New Exit Strategy for Iraq: Civil War


state-sponsored civil war,” says journalist Dahr Jamail, describing
the sectarian conflict engulfing Iraq. From the beginning of the
U.S. occupation, most observers argued that while civil war was
a distinct possibility between Kurds and Sunni Arabs, a Sunni-Shiite
conflict was highly unlikely because of factors such as nationalism,
high rates of intermarriage, and the moderating influence of Grand
Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani. 

for one, wrote just four months ago that “civil war seems…
remote.” He now says that while average Iraqis are still strongly
opposed to internecine warfare, the use of ethnic-based militias
against the Sunni Arab insurgency has ignited a dirty war that threatens
to spiral into a conflict on the scale of Lebanon or the Balkans. 

the war stalemated, repeated deployments wearing down morale of
U.S. troops and too few new recruits to maintain force levels, the
Bush administration may be deliberately provoking civil war as its
“exit strategy.” The goal is not so much to exit Iraq,
but leave behind a skeletal military force that would maintain the
network of permanent bases under construction throughout Iraq while
maintaining access to massive oil deposits in the North and South.
Breaking Iraq into a series of mini-states, a strategy being pushed
by some White House allies in the media, is seen as one way to ensure
these goals. 

war has already begun, with almost daily reports of bodies turning
up bearing torture marks. The new Iraqi government has unleashed
Shiite militias allied with ruling parties, such as the Badr Brigade,
the military arm of the powerful Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution
in Iraq, and another with Dawa, the party of Prime Minister Ibrahim
al-Jafaari, as well as the Kurdish Peshmerga, resulting in a wave
of death-squad killings, tit-for-tat assassinations of Shiite and
Sunni clerics, and deteriorating communal relations. 

in the words of the

New York Times

, the insurgency appears
“to be growing more violent, more resilient and more sophisticated
than ever.” Attacks by insurgets have increased to almost 70
a day and U.S. soldiers continue to die at a rate of two a day despite
a counterinsurgency campaign that keeps growing harsher. 

responsibility for the sectarian conflict lies with the Bush administration,
says Christian Par- enti in

The Freedom

, his account of occupied
Iraq. “Every single thing the U.S. did led to civil war.”
Parenti describes the occupation as a disaster from the start. “The
failure of reconstruction, the firing of the army, the blatant theft
of Iraqi oil money, the use of the Badr Brigade, the use of Peshmerga,
the use of death squads, the use of indiscriminate detention and
torture, the destruction of Falluja and other towns in Al Anbar
province,” says Parenti, created a raging insurgency and sparked
civil war. 

communal divide was also widened by the U.S.-managed election process.
Political parties were required to form slates for last January’s
election. However, with violence rampant, few candidates campaigned
in public so most Iraqi voters cast ballots based on ethnic allegiance.
At the same time, the U.S. military was trying to crush resistance
in Sunni Arab regions, ensuring their alienation from the new government.
After the balloting, government posts were divided according to
ethnic quotas, similar to Lebanon’s system of government. 

says, “Because the major Shiite parties did run in the election,”
some insurgents view them as collaborators. “There was a heavy
Islamization of the Baathists and army after the first Gulf War.
A lot of the Sunni Baathists in the resistance think the Shia are
animals. They think they’re Iranian scum.” This has led
to a wave of sectarian violence against Shiites, a phenomenon that
is not just Pentagon propaganda, Parenti adds. The bombing of a
Shiite mosque south of Baghdad that killed almost 100 people in
mid-July led some Shiite politicians to call for the formation of
local militias. Parliamentarian Khudair al-Khuzai said, “We
need to bring back popular security committees.” Al-Khuzai
claimed he was supported by 50 other MPs. 

various accounts, death squads are already up and running. Writing
in the


, Patrick Cockburn reports, “Many
Sunni military officers and Baathist officials believe they are
on a death list of the Badr Brigade which is operating through the
[police] commandos.” The commandos are “an aggressive
paramilitary force controlled by the Interior Ministry.” 

