A Civil War By Any Other Name
Despite President Bush's repeated denials, the figures are clear: 900 sectarian killings in a single month in Iraq means a civil war is well under way. Iraq is a nation of 25 million people. In the United States, that level of killing would proportionately equal almost 11,000 people killed in riots, reprisal killings and sectarian clashes in a single month.
By comparison, the 30 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998 saw 3,600 people killed in a small population of 1.5 million. Proportionately, that would equate to 60,000 dead over 30 years in Iraq, or 2,000 killed per year. Instead, if the current Iraqi violence simply stays at the current level and does not escalate any further, it will take 10,800 Iraqi civilian lives this year. That rate would be more than five times the average rate of the Northern Irish conflict.
The rate of killings in Iraq is already as bad as during the horrendous 1975-1991 Lebanese Civil War, in which 150,000 to 200,000 people were killed over 16 years -- an average of between 9,375 and 12,500 people were killed there per year.
These comparisons, of course, can be misleading because in those conflicts, as in almost all civil wars, the rate of killing is not uniform but explodes in peaks and then settles down at lower levels for long periods of time.
But the comparisons are unfortunately revealing in another way -- once the kind of polarizing aimless cycle of sectarian retaliatory killings between paramilitary forces in the two communities that have lived together for many centuries begins, it is often impossible to end it for decades, or before hundreds of thousands of people have been killed or, as was the case in Lebanon, both disasters have happened.
The trigger for the current eruption of violence was the bombing of the historic Golden Mosque in Samara on Feb. 22, apparently by Sunni insurgents. But the real underlying cause of the massive Shiite retaliation was the outcome and consequences of the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections that the Bush administration and its media supporters had for so long predicted would take the fight out of the Sunni insurgency.
Instead it did precisely the opposite: It propelled the most militant, Iranian-backed Shiite political groups and their powerful militia forces into the cockpit of power in Baghdad.
For Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari following the elections has had to lean upon Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army militia, as his main political ally in the Shiite community. And far from evolving into a strong and dependable ally of U.S. forces and policies in Iraq, the current Iraqi government is splitting from it at an accelerating and alarming rate.
At the same time, the United States appears to be increasingly losing operational control of the new Iraqi army and police it has invested so much effort to train. Angered, alienated and traumatized by the continuing Sunni insurgent onslaught on their forces, the army and police, especially the latter, appear to be harboring significant and growing numbers of killing squads and groups whose primary allegiance is to the Shiite militias in their midst.
The result of this, of course, has been to further empower the Sunni insurgents; the number of people in the five million-strong Sunni community who previously made no effort to support them and are now turning to them in revulsion or desperation in the face of the growing wave of retaliation from the militias of the 15 million-strong majority Shiite community is growing.
This growing empowerment of the Sunni insurgents has been tracked by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Iraq Index Project of the Brookings Institution, a major centrist Washington political think tank.
The IIP noted that the Pentagon's official figures for insurgent attacks through December, January and February remained not only high but suspiciously uniform, or rounded out. The figures are given as 75 such attacks per day through that entire three month period. And most of that was before the violence instigated by the Feb. 22 Golden Mosque attack erupted.
This suggests that the Pentagon analysts and the U.S. forces knew they were recording a very high level of attacks throughout that three month period but were unable to keep track of all of them, or suspected there were many more than they were being officially informed of, and therefore felt forced to round off their figures to compensate for their lack of specific intelligence.
The radically increased hostility of Prime Minister al-Jaafari towards the United States, the unprecedented political power and influence welded by al-Sadr since the Dec. 15 elections and the wave of anti-Sunni sectarian killings -- and the Sunni reprisals for them -- that have erupted mark a major strategic triumph for the Sunni insurgents.
For their primary aim was to break the alliance, and bonds of cooperation and trust, between U.S. forces in Iraq and the emerging Shiite political leadership by trying to convince the Shiites that neither U.S. military forces nor U.S. political policies could protect them.
They have not yet fully achieved that goal, but the emerging conflict between Jaafari and other Shiite political leaders backed by the United States and Britain who are now seeking to oust him shows that they have certainly come far further towards achieving that goal than anyone dreamed was possible six weeks ago.
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