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Sectarian tensions on the rise...
U.S. fans flames of violence in Iraq

April 21, 2006 | Page 12

ERIC RUDER reports on the escalating violence in Iraq--and the role played by the U.S. in stoking it.

NEW NEIGHBORHOODS are springing up in Iraq, but not as a sign of economic progress. Instead, fear is the driving factor.

"I've built 20 houses in the past two weeks, and it's been like that since what happened in Samarra," said Nabil Abdul Hassan, a homebuilder in Chikook, a western suburb of Baghdad.

What happened in Samarra was the February 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, which sparked a wave of sectarian violence. Deaths squads have killed more than 2,000 people across Iraq since the Samarra bombing.

The wave of violence has begun to rip apart neighborhoods and villages where Sunnis and Shiites lived together peacefully for decades or even centuries. Thus, the hastily constructed cinder block houses in Chikook are now home to Shiite families, most of whom used to live in the village of Haswa.

"The men here say there was a progression," wrote journalist David Enders. "First, they became afraid to travel to Baghdad for work, which took them through largely Sunni suburbs on the west side of the city, where people were frequently attacked on the road."

Many Shiite residents of Haswa ultimately decided it would be safest to leave altogether. "A hundred families have left in the last two days," one man told Enders. "A hundred, maybe 200 more, are coming in the next week."

According to Iraq's Ministry for Displacement and Migration, at least 65,000 people--nearly 11,000 families--have left their homes as a result of the sectarian violence and threats. "Shiites are not the only ones being cleansed," Enders wrote. "Sunnis are also leaving areas in which they are the minority, pushed out by Shiite militias."

With the violence escalating in Iraq and the central government deadlocked since December elections over forming a new government, a number of recently retired U.S. generals--some of whom led troops on the ground in Iraq--are pointing the finger back at the Bush administration.

The generals have come out publicly for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, blaming U.S. failures in Iraq on his arrogance and dismissive attitude to the opinions of the military brass.

So far, the Bush administration is showing nothing but support for Rumsfeld, despite the unprecedented public criticism. But even as the questioning of the Bush administration grows louder, U.S. forces are expected to escalate the violence in Iraq.

According to news reports quoting Pentagon sources, the U.S. is planning a massive military operation with Iraqi troops that would sweep through Baghdad, neighborhood by neighborhood, once Iraq's new prime minister is sworn in. "It will be the second liberation of Baghdad," said Daniel Gouré, a Pentagon adviser who works for the Lexington Institute, a military think tank. "The new government will be able to claim it is taking back the streets."

The U.S. plans to target strongholds of the Sunni resistance, but Shiite militias that have resisted toeing Washington's line will also come under attack, according to the reports. And of course, every neighborhood will experience its share of "collateral damage"--civilians who are "regrettably" killed or homes that are "inadvertently" destroyed to ensure the "success of the mission."

The "second liberation of Baghdad" is just one aspect of a strategic shift undertaken by the U.S. in recent months. Since the invasion in 2003, the U.S. has used the classic colonial strategy of divide and conquer in the hopes of cultivating a pro-U.S. regime--by courting support from Iraq's Shiites to isolate Sunni resistance forces.

But now the U.S., worried by the growing influence of Iran's Shiite government in postwar Iraq, has begun tilting against the Iraqi Shiites. Thus, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad recently declared that militia violence now poses a greater threat to Iraq's stability than "terrorists" or "insurgents."

The U.S. has long fought the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who built a reputation as an opponent of the U.S. occupation. But U.S. officials considered other militias--in particular, the Shiite Badr Brigade and the Kurdish peshmerga--allies in the fight against the Sunni resistance.

While the U.S. armed and trained Iraq's new security forces, it turned a blind eye as Badr militia members, loyal to their own commanders instead of government officials, joined up. Badr Brigade fighters are widely considered responsible for the abduction, torture and execution of Sunnis, whose bodies are found--sometimes in groups of 10 or 20--dumped around Baghdad. Family members or other witnesses report that the victims were picked up by men wearing the uniforms of U.S.-backed forces.

The U.S. has provided millions of dollars worth of guns and ammunition to these units. While the U.S. won't release the exact number, according to the Chicago Tribune, "Interior Ministry forces were issued more than 10,000 AK-47 rifles, 16,000 pistols and 800 light and medium machine guns during one recent three-month period, according to a Defense Department report to Congress in February."

With the growing reports of brutality by units that enjoy U.S. support, State Department officials told the Tribune that there may be "shortcomings in compliance" with U.S. laws that prohibit taxpayer-financed support of foreign forces engaging in human rights abuses.

Of course, the Bush administration--with its secret wiretapping and use of torture from Iraq to Guantánamo Bay--has made it clear that neither U.S. laws nor human rights violations will stand in its way.

As long as the U.S. remains in Iraq, it will continue to fan sectarian violence and employ naked force to maintain its grip. For the sake of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers alike, the U.S. should get out--now.

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