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‘Maybe they just need to have their civil war’


Since last summer, the ad-jingle-style centerpiece of the U.S. mission in Iraq, as defined by George Bush, has been: “As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” In recent months, that “standing up” of Iraqi security forces to gradually replace American occupation troops has become even more important in administration pronouncements on the war. The objective is now accepted as self-evident wisdom in the mainstream media and among the punditocracy, the only question being whether it can be successfully accomplished. The Democratic Party leadership has not challenged this goal in any way, even as Democrats complain that it is simply not being done fast enough or effectively enough.

 

Given Iraq’s well documented descent into sectarian violence in 2005, however, the question that should be asked is not whether the United States can put enough Iraqi troops into the field with enough training; it is whether, in arming and deploying Shiites and Kurds to fight Sunnis, it is actually stoking the fires of sectarian and ethnic civil war.

 

The administration has gone to great lengths to avoid such questions. When Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who was, until recently, responsible for training the new Iraqi military, was asked at a briefing last February what the religious-ethnic breakdown of Iraq’s security forces might be, he claimed to have no such numbers. He was, however, being disingenuous. The U.S. command may not have had precise figures on the subject, but he certainly knew that the units being sent into largely Sunni cities and towns in the most rebellious parts of Iraq were overwhelmingly, provocatively, Shiite and Kurdish in their make-up.

 

Petraeus also deliberately misled the reporters at the briefing by stating that “regional forces, both local police and … the Iraqi National Guard … tend to reflect the ethnic makeup of their community.” What he did not say is that this only applied to the Kurdish and Shiite sections of the country. In Sunni cities and towns, the real policing was not being done by local Sunni forces but by Shiite and Kurdish commandos from elsewhere.

 

Throughout 2005, Bush administration speeches and communications to Congress systematically obscured the fact that the U.S. command was carrying out a battle plan calling for reliance on units filled exclusively, or nearly exclusively, with Shiite and Kurds to occupy Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere in the “Sunni triangle.”

 

That policy guaranteed the acceleration of already growing tendencies in Iraqi society toward sectarian and ethnic violence — and possibly toward civil war as well as forms of “ethnic cleansing.” Many of the Shiite troops and officers in the military and police commando units of the new Iraqi military are, in fact, motivated by hatred not just of Sunni insurgents but of the Sunni population as a whole. One fine reporter in Iraq, Knight Ridder’s Tom Lasseter has, in fact, explored this new Iraqi reality on the ground in ways no other American reporter has thought to do. Last October, he “embedded” himself for a week in a unit of Lt. Gen. Petraeus’s new military, the all-Shiite 1st Brigade, the first Iraqi unit to be given its own area of operations and often considered the template for the future of the army. What he discovered was a purely sectarian outfit obsessed with revenge against Sunnis. His is a chilling account of the violent Shiite hatred of Sunnis that drives Iraqi military operations in Sunni neighborhoods and essentially guarantees that the insurgency will only grow fiercer in response.

 

Lasseter found that Shiite officers and troops want to inflict death on a far broader swath of Sunnis than simply those insurgents they can identify. Their motive is clearly to intimidate the Sunni population into silence and acquiescence, while at the same time satisfying their own lust for revenge for past acts of oppression by the formerly powerful Sunni minority. One sergeant told Lasseter that, in 2006, the Shiites would “do what Saddam did — start with five people from each neighborhood and kill them in the streets and go from there.”

 

In December, Lasseter traveled to Kurdish areas of Iraq where he reported:

 

“Kurdish leaders have inserted more than 10,000 of their militia members into Iraqi army divisions in northern Iraq to lay the groundwork to swarm south, seize the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and possibly half of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, and secure the borders of an independent Kurdistan … The interviews with Kurdish troops … suggested that as the American military transfers more bases and areas of control to Iraqi units, it may be handing the nation to militias that are bent more on advancing ethnic and religious interests than on defeating the insurgency and preserving national unity.”

 

His eyewitness accounts make it clear that sending either Shiite or Kurdish units into Sunni neighborhoods is likely only to create a dynamic of retaliation and revenge that will quickly spread to the larger communities on both sides. This, then, is the open secret of the Bush administration’s present policy toward what has already become a dirty war on a massive scale.

 

The Roots of a Future Civil War?

 

As is true of practically everything about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the strategy of pitting Shiites and Kurds against Sunnis was not the result of careful planning. Its origins were, in fact, in a purely military response to the most important turning point in the occupation of Iraq — the complete collapse of Sunni security forces in which the U.S. command had placed such high hopes.

 

During an April 2004 offensive launched by the insurgents, most Sunni military units simply disappeared overnight. According to a June 2004 Government Accounting Office report, the number of Civil Defense Corps troops in Western Iraq, which included the Sunni strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi, was estimated to have fallen by over 80% — from 5,600 to about 1,000 — largely because of “collective desertion of units.”

