Iraq’s Perpetual Struggle

Does Washington have the staying power to prove to Iraqis that they can get along?

A recently leaked National Intelligence Estimate written over the summerconcludes that the prospects in Iraq are bleak. At worst, according to one unnamed government source, there may be a civil war by 2005. This is more pessimistic than the Bush administration’s typical appraisal, but in the context of current events, the intelligence report is understated. Iraq is already in the middle of a civil war.

“From the minute we landed it was a civil war,” says Princeton University history professor Michael Doran. Certainly, some of the insurgency forces are targeting U.S. troops to oppose the occupation, but much of the violence has a strategic goal that looks well into the future, long after the United States has left. “Right now, all the factions are fighting for the biggest piece of the pie,” says Doran. “So, you attack the coalition to prevent it from carrying out the policies that will work to the advantage of your rivals.”

This view helps explain some of the violence in Sunni areas, violence that will no doubt continue up to and past the scheduled elections. The Shiite majority will do well at the polls, which is why leaders like Ayatollah Ali Sistani insist elections must take place. Then, for the first time in their very long history, the Sunni Arabs will know what it feels like to be a disempowered minority in the Muslim world.

In “Minorities,” an essay from The Chatham House Version (1970), Elie Kedourie describes what happened once the British left it up to their Arab hands in Baghdad to run the show. First, the Assyrian minority was massacred in 1933, and then the Jews of Baghdad in 1941. That a similar fate might in turn befall them partly explains why the Sunnis are now fighting for their lives in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Samarra. Some of them no doubt hate the occupation and want to wage jihad, and some of them may really want Saddam to return, but it’s likely that many have made a logical decision in choosing to fight the coalition—which they’ve already had some success against—now, rather than the Shiites—who will crush them—later. In the meantime, the Sunnis have also enjoyed the luxury of picking off Shiites through car bombings and other limited operations, a preferable alternative to facing their rivals at full strength as they will be compelled to do once their numerically superior enemy is allowed to maneuver freely after the coalition has moved on.

It is impossible to know exactly how other regional forces—Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, for instance—might involve themselves in such a conflagration, but there is one thing everyone knows for sure: Someday, coalition troops will leave, and the Iraqis will still be in Iraq. If what we’re seeing right now is largely a civil war, what we are likely to see if coalition forces leave anytime soon will more closely resemble an ethnic cleansing where Kurds and Shiites will not only take their revenge for years of Sunni dominance but will kill enough people that they feel safe for many generations.

While the political culture of Iraq owes much to British orientalists like T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, who had fallen under the heady spell of Arab nationalism, the British empowered the Sunnis there—and elsewhere in the region—for practical reasons. The Ottomans, whose former provinces the British patched together to form “Iraq,” were Sunni, and so the British worked with the given skeletal structure of the political system and entrusted their mandate to Arab Sunnis. The problem was that, unlike the Ottomans, these Sunnis had no experience administering a state. And unlike the Ottomans, the British insisted they were not interested in direct rule and would soon leave their clients to their own devices. We saw the results of that.

The United States is even less hands-on than the British and wants to unburden itself of power—and responsibility—as soon as possible. Moreover, we are trying to build the foundations of a political culture that we have no intention of protecting over the many years it will need to take shape. Long before Saddam, the region comprising Iraq was ruled according to the principle of “reward your allies and punish your foes.” This, as George Packer explained in last week’s New Yorker, is why our friends the Kurds are baffled that we treat them no differently than ex-Baathists. It is one thing for well-meaning Americans to explain why all Iraqis should be equal before the law; it is another thing to enforce that idea with the necessary long-term presence of U.S. troops.

Factionalism exists throughout the Middle East. Indeed, one way to understand the region is as a series of very local conflicts: civil wars between ethnic and religious groups, different tribes and regions, and political factions. Some of these enmities are, for now anyway, low-intensity, like that between the Berbers and Arabs in Algeria, or entirely suppressed, like the Shiite minority that constitutes 10 percent of overwhelmingly Sunni, Wahabbist, Saudi Arabia. Some are high-intensity of short duration, like the Palestinian rebellion in Jordan that King Hussein’s Bedouin-dominated Arab Legion put down in September 1970. Others, like the civil wars that raged in Lebanon through the ‘70s and ‘80s, were of such a high intensity that international and regional armies and proxy forces joined the Palestinian groups and local militias in the fighting. And then, of course, there are genocides, as in Sudan, where the Arab government in Khartoum first targeted Christians and animists in the south and now mostly non-Arab Muslims in Darfur.

So, while we interpret the current Iraqi occupation as a situation where U.S. troops are putting down Iraqi insurgents, another way to see the conflict—one more in keeping with the region’s history—is that we are a proxy force in a civil war: The coalition is fighting for the Shiites against the Sunnis, while our presence protects the Sunnis from the Shiites. We need to ask how much longer we want to play this role and decide how much we are willing to pay—in lives and treasure—to prove that there are other ways to solve problems than killing your neighbors.