Interior Ministry’s Wolf Brigade is allegedly behind many of
the death-squad killings. A report on claims that
many of the brigade’s commanders are from the Badr Organization
(the renamed Badr Brigade). Bayan Sulagh, the new head of the Interior
Ministry, is from the Badr Brigade. According to Patrick Cock- burn,
Hadi al-Amery, the head of Badr, “is influential within the



of London added on July 18, “Hardline Shia militias…are
patrolling large parts of Baghdad, often rounding up suspected Sunni
insurgents and imprisoning or even killing them.” The U.S.
took the sectarian strategy a step further in May with Operation
Lightning, using 40,000 mainly Shiite troops to sweep through Baghdad
and round up hundreds of Sunni males. (After the U.S. general in
charge of Baghdad announced in early July that the ability of the
insurgents to conduct “sustained” operations in the capital
had been eliminated, 12 car bomb attacks occurred in a day.) 



York Times

noted that Iraqi units sent to “hotspots,”
which are almost always Sunni Arab regions, “are often dominated
by Shiites and Kurds, some recruited from sectarian militias deeply
hostile to Sunni Arabs.” Shaikh Harith al-Dari of the Association
of Muslim Scholars, which is believed to have close ties to the
insurgency, said in May, “The parties that are behind the campaign
of killings of preachers of mosques and worshippers…are the
Badr Brigades.” 

April, death squad killings have proliferated with “nearly
1,000 people—most of them Sunni Muslims”—killed in
the southern city of Basra alone, according to the

Science Monitor

. In May at least 10 Sunni and Shiite clerics
were the victims of what appears to be politically motivated assassinations. 

the victorious Shiite parties cobbled a government together in April,
they placed the Interior Ministry under the control of the Badr
Brigades. The Pentagon is also keeping a big finger in the Interior
Ministry in the form of “advisors,” such as James Steele
and Steve Casteel, both of whom were active in counterinsurgency
wars throughout Latin America. As for the Ministry of Defense, a
report in the


states, “Both Iraqi and American
officers say that the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad has fallen
under the control of Kurdish political parties.” 

northern part of the country, known as Iraqi Kurdistan, is effectively
its own state. With U.S. backing, whole Peshmerga units have been
rechristened as army or police units. The effect can be seen in
the city of Mosul, with a population of 1.7 million of which 70
percent are Arab. According to a report published on,
Kurdish forces refer to Sunni Arabs “as murderous ‘dogs,’
two-faced liars, animals and other epithets that indicate…hatred
of a group clearly regarded as an enemy.” The same report estimates
that more than 40,000 Peshmerga have been transferred wholesale
into the “national” security services. 

Kurds are even running their own network of secret prisons, according
to the

Washington Post

. With the knowledge and cooperation
of U.S. forces, the Kurds have seized hundreds of Arabs and Turkmen
in the city of Kirkuk, and possibly Mosul, and illegally transferred
them to prisons further north. The police chief in Kirkuk told the


that his officers were participating in the abductions,
adding that “40 percent of Kirkuk’s 6,120-member police
force was loyal to the two Kurdish political parties.” He explained
that these officers “obey the parties’ orders and disobey

similar situation prevails in southern Iraq, which is transforming
into a de facto religious state: alcohol is banned, rigid dress
codes are being enforced, and local governments and security forces
are under the sway of competing Shiite parties and movements. Just
like the North, the South has massive oil reserves that are fueling
a separatist movement. “We want to destroy the central system
that connects the entire country to the capital,” one Shiite
autonomy campaigner told the

New York Times

are questions as to whether the unraveling of Iraq is part of the
Bush administration’s exit strategy. The White House initially
resisted deploying the ethnic-based militias against insurgents.
But with the war stalemated, the Bush administration is becoming
increasingly desperate. A report leaked to media in early July stated
that the Pentagon plans to draw down its forces from 138,000 to
66,000 by early 2006 and the British are planning to make similar-sized
cuts in its force of 8,000. Analyst and historian Juan Cole writes,
“The withdrawal plan implies a willingness to turn the five
northern provinces over to the Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitary, and
the nine southern provinces over to a combination of Shiite militias
and new Iraqi government security forces.” 

