On the Brink in Iraq
Friday 24 February 2006
With Iraq perched at the very precipice of an ethnic and sectarian holocaust, the utter failure of the Bush administration's policy is revealed with starkest clarity. Iraq may or may not fall into the abyss in the next few days and weeks, but what is no longer in doubt is who is to blame: If Iraq is engulfed in civil war then Americans, Iraqis and the international community must hold President Bush and Vice President Cheney responsible for the destruction of Iraq.
The CIA, the State Department, members of Congress and countless Middle East experts warned Bush and Cheney - to no avail - that toppling Saddam could unleash the demons of civil war. They said so before the war, during it and in the aftermath, and each time the warnings were dismissed. Those warnings came from people like Paul Pillar, the CIA veteran who served as the US intelligence community's chief Middle East analyst, from Wayne White, the State Department's chief intelligence analyst on Iraq and from two CIA Baghdad station chiefs who were purged for their analysis. Pillar, who wrote this month in Foreign Affairs that pre-war intelligence on Iraq was distorted by the Bush-Cheney team, is being excoriated by the right.
For the most radical-right neoconservative Jacobins amongst the Bush-Cheney team, the possibility that Iraq might fall apart wasn't even alarming: they just didn't care, and in their obsessive zeal to overthrow Saddam Hussein they were more than willing to take the risk. David Wurmser, who migrated from the Israeli-connected Washington Institute on Near East Policy to the American Enterprise Institute to the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans to John Bolton's arms control shop at the State Department to Dick Cheney's shadow National Security Council in the Office of the Vice President from 2001 to 2006, wrote during the 1990s that Iraq after Saddam was likely to descend into violent tribal, ethnic and sectarian war.
In a paper for an Israeli think tank, the same think tank for which Wurmser, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith prepared the famous "Clean Break" paper in 1996, Wurmser wrote in 1997 : "The residual unity of the nation is an illusion projected by the extreme repression of the state." After Saddam, Iraq would "be ripped apart by the politics of warlords, tribes, clans, sects, and key families," he wrote. "Underneath facades of unity enforced by state repression, [Iraq's] politics is defined primarily by tribalism, sectarianism, and gang/clan-like competition." Yet Wurmser explicitly urged the United States and Israel to "expedite" such a collapse. "The issue here is whether the West and Israel can construct a strategy for limiting and expediting the chaotic collapse that will ensue in order to move on to the task of creating a better circumstance."
Such black neoconservative fantasies - which view the Middle East as a chessboard on which they can move the pieces at will - have now come home to roost. For the many hundreds of thousands who might die in an Iraqi civil war, the consequences are all too real.
The bankruptcy of the Bush-Cheney Iraq policy is revealed in the fact that the United States has succeeded in pitting itself now against two major "resistance" groups in Iraq. The first is the Sunni-led, mostly Baathist and military resistance, which has battled US forces in Baghdad and the so-called Sunni triangle to the north and west. The second, which is growing in the ferocity of its anti-Americanism, is the Shiite religious forces led by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Moqtada Al Sadr's Mahdi Army, and their allies, who have begun routinely to denounce the United States for its opposition to their plans to create a Shiite-dominated, Iranian-allied Islamic Republic of Iraq. Abdel Aziz Al Hakim, SCIRI's chieftain and former commander of its Badr Brigade paramilitary force, has all but declared war on the United States, blaming Ambassador Khalilzad for giving a "green light" to the bombers by insisting that Shiite militias be disarmed. Proclaimed Hakim:
"For sure, the statements made by the ambassador were not made in a responsible way and he did not behave like an ambassador. These statements were the reason for more pressure and gave green lights to terrorist groups. And, therefore, he shares in part of the responsibility."
And even the oracle-like Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose supposedly nonpolitical stance looks more and more like a cover for shrewd and calculating political ambition, overtly threatened this week to order the unleashing of Shiite militias in a civil war mode.
But the escalating political rhetoric is built on a foundation of escalating inter-communal violence. Ethnic cleansing is proceeding apace. The bombing of the Golden Dome in Samarra ought not to be seen as a conspiratorial effort to provoke civil war, but merely as a symptom of that incipient war. As a Sunni city north of Baghdad, it is likely that ethnic cleansers planned the attack as a means of terrifying Shiites in that part of Iraq to flee southward to the Shiite enclaves. Scores of Iraqi cities, towns, and neighborhoods are undergoing a similar pattern of terrorism and death squads aimed at ethnic cleansing.
What is especially scary to Shiites is that the destruction of the Golden Dome follows an historic pattern first laid down by the Wahhabi conquerors of the Arabian peninsula in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the Wahhabi Arab army made demolition of Shiite mosque domes its signature and launched a crusade against alleged idolatry by Shiites, who were disparaged by the Wahhabis as heretics. The Kurds, too, standing back from the Sunni-Shiite battles, are engaging in their own, anti-Arab ethnic cleansing in and around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which President Jalal Talabani of Iraq, a Kurd, has called "the Jerusalem of Kurdistan."
It is all ugly and likely to get much uglier. So far, hundreds of Iraqis on all sides have died since Tuesday, scores and perhaps hundreds of mosques attacked, execution-style slayings proliferated, and ordinary Iraqis driven into hiding or into exile. A weekend curfew has Iraq on the knife's edge.
Like the Sarajevo assassination that precipitated World War I, the attack on the mosque may trigger a war, but it won't be the cause. The cause is far more deep-rooted, embedded in the chaos and bitterness that followed the US invasion of Iraq and America's deliberate efforts to stress sectarian differences in creating the Iraqi Governing Council and subsequent government institutions. If the current crisis doesn't spark a civil war, be patient. The next one will.
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Virginia, who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website:www.robertdreyfuss.com.