Assuming a Bloodbath


The Bush Administration famously based its argument for invading Iraq on best-case assumptions that we would be greeted as liberators; that a capable democratic government would quickly emerge; that our military presence would be modest and temporary; and that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for everything all of which turned out to be wrong.

Now, many of the same people who pushed for the invasion are arguing for escalating our military involvement based on a worst-case assumption: that if America leaves quickly, the Apocalypse will follow.

But if it was foolish to accept the best-case assumptions that led us to invade Iraq, it’s also foolish not to question the worst-case assumptions that undergird arguments for staying. Is it possible that a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces will lead to a dramatic worsening of the situation? Of course it is, just as it’s possible that maintaining or escalating troops there could fuel the unrest. But it’s also worth considering the possibility that the worst may not happen: What if the doomsayers are wrong?

The al-Qaeda Myth

Let’s begin with the most persistent, Bush-fostered fear about post-occupation Iraq: that al-Qaeda or other Islamic extremists will seize control once America departs.

The idea that al-Qaeda might take over Iraq is nonsensical. Numerous estimates show that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its foreign fighters comprise only 5-10 per cent of the Sunni insurgents’ forces. Most Sunni insurgents are simply what Wayne White who led the State Department’s intelligence effort on Iraq until 2005 calls POIs, or ‘pissed-off Iraqis,’ who are fighting because ‘they don’t like the occupation.’

The foreign terrorist threat is frequently advanced by the Bush Administration with an alarming variant that al-Qaeda will use Iraq as a headquarters for the establishment of a global caliphate and that Islamic militants will ‘establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.’

The reality is far different. Even if AQI came to dominate the Sunni resistance, it would be utterly incapable of seizing Baghdad against the combined muscle of the Kurds and the Shi’ites, who make up four fifths of the country.

Nor is it likely that AQI would ever be allowed to use the Sunni areas of Iraq as a base from which to launch attacks on foreign targets. The secular Baathists and former Iraqi military officers who lead the main force of the resistance despise AQI; and many of the Sunni tribes in western Iraq are closely tied to Saudi Arabia’s royal family, which is bitterly opposed to al-Qaeda. AQI has, at best, a marriage of convenience with the rest of the Sunni-led resistance. Were US troops to leave Iraq today, the Baathists, the military, and the tribal leaders would likely join forces to exterminate AQI in short order.

It’s also worth questioning whether AQI have any real ties to whatever remains of Osama bin Laden’s weakened, Pakistan-based leadership. Al-Qaeda is a loose ideological movement, and its Iraq component is fed largely by jihadists who flock to the country because they see the war as a holy cause. Once the US withdraws, Iraq will no longer be a magnet for that jihad.

The Sunni-Shi’ite Civil War

The doomsayers’ second great fear is that the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian civil war could escalate further, reaching near-genocidal levels and sucking in Iraq’s neighbours. But let’s look at the many countervailing factors.

First, the United States is currently doing little, if anything, to restrain ethnic cleansing. Indeed, the US is arming and training one side in a civil war by bolstering the Shi’ite-controlled army and police.

In theory, Baghdad is roughly divided into a Shi’ite east, and a Sunni west. But in Adhamiya, a Sunni part of east Baghdad, and Kadhimiya, a Shi’ite enclave in west Baghdad, ugly ethnic cleansing is proceeding apace. The same is true along a necklace of Sunni towns south of the capital, in an area that is predominantly Shi’ite; in mixed Sunni-Shi’ite towns such as Samarra; and in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad. In these areas, it is facile to assert that US troops are restraining the death squads and religiously inspired killers on both sides.

Second, neither the Sunnis nor the Shi’ites have much in the way of armour or heavy weapons-tanks, major artillery, helicopters, and the like. Without heavy weaponry, neither side can take the war deep into the other’s territory. ‘They’re not good on offense,’ says Warren Marik, a retired CIA officer who worked in Iraq in the 1990s. ‘They can’t assault positions.’

Shi’ites may have numbers on their side, but because the Sunnis have most of Iraq’s former army officers, and their resistance militia boasts thousands of highly trained soldiers, they’re unlikely to be overrun by the Shi’ite majority. Equally, the minority Sunnis won’t be able to seize Shi’ite parts of Baghdad or major Shi’ite cities in the south. Presuming neither side gets its hands on heavy weapons, once you take US forces out of the equation the Sunnis and Shi’ites would ultimately reach an impasse.

Even if post-occupation efforts to create a new political compact among Iraqis fail, the most likely outcome is, again, a bloody Sunni-Shiite stalemate, accompanied by continued ethnic cleansing in mixed areas. But that, of course, is no worse than the path Iraq is already on under US occupation.

A third fear is that Iraq’s neighbours will support their proxies in this fight. Indeed, they probably will but within limits. Iran, would continue assisting various Shi’ite parties. And Sunni Arab States like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan would line up behind Iraq’s Sunnis. Even so, neither Shi’ite Iran nor Sunni Arab countries would likely risk a regional conflagration by providing their Iraqi proxies with the heavy weapons that would enable them to wage offensive operations in each other’s heartland.

The only power that could qualitatively worsen Iraq’s sectarian civil war is the United States. Washington continues to arm and train the Shi’ites, although so far it has resisted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s pleas to provide Iraq’s Shi’ite-led army and police with heavy weapons, armour, and an air force. Only if that policy changed, and the US began to create a true Shi’ite army in Iraq, would the Sunni Arab States likely feel compelled to build up Iraq’s Sunni paramilitary militias into something resembling a traditional army.

Thus, an American pullout is hardly guaranteed to unleash unbridled chaos. On the contrary, each year since 2003 that American troops have remained in Iraq, the violence has escalated steadily.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

A Kurdish Power Grab?

The third major concern about a post-occupation Iraq is the possibility of a crisis triggered by a Kurdish power grab in Kirkuk, the city at the heart of Iraq’s northern oil fields. Since 2003, the Kurds have been waging a systematic, ugly round of ethnic cleansing, packing Kirkuk with Kurds, kidnapping or driving out Arab residents, and stacking the city council with Kurdish partisans.

Though Kurdish Iraq is mostly quiet and relatively prosperous under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that controls three north-eastern provinces, the Kurds may be tempted to expand their territory and secede from Iraq. Under the occupation-imposed Constitution, the Kurds have the right to hold a referendum in Kirkuk later this year that would probably put that oil-rich area under the control of the KRG. Alternatively, the Kurds might opt to take advantage of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war to seize Kirkuk by force. Either way, most Kurds know that a Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk is an essential precondition for their ultimate independe
nce from Iraq.

It’s hard to exaggerate the dangers inherent in a Kurdish grab for Kirkuk. Such a move would inflame Iraq’s Arab population (both Sunnis and Shi’ites), impinge on other minorities, and provoke an outburst of ethnic cleansing in the city.

But the reality is that, in the event of an American withdrawal, the Kurds would find it exceedingly difficult either to take Kirkuk or to declare independence. An independent Kurdistan would be landlocked, surrounded by hostile nations, and would possess a weak paramilitary army incapable of matching Iran, Arab Iraq, or Turkey. If Kurdistan were to secede without gaining Kirkuk’s oil, it would not be economically viable. Even with the oil, the Kurds would have to depend on pipelines through Iraq and Turkey. Nor would Turkey, with its large Kurdish minority, stand for a breakaway Kurdish State, and the Kurds know that the Turkish armed forces would overwhelm them.

Conversely, under the US occupation, the Kurds feel emboldened to press their advantage in Kirkuk. And if the US were to adopt the idea floated by some in Washington of building permanent bases in Kurdistan, it would embolden the Kurds further. (As long as the United States maintains a presence in Kurdistan, the Turks will be reluctant to invade, for fear of running into US troops.) Thus, by staying in Kurdistan, the United States is more likely to foster a Kurdish-Arab civil war in Iraq.

Will the Centre Hold?

Not only is the worst-case scenario far from a sure thing in the event of an American withdrawal, but there is also a best-case scenario.

Certainly, four years into the war, the broken Iraqi State has ceased to exist outside the Green Zone, the economy is devastated, and unemployment is believed to be hovering around 50 per cent. Yet the neo-conservatives and the Bush Administration weren’t entirely wrong in 2003 when they expressed confidence in the underlying strength of the Iraqi body politic. Though things have gone horrendously awry, there are many factors that could provide the glue to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Iraq is not a make-believe State cobbled together after World War I. Historically, the vast majority of Iraqis have not primarily identified themselves as Sunnis or Shi’ites. Of course, as the civil war escalates, more Iraqis are identifying by sect, and tensions are worsening. But it is not too late to resurrect some of the comity that once existed. According to a poll conducted in June 2006 by the International Republican Institute, ’78 per cent of Iraqis, including a majority of Shi’ites, opposed the division of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines.’

What most Iraqis do seem to want, according to numerous polls, is for American forces to leave.

The catch-22 of Iraqi politics is that any Iraqi government created or supported by the United States is instantly suspect in Iraqi eyes. By the same token, a nationalist government that succeeds in ushering US forces out of Iraq would have overwhelming support from most Iraqis on most sides of the conflict. With that support, such a government might be able to make the difficult compromises like amending the Constitution to give minority protections to Sunnis that the Maliki Government has been unable or unwilling to make.

It is clear that there are many features of Iraq’s current landscape that lend themselves to the eventual creation of a stable, postwar nation although rebuilding the country will take generations. It is, at this point, the best we can hope for.

Like all best-case scenarios, it might or might not happen. But the very same can be said of the worst-case scenario a scenario that war hawks portray as a certainty and wave, like a bloody shirt, to scare decision-makers and members of Congress into supporting a failed strategy.

This is an edited version of a piece that appeared in the March 2007 issue of Washington Monthly.

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