Civil war stage one


It seems that not enough people have yet been killed in Iraq to make death uninteresting. The news from that blood soaked place is still about individual disasters. A hundred people killed when a suicide bomber explodes a petrol tanker that incinerates them all, the deaths of fourteen US marines when their troop carrier is blown up by an insurgent superbomb.

Events like these make flashy headlines, and great television – almost as violent as the latest video games your kids are playing. And while we’re distracted by these bloodily mundane events, we haven’t seen enough about the real news – Iraq is sliding into a civil war that could destabilize the whole Middle East.

I base my prediction largely on my own experience of Lebanon, where I lived for the first seven years of a civil war that wrecked the country. There were no foreign invaders like the Americans in Iraq, but in Lebanon, as in Iraq, two factions fought for control of the country. In Lebanon it was Christians versus Muslims, in Iraq it’s Muslim versus Muslim – Shia against Sunni. They’ll soon be fighting face to face.
It’s clear the Americans, as in Vietnam, are losing their taste for Arlington funerals and by halfway through next year they and their fellow traveling Brits and Australians will be marching out wringing their hands and blaming everyone – Iranians, Syrians, Osama bin Laden, Sunni insurgents, for the disaster Bush and Tony Blair brought to one of the richest and most developed countries in the Middle East (and yes, I agree, Saddam Hussein is a very, very bad man).

The civil war in Lebanon started in 1975 in the most peaceful, democratic and technologically advanced country in the Middle East. It began with massacres committed by armed Christian and Muslim gangs and spread rapidly as these gangs developed into heavily armed militias.

There was a Lebanese army at the beginning, but it disintegrated and many of the soldiers defected to various militias. It was the militias that fought the Lebanese civil war.
As a journalist living in Beirut in those days you went round with your pockets stuffed with passes from the various militias – (Right wing) Christian passes in your right trouser pocket, Left wing Muslim (locals and Palestinians) in the left. You got to a check point near the ‘Green Line’ that divided the religions in Beirut and when you got out of your car you reached for your passes. Did you need Christian militia passes – Phalange, Cedars of Lebanon, Ahrar – or one of a wad of Muslim passes – Sunni Mourabitoun, Shia Amal, and God knows how many Palestinian bits of paper, Fateh, PFLP, DFLP, PFLP-GC? Oh and the Druze had passes too, once you got up into the mountains.
These were heavily armed militias, who had all the guns and ammunition (and tanks for that matter) that they needed. Lebanon was rich, but had no huge cache of natural resources, yet everyone piled in. The Syrians armed first the Palestinians, and when they looked like winning and taking over Lebanon (which Syria coveted), they simply switched support to the Christians.

The rich Sunni states down in the Gulf backed their co-religionist Sunni militias and the Palestinians, Iran backed the Shia Amal and its potent successor, Hezbollah and finally the Israelis, working on the old ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ principle, gave guns and money to the Christians as part of their long term war with the Palestinians.

Thirty years later, Lebanon is still recovering and rebuilding.
I can see it all starting again in Iraq. Underneath the ‘American toll rises’ headlines, there are increasing reports of the growth of large, well armed, and increasingly brutal militias. It is clear that these groups have been formed, as in Lebanon, because their fighters and civilians don’t believe that the current major forces deployed in Iraq will be able to protect them.

The 130 000 strong American military will start pulling out, according to General George Casey, after elections in December (using Bushspeak, he actually said the US will be making ‘substantial reductions’). They will leave behind, to protect Iraq, the 175 000 man trainee Iraqi army which they have signally failed to build into an effective force. Its awful casualty rate shows it can’t even protect itself from the insurgents’ daily attacks.

Speaking of the chaos now enveloping his country, the former interim Prime Minister of Iraq, Iyad Allawi, an old American ally, said in Jordan only last month, ‘The problem is the Americans have no vision and no clear policy about how to go about in Iraq ‘We are practically in stage one of a civil war as we speak’.

This civil war will be fought by the militias and, when the Americans get out, taking the Brits and Howard’s Volunteers with them, the army they have half trained will very likely follow the Lebanese pattern and defect to now established militias, or form their own. And once again, as in Lebanon, these militias will be backed from outside by the same sort of regimes that interfered in Lebanon – but this time there will be far more at stake.

Iraq is immensely rich because of oil and, because of its size and location, a potentially dangerous neighbour, as ally to some, enemy to others and a threat to everyone if the country collapses and its terrified population pours across neighboring borders.
We know there are already a whole lot of militias in Iraq – it was recently announced that nine, repeat nine, were closing down. But there are several major militias which will remain after the Americans go.

The biggest Shia militia is probably the Badr Organization, with 10 000 men and a brutal 2000 man hit-group of its own, the Wolf Brigade, which has been accused of revenge killings and targeted assassinations. The second biggest Shia militia, the Mahdi Army with a force of around 5000 men, is loyal to the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and has already fought pitched battles with the Americans. It’s currently quiescent and, like non-Sunni militias, seems to be waiting for the Americans to go before cranking up again. And the Kurds have a formidable militia, the Peshmarga, with 80 000 fighters, which is really the national army of the Kurdistan Regional Government, governing unopposed in northern Iraq.

The Sunnis haven’t given themselves fancy names for the most part, although Abu Musab al-Zarwawi has just formed a new al-Qaida militia, the Omar Brigade. But the main fighting force is the Saddam Fedayeen, whose components may total 30 000, and is mainly drawn from the old Iraqi army. It has a very dangerous, highly trained unit called The Special Police Commandos, who were once in Saddam’s elite republican guard. The Sunnis are the best fighting units now engaged, because they get the most practice against the Americans. They’ve become very good too, as I predicted they would become, in an earlier story for (‘Nothing left to lose’).

This prediction was again based on my experiences in Lebanon, where I saw Hezbollah, a ragtag band, changed by ‘the constant battles against the Israelis (which) produced a battle hardened, vastly experienced guerrilla force, which became the first Arab force to defeat Israel’.
These various forces are, as happened in Lebanon, getting outside help. Iran is aiding the militias of their fellow Shias, the Israelis have been close to the Kurds, who they would like to see weaken Iraq by seceding from it, the Syrians have given haven and military assistance to the Sunnis, who are also being financed by Saddam’s money men, and Osama sends the odd dinar to Zarqawi.

If an historical pattern repeats itself, the Sunni oil kingdoms in the Gulf will probably also finance the Sunnis because they fear the creation of another Shia dominated state next door to Iran. The Americans will continue to supply cash and weaponry (but no American feet on the ground), to the current Iraqi regime. This is what they did in that other US military triumph, the Vietnam War, where they retired hurt, early, but kept pouring in the guns until the last South Vietnamese had surrendered.
I think that the country will explode in a bloodletting after the Americans bug out.

The Sunnis have created 10 000 blood feuds with their current campaign, and the Shias owe them for the atrocities of the Saddam era. The Shia militias are quiet now almost certainly because they’re waiting for the Americans to weaken the Sunnis as much as possible, but when the Americans go “ and American niceties enforced on the Shia militias and army go – there will be an especially brutal bloodbath. There are twenty three million Iraqis, almost two thirds Shia, so it’s hard to see how the Sunnis are going to escape a terrible retribution for the Saddam years. It’s equally hard to see how America, Britain and Australia will be able to walk away unharmed from the horrors they have created and abetted. Twenty three million Iraqis know who started all this.

Previous article by Tony Clifton
No light at the end of the tunnel – 13 July 2005

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.