 

The US command’s response to this debacle was a decision that summer to create a special “Fallujah Brigade.” It consisted of 1,600 Sunni troops recruited to patrol that restive city, led by the former Baathist officer whom the Americans had picked to head Iraq’s intelligence service. This force was meant to be the alternative to a bloody U.S. assault on Fallujah that the U.S. military preferred to avoid. But the brigade collaborated with the insurgents in Fallujah, turning over to them the 800 assault rifles, 27 pickup trucks, and 50 radios provided by the U.S. command. The Fallujah Brigade was quietly dissolved by the command in September 2004.

 

In November 2004, when the insurgents launched their next offensive in Mosul and Ramadi, there was yet another mass defection, this time in Mosul. The Sunni police force largely went over to the other side. Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of US troops in Northern Iraq told reporters that 3,200 of the 4,000 policemen in Mosul helped the insurgents to weapons, radios, police uniforms, and 50 police cars before leaving their posts. Ham admitted that there had been “premeditated infiltration” of police recruits by the insurgents. In Ramadi, the Americans were so distrustful of the Sunni police that they unilaterally disbanded the entire force when the insurgent offensive began.

 

In the third week of November, with Mosul in insurgent hands, the U.S. turned to its Kurdish allies for help. It brought in nearly 2,000 Kurdish peshmurga militiamen to control Mosul, and five battalions of predominantly Shiite troops, with a smattering of Kurds, to police Ramadi. Hundreds of Shiite troops from Baghdad and southern areas of the country were also sent into Samara and Fallujah.

 

This Shiite and Kurdish occupation of Sunni cities, which has only grown more pronounced, was certain to intensify sectarian-ethnic hatreds. In Mosul, there was already a long history of intense animosity between the Kurdish parties and Baath party loyalists who made up a large part of the Sunni population of the city. The Sunni Arab majority were afraid the Kurds planned to take over the city and add it to Kurdistan. There was also talk among Arab residents about taking revenge against Kurdish militiamen who had been blamed for widespread looting in the city immediately after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

 

Once they had consolidated control over Mosul and the surrounding area, the Kurds imposed what essentially was a police state on the Sunni majority in Nineveh province. Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru of the Washington Post reported last August that Kurdish security forces had abducted hundreds of Sunni Arabs and Turkmen from the city, transferring them to secret prisons in Kurdistan. The Post quoted a June State Department memo noting that Kurdish abductions had “greatly exacerbated tensions along purely ethnic lines.”

 

American officers in Mosul, however, were not concerned with ethnic strife but with winning a war, or at least staunching their losses, and the peshmerga seemed like the only effective Iraqi instrument in sight for doing so. “They’re well-organized, fierce and get the job done,” a U.S. company commander in Mosul rhapsodized about them.

 

Later, the Kurdish militiamen would be joined by the fierce Shiite “Wolf Brigade,” whose founder reportedly considered the Sunni members of the Association of Muslim Scholars to be “infidels.” That unit tortured innocent Sunnis to force them to confess to being part of insurgent organizations — confessions which the local authorities recognized as having been coerced once the Brigade left the city. Nevertheless, in December 2005, NBC’s Richard Engel reported that the Wolf Brigade was considered to have been effective in Mosul.

 

The US command still prefers Shiites and Kurds to police Sunni cities and towns. According to journalist Chris Allbritton, for instance, members of the city council in Fallujah requested the responsible U.S. commander to allow local people to replace Shiite units from the south that are still occupying the city and substituting for the police. The Americans refused, charging that local officials were still “turning a blind eye to insurgent activities.” In November, local Sunni leaders in Ramadi demanded that U.S. troops be withdrawn from the city and be replaced with security forces raised by local tribal leaders. Instead, the U.S. command sent the Wolf Brigade into Ramadi in advance of the December elections.

 

Not only the Embassy but the U.S. military was quite conscious of the serious consequences of its sectarian-ethnic strategy. Last May, for instance, Washington Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson wrote that “U.S. military analysts” conceded that, “by pitting Iraqis from different religious sects, ethnic groups and tribes against each other,” the U.S. strategy “aggravates the underlying fault lines in Iraqi society, heightening the prospects of civil strife.”

 

With the Sunni community even more overwhelmingly behind the anti-occupation armed struggle than was the case a year ago, the U.S. command feels it has no choice but to depend on just such sectarian or ethnic units to help put down the Sunni insurgency. But even if they do not explicitly admit it, U.S. commanders know that this is a brutal and cynical policy. Thus, they have had to find a way to justify it to themselves. In October, a “senior military official in Baghdad” was quoted in another Tom Lasseter piece saying, “Maybe they just need to have their civil war. In this part of the world it’s almost a way of life.” That official was unconsciously echoing the words of General William Westmoreland, the former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, who rationalized the hundreds of thousands of deaths inflicted on the Vietnamese by the U.S. intervention in an infamous statement: “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner…. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

 

There is no doubt that the history of violence among the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds made for strong tendencies toward sectarian-ethnic violence in post-Saddam Iraq. But the fact that a senior American military official would resort to such a racist explanation to evade responsibility for creating civil-war conditions in Iraq only underlines the depths to which the United States has descended.

 

 

Gareth Porter, a historian and political analyst, now writes regularly on Iraq. He is the author of several books on the Vietnam War, most recently Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.

 

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture.]

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