May 11, 2007

Do the Shi'a Iraqis want a civil war?

This is a follow-on to my earlier article, "Another step toward civil war in Iraq?

It almost seems to me that the Iraqi Shi'a want a civil war.

On May 10, a majority of members of the Iraqi parliament signed on to draft legislation that calls for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. The legislation was crafted by members of the Sadrist bloc, the group loyal to rabid anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. This comes just a few days after Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi threatened to pull his Sunni Arab bloc out of the Iraq coalition government if changes are not made to the Iraqi constitution.

This legislation is just a draft, but the fact that 144 of 275 members (mostly Shi'a) agreed to debate the issue indicates that they believe they can secure the country on their own. What it really says is they think that once the Americans are gone, they can exercise their majority to create whatever laws they wish, or more specifically not pass laws sharing oil revenues with the entire population. This is exactly what the vice president fears - that the Shi'a will create an autonomous region similar to what the Kurds have done in the north, and attempt to reserve control of the oil revenues to that autonomous zone. Since the Sunnis live in areas where there is little if any oil, they stand to lose not only politically, but economically as well.

In the absence of American troops to stop them, the Shi'a-dominated government can unleash the Shi'a-dominated army and security forces to crush Sunni resistance with little regard for human rights. Al-Sadr's jaysh al-mahdi (Mahdi Army) will be able to resume its "death squad" tactics against the Sunnis who dare to remain in Baghdad.

The two threats - withdrawal of the Sunni bloc from the government and the Shi'a legislation calling for a withdrawal of American troops - are a recipe for all-out civil war between the Arab Iraqis, Sunni versus Shi'a. Not only will the Kurds watch and wait from the relative safety of their autonomous region, they will consolidate their hold on Kirkuk, a contested oil-rich city home to Kurds, Turkomans and Sunni Arabs.

Should this degenerate into an all-out civil war, the Sunni Arabs will unite against the Shi'a - they will have no choice if they wish to survive. If they do survive, however, that alliance will be short-lived - it is not a monolithic group. There are the foreigners (mostly in the al-Qa'idah in Iraq group, the Iraqi Wahhabis, Iraqi jihadists, the secular Ba'this, and the tribes. At some point that alliance will fracture. We are seeing some of that now with the Anbar Salvation Front going after the foreign elements in the insurgency.

What about the regional players - Iran, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.?

If the Sunnis are about to be defeated, that may force the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians and maybe even the Turks to intervene on behalf of their Sunni brethren. The Syrians won't intervene to support the Sunnis. The al-Asad regime in Damascus is not Sunni (although many do not consider al-Asad's 'Alawi sect to be true Shi'a either), however the main reason they will not help the Sunnis is their alliance with Iran. The Syrians have been close allies of Iran since 1980, and supported Iran in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. The two countries have a defense pact which was renewed in 2006.

A civil war in Iraq will likely drag in the regional players and may lead to the breakup of the country. There may be no way to avoid it. Think Yugoslavia.