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Is Iraq on the verge of another civil war?

by Thomas Sbrega, published

Iraqi election (March 7th) results are still uncertain.  Prime Minister incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, is challenging American favorite Ayad Allawi, who is said to have won the election.  As they battle for the most powerful position in Iraq, the fact remains that Maliki is currently commander-in-chief of Iraqi armed forces. 

Although both are Shiite, Allawi secured millions of Sunni votes, and ran strong in Kirkuk.  This northeastern province, i.e. Kurdish, rests upon billions of barrels of oil.  With bombings as recent as last week killing innocent civilians, a potential revamp of the Sunni-Shiite civil war begs serious inquiry. 

Allawi says that “security has been deteriorating for almost eight to ten months,” with “the failure of reconciliations and the sectarianism that still prevails” being responsible.  The Sunni forces “confronting extremism and Al Qaeda have been suddenly declared antigovernment and have been pursued and detained.”  If Americans withdraw as planned in August, down to 50,000 troops, “attacks will be expedited,” he says, which will “expedite the breakdown of law and order.” 

Allawi also accuses Iran of “interfering quite heavily,” and is convinced that there will develop “literally a vacuum after the election until the new government is formed.”  This power vacuum will procure violent results, we are to conclude.  

According to a CFR article entitled 'Highest Risk' Window, “Shia leaders from top to bottom blame Syria for fueling the insurgency in terms of funding, training, and allowing transit for suicide bombers.”  Most Sunni Arabs “blame Iran for almost every problem bedeviling Iraq and for most attacks against Sunni Arab targets.”  (Iran is mostly Shia, see map)

In the “Green Zone” (Baghdad, International Zone), politics are the primary topic of discussion.  This topic, however, holds little bearing on any but elite Iraqi citizens.  Because of this erroneous prioritization, the civil war in Iraq developed with little American attention. 

One journalist, however, is convinced that things have changed.  “A few years ago,” he says, “observers underestimated the power of these militias; today they underestimate the power of the Iraqi Security Forces.”  These forces have begun to evaporate the “intense fear which led ordinary Iraqis to seek the protection bloody sectarian gangs” in the first place.

His name is Nir Rosen.  Born in New York City, Nir is a fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.  He has been covering the Iraq war since the 2003 invasion.  Since then, he has been interviewed extensively, and found the time to compile an impressive amount of literary work on the subject, including a book. 

Advantaged with the ability to speak the language, and unparalleled time dedicated travelling the country, he offers a unique perspective on the Iraq war.  In fact, he dismantles several key aspects of the “official” story mentioned above.

True, Iraq did suffer a bloody and complicated civil war (approximately 2006-2009), which Nir covered in graphic detail as it happened.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no simple way to delineate the aggressive militias— that is, Sunni and Shia factions displayed infighting amongst themselves, as well as towards each other.  “Power was distributed not only from one group, the Sunnis, to others, the Kurds and Shia, but also to everybody, that is, to anybody with a gun.”  The “lawlessness set in immediately following the fall of Saddam’s regime,” he writes.  

The Shia majority is now in control.  In the process, a systemic ethnic cleansing took place.  Sunni groups (notably AQI; Al Qaeda in Iraq) killed Shia civilians on a massive scale, instigating a Shia militia “death squad” retaliation that amounted to an “ethnic cleansing” of the Sunni minority. 

In the midst of the surge (Jan 2007), Bush decided to arm “the very Sunni militants who only months ago were waging deadly assaults on American forces.”  This new faction was called “The Awakening”* (nearly 100,000), and is the “Sunni forces” Allawi refers to above.  “With American forces now arming both sides in the civil war, the violence in Iraq has once again started to escalate,” Nir told Rolling Stones (2008).

Also in the interview, Nir shocked the American public by stating: “In Saddam's time, nobody knew what is Sunni and what is Shiite."  According to the article, he explained that “intermarriage was widespread, and many Iraqi tribes included both Sunnis and Shiites. Under Saddam, both the ruling Baath Party and the Iraqi army were majority Shiite… Thanks to the surge, both the Shiites and the Sunnis now have weapons and legitimacy.”

Commanding General David Petraeus told Nir “in 2008 that the civil war would end when the Shia realized they had won and the Sunnis that they had lost.”  When Nir travels Iraq today, he is convinced that this day has arrived.  The sectarian war is over.  Contrary to Allawi’s statements above, “there is no longer a security vacuum in Iraq.” 

“The Iraqi Security Forces might be brutal, sometimes corrupt, but they no longer act as death squads,” he tells CFR in an interview.  Their presence is everywhere, even in remote areas of Iraq.  People are no longer afraid to speak out against corruption.  Many are moving back to their war-torn homelands.  “Uneducated Iraqis might even say ‘when the Sunni and Shiite happened.’” 

Iran and Syria’s influence are grossly over-exaggerated.  Maliki, with his authoritarian faults, has the overwhelming majority support of Iraqis.  He is considered a non-sectarian nationalist and has a petro-state agenda “which uses oil revenues to produces wealth for Iraq,” a telltale sign for American opposition. 

Allawi has a shady past involving the Baath party and being an American intelligence agent (like Karzai), two untrustworthy roles by Iraqi standards.  Nir is certain Maliki will not rescind his power.  

He says, “Whether he wins, or wins fairly, he is the candidate best able to maintain a stable Iraq.”  “But, regardless of the outcome, the elections will not precipitate a return to the civil war.”

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