The tactics that Washington is pursuing in Iraq appear to be exacerbating several long-term trends that risk destabilizing Iraq even further and may well also undermine U.S. influence. Washington’s militant intervention into intra-Shi’ite factional politics is pouring gasoline on that dispute, fomenting civil war between the two most powerful Shi’ite militias in Iraq by encouraging (or ordering?) Maliki to suppress Moqtada’s Mahdi Army. Washington is simultaneously laying the groundwork for a civil war between Iraqi Shi’a and Sunni by funding the organization of numerous local Sunni military units (e.g., the Awakening groups), which could evolve rapidly into a Sunni militia that would challenge the Shi’a since these units are gaining power without a commensurate move toward satisfaction of Sunni grievances.* Washington is also fighting Iran’s war in Iraq by intervening in Shi’ite factional disputes on the side of the pro-Iranian Badr faction that constitutes Maliki’s main support. And finally, since Moqtada represents the poor urban Shi’ite underclass beyond the reach of government services, Washington is making war on the poor,** a bad foundation indeed for building democracy.
*According to Fadhil Ali, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki justified his reluctance to recruit Sunni fighters to the government forces by indicating that the banned al-Baath Party and al-Qaeda had ordered their members to infiltrate the Awakening groups (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 5).
**Badger, in another of his invaluable leaks of Arabic-language reports from the Iraqi media, reports that, according to information from the two main hospitals in Sadr City (i.e., not including wounded or killed who did not make it to those two hospitals), the on-going U.S.-Maliki-al Hakim attack on Sadr City alone has resulted in 300 deaths and 1621 wounded.
A policy of marginalizing the poor by emphasizing the use of force to suppress their representatives, not to mention collective punishment against the poor themselves through both neglecting to provide services and turning Sadr City into a blockaded ghetto, sets up society for a long period of conflict. (For parallels, check out the impact of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which provoked the formation of Hezbollah; the half century-long civil war against the rural poor in Colombia; and of course the endless sad saga of the mistreatment of the population of Gaza.)
An alternative exists: Washington could encourage inclusiveness by working to open the political system as wide as possible.
- First, Washington could try to include the Shi’a poor in the political system by maximizing the central government’s provision of social services to areas such as Sadr City. The new plan to form “sons of Iraq” councils in Sadr City is a gesture in this direction, but clearly playing second fiddle to the Bush Administration’s addiction to violence as the solution of choice to all problems. Empowering the poor would, of course, empower Moqtada, but empowering opponents is what democracy is all about.
- Second, Washington could promote an Iraqi energy policy focused on ensuring that all groups of Iraqis benefit. Such a policy might, of course, entail certain costs for Big Oil.
- Third, Washington could push for the inclusion of the new Sunni groups into the government and army.
Of course, the prospect of the emergence of a truly national Iraqi government might cause some eyebrows to be lifted on the part of Maliki and al-Hakim, who think they have a lock on national power; any neocons who still foresee a lasting U.S. condominium in Iraq; and Tehran, increasingly comfortable as the real power behind the throne.Admittedly, the Bush Administration has a problem. If it tries to bring everyone into the political system, then Iraqi forces favoring Iraqi control over Iraqi oil resources will no doubt gain influence. So will Iraqi forces favoring Iraqi control over Iraq in general, which might shorten by several decades the lifespan of all those very solidly constructed U.S. military bases. So the Administration has to weigh that against the hornet’s nest of ethnic conflict into which it is now sticking its big, pointed stick. What to do? What to do? After all these years and all that money, should Washington let the bases and the oil slip through its fingers in the name of inclusiveness and democracy? Or, should it suffer through a new wave of ethnic violence that will plague Bush’s last few months in office, the election, and the beginning (if not the middle and end) of the next president’s term in office as well? To some, it may indeed seem tempting to try to force the transformation of Sadr City into one 3,000,000-man-strong strategic hamlet.