Thursday, June 19, 2014 at 7:16 AM

Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds Fighting for Control of Iraq. Stay Out, America!

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

Many are convinced that Iraq is on the brink of a destructive sectarian civil war that would herald its disintegration as the country we know, and that agreement on partition would be the least-bad option…

Instead of being seen as a partner, Mr. Maliki has been accused increasingly of going it alone with autocratic powers stemming from his control of the entire security apparatus, including the defence and interior ministries.

Sunni participation has been increasingly marginalised and opinion alienated by Mr. Maliki’s failure to address key Sunni demands and complaints, especially relating to the release of detainees, counter-terrorism laws, job opportunities etc.

(BBC, May 2, 2013)

iraq-update-3FebI vowed recently that I would comment no further on the events unfolding in Iraq. But I feel obliged to weigh in on the hysteria in the United States that thousands of U.S. trained Iraqi soldiers are causing by surrendering city after city to hundreds of Sunni (ISIS/ISIL) insurgents.

Shiite clerics called on Iraqi civilians Friday to take up arms against advancing Sunni insurgents inspired by al-Qaeda, drawing the battle lines for a major sectarian confrontation in the fracturing state…

Even as the security forces attempted to regroup elsewhere, the government lost control of more territory in the northeast of the country, to Kurdish forces who took advantage of the chaos to assert control, unopposed, of the city of Kirkuk.

(Washington Post, June 13, 2014)

17-baghdad-embassy.w430.h430Aping Shiite clerics, I suppose, President Obama indicated on Monday that he will be dispatching up to 300 marines “to secure U.S. assets.” Reports are that he’s also considering dispatching additional troops “to train Iraqi soldiers.”

Except that this is the military equivalent of being a little pregnant; or a case of jumping from the frying pan (which Iraq was even under U.S. occupation) into the fire (which it is today). You’d think Obama would know better than to dump U.S. troops in the midst of a foreign civil war/sectarian insurgency, and then propagate the obvious fiction that they will not be engaged in combat. It’s as if he has never heard of the military truism, “mission creep.” Remember, JFK dispatched a few troops as advisers and propagated the same fiction in the early days of the Vietnam War. Which is why, much to my dismay, Obama could only be doing this to fend off Benghazi-style criticisms, and to avoid the appearance of fiddling while Iraq burns.

Yes, Iraq is a proverbial house on fire. Rampaging jihadists calling themselves ISIS/ISIL ignited it in January with the capture of Fallujah, and made clear their intent to wrest control of the country from Shiites and Kurds. But anyone who knows anything about the existential nature of this sectarian wildfire knows that there’s simply nothing U.S. forces can do to contain it, let alone put it out. Not to mention the manifest absurdity inherent in dispatching hundreds of U.S. troops to train Iraqis to fight this fire, given that hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops spent 10 years and tens of billions of dollars training and equipping Iraqis to do just that, clearly to no avail.

Frankly, it shall redound to America’s eternal shame that so many Iraqi soldiers U.S. forces trained to defend the country surrendered to so few insurgents in a matter of days; whereas those Saddam Hussein trained fended off far superior Iranian forces for years during the Iran-Iraq War (September 1980 to August 1988). More to the point, but for former President George W. Bush’s misguided invasion, Saddam would probably still have a firm lid on this sectarian fire, which, I cannot overstate, has been flaring up between Shias and Sunnis for the soul of Islam for well over 1000 years.


Are we about to be drawn back into a conflict in Iraq? The same people who 12 years ago told us this will be quick, this will be easy, this will be inexpensive, they will see us as liberators, it’s the right thing to do, are now telling us, ‘It’s the right thing to do.’ What’s the endgame? Who’s thought this through?’

(Anchor Shepard Smith, Fox News, June 13, 2014)

polls_neoconservatives22il_5954_670005_answer_1_xlargeIt’s a peculiar feature of American politics that the more politicians and pundits are exposed as clueless fools on an issue (like the invasion of Iraq), the more solicitous they are of media attention to make themselves look even more like clueless fools. And the media are always all too willing to oblige, to wit this week’s media blitz featuring former VP Dick Cheney, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, and pundits William Kristol and Paul D. Wolfowitz, et al.

