The return of civil war?

May 4, 2009

A surge of violence in Iraq has exposed the conventional wisdom dominant among U.S. politicians and the mainstream media that the occupation of Iraq has succeeded in establishing stability.

More than 200 Iraqis died in a series of suicide bombings and other attacks in a 10-day stretch at the end of April. Also killed were some 80 Shia Muslims from Iran who were on a religious pilgrimage.

U.S. and Iraqi government officials blamed the violence on al-Qaeda-linked groups. But there are signs of a deeper conflict between the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Awakening Councils--Sunni militias made up of fighters from the earlier anti-occupation insurgency that the U.S. has been funding and supplying on the promise that they turn their guns on al-Qaeda.

Michael Schwartz is author of War Without End: The Iraq War in Context. He explained to Ashley Smith why the renewed violence is a sign of continuing fault lines in Iraqi politics--and could shake up the Obama administration's plan to shift U.S. forces to the war on Afghanistan.

IN THE last couple of weeks, reports of violence in Iraq are sharply up. Why has this happened?

THERE ARE probably two different origins for the new violence.

First, there's clearly a revival of the Sunni Jihadist groups. They've conducted spectacular cars bombings against Shiite civilians. The Jihadists have had the space to stage these attacks because the various Awakening Councils are less concerned about repressing them.

This happened after the recent elections. The Awakening groups nearly swept the elections in the Sunni provinces in Anbar, and they achieved important advances in Baghdad. They expected to have institutional influence of a much greater sort than they have had until now, and thereby secure money and resources. But the flood of resources they expected haven't materialized.

Instead, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been very stingy. It hasn't hired the Awakening groups into the government as police, military or civilian employees. In fact, it's been cutting civilian employees in the government because of the reduction in oil revenues.

At least 41 people were killed when several car bombs detonated in Baghdad's Sadr City on April 29, 2009.
At least 41 people were killed when several car bombs detonated in Baghdad's Sadr City on April 29, 2009. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye | AFP)

The Awakening Councils haven't been able to acquire the political power that would command resource flows into various Sunni communities in Anbar as well as Baghdad. So they are increasingly discontented with their situation.

This has led to a second form of violent conflict--one between Maliki's government and the Awakening groups.

The most significant recent incident of violence occurred when Maliki arrested several important leaders of the Awakening movement. The most significant part of that battle was that the U.S. was on the side of the Maliki government. This has crystallized the resentment and simmering bitterness that exists in the Awakening groups. They feel that they are being abandoned by the United States, and that the Maliki government is going to try to crush them.

Maliki has to crush them by the end of this year when national elections are scheduled. He understands that his capacity to remain in office is going to depend on winning these elections. As it stands now, local movements--the Awakening Groups in the Sunni areas as well as the Sadrist movement in the Shia areas--will determine the outcome of the election.

What else to read

Michael Schwartz's book War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context provides a thorough analysis of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and demolishes the myths used to sell the U.S. public the idea of an endless "war on terror."

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq describes his time in Iraq reporting the other side of the story.

Patrick Cockburn's Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq analyzes the rise of the rebel cleric. Also valuable is his book The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq.

The crucial book on Iraq for antiwar activists is Anthony Arnove's Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, with a foreword by Howard Zinn.

So Maliki is trying to crush the Awakening groups so that he can build an electoral base in the Sunni areas, which seems to me to be a fruitless effort. We may see more battles like the one going on now in Mosul, in Anbar (especially Falluja since it remains one of the most recalcitrant areas), or the remaining Sunni areas of Baghdad.

AMID THIS surge of violence, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the U.S. might not withdraw its troops to their bases, as promised in June. What is the Obama administration up to?

CLEARLY, THEY aren't going to withdraw into their bases from Mosul and elsewhere. The generals have already said that they cleared it with Maliki, and they're staying. Once Maliki decides where he is going to attack the Awakening groups, then the United States will have to be militarily engaged in these places as well. The U.S. will say that there's a new level of violence, al-Qaeda is strong, and they'll have to keep military troops on patrol.

We're already seeing the symptoms of that. There was another incident the other day when American patrols were involved in a firefight and killed civilians. We haven't seen this sort of incident recently because the U.S. hasn't been doing invasive patrols. But they've clearly started doing them again. The Maliki government, backed by the U.S. military, has decided to break Awakening Council strongholds.

Ironically, the U.S. created these strongholds when it decided to cede control of various neighborhoods and cities to elements in the Sunni insurgency. So if it decides to try to dislodge these people, we'll see fighting like we did three years ago.

SO IT seems, then, like the recent provincial election didn't solve any of the political tensions in the country. Is that your view?

THE AMERICAN media claimed that the elections were a victory for the U.S. occupation. That was wrong.

There was one political formation in Iraq that ran on a pro-occupation platform--the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. They were annihilated in the election; they got about 4 percent of the vote, while in the past, they were the largest vote getting body in the election.

Maliki, the Sadrists, the Awakening groups, the other Sunni groups and even Kurdish voters ran as nationalists in opposition to the occupation. Virtually everyone who was elected in a provisional council was elected on a platform of ending the occupation as quickly as possible.

SO DID the election strengthen the hand of Maliki's government?

THAT'S THE second misperception. It's true that, electorally speaking, the groups allied with Maliki were the largest vote-getters. At that level, he won a victory, but if you actually look at people who were running, they all had an independent political existence and had signed on to a very broad coalition that Maliki was trying to form, based on this isolated government sitting in the Green Zone in Baghdad.

He was signing up groups with real bases in various places, especially in the Shia south. He said that if you affiliate with the Maliki administration, we promise a flow of resources once the election is over that will allow the provisional government to support the people, or for graft and self-enrichment. If he doesn't give them the resources, the coalition will fall apart.

But now he has no resources to give them. The oil money is being piled up in New York City banks, and other resources are being sucked away by this incredibly corrupt government. These local groups are therefore complaining in large numbers. Maliki has already alienated these people.

At the national level, he looks more and more visible and uncontested. But at the local level, which is more important, he's in a very tenuous position. Behind the scenes, he has to negotiate the Sadrists, Fadhila in Basra, and elements of the Awakening groups.

He's attempting to find a coalition that actually will give him some base on the ground. But he has no administrative apparatus through the government, only through the local formations. Even in Baghdad, he has no administrative presence. He has no way of delivering anything to the people.

He doesn't even have an independent military; it can't function without the U.S. leading it, supplying it and providing it with both violent and nonviolent support services. All Maliki has is the imprimatur as president, and the backing of the United States.

Every time he negotiates with local formations, they demand that he take a nationalist stance against the U.S. That explains why he denounced the recent U.S. raid as a violation of the Status of Forces Agreement. But on the other hand, he signed off on the U.S. offensive in Mosul.

That perfectly expresses the contradiction in which he lives. Maliki has three masters--the U.S., Iran and the local nationalist forces among Iraqis. He's constantly juggling his loyalties to maintain a balance. He pretty much knows that he can't survive without all three of them.

IN THE North, the Maliki government as well as local Sunni Arabs are at odds with Kurdish forces. What can we expect from this growing conflict between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds?

I THINK that the schism between Arab and Kurd in Iraq is going to become more and more visible. The U.S. hasn't found a means to resolve this conflict in favor of a strong U.S. presence still dominant in the politics and economy of Iraq. That's why there is so much fighting going on in Mosul.

The U.S. can't side with the Kurds, because it will turn Mosul into a Kurdish province, which will guarantee endless conflict with Iraqi Arabs. But it can't allow the Sunnis to drive the Kurds out, because that would lead the Kurds into a rebellious posture toward the U.S. The U.S. is fighting a battle in Mosul in which it's trying to pacify the people, and not allow ethnic cleansing in one direction or the other. You can see the same situation in Kirkuk.

The worst irony in this is that if the United States weren't involved, neither side would be able to implement a military victory. Neither one is strong enough to defeat the other.

Defensive wars are a lot easier to fight than offensive wars. If you have sectors of cities dominated by one ethnic group, it's not that easy to mount an ethnic cleansing campaign unless you have overwhelming military superiority. The U.S. is the one force that provides the overwhelming military superiority in the situation. The U.S. is thus perpetuating the battle.

The only way the battle can be resolved is through real negotiation between the sides, and that will require that neither side thinking it can win.

In Mosul, for example, Maliki thinks he can win because he thinks he can force the U.S. to be on his side. The Kurds think they can win because they think they can force the U.S. to be on their side. So they continue to fight. And the U.S. plays both ends toward the middle, hoping to exhaust them.

But if the U.S. moves to one side or the other, there will be an incredible bloodbath. That's what happened in Baghdad when the U.S. effectively sided with the Shia, cleared away the Sunni militias, and allowed the Shia death squads to go in and drive Sunnis out of their neighborhoods.

