Iraq is in a very precarious condition. With a stalled political process, major disagreements over the Constitution, profound sectarian tensions and a pervasive sense of insecurity, the prospects for a strong, modern Iraq are at best dim.
The central paradigm that explains political violence has changed. In the first 2 years, the Sunni-led insurgency sought to bleed, bog down and ultimately defeat US occupation forces. This has now given way to a much broader and worrying sectarian-based confrontation. Given its poor counter-insurgency record and the limited influence it now has over Iraq’s major leaders, this qualitative shift reduces US leverage in Iraq to the threat of withdrawal, a political tool it can raise but will not use.
Moreover, and regardless of their political inclinations, most in the Iraqi street have given up on the United States as a force for stability in their country. According to a recent poll, 87 percent of all Iraqis want a concrete timeline for the withdrawal of US troops. Various Iraqis, including those who had hailed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, recount the many examples of petty humiliation or violence at the hands of the Coalition troops or foreign security contractors.
At the political level, the United States is now viewed suspiciously by all Iraqi factions.
Sunnis have switched from an early frustration of being disempowered and a sincere desire to combat what they saw as an illegitimate occupation to a current belief that Iraq has been handed to pro-Iranian Iraqi parties. They are worried that a US-Iran rapprochement, improbable as that may seem, would come at the expense of Iraq. Some Sunnis draw comparisons with the suspected US-Syria deal over Lebanon in 1990 that effectively put Lebanon under Syrian domination. Moderate Sunnis are trying hard to distance themselves from the insurgency by questioning its value rather than its legitimacy, but doing so comes at great personal peril and political cost. In a way, the existence of the Zarqawi-type terrorism allows them to blame the most egregious acts of terrorism on non-Iraqis.
The Sunnis are organized into three major groups: those who think that involvement in the political process is the best way to guarantee their rights, and that the insurgency has strengthened their hand at the bargaining table; those who think that the earlier a civil war breaks out, the higher their chances of restoring the status quo ante; and those, like Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, whose agendas go beyond Iraq and have an interest in continued bloodshed.
The Shias suspect that the United States now regrets having empowered them and, under the pressure of its Arab allies, is rethinking its Iraq policy preferences. In their eyes, this line of analysis is validated by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s vigorous advocacy of an overhaul of the security ministries, including changes in the top positions, the perception that the United States favors sidelining Ibrahim Jaafari despite the democratic mechanism that brought him as the new Prime Minister, and the recent US-supported attack on a religious site controlled by followers of Moqtada Sadr, the charismatic anti-US cleric who has emerged as a key player in Iraqi politics.
The Kurds are watching the power struggles with dismay, but are still engaged in working, against all odds, for a broad government. It is likely that the Presidency and the Foreign Ministry will remain in Kurdish hands. Meanwhile internal Kurdish politics are also undergoing some tension, as rare open challenges to the traditional leaderships have occurred in Halabja and further north.
Is Iraq already in a state of civil war? For the United States, avoiding the term is an effort to dampen anxieties: to use the term would be to acquiesce to its inevitability. Second, despite the violence, the US administration argues that the current negotiations will produce a government of national unity, which is marketed to the US public and the international community as the way out of the crisis. Third, reports from Iraq suggest that Iraq’s major leaders have not yet decided to fight this war. Indeed, some Iraqis in the political elite that are negotiating in Baghdad haven’t given up on the political process, but they recognize that violence might derail even their most sincere efforts. This gives very limited reason for hope.
To be sure, defining what is happening now in Iraq a civil war would have tremendous policy implications for the United States, including the recognition of its failure in Iraq. It would force the United States to reflect on whether its own interest lies in having 130,000 US troops sitting in the middle of a communal war. As in Beirut in 1983, there will be little clarity and lots of confusion regarding US interests and allies. Such a state would embolden those in the US Congress who want to radically change course in Iraq.
Maybe the least incorrect characterization of events in Iraq is a low-intensity communal conflict that has a high potential to break out into a full-fledged civil war. Every major community has its own armed groups. Even the Iraqi Army, long heralded as the key to resolving Iraq’s ills, now emerges as a possible problem: it would be troubling if a potential civil war’s fiercest units were those trained and equipped by the Coalition troops.
Some Iraqis lay out scenarios that could bring down all the remaining levees that contain sectarian strife. The doomsday scenario would be the assassination of Ayatollah Sistani who has played a moderating role in Shia and Iraqi politics. The killing of Sistani would reconfigure Shia dynamics to the worse and invite large scale retribution against the Sunni minority. Another catastrophic eventuality is a massive attack against a holy shrine in either Najaf or Karbala. The Shia street is already on the edge, and it is possible that many of the anti-Sunni acts of retribution were committed by small Shia groups acting independently from their leaders.
Here, credit partly goes to the leaderships of the major Iraqi factions. The bombing of the Samarra mosque could have been the spark that ignited the war, but thanks to their prudence, violence remained contained. But it is a measure of how bad the security situation in Iraq is that we are left to describe the targeted killing of a thousand Iraqi citizens as “contained” violence.
Unfortunately, controlling and managing the dynamics that lead a country into civil war is near impossible. Rarely do leaders take a conscious decision to fight a civil war; rather, a country slides into civil war, and leaders, in an effort to maintain their own power, follow the trend.
Iraq’s major communities are hostage to a security dilemma with sectarian flavor: none of the parties really desires war, but as each group takes political and military measures to make itself more secure, the other groups interpret these actions as threatening, creating an escalation that leads to the very outcome parties wanted to avoid. Breaking this vicious cycle is now the responsibility of Iraq’s major leaders, but their efforts should be guided and encouraged by the international community.
A government of national unity is only a start in this regard. The major disputes over the nature of federalism, the issue of oil, Kirkuk are all festering wounds. At an even more fundamental level, there is a need to promote national reconciliation in a country plagued by fear and mistrust. The rushed political process has left many crucial issues unresolved.