Saturday, June 28, 2014

164.5 - Iraq: some comments

Iraq: some comments

I'm going to spend some time, probably the rest of the show, talking about Iraq. It's actually a hard topic to cover on a weekly show like this, because the flow of events can be such that whatever I say will be passe by the time you hear it.

So, instead of some sort of up-to-the-minute overlook, herewith some perhaps disjointed observations on the overall topic of Iraq.

To start with, though, we have to consider what is going on as it is described to you by the mass media: The forces of a radical fundamentalist Muslim group called ISIS - which stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - have swept through a significant portion of western Iraq, as the government army just ran away. Those forces now control the border crossings into Syria and Jordan and are threatening the capital city of Baghdad.

Now, that is in a broad sense true, but it's not entirely true, and the way it's not entirely true is significant: The forces are actually a range of Sunni militant groups, of which ISIS is the most prominent and probably the most numerous. But it is by no means the only. That can be important for what happens in the future and I will come back to it.

It's also not entirely true that the army simply ran away. There was some resistance, but the army in the area was composed of a combination of Sunnis and Shiites. The Sunnis were largely unwilling to go into battle against other Sunnis and the Shiites wound up thinking "why should I risk my life to defend Sunni towns when my Sunni comrades won't do it themselves so I'm getting out of here." And as often happens in war, retreat turned into panicked flight.

But the way to get a grip on real thing that's going on to realize about what's going on can be found by a comparison of two maps.

The first map comes from I think NBC and it displays where the militants have made their military gains in these weeks.

The second map displays the outcome of the Iraqi parliamentary elections in 2010. The dark blue areas were won by Sunni political parties; the yellow areas were won by Kurdish political parties; the green areas were won by Shiite political parties; and the light blue areas were won by Sunni-Shiite coalition political parties. The little light blue area sort of sticking up, almost surrounded by dark blue, is Baghdad.

Comparing those two maps tells a real story. All of the militant gains have come in heavily, even overwhelmingly, Sunni areas.

The fact is, we are not seeing some outside force sweeping a new caliphate into existence, we are seeing a Sunni uprising against a Shiite-dominated, highly sectarian government in Baghdad.

Our fundamental failure in understanding Iraq has been our refusal to recognize the extremely deep and sharply sectarian divisions that exist and have existed all along. Iraq is a sort of artificial nation, one whose borders were set by the League of Nations in 1921 for the benefit of western nations and without regard either to natural, ethnic, or cultural boundaries.

Our federal government shows some signs of recognition of this, as usual, too little too late, but there are reports that US is "increasingly exasperated" with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who over the past three years, since US troops pulled out, has stopped doing all the things that lead to the cooling of sectarian tensions, the reduction in sectarian violence.

Nouri al-Maliki
He stopping providing payments to Sunni tribes, stopped providing patronage to Sunni groups while favoring Shiite ones. He started persecuting Sunni politicians, jailing them, even killing them through death squads.

It's not that this is a surprise or previously unknown. Over a year ago, in the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I warned that "al-Maliki is consolidating his personal power on the road toward a dictatorship."

Two months after that, I described how Maliki, had been "engaging in an increasing crackdown on political opponents," including police raids on peaceful Sunni protest encampments.

And in January of this year, I noted the violent arrest of a Sunni member of parliament on bogus terrorism charges and the violent destruction of the lrest of those encampments. At that time, I said:
[T]here has indeed been a resurgence of violence in Iraq, including in the capital of Baghdad. Over 8,000 people were been killed in sectarian violence in Iraq in 2013, the highest total since 2008. But blunderbuss tactics such as Maliki is employing are less likely to bring an end to such violence than they are to intensify it, as other Sunnis take up arms....

As negotiations between government officials on the one hand and Anbar provincial council members and tribal sheikhs on the other fail, Iraq stands now on the edge of a renewal of outright civil war.
Fareed Zakaria, a CNN journalist who never found an international situation he couldn't grossly oversimplify, still did manage to make a solid point when he said that what's happening now in Iraq
was inevitable in the sense it was predictable because we’ve seen this movie before. This is exactly what happened in '04, '05, and '06 when the Shia government in Iraq essentially started persecuting the Sunnis, purging them from office, disempowering them in various ways, and the Sunnis started fueling and funding insurgency. That's what created the civil war in Iraq.
And now, years later, doing the same damn things is leading to the same damn result: creating another civil war.

