansing.
reported on March 3 that the head of the
government’s Sunni endowment claimed that 45 Sunni preachers
and mosque employees had been killed, 37 Sunni mosques destroyed,
86 damaged by weapons fire, and another 6 in the hands of Shiite
In and around Baghdad, thousands of Iraqis fled from areas where
they were in the religious minority. In Baghdad, according to the
New York Times
, “Sunni Arabs in the worst-hit mixed
neighborhoods remained terrified, and many said they used the evening
hours after the curfew to move their families to safer areas.”
North of Baghdad in the village of Mishada, reported the
one resident said he and around 200 other Shiites had
left the town after being threatened. In Baghdad’s Sunni suburb
of Abu Ghraib, according to the
, scores of Shiite
families have reportedly fled. In Fallujah—dubbed by occupying
forces as the “safest city” in Iraq—nine Shiite families
fled on one day. Reuters described how “some families on both
sides of Baghdad’s religious divide abandoned homes where they
felt threatened by neighbors.”
he proliferation of militias
in the security forces is tacit U.S. policy. Eager to “stand
up” Iraqi forces, the Bush administration has allowed the police
to take over huge swaths of Baghdad and other cities despite knowing
that they were more loyal to their warlords than the Iraqi government.
One “high-ranking U.S. military officer” admitted to the
last November that in northeast Baghdad alone, where
Sadr is based, more than 30,000 police were affiliated with his
militia, the Mahdi Army. The official claimed, “The Mahdi army’s
got the Iraqi police and Badr’s got the commandos. Everybody’s
got their own death squads.” All those forces were trained,
armed, and equipped by the U.S. occupation.
The Badr Brigade is the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the
Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is one of the main parties in
the Iraqi government and rivals to Sadr. According to 2 different
reports, 14 police commandos were killed at a Sunni mosque in Baghdad
by Mahdi Army militiamen. At another Sunni mosque in Baghdad, one
group of Mahdi fighters holding the mosque was nearly overrun by
another Mahdi militia.
The initial spasm of bloodletting took place while Sadr was out
of the country. He endorsed the violence at first, stating, “If
the authorities can’t protect us, then we will defend our holy
places with our blood.” Afterwards, he called for peace, organized
joint prayer sessions with Sunnis, and told his followers to focus
on ousting the occupation. The chaos, however, revealed that Sadr
has a tenuous grip at best over his own forces.
All together, renewed internecine warfare is unlikely to split neatly
along sectarian lines and will involve jostling among various factions
for power within religious and ethnic communities, various towns
and cities, and the country as a whole. In Basra, for example, after
Friday prayers on March 3, the
New York Times
a crowd of “several thousand people marched to the headquarters
of the state-owned South Oil Company, many of them chanting, ‘Southern
oil for the South’.” They had been listening to a sermon
by Sheik Sabah al Saeidi of the Shiite Fadhila Party, which has
a puritanical base like Sadr’s party, but which has broken
with Sadr. Sheik Sabah compared a prominent Sunni parliamentarian
to Hussein. “There are some people who use the same words Saddam
used, such as Tareq al Hashemi, when he uses the word ‘mob,’”
Sheik Sabah said. “This word reminds me of the 1991 uprising,
when Saddam used that word to describe us.So what is the difference
today between Saddam and Tareq al Hashimi?”
This super-heated rhetoric and extremist positioning increases the
power of local power brokers and their factions at the expense of
a central government. Basra is especially ripe for inter-Shiite
Last August and September, Sadr’s forces fought gun battles
with Badr militia in Basra, Nasiriyah, Hilla, and other cities in
southern Iraq. In many cities, the security forces are even split
between the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade. According to the
two southern provinces, Maysan and Dhi Qar, are no-go zones for
the British and Italian troops stationed there. Sadr’s forces
have also assumed many state-like powers, from running a vast network
of charities and educational facilities to running courts in which
the accused are tried, convicted, and punished by means that include
torture and execution.
In March 2005 the police chief in Basra told the
that half of his 14,000-member force was allied with various party
militias, an admission that cost him his job. Death squads involving
the police are held to be behind “hundreds of assassinations”
a month in the city, mainly against ex-Baathists. The day of the
shrine bombing, “gunmen in police uniform” allegedly broke
into a prison, kidnapped 12 Sunni prisoners, and shot them.
