The possibility of saving Iraq as a viable Arab nation is in question, even if American public opinion forces the withdrawal of US troops. For some American hawks, a dismembered Iraq may not be ideal but would no longer be a strategic threat.
Those were the morbid impressions I formed after two days of discussions with Iraqis gathered in Amman, Jordan, at an unprecedented meeting initiated by Code Pink and attended by Cindy Sheehan and a smattering of peace activists that included Iraq Veterans Against the War and United for Peace and Justice.
That so many Iraqi representatives wanted to meet with antiwar Americans was a hopeful sign. Attending were official representatives of the Shiite coalition now holding power, the minority Sunni bloc, the anti-occupation Muslim Scholars Association, parliamentarians and torture victims from Abu Ghraib. Their broad consensus favored a specific timetable for American withdrawal combined with efforts to “fix the problems” of the occupation as the withdrawal proceeds. Recent surveys show that 87 percent of Iraqis hold the same views.
Dr. Habib Jabar, carefully balancing the divisions within his majority Shiite parliamentary bloc, stated that “we don’t need American forces to protect us from each other. We have been here 1,000 years. My wife is a Sunni. I don’t need the Americans to protect her from me.” He is seeking a Shiite consensus to demand that the United Nations Security Council formally end its authorization of the US occupation when it meets this December. At the same time, the US-backed Shiite representative was diplomatically noