Middle East
Iraq's Disintegration 22 Mar 2006
by Kenneth Katzman

Despite the deaths of over 2,300 US military personnel and the US expenditure of about $300 billion, Iraq's political system, social fabric, international legitimacy, security structure, and economy are disintegrating. The unraveling was well underway long before the February 22, 2006 bombing of the Al-Askariya Shiite shrine in Samarra, but has accelerated since. That bombing has capped over one year of growing sectarian violence, which is a product of and further complicates the three-year old Sunni-led insurgency.   

The sectarian violence - many would call it low level civil war - represents a progression and continuation of the insurgency, and not a separate and distinct development. For over one year, Sunni insurgents that had primarily been attacking US and Iraqi forces have been also attacking Shiite civilians. This has been part of an effort by foreign insurgent fighters to provoke Sunni-Shiite civil war. Initially, the undisputed Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani had succeeded in restraining Shiite civilians and the mostly Shiite Iraqi security forces from retaliating for these attacks. However, the attacks continued, Shiite civilian casualties mounted, and, as many experts anticipated, Shiite self-restraint weakened. Sistani's appeals not to retaliate began to go unheeded, and Iraq's Shiites began using the assets at their disposal to retaliate, their overwhelming majority control of the Interior Ministry-controlled police forces, and the related militia forces. Many would argue that certain units of the police are virtually indistinguishable from the 'Badr Brigade' militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), or Moqtada Al-Sadr's 'Mahdi Army.'  

While Sunni insurgents, particularly the foreign contingent of fighters, have continued to attack Shiite civilians, the Shiite forces, both regular and irregular, have begun attacking Sunni clerics, Sunni mosques, and killing civilians in Sunni neighborhoods. It is now virtually a daily occurrence that numerous bodies turn up in Baghdad and elsewhere, bound, gagged, and shot. Several large groups of such victims have recently turned up in minibuses, landfills, shallow graves, fields, and other locations. Since the bombing of Al-Askariya, violence has worsened, with about 1,000 civilians killed, about 80 Sunni mosques attacked, and now residential neighborhoods being subjected to mortar attacks and other direct or indirect weapons fire.

Political breakdown is in full view. Three months after the December 15, 2005, national elections, the elected parliament met for the first time on March 16, 2006, and only then for a thirty minute swearing in session. Agreement on a new government, which the U.S. insists must be a national unity government, is still not imminent, according to several observers in Baghdad.  

Even if a national unity government is formed, it is likely to be fragile and largely ineffective. The fragility flows from the unwillingness of the major factions in Iraq to give up their armed wings, and their inability to restrain these militiamen. As has been seen, even faction leaders are no longer able to contain their armed minions from committing sectarian violence; calls for calm and unity after the February 22 Al-Askariya attacks were only partly obeyed. Shiite police allowed Shiite militias to run checkpoints and commit attacks on Sunni mosques after the Al-Askariya attack. Later, Iraqi security forces largely vacated the large Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, a Moqtada Al-Sadr stronghold, leaving security in the hands of the Mahdi Army. Many observers believe the Iraqi security forces would have fractured outright in the aftermath of that event had US forces not been present to hold them together. Even before the Al-Askariya, US coalition partners based in southern Iraq had noted that the Basra police force, for example, was essentially a coalition of Badr and Mahdi fighters, and not a truly Iraqi force.      

Adding to the perception that Iraq has already slipped into civil war, personal relations have now become politicized as the society breaks up into camps. Even though Shiites were heavily repressed by Saddam Hussein, during his rule Shiite and Sunni personal relations were, by all accounts, unaffected. Over the past year, anecdotal reports of Shiites vacating Sunni-dominated neighborhoods, and vice-versa, are numerous. Shiite and Sunni intermarriage is widely reported to be discouraged. Sunnis have reported being routinely stopped at checkpoints and asked what their sect they belong to. Numerous residents say they do no longer go out except to go to work, for fear of being subjected to sectarian violence.

The continuing insurgency, coupled with the sectarian strife, are slowing the progress of economic reconstruction, which had been one of the bright spots in post-Saddam Iraq. Economic growth has been healthy, and Iraqis have invested in property and greatly increased their purchases of home appliances, cars, and other durable goods, suggesting economic confidence. About 30,000 new businesses have been started since the fall of Saddam Hussein. However, insurgent attacks on energy infrastructure has reduced oil exports to about 1.5 million barrels per day, still fully 30% below the levels during Saddam's time. Baghdad receives only about 5 hours of power per day, although other regions now receive more power than they did during Saddam's rule because power is no longer being disproportionately sent to the capital.

A major question is what set of US strategies, if any, can reverse Iraq's disintegration, avoid an all-out civil war, and produce the model democracy that was envisioned. At this point, probably nothing less than a complete overhaul of the post-Saddam power structure can produce that result. The current U.S.-designed transition process has produced a power structure that is too heavily weighted toward the Shiites and Kurds to end the insurgency and sectarian violence. The U.S.-led transition has provided the Sunnis with motivation to try to overturn the existing order, and given the Shiites and Kurds the political and armed means to prevent the Sunnis from doing so. Yet, the Shiites and Kurds, even with US military backing, remain insufficiently strong to completely subdue the Sunni guerrillas.   

The Bush Administration appears to believe that an agreement among political elites on a unity government, and some modifications to the approved constitution, might sufficiently alter the power structure to end the violence. It is likely, however, that minor adjustments and course corrections will not satisfy the constituents of the political elite. The question is whether or not the Administration would allow Iraqi leaders to completely re-write the post-Saddam transition, which might mean voiding the Shiite-friendly elections and constitutional referendum,  and produce a new, balanced, negotiated power structure that satisfies all factions and sects. The Shiites and the Kurds might accept such a re-working if they believed that refusing to do so might lead to a US withdrawal from Iraq, which would leave them on their own to combat the Sunni insurgents, a force they likely cannot subdue on their own.

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