What’s questionable about this account is whether they were
really just gunmen impersonating police. Since the unmasking in
April 2005 of death squads operating within the Interior Ministry,
the Iraqi government and its U.S. patrons have denied the existence
of death squads, claiming that they were either rogue forces or
insurgents who stole police uniforms. Recent reports that U.S. troops
unmasked a death squad operating in the Iraqi Highway Patrol are
also suspicious as a plethora of Pentagon documents show the U.S.
military has funded them, provided them with cars and weapons, and
built an entire training academy for them.
Many detailed reports of death squads in Baghdad revealed that they
were equipped with 9 mm handguns, flak jackets, two-way radios,
and Land Rovers, all supplied to the Interior Ministry by U.S. forces.
In addition, the death squads operate at night and often in large
convoys of 10 to 20 vehicles when it would have been impossible
to evade the curfews and checkpoints. Sadr’s lieutenants have
picked up on this trick and now say the bands of fighters clad in
black conducting the latest killings are also imposters.
The death squads were initially set up in 2004 with heavy U.S. backing
and funding in the Interior Ministry’s Special Police Commandos.
The planning goes back to December 2003 when Allawi spent time at
CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia to discuss creating an intelligence
service to spy on Iraqis. At first the commandos were former special
forces and exBaathists recruited by Interim Prime Minister Iyad
Allawi’s government. After the transitional government’s
accession to power last April, Badr Brigade forces assumed control
of the ministry and commandos under Bayan Jabr.
Most Sunnis appear to have been caught off-guard by the scale of
the latest violence. But this is likely to seal their turn away
from the government. Earlier this year, one poll found that 92 percent
of Sunnis thought the Iraqi government was illegitimate and 88 percent
endorsed attacks on U.S. forces. Nancy Youssef of Knight Ridder
reported that after the killings and attacks on mosques, Sunnis
from across central Iraq “were sending weapons to Baghdad and
were preparing to dispatch their own fighters to the Iraqi capital.”
Even before the upsurge in violence, some Sunni groups announced
that they were setting up a militia called the Anbar Revolutionaries
to fight Shiite and Kurdish militias.
President Bush, meanwhile, has remained firmly ensconced in his
bubble, denying that there is even a civil war. The last argument
for occupying Iraq—that only U.S. forces could prevent a civil
war—proved hollow. U.S. commanders responded to the sectarian
fury by sequestering troops inside their bases, instead of deploying
them as a buffer between warring factions.
U.S. military officials both denied the carnage—U.S. Army Maj.
Gen. Rick Lynch declared, “we are not seeing civil war igniting
in Iraq. We are not seeing 77, 80, 100 mosques damaged in Iraq.
We are not seeing death on the streets” —and praised the
ineffectual response: “I think what we have seen showed the
capability of the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government
in a difficult situation,” said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson. Yet
a more accurate sentiment of the U.S. occupiers’ perspective
might have been one made last October. Speaking to reporter Tom
Lasseter, one anonymous “senior military official in Baghdad”
said, “Maybe they just need to have their civil war. In this
part of the world it’s almost a way of life.”
Despite polls showing both the U.S. public and troops overwhelmingly
in favor of a pullout, the mantra from the White House is “stay
the course.” Senior officials have been talking about the concept
of a “long war,” meaning 10 to 20 years of continuous
combat, while in Iraq work continues on building permanent U.S.
According to an insidedefense. com report, the Army has requested
$167 million this year to build an exclusive network of supply roads
in Iraq that would bypass “high-threat areas” prone to
There is still the insurgency. A recent report from the International
Crisis Group describes the armed resistance as gaining in confidence
and capabilities. There has been a steady rise in the number of
attacks during the past 3 years, averaging about 80 a day at present.
The most recent Pentagon report on Iraqi security forces states
outright that not one unit is capable of operating independently.
Ironically, if there is any force holding the country together it
is Sadr. His power base is in Baghdad so a breakup is against his
interests. But that’s of no comfort to the Bush administration.
Speaking of the occupiers, Sadr says, “Cut off the head of
the snake, then the entire evil will go away.” So goes Operation
A.K. Gupta is currently an editor of the
New York city.