January 19, 2012

Civil war in Iraq - not improbable, maybe likely

Iraqi Shi'a militiamen march on Israeli and American flags

Every day the news from Iraq reflects increasing sectarian violence - it has been virtually the same since the premature, arbitrary and precipitous withdrawal of American troops from the country. My views on that betrayal of trust is well known - see my latest on that outrage: Betrayals - Obama and the withdrawal from Iraq.

It comes as no surprise that in the absence of thousands of American forces in the country, local groups who have been constrained in the past have begun to assert themselves in their quest for power. The Shi'a-dominated groups - this includes the forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Iranian-backed party and militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and other parties wanting a piece of the political pie in Iraq - also are seeking revenge for years of being treated as third-class citizens at the hands of the Sunni-dominated Ba'th regime of Saddam Husayn.

Sunni groups, including al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) who simply waited for the Americans to leave on schedule, have re-asserted themselves in their rejection of the Shi'a-dominated government.

It's a pretty simple analysis - the Shi'a want to marginalize any Sunni influence in the government as that government leans toward Iran; the Sunnis want to regain some of the political power they once enjoyed. The Kurds are probably the only winners in this situation, enjoying the relative safety and security of the Kurdish Autonomous Region in northern Iraq.

The Kurds are concerned, however, that al-Maliki's moves to consolidate his power as soon as American forces left have put the country at risk of a civil war. The Americans were hardly out the door when al-Maliki sought the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi in what most analysts believe to be are trumped up charges as part of a power play to seize even more control of the government.

As al-Maliki tries to marginalize the Sunni-supported coalition Iraqiya party headed by former prime minister Iyad 'Alawi (himself a Shi'a), pushback from AQI and Sunni political leaders has lead to a spike in violence targeted against Shi'a areas and religious functions. The attacks are reminiscent of the 2006 attacks against Shi'a shrines that led to an outright religious civil war in the country. Iraqiya ministers boycotted the parliament in protest; the Shi'a-dominated body reacted by suspending the boycotting ministers, leading to a greater political crisis. If this tit for tat does not stop, the violence will devolve into a full-blown civil war.

The violence is disheartening to anyone who has served or has family who served in Iraq. It cheapens the sacrifice and commitment of our young men and women - who believe in what they did - to allow the Iraqis to develop a successful post-Saddam Iraq. The new reports are saddening.

Since the withdrawal of American forces - what I describe as Obama's mad dash for the exit - at least 200 people have been killed in the sectarian violence as the Sunni groups attempt to goad the Shi'a into another civil war. The Sunnis have assessed, correctly in my view, that Iraqi forces are unwilling or unable to stop the violence without American troops to back them up.

The image at the beginning of the article is illustrative of how badly two American administrations have handled our involvement in Iraq. The mere fact that Muqtada al-Sadr is still alive is a statement of failure by the Bush Administration - al-Sadr should have been killed in 2003 when we had the opportunity. The fact that the militias are now free to spew their anti-American hatred is an indictment of the Obama Administration and its failure to capitalize on the success of the surge and Anbar Awakening that broke the back of AQI and other Sunni insurgent groups.

Without American troops, it appears that a civil war is not only improbable but likely. Should it happen, there is almost nothing the United States can do about it. Thanks to President Obama's failure to secure an American presence in the country after December 31, 2011, the only way American forces can assist the Iraqi security and military organizations in keeping the peace is via an invitation from the Iraqi government.

Given the fact that the Shi'a-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stands to gain from the disorder, there is liitle chance of that invitation happening.

We are now faced with a situation in which a country whose freedom was purchased with the effort and blood of American forces is devolving into civil war, and the Obama Administration has squandered any opportunity to influence events.