Talisman Gate

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Dances with Terrorists

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC

All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

June 16, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1712 words

HEADLINE: Dances With Terrorists

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


America's security policy in Iraq is about to ignite a civil war inadvertently.

Civil war is table talk amongst Iraq's Shias. From taxi drivers to academics, the constant refrain is that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's call for turning the other cheek has left them with no cheeks left to turn. The Sunniled and operated insurgency is targeting the Shias with increasing menace, and they are eager to fight back.

They are saying, "We've had it, let it all blow up and let the dust settle over the guy left standing." Inter-sectarian jokes, once the hallmark of Baghdad's diverse and intermarried society, are no longer funny.

For the past several months, dozens of bloodied, bound, and gagged bodies have been showing up around eastern Baghdad. Sunni groups, such as the terrorist-affiliated Association of Muslim Clerics, have been pointing fingers at militias under the command of political parties strongly represented in the current elected government, and are bemoaning a systematic campaign to hit back at Salafi-Wahhabi clerics and their networks. Most of the blame is directed against the Badr Organization that is an offshoot of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The identity of the true culprits of these revenge killings may even further alarm the Sunnis: They are simply bands of young men led by young Shia clerics who have had enough.

The flash points of this civil strife as prelude to civil war are poor neighborhoods of Baghdad like Sha'ab City, where mixed Shia-Sunni populations live together. The trigger started when Salafi-Wahhabists that find fertile ground among poorer Sunnis began killing Sadrists, which is a loose term encompassing most urban poor Shia youth. Revenge logic descended among men living within 100 meters of each other. And what started as revenge has evolved into pre-emptive action from the Sadrists against the Salafi-Wahhabists, and the cycle of violence is drawing more and more neighborhoods into its orbit. Driving around the dusty and pothole infested alleys of Sha'ab City, home to a million inhabitants, one sees shabbily-clothed and bearded young Sunnis uneasily eyeing shabbily clothed and bearded young Shias across the street. Each side is sizing up the other for an all-out fight. Good-bye to neighborly stop-and-chats, hello to drive-by shootings.

As a matter of fact, when news started surfacing of Sunni-driven ethnic cleansing of Shias a couple of months ago in the mixed town of Mada'in, tens of miles south of Baghdad, Sadrists bands from Baghdad drove down there and began arresting suspects on their own accord. After taping interrogations and confessions, and burning them onto CDs, some of the terrorist Sunni suspects were shot and the rest handed over to the police command of the town of Kut, many more miles to the south of Mada'in. Then, the police there adroitly took credit for the arrests and aired their own interrogations of the suspects on Iraqi national TV. Muqtada al-Sadr, the pivotal head of the Sadrists, would not know what was going on, and neither would his associates. A decentralized network acting in his name is taking the law into its own hands.

Increasingly in Iraq, vigilante action taken by such unaffiliated young civilians is the hallmark of a grassroots response to the insurgent-terrorists.

Why is this happening? Overwhelming numbers of Iraqis, the same folks who turned out to vote, are feeling that they can no longer rely on the government to take care of them, either through providing basic services or security. Believe it or not, the electricity situation is worse this summer than last year. And in case you didn't know, the sun has a habit of spending its summer in Baghdad. Nowadays, the tangled wires leading from local neighborhood and privately managed generators that dangle over government electrical posts and are prone to being torn down by vertically overloaded trucks are being buried underground. Common people are turning what should be an interim solution into a permanent fixture: It is a sign that they expect to live like this for the long run.

Regular people expect to fend for themselves, and the measures they employ to provide electricity for their families in the face of an absent government run parallel to the measures they seek to employ to take back their streets. Hence the near unanimous accolades by middle-class Shias to what their poorer coreligionists are doing in fighting back in places like Sha'ab City. This is quite a dangerous precedent and an omen that matters are about to unravel: Once the genie of civil war is out, Iraq cannot be sustained as a unified country.

To make matters worse, the Americans have indicated that they are willing to bargain with the terrorists. The rationale behind this is to include Sunnis in the political process and to split the insurgency. Fine, it sounds great, but there is a danger of losing the goodwill of the Shias in the process.

