Whose War Is This Anyway?


of the government and media executives who participated in the marketing
campaign for the U.S. war of aggression in Iraq are now calling
it a “serious mistake.” Richard Perle, the former head
of the Defense Policy Review Board, has brazenly acknowledged that
it is an outright violation of international law (the


, 11/20/03). What few of them will concede is that the
United States now has any other choice, but to “win” or
to “stay the course,” whatever that means and whatever
horrors it may entail. From Fox News to the Brookings Institution,
they insist that the alternative is unthinkable and assert that
Iraq minus U.S. occupation would quickly descend into “civil

this hypothetical war is the new U.S. imperative for carrying on
with the real one. Is there any rational basis for this or are we
still confronting “inherent, even unavoidable institutional
myopia” under whose spell “options and decisions that
are intrinsically dangerous and irrational become not merely plausible
but the only form of reasoning about war and diplomacy that is possible
in official circles,” as Gabriel Kolko put it so eloquently

Century of War

discussion of violence committed by Iraqis against other Iraqis
must be placed in its correct context, which is that the United
States has been the perpetrator of most of the violence in Iraq
as well as the cause of all of it. An Iraqi Health Ministry report
blamed U.S. forces for 71 percent of non-combatant deaths between
June and September 2004 and noted that the majority of these were
the result of aerial bombardment (

Miami Herald

, 9/25/04).
The “precision-guided” Paveway Mark 82—500-pound
bombs that are the weapon of choice for U.S. air forces in Iraq—strike
within 40 feet of their target only 80-85 percent of the time and
are designed to inflict 50 percent casualties to a radius of 50
meters. In addition to this aerial deluge of death and destruction,

New England Journal of Medicine

study found that 28 percent
of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and 14 percent of the 3rd
Infantry Division reported personally killing non-combatants during
their first tours in Iraq. 

direct violence by the occupation forces, the most insidious aspect
of any hostile military occupation is that it forces every citizen
in the country under occupation to make the wrenching choice between
collaboration and resistance. Therefore, when it comes to acts of
violence by Iraqis against other Iraqis, the critical question to
ask is whether these are essentially a feature of the occupation
or whether the United States has succeeded in unleashing latent
tensions between Iraqis that would erupt into civil war if the occupation
were to end now. 

169 such acts of violence described in the international press during
the month of January, 72 were directed at the armed forces of the
“interim government” (army, national guard, police, or
“special forces”); 60 were election- related, aimed at
candidates, election workers, or polling places; 18 targeted interim
government officials; 13 were aimed at local employees of the occupation
forces; and the targets were not identified in the remaining 6 cases.
Not one incident was reported as a case of straightforward sectarian
violence. Even the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Baghdad before
the election was clearly election-related, as one of the survivors
noted that people in the neighborhood had just received threatening
letters urging them not to vote. The illegitimate and flawed election
has now set in motion a disturbing trend of resistance attacks against
Shiite mosques, as some Sunni resistance fighters have evidently
come to see ordinary Shiites as collaborators.  

some time, most violent resistance to the occupation has been by
Sunni Iraqis, but this has not always been the case. After Shiite
militia from Sadr City in Baghdad set up a base in Najaf to protect
the Shrine of the Imam Ali, they were ferociously attacked by U.S.
forces in April and August 2004. Safely back in Sadr City, they
have undisputed control of a large sector of Baghdad with at least
two and a half million inhabitants. They have maintained an undeclared
truce with U.S. forces whereby the militia refrain from attacking
U.S. forces as long as they in turn stay out of this effectively
independent urban territory. Sadrist literature condemns both collaboration
and “terrorism,” but the militia has never clashed with
Sunni resistance fighters and has given them vocal and physical
support in Fallujah and elsewhere (“The Taming of Sadr City,”

Asia Times

, 1/11/05). Unified resistance to the occupation
is the worst-case scenario for U.S. leaders, so that continued occupation
can best be accomplished by creating tension between Shiites and

official Western view of Shiite-Sunni relations in Iraq obscures
a more complex web of geographic, sectarian, tribal, and class relationships.
In 1922 it was actually the Shiites who boycotted Iraq’s first
election, which had been carefully designed by the British to produce
a Constituent Assembly that would support the British mandate. Since
then, the history of Iraq has had more than its share of tragedy,
but one thing that has never happened is a civil war between Sunnis
and Shiites. The two sects co-exist and frequently intermarry in
many parts of the country. Certain Sunnis were privileged under
Ottoman rule and others who had fought in the Sharifian forces with
the British against the Turks formed the officer corps of the Iraqi
Army and a new privileged class under King Faisal. Shiites, however,
were prominent in opposition parties during the monarchy and were
well represented in the republic that was formed after the military
coup of 1958. 