These tweedledees and tweedledums keep citing the fact that U.S. stabilization forces have been stationed in places like Germany, Japan, and the Philippines for over 50 years for the proposition that they should be stationed in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria too. The operative fact seems completely lost on them that U.S. stabilization (or stay-behind) forces in Germany, Japan, and the Philippines have never had to contend with the kind of civil wars and/or sectarian insurgences now raging in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, where local combatants, on both sides, would just as soon kill U.S. troops as kill each other.

And don’t get me started on the brazen hypocrisy of Republicans lecturing Iraqis about putting aside sectarian differences to allow Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to govern in the national interest of Iraq. These, after all, are the same Republicans who have spent the past five years hurling partisan roadblocks to prevent Obama from governing in the national interest of the United States.

By contrast, here’s an excerpt from “The Shotgun Convention of Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds to Frame an Iraqi Constitution,” August 22, 2005, in which I presaged the failure of sectarian accommodation that is the incendiary cause of the fire now burning in Iraq:

Besides the role of Islam, control of oil production will determine the character and viability of Iraq’s governing authority…

In order to form a more perfect union, Iraqi Shias and Kurds (who together comprise 80% of the assembly) seem prepared to discard the Sunnis and approve a draft that essentially protects their respective interests: for Shias – homage to religion that would make Islam a main source of legislation (thereby empowering authoritarian clerics) and a proportionate share of Iraq’s oil revenues; and for Kurds – homage to federalism that would ensure demarcated boundaries and virtual self-rule under a governing system that protects them from Shiite political and religious hegemony (under Islamic Sharia law).

Of course, such a pyrrhic outcome would only mean that the Iraqi drafters would’ve successfully emulated the framers of the Constitution of the United States. After all, the American founding fathers compromised their political (and moral) principles to approve a draft constitution that not only protected their respective interests but also discarded Blacks and women, counting blacks as only three fifths of a person and denying women the right to vote.

But, just as this compromise led inexorably to a bloody American civil war, so too will running rough shod over Sunnis lead to civil war – if the Iraqi founding fathers do not take whatever time is necessary to vest the respective interests of all major constituent groups in their draft constitution in some equitable fashion. Which means, of course, that the Iraqi National Assembly is just voting to bide time, not to build a nation.

By the same token, it is myopic and foolhardy for the Bush Administration to force the Iraqis to approve a document that holds together like oil and water just to quell political opposition at home. Yet the Americans seem prepared to do just that, despite pleas from Sunnis for President Bush to block any draft that does not have their express consent…

Alas, even if the Iraqis gloss over fractious differences to announce agreement on a new draft constitution today (or after another capricious delay), Iraq shall remain a nation divided against itself until those differences are settled – just as America was until a civil war settled the most contentious issues (like slavery and state’s rights under federalism) almost 100 years after the drafting of its constitution.


Here we are, 10 years since I wrote the above about Iraq’s shotgun constitution convention, and by all accounts, far from settling those differences, Iraq’s Shiite prime minister has spent the past eight years exacerbating them.

images-3It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the Sunni chickens are coming home to roost. (By the same token, it will hardly be surprising when the Taliban chickens come home to roost after U.S. troops pull out of Afghanistan – notwithstanding plans to leave behind a small stabilization force.)

My take on the Iraqi constitutional convention should also explain why it’s wrong to cast the civil war engulfing Iraq today as one just between Shiite forces and ISIS/ISIL insurgents. Because these insurgents are only venting in the extreme the kind of simmering resentment most Sunnis have been harboring for years.

Which brings me to what I proffered years ago – in “At Last, Rumsfeld Becomes Casualty of Iraq War,” November 9, 2006 – as the inevitable resolution of this sectarian conflict:

It’s probably too late to execute what I thought was the only way to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure and form a viable federal government: namely, to implement a Marshall Plan (a la post WWII Japan) under martial law enforced by the “several hundred thousand US troops” the truly visionary Gen. Eric Shinseki said would be needed in postwar Iraq.