The election posters adorning almost every inch of free concrete surface in Baghdad are beginning to fray under the sun's scorching gaze. The people who were heralded around the world for showing the courage to come out and vote on that magical day five months ago are beginning to understand that it was for naught. They elected a government that ran on a specific program and that was tasked with writing a constitution by August of this year. Suddenly, the American government brought matters to a screeching halt and told the elected government that it cannot move forward if it does not take aboard a sizable chunk of Sunni notables who claim to speak for the insurgent terrorists. Guess what? The Iraqi government is in a state of paralysis.

The Sunni bargaining position can be summed up as "bygones are bygones." In their dream deal, there shall be no accounting for the crimes committed by the Ba'ath Party under Saddam Hussein's totalitarian state. One of the biggest recent intelligence failures in Iraq was the differentiation of the Ba'athist renegade insurgency from the Islamic fundamentalist one. There is too much evidence to suggest that the brain trust of the insurgency is Ba'athist, and all violent groups in Iraq, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's outfit, answer to it for direction and funds. At the center of this brain trust is former Ba'athist strongman from Mosul, Muhammed Younis al-Ahmed. To them, there must be life and prosperity for the Ba'athists after Saddam; they seek to be re-integrated into power.

The Sunnis are still being led by the deposed Ba'athists, and they have found that increasing the pitch of the insurgency has driven the Americans to shout uncle. In an odd twist, the Americans - as evidenced by Secretary Rice's visit to Iraq last month - have positioned themselves as interlocutors between the insurgent terrorists and the new elected Shia-Kurdish government. The election platform of the new government - de-Ba'athification, purging of disloyal and compromised elements within the security services, stamping out and prosecuting endemic corruption - have all been painted as anti-Sunni measures that must be stopped. The insurgent terrorists have found that violence pays dividends and that violent acts such as beheading Shia pilgrims en route to shrine cities or blowing up senior citizens in line to collect their pensions, have put them back into the political game.

But in a country as traumatized as Iraq, "bygones are bygones" will simply not fly after three decades of oppression. The Sunnis are so emboldened by American wavering that they upped the ante of the bargaining process by demanding 25 out of 55 full-voting seats on the constitution-writing committee of the National Assembly. Sunni leaders boycotted the elections. Now they want more than 40% of the constitution-writing committee, when they have only 13% to 15% of the population. The new Iraqi government would like to tell them to get lost, as is warranted, but they can't because the Americans want everyone to "just get along." The result is political paralysis, which suits the Ba'athists just fine and demonstrates in real time the rhyming Arabic slogan one sees all over Baghdad: "Lamentation for the Shias, power for the Sunnis."

The Shias are finding that restraint in the face of Sunni provocation has left them with no American allies. They are beginning to learn the same lesson: Violence pays dividends, and they are eager to cash in. Their reserves of hope for the future are severely depleted and are further challenged by American experimental policy-making. If there is to be no government-led and legal framework for holding Ba'athist and terrorist crimes to account, then they will rise to the occasion and settle the score in a turf war for Iraq's future.

A very weird and immoral term has emerged to describe the insurgent terrorists who only target American and coalition forces: the "honorable" insurgency. Even weirder, America's diplomats have embraced this term and are ready to bargain with these "honorable" murderers. The moral high ground of liberation from tyranny has been ceded to those who cloak their response to losing power as fighting against the "occupier." Sunni moderates who are loyal to the new era in Iraq and who early on took a clear stance against terrorism have been completely sidelined, and the Americans have indicated that the only "real" Sunni leaders they are willing to engage with are the ones bargaining on behalf of the murderers. Ms. Rice and her phalanx of diplomats, through a misguided security policy, have earned the moniker of "Dances with Terrorists."

The Americans are showing signs of Iraq fatigue, but the regular folks of that country are also exhausted. Using renegade violence should be a dead end, and the Sunnis need to learn this lesson rather than being given a seat at the table. A lack of accountability for the terrible suffering faced by the Shias in the past and present opens a venue for Shia radicals to use violence too, and they will be cheered for it. Iraq needs to move forward, but it cannot be held back in order to win over some of those who begrudge a non-Sunni dominated democratic future. Civil war is a very likely prospect, and America should build its policy on keeping its friends on its side, rather than on caving in to the enemy.