also occupied a majority of leadership positions in the Baath Party
before it came to power in 1963 and they continued to be represented
at all levels in proportion to their numbers in the population and
to hold a majority on the Revolutionary Command Council until the
first Gulf War. When Iran invaded Iraq in 1982, its army was turned
back by a predominantly Shiite Iraqi force under a Shiite general.
The Shiites then supplied 75 percent of the lower ranks throughout
the war without any widespread mutiny, in spite of intense Iranian
propaganda appeals to their Shiite brothers to join their Islamic
Revolution. The disastrous Shiite revolt in 1991 did lead to a reduction
of their role in government and the surviving leaders of the revolt
now view their central mistake to have been their failure to involve
Sunnis and Kurds in the uprising, which was politically motivated
against the Hussein regime, rather than sectarian in character. 

Iraq, differences between secular and religious groups and between
urban populations and more conservative rural tribes generally run
deeper than those between Sunnis and Shiites. In the later years
of the Baath regime, Islamism became its principal rival ideology
among both sects, and Islamists from Salafis to Sadrists are now
the fiercest opponents of the U.S. occupation and are ready to take
their share of power. The United States government is choosing to
continue the war in an increasingly desperate effort to set up a
government that will support U.S. interests and to recruit forces
that will fight for it against Islamists and other opponents. 

greatest danger facing Iraq today is that the United States will
be partially successful in building and arming such a force, and
that, with U.S. support, this force will continue to wage war against
its own people, gradually destroying what is left of the country.
U.S. efforts to isolate the Sunni resistance are a logical part
of its misconceived strategy, but threaten to unravel the entire
fabric of Iraqi society. In August 2003 former French Foreign Minister
De Villepin correctly predicted that this process of “decomposition”
would continue absent a true restoration of sovereignty. Monsieur
De Villepin is not blessed with second sight. He simply accepted
the objective analysis that U.S. leaders continue to ignore, that
the source of this decomposition is not found in any preexisting
differences in Iraqi society, but rather in the fact and the nature
of U.S. occupation. The longer the occupation continues, the harder
it will be for Iraqis to overcome the divisions it has created,
and the only rational and legitimate policy is to withdraw U.S.
forces as quickly as possible. 

Kurds, the other major ethnic group, are heavily represented in
the armed forces that are being recruited and trained by the U.S.
Their participation in the destruction of Fallujah has led to bloody
and continuing reprisals against Kurdish collaborators in Mosul
and elsewhere. The longer the U.S.- sponsored decomposition of Iraq
continues, the greater the incentive for the Kurds to go their own
way, possibly annexing Kirkuk and the northern oil-fields


A U.S. retreat to bases in South Kurdistan, from where they could
continue attacks against other parts of the country and the region,
would be a fallback position consistent with the present strategy. 

such a course would only perpetuate the self-destructive pattern
of U.S. policy in that part of the world, gaining military bases
and isolated allies while generating more widespread popular hostility
to U.S. interests. The legitimate course to a resolution of this
crisis remains, as it has always been, a full restoration of Iraqi
sovereignty, with UN assistance, and a complete withdrawal of U.S.

have been led to believe that the persistent failures of U.S. military
ventures in the Third World have been attributable to a lack of
commitment of either money, blood, or political will, and that,
given sufficient investment of these commodities, there are few
limits to U.S. power. This is myth, not history. In reality, it
is in the countries where the United States has made its most extensive
commitments that it has experienced its greatest failures, from
China in the 1940s to Korea, Lebanon (twice), Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia,
Angola, Iran, Somalia, and now Iraq. In each case, policy has been
formulated around myths of democracy and U.S. power in place of
accurate analyses of resources and interests relative to the history,
politics, and culture of the country in question, even though such
analyses were always readily available. The result has been that
popular movements in all these countries have frustrated U.S. ambitions
and won military and political victories in spite of huge economic
and military imbalances in favor of the United States. 

some time to come, institutional myopia and vested interests will
almost certainly continue to blind our leaders to the clearest lesson
of our history, that war and militarism are not the answer to any
of our economic or strategic problems and are in fact the cause
of most of them. It is, therefore, more important than ever that
we understand our own history, teach it to our children and grandchildren,
and engage our fellow citizens in serious conversations about our
country’s history and foreign policy. The dominant economic
position of the United States in the 20th century permitted its
leaders to make serious “mistakes” with relatively mild
consequences to the country and themselves. The 21st century will
not be so forgiving.

Nicolas J.S.
Davies is a writer and peace activist who studies U.S. foreign policy.
He lives in North Miami, Florida.