Now I fear the only hope is to partition the country into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish zones and leave them to defend their own territories and barter (or fight) for a share Iraq’s oil wealth.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 6.52.03 PMHow’s that for prescience?! And if you have any doubt about the likelihood of partition, consider this latest headline on the matter:

In historical reversal, Turkey opens door to splitting Iraq.

(Huffington Post, June 17, 2014)

With that, here are a few points looking forward:

  • Instead of dispatching troops like firemen rushing in to put out a fire, Obama should evacuate all Americans out of that proverbial burning house – until the Iraqis (aka competing Islamic sects) put out the fire themselves.
  • Instead of launching air strikes to help Shias and Kurds (estranged bedfellows) fend off Sunni insurgents (comprised of everyone from Taliban-like religious extremists to Saddam-era Baath nationalists and Euro-centric secularists), Obama should just let them fight it out among themselves. Not least because al-Maliki’s Shiite government has continually shown an impudent willingness to repay the United States for all of the blood and treasure it spent trying to build up his country by getting into bed with anti-American governments (like that of Iran) and stabbing American soldiers in the back (as far too many of the Iraqi soldiers they were training to fight the terrorists now rampaging their country have done … literally).

In other words, this isn’t even a case where the United States can say the enemy (al-Maliki’s Shiite government) of my enemy (ISIS/ISIL) is my friend; for al-Maliki’s government clearly is not. Not to mention that U.S. strikes on Sunni insurgents on behalf of Shiite nationalists would only turn the region’s Sunni power and America’s longstanding friend, Saudi Arabia, into an ally scorned – especially given that al-Maliki is now making plainly mischievous accusations about Saudi Arabia funding ISIS/ISIL….

  • Instead of allowing scaremongering, warmongering Republicans to mislead people into thinking that these rampaging insurgents in Iraq pose an existential threat to the United States, or even to any vital regional interest, Obama should point out that an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant (aka ISIS/ISIL) would pose no greater threat to the United States than the Islamic State of Iran (aka ISI…?) has posed for over 30 years.
  • Instead of reacting to goings on in Iraq and Syria, Obama should merely issue a presidential warning that leaders of any government who harbor and/or abet terrorists the way the Taliban did or, God forbid, attempt to develop nuclear weapons the way Gaddafi did, will be targeted for drone strikes right along with those terrorists, and rogue scientists. And, with NSA spying and drone surveillance capabilities being what they are today, it’s not as if ISIS/ISIL can plot and train terrorists with impunity in Iraq or Syria the way the al-Qaeda did in Afghanistan; or as if they can develop nuclear weapons in secret – as Iran’s ruling Mullahs are being made to realize now.

In other words, Obama should make clear that the United States does not have to invade a country to mete out justice to political leaders like the Taliban’s Mullah Omar and to terrorist masterminds like al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. Moreover, such targeted strikes would spare the United States having to honor Gen. Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn (“You break it, you own it) principle, which compelled Bush to follow weeks of successful military attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq with years of disastrous nation building.

  • Finally, instead of sending more troops into the fire in Iraq (or adding fuel to that fire by launching air strikes), Obama should reinforce U.S. troop presence in friendly countries like Jordan and Kuwait to ensure that insurgents have no prayer of doing there what they’re doing in Iraq and Syria.

All else is folly.

NOTE: The media have a distressing habit of focusing on one story (i.e., while ignoring all others) and reporting on it ad nauseam. Hence, you could be forgiven for having no clue that a civil war – with far greater global implications – is still raging in Ukraine. This, you may recall, is the story they were beating like a dead horse only weeks ago.

Related commentaries:
Only authoritarian regimes can govern Arab countries
At last, Rumsfeld

* This commentary was originally published yesterday, June 18, at 8:39 am

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