Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Civil War in Iraq

More Murder in Baghdad

There is no reason to attach any particular significance to the coordinated attack by Sunni fighters on Shi'a targets in Sadr City, which killed more than 160 civilians today. This latest massacre is not unprecedented in its brutality. Nor does it reflect a shift in tactics or alter the political balance in any meaningful way. It does, however, illustrate the growing irrelevance of the Americans in this conflict. What began ostensibly as an insurgency against the US occupation of the country has long turned into a civil war between Iraqi Shi'a and Sunni for control of key cities, provinces, and institutions. The fiction of the "resistance to the occupation" (so enthusiastically embraced by idiotic Berzerkely protesters, among others) has long revealed its true fratricidal visage.

Sunni Iraqis are fighting against the ascendance of the long suppressed Shi'a majority, using spectacular terrorist attacks on civilians as well as government organs. Supporting them are smaller foreign terrorist groups, who initially came to Iraq to fight the Americans but are now killing Shi'a. Arrayed against them are Shi'a militias who are running death squads to exact revenge on Sunni fighters as well as random civilians, with the tacit support of government ministers and security personnel. In addition to this, various Shi'a militias are competing against each other and the government for control of local towns and money-making enterprises. Iraqi government forces, in so far as they are not freelancing for militias, are not doing very much other than getting killed by Sunni insurgents. It's hard to fault those who have given up on the government's ability to protect its citizens, such as this man cited in the New York Times:
I’m very, very angry because the government did nothing for us,” said Muhammad Ali Muhammad, a 27-year-old laborer in Sadr City. “There’s no protection for us.
or Mohammed on Iraq the Model:
The government stinks—that’s the overwhelming impression that is undermining the public's support for the government and its institutions
There has been much talk recently of a solution in Iraq involving American rapprochement with Syria and Iran. It seems to me that the expectations surrounding such an initiative are grossly inflated. Given the legacy of Saddam Hussein's rule, the struggles between Sunni and Shi'a would be going on with or without Iranian and/or Syrian encouragement. Neither Syria nor Iran have real influence on the brutal war being waged on the ground between Sunni and Shi'a. Furthermore, at the moment, these two countries are mainly interested in supporting attacks on US forces with the aim of weakening American military capabilities in the region.


Noah Kaye said...

I agree to a point that the hopes riding on the back of Syrian and Iranian engagement are inflated; but don't you think it's Syria in particular that has had its influence exaggerated. Surely, Iran has more influence over certain Shia factions than Syria has over anybody.

John said...

I think Syria's influence may indeed be over-exaggerated, although it's quite hard to tell. It certainly seems to be in the Syrian interest at this stage to claim some kind of influence in Iraq. I wonder what the Saudis are doing... I'm sure that the Sunni militias are getting help from private Saudi donors. Is there more organized, state-sponsored assistance? If America were to greatly reduce its role in Iraq or to withdraw, the Saudis will most certainly go in with full force to balance against Iran and its Shi'a allies.

One other thing that I wonder about is the balance of forces in Iraq. Who is stronger, considering assistance from outside patrons: the Shi'a or the Sunnis? Given the fact that the Shi'a have Iran as a patron, you'd think that the Sunnis would fear a US withdrawal, which would force the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi army and police force to drop all pretence at being even-handed.

Amos said...

I think Iran can exert influence on the political wings of some of the Shi'a groups - especially on Moqtada al-Sadr. They can therefore prevent the formation of a stable government in Iraq, by having people like al-Sadr boycott (or threaten to boycott) the political process. But after reading about some of the Shi'a "death squads" and criminal gangs, it just seems like it is way too chaotic and local for anyone to direct militia activities on the ground. It seems like not even al-Sadr is in control of his militias anymore. And ultimately, the situation on the ground is what really matters in Iraq - for the Americans and, more importantly, for ordinary Iraqis.