The 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 bombing, the Kurdish north had effectively separated while powerful Shiite politicians were pushing for an autonomous region in the south. Unable to prevent the violence, the Iraqi government has been weakened.
After the December election, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari was able to retain his position only because of support from the new kingmaker in Iraq, Muqtada Sadr. Yet a new government is still not in place and the violence has set that task back by months, allowing irregular forces to fill the vacuum.
Power has passed to Shiite militias, particularly Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which has been behind much of the sectarian bloodletting after the Askariya Shrine in Samarra was demolished by a bomb on Feb. 22. Sadr has called for calm, but given the breadth of the violence it’s clear he has a tenuous hold on his militias.
Retaliatory strikes on Sunni and Shiite mosques are still occurring, ethnic cleansing has multiplied and Shiite-based death squads are operating with impunity. The Washington Post reported that in just five days, Baghdad’s main morgue “had logged more than 1,300 dead since Wednesday… photographing, numbering and tagging the bodies as they came in over the nights and days of retaliatory raids.”
The tally is almost certainly a significant undercount. It doesn’t include other morgues or hospitals in Baghdad, death tolls from the rest of the country, families unable to bring bodies to the morgue during a strict curfew and corpses yet to be recovered.
Most victims were said to be Sunnis, with many dragged away during the curfew by Mahdi fighters. Kathleen Ridolfo of Radio Free Europe commented: “Government forces, dominated by Shi’ite Arabs, apparently made no attempt to control the movements of militiamen, either out of fear or loyalty – perhaps a little of both.”
The proliferation of militias has been U.S. policy. The U.S. military trained, armed and equipped sectarian police forces and turned over much of Baghdad and other cities to them in the hopes of reducing troop levels.
One “high-ranking U.S. military officer” told the L.A. Times last November that in northeast Baghdad alone, where Sadr is based, more than 30,000 police were affiliated with his militia. The official claimed, “The Mahdi army’s got the Iraqi police and Badr’s got the commandos. Everybody’s got their own death squads.”
The White House has also pushed a sectarian division of government that has left Sunnis disempowered and embittered. One recent poll found that 92 percent of Sunnis thought the Iraqi government was illegitimate and 88 percent endorsed attacks on U.S. forces.
Sunnis were caught off-guard by violence, but now they’re preparing to fight back. Nancy Youssef of Knight Ridder reported that Sunnis across central Iraq “were sending weapons to Baghdad and were preparing to dispatch their own fighters to the Iraqi capital.”
Meanwhile, 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.
There is, of course, still the insurgency. A 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 three years, averaging about 80 a day at present. And the most recent Pentagon report on the 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 Iraqi Freedom.