But of course, it's only now, now with disaster (from our point of view) at the door, only now we are pressing Maliki to make some political overtures to the Sunnis in order to create political opposition to ISIS among the Sunnis. For his part, Maliki is stalling, posturing, and pontificating, figuring that if things get bad enough, we will save his butt.

Meanwhile, while US is flying 30 or more warplane or drone missions over Iraq daily, they are merely watching the militant advance and military officials even directly deny rumors of a single drone strike.

As Time mag notes,
the U.S. military generally "sends messages" by attacking. Now it is sending messages by not attacking. And its target this time around isn’t the enemy, but its purported ally running the country.
Bluntly put, the US is dragging its feet about defending Malaki’s government, taking what Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, called "a measured, deliberate approach to help us and the Iraqis get better eyes on the situation." He added that the teams going to Iraq "will provide their findings within the next two to three weeks," and after getting and considering those reports the brass will decide what to do next. The whole purpose is to force Maliki to make concessions as a condition for expanded US assistance.

In other words, the US and Maliki are playing a sort of political chicken. The questions are who blinks first and how many die both before and after that time.

Because people are dying. The UN estimates that more than 1,000 people have been killed in Iraq in June, a figure the UN human rights office said "should be viewed very much as a minimum." Seventy-five percent of the dead were civilians.

And it may get a good deal worse. Clear signs of a return to sectarian reprisal killings are appearing in Baghdad similar to the dark days of 2006-07 when most every morning revealed victims, sometimes dozens of victims, murdered in the night for the crime of believing in the wrong version of Islam.

So what happens now? First, it's safe to say that the Sunni forces will not have it so easy from here on out, especially if they stand by their declared (at least by ISIS) plans not only to take Baghdad but to advance to Shiite holy cities such as Najaf. If they do, they are going to be finding themselves up against well-armed, well-trained Shiite militias with combat experience, who will be defending, in essence, their own turf, not someone else's.

There's another issue about those Sunni militants, which is that ISIS has a crucial weakness. As I noted at the top, ISIS is the most prominent and very likely the largest of the various Sunni groups - but with maybe 8000-10,000 fighters in Iraq, ISIS simply does not have the numbers to take and hold multiple urban centers. It is totally reliant on its support from other Sunni groups and from the local population, which still sees them as the answer to repression by the Shiite-dominated central government.

But ISIS has a record of violence, extremism, absolutism, and ruthlessness such that even al-Qaeda disavowed them and in Syria they are as busy fighting other rebel groups as they are Assad's forces. ISIS has repeatedly gained and then lost local support and it's easy to imagine the same thing happening in Iraq. So there is a real question of how long the Sunni militant coalition, for lack of a better term, can stay together.

That's where the hope for a political settlement lies, in that this is not a battle of Iraq against an invading army of fanatics, but a battle of politically-entrenched Shiites versus disaffected Sunnis, Sunnis who could, the thinking goes, be brought back into the fold with some concessions, some gestures in their direction.

My own sense, however, is that the US belief that a new power-sharing agreement in Baghdad would soothe the anger among the Sunnis is hopelessly naive. Because if once bitten is twice shy, what is twice bitten? As Zakaria said, we've seen this movie before. Why would Sunnis believe any promises from Maliki or his government about a new power-sharing agreement? Why should they believe them?

What may come out of this - after the bloodshed that always seems to be required in such matters before people come to their senses - is what others have predicted, even advocated, before: an Iraq that exists less as a nation than as a confederation of three Iraqs: one Sunni, one Shiite, and one Kurdish.

I know not talked about the Kurds. They are an important part in what happens to Iraq in the future and deserve a full consideration, which I have not given them here. But I am going to have to save that for another day.

Rather, I'm going to wrap up by saying that, who knows, maybe things will work out in Iraq because we have evidence that miracles do happen.

Last week, someone said this about Iraq:
Not one more life. Not one more dollar, not one more airplane, not one more bullet, not one more Marine, not one more arm or leg or eye. Not one more. This must end now. From the beginning, most people on the left were against going into Iraq. I wasn’t.... Liberals, you were right. We shouldn’t have.
The person who said that was Glenn Beck.

Sources cited in links:

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