What's Really Happened During
Wednesday December 12, 2007
Has the US turned the tide in Baghdad? Does the
fall in violence mean that the country is stabilizing after more
than four years of war or are we seeing only a temporary pause
in the fighting?
American commentators are generally making the same mistake that
they have made since the invasion of Iraq was first contemplated
five years ago. They look at Iraq in over-simple terms and exaggerate
the extent to which the US is making the political weather and
is in control of events there.
The US is the most powerful single force in Iraq but it is by
no means the only one. The shape of Iraqi politics have changed
over the last year though for reasons that have little to do with
'the Surge'--the 30,000 US troop reinforcements -- and much to
do with the battle for supremacy between the Sunni and Shia communities.
The Sunni Arabs of Iraq turned against al Qa'ida partly because
it tried to monopolize power but primarily because it had brought
their community close to catastrophe. The Sunni war against the
US occupation had gone surprisingly well for them since it began
in 2003. It was a second war, the one against the Shia majority
led by al-Qa'ida, which the Sunni were losing with disastrous
results for themselves.
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"The Sunni people now think they cannot fight two wars--against
the occupation and the government--at the same time," a Sunni
friend in Baghdad told me last week. "We must be more realistic
and accept the occupation for the moment."
This is why much of the non-al-Qa'ida Sunni insurgency has effectively
changed sides. An important reason why al-Qa'ida has lost ground
so swiftly is a split within its own ranks. The US military--the
State Department has been very much marginalized in decision making
in Baghdad--does not want to emphasize that many of the Sunni
fighters now on the US payroll and misleadingly called 'Concerned
Citizens' until recently belonged to al Qa'ida and have the blood
of a great many Iraqi civilians and US soldiers on their hands.
The Sunni Arabs, five million out of an Iraqi population of 27
million and the mainstay of Saddam Hussein's government, were
the core of the resistance to the US occupation. But they have
also been fighting a sectarian war to prevent the 16 million Shia
and the five million Kurds holding power.
At first the Shia were very patient in the face of atrocities.
Vehicles, packed with explosives and driven by suicide bombers,
were regularly detonated in the middle of crowded Shia market
places or religious processions, killing and maiming hundreds
The bombers came from al-Qa'ida, but the attacks were never wholeheartedly
condemned by Sunni political leaders or other guerrilla groups.
The bombings were also very short sighted since the Iraqi Shia
outnumber the Sunni three to one. Retaliation was restrained until
a bomb destroyed the revered Shia al-Askari shrine in Samarra
on 22 February, 2006.
The bombing led to a savage Shia onslaught on the Sunni which
became known in Iraq as 'the battle for Baghdad'. This struggle
was won by the Shia. They were always the majority in the capital,
but by the end of 2006 they controlled 75 per cent of the city.
The Sunni fled or were pressed back into a few enclaves, mostly
in west Baghdad.
In the wake of this defeat there was less and less point in the
Sunni trying expel the Americans when the Sunni community was
itself being evicted by the Shia from large parts of Iraq. The
Iraqi Sunni leaders had also miscalculated that an assault on
their community by the Shia would provoke Arab Sunni states like
Saudi Arabia and Egypt into giving them more support but this
It was al-Qa'ida's slaughter of Shia civilians, whom it sees
as heretics worthy of death, which brought disaster to the Sunni
community. Al-Qa'ida also grossly overplayed its hand at the end
of last year by setting up the Islamic State of Iraq which tried
to fasten its control on other insurgent groups and the Sunni
community as a whole. Sunni garbage collectors were killed because
they worked for the government and Sunni families in Baghdad were
ordered to send one of their members to join al Qai'da. Bizarrely,
even Osama bin Laden, who never had much influence over al Qa'ida
in Iraq, was reduced to advising his acolytes against extremism.
Defeat in Baghdad and the extreme unpopularity of al Qa'ida gave
the impulse for the formation of the 77,000-strong anti al-Qa'ida
Sunni militia, often under tribal leadership, which is armed and
paid for by the US. But the creation of this force is a new stage
in the war in Iraq rather than an end to the conflict.
Sunni enclaves in Baghdad are safer, but not districts where
Sunni and Shia face each other. There are few mixed areas left.
Many of the Sunni fighters say openly that they see the elimination
of al Qai'ida as a preliminary to an attack on the Shia militias,
notably the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, which triumphed last
The creation of a US-backed Sunni militia both strengthens and
weakens the Iraqi government. It is strengthened in so far as
the Sunni insurrection is less effective and weakened because
it does not control this new force.
If the Sunni guerrillas were one source of violence in 2006 the
other was the Mehdi Army, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia nationalist
cleric. This has been stood down because he wants to purge it
of elements he does not control and wishes to avoid a military
confrontation with his rivals within the Shia community if they
are backed by the US army. But the Mehdi Army would certainly
fight if the Shia community came under attack or the Americans
pressured it too hard.
American politicians continually throw up their hands in disgust
that Iraqis cannot reconcile or agree on how to share power. But
equally destabilizing is the presence of a large US army in Iraqi
and the uncertainty about what role the US will play in future.
However much Iraqis may fight among themselves a central political
fact in Iraq remains the unpopularity of the US-led occupation
outside Kurdistan. This has grown year by year since the fall
of Saddam Hussein. A detailed opinion poll carried out by ABC
News, BBC and NTV of Japan in August found that 57 per cent of
Iraqis believe that attacks on US forces are acceptable.
Nothing is resolved in Iraq. Power is wholly fragmented. The
Americans will discover, as the British learned to their cost
in Basra, that they have few permanent allies in Iraq. It has
become a land of warlords in which fragile ceasefires might last
for months and might equally collapse tomorrow.