the remaining U.S. troops would be concentrated in central Iraq
where resistance is fiercest. It’s questionable whether Iraqi
forces are up to the task. Trudy Rubin traveled to Iraq to determine
if Iraqi forces could pick up the slack. 

wrote in the

Baltimore Sun

that after more than two years
of training and support, “Today, there are more than 100 military
and police commando battalions, totaling 169,000 Iraqis. But of
the 80 military battalions, only three—at most—are fully
capable of planning and carrying out counterinsurgency operations
on their own.” This was confirmed by a Pentagon report in July
that also concluded just three battalions were capable of independent

ineptness of the Iraqi security forces is in many ways due to the
success of the insurgency. Par- enti says the insurgents he spoke
to stated, “We’ve read Mao,” meaning they know how
to conduct a sophisticated guerilla war. The resistance has successfully
isolated the United States. No country beyond the UK has contributed
substantial fighting forces and many have quit the “coalition
of the willing.” 

resistance has consistently outwitted the occupation forces. They
have forced out the United Nations and almost all international
bodies. When the Marines assaulted Fallujah last November, the resistance
took over Mosul, a city five times the size. They have assassinated
more than 50 government officials since power was “handed over”
on June 28, 2004. In the last few months, they have killed scores
of mid-level officers in the security services, indicating they
have thoroughly infiltrated the forces and are effectively eliminating
the operational leadership. They nearly assassinated the commander
of the Wolf Brigade, Abu Walid, in June and successfully killed
the head of another Interior Ministry unit, Salam Lutfi, the commander
of the Lion Brigade, on August 1. Insurgents also attacked at least
four foreign envoys within a week, deepening Iraq’s and the
United States’ political isolation. 

armed resistance has isolated Iraqis from the U.S. and the Iraqi
government, too, by deliberately targeting the infrastructure. Services
and quality of life are now worse than during the sanctions era.
Electricity is reportedly down to two hours a day in Baghdad. The
government is talking of rationing gasoline and other refined fuels,
such as for cooking and running generators, which are hard to come
by. The percentage of the population with access to clean water
is steadily dropping. The only indicators seemingly on the rise
are Iraqi deaths, outbreaks of disease, and childhood malnutrition. 

the insurgency cannot defeat the United States militarily. It needs
a political wing to consolidate gains on the battlefield. Pepe Escobar

Asia Times

argues that a national liberation front is
emerging that includes the Association of Muslim Scholars and Shiites
grouped around populist preacher Moqtada Al-Sadr. Escobar writes,
“Many groups in this front have already met in Algiers. The
front is opposed to the American occupation and permanent Pentagon
military bases; to the privatization and corporate looting of the
Iraqi economy; and to the federation of Iraq—i.e., balkanization.” 

is one of the thorniest issues of the constitutional process, which
threatens to alienate Sunni Arabs even further. One proposal would
allow two or more provinces to form regions, such as the Kurdish
North, with taxation powers and a semi-independent governing system.
It would also allow them to tap oil revenues from their region. 

to Juan Cole, one Sunni parliamentarian, “Mishaan Jiburi…warned
that for the Shiites and Kurds to run roughshod over the Sunni Arabs
and their concerns would result in civil war. He said they would
be driven in even greater numbers into opposition to the government
and the foreign occupation.” Five clan leaders from the Falluja
area, meeting with U.S. officers, echoed the concerns, saying, a
“federal Iraq in which the Kurds got the oil of Kirkuk and
the Shiites the oil of Rumaila in the south, would leave the Sunni
Arabs with ‘the desert sands of Anbar.’” 


the Bush administration is provoking civil war, it could create
an even greater disaster. If Iraq starts to unravel, neighboring
countries like Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran would move
in to stake their claims. The White House is clearly afflicted with
a gambler’s mentality: it keeps increasing the stakes to try
to recoup its losses. 

notes that domestically the entire “political class is united
that the U.S. is not going to leave. They say the stakes are too
high, and I think they’re totally correct. The U.S. will eventually
lose and it will have a dramatic effect on its power worldwide.”


A.K. Gupta is
a freelance writer and staff member of the


in New York City.