The U.S. hasn't yet decided to go either way in Mosul or Kirkuk. It's sitting there, like a tinderbox.

HOW WILL the increase in ethnic and sectarian violence and the schisms between the Maliki government and other political forces impact the upcoming elections?

IN THE current situation, I don't think that the Maliki government can afford to have an election. But if they postpone the two upcoming elections, it could be the final straw that breaks the back of the relative stability in Iraq.

The first election this summer is a referendum on expelling the U.S. The government is sure to cancel that. And the other is later in the year, to elect a new national government. When those elections don't occur, you're going to see a new nationalist formation.

Obviously, the Sadrists will be central to it. But they won't be the only one by any means. The Awakening groups will be in there, and so will all the other Shia groups, including the Supreme Council at a local level, which is more nationalist than it is at the national level. Even local groups from Maliki's Dawa Party will be opposed to the government.

So if the election gets canceled and people feel denied their chance to expel the U.S. and elect a government that actually represents them, a new crisis will emerge. Maliki and the U.S. generals aren't dumb. If they see these formations beginning to coalesce into something powerful, they're going to adopt the one means they have left, which is the military.

If Maliki and the U.S. proceed along this path, they'll organize new offensives not unlike what they're conducting in Mosul.

We might see an offensive in Basra, for example, where there's an independent array of political forces. The city controls oil exports through its port. Basra is also a key center for generating electricity. It can opt out of the national grid and use its electricity for itself. Basra can become a city-state on its own, with lots of resources. If a nationalist formation coalesces there, we could see another invasion of Basra in the cards.

SO WHERE do you think U.S. strategy is heading?

THE GENERALS have a very clear understanding of how dangerous the situation is. That's why they keep saying they don't want any troops moved to Afghanistan. While most U.S. troops are currently sitting on bases, the generals think they might need them in the coming months.

On the other hand, even among the military, there's this sense that this is an endless and unwinnable war. If the U.S. does undertake these military operations, as in Mosul or in Kirkuk, in the near future, they aren't going to resolve anything. They'll be about pacification that does not provide a solution.

For example, the U.S. had a huge military presence in Falluja for four years, and it's still a center of insurgency. As the U.S. starts to withdraw a military presence, Falluja is again becoming a very visible center of political resistance. It would become military resistance if the U.S. turns on it.

The Obama government is going to have to make the same kind of decision that the Bush administration made several different times: Are you going to escalate the war? Or are you going to give ground and start abandoning the-long term goals of the U.S. of organizing Iraqi oil and the economy, making it the host it of a huge American military presence in the Middle East, establishing it as firm ally in the battle against Iran?

Each time, the Bush administration had a crisis, it had to choose which of these goals to compromise on for the short run. For example, it did relax the goal of neoliberalization when it saw that this was wrecking the economy. It allowed the Iraqi government to put 2 million people on the national government payroll.

In the same way, the Obama administration--looking down the barrel of a huge escalation of the war--might allow the Sunnis to establish nationalist areas that are hostile to U.S. presence in the short run, with the plan of retrieving those areas later on. The U.S. could bide its time, leave the Awakening Councils alone and not support the Maliki government's effort to destroy them at the risk of the Maliki government being displaced itself.

Maybe it would gamble that it could get another government in Iraq that looks okay. They have options. They don't have to protect the Maliki government to the death. They could allow it to be replaced. Maliki would certainly be replaced by a highly nationalist government that would say the U.S. has to leave. But the U.S. might let it in and do what it did traditionally in Latin America--orchestrate a coup against it later on.

WHAT DOES all this mean for the antiwar movement in the U.S.?

THE ANTIWAR movement's task is still to make it politically untenable for the United States to sustain its military presence. If the antiwar movement could generate a lot of pressure to say you've got to start pulling the troops out, and stop having aggressive patrols and fighting battles, that would be a tremendous victory for the Iraqi people.

The amount of death and destruction in Iraq is still projected to be very high. Stopping the aggressive patrols and withdrawing the troops would reduce the toll dramatically. The political dynamic that would flow out of that might give progressive forces in Iraq some room to maneuver.

If the antiwar movement could keep Obama to his commitment of reducing the U.S. presence to 50,000 troops, which was lame to begin with, that alone would help prevent a re-escalated war and the rate of death going sky-high again. But the antiwar movement also has to continue to demand the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

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