Thursday, July 20, 2006

Still Not a Civil War

The increase in casualties in Iraq among civilians is disturbing:

According to the U.N. report, 2,669 civilians were killed in May and 3,149 were killed in June. Those numbers combined two counts: from the Ministry of Health, which records deaths reported by hospitals; and the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad, which tallies the unidentified bodies it receives.

But it still doesn't signify the start of a civil war. Strategypage explains what is happening:

The "war" in Iraq has come down to a competition between Sunni Arab and Shia death squads, to see who can rack up the highest body count. While most Iraqi Sunni Arabs fear for their lives, and continued ability to live in Iraq, the Shia radicals fear only Sunni suicide bombs. The bombing attacks increasingly target radical Shia militias, mainly those loyal to Muqtada al Sadr. Lacking the equipment and trained personnel to carry out an efficient counter-terror operations, Sadr has ordered his guys to just go out and kill lots of Sunni Arabs, any way they can, each time an Sunni bomb goes off in a Shia neighborhood. This has been going on for the last three months, leaving nearly 10,000 civilians dead. The Sunni terrorists and Shia death squads stay away from Iraqi and foreign troops and police. Even with al Qaeda crippled, there are still several Sunni Arab groups, mainly driven by a radical religious views ("Shia are heretical scum"), who believe that the Shia can still be terrorized into submission. Or, as some believe, a "civil war" can be triggered. This, so the myth goes, will arouse the Sunni Arab masses. Some radicals believe that the Sunni Arabs are actually the majority of Iraqis (actually, they are less than 20 percent, closer to 15 percent these days as more of them flee the country). Other radicals believe that, if Shia death squads kill enough Sunni Arabs, the Sunni Arab nations will be forced to invade and crush the upstart Shia once and for all. It's left rather vague exactly what the U.S. forces would do if Syrian, Jordanian, Kuwaiti and Saudi troops suddenly entered the country.

This is ugly, but there is no chance that Sunnis can break away and control their own territory and defend it in a classic civil war. The Kurds couldn't do it with the advantage of living in mountains until we declared a safe haven for them after the Persian Gulf War by patrolling the air space over northern Iraq.

"Civil war" in the case of the Shia-Sunni killings spiraling out of control means that the small Sunni minority gets killed or driven out of Iraq by the majority Shias. And this happens if the Shias give up on the possiblity of Sunnis making peace and stopping their insurgency and terrorism. Sistani's calls for restraint could falter in the face of Sunni terrorism and lead to really widespread Shia revenge attacks. If you count this as a civil war, then a civil war has been raging for decades. But before, the Sunnis were doing almost all of the killing and only in the last few years have the Shias and Kurds been able to dish it out too with their increasing power.

So the Iraqi government must now stop Shias from killing Sunnis and convince Sunnis to lay down their arms. Both must be done at pretty much the same time to keep the cycle of killing from feeding on the killings by the other side. And the mostly Shia government is willing to fight the Shias doing the killing after being understandably reluctant to crack down on fellow former victims:

But now, with Zarqawi dead, and most of the country at peace, more and more Sunni Arab tribal chiefs, politicians, business leaders and clerics are resigned to Shia domination. That means giving up the Sunni Arab warlords, gang leaders and terrorist chiefs, the people that make most of the violence happen. It's not like the Sunni Arab leadership can just push a button, and make their bad guys go away. In Arab culture, the process moves a lot more slowly, and involves lots of talking, coffee, promises, deceit and drama. Apparently the drama has been convincing, because the Shia politicians running the country have persuaded Shia military and police units to go after Shia death squads. All of this is going to take months to play out. There will be cries of "Betrayal!" from the Shia community. Some Shia cops and soldiers will balk at busting fellow Shia, even if the perps are stone killers with dozens of bodies on them. However, the national leadership has agreed that peace with the Sunni Arabs, and an end to the vengeance killings, is necessary. Making this happen is the next crucial battle in the war.

Yes, this is ugly. But it is also progress, as difficult as it may seem to conclude. When the internal threats come more from your own side threatening to wipe out the enemy than from the enemy that has resisted for three years, you are defeating the enemy.

This fight against the Sadr types is a battle that must be won. But we've won the others. This is delicate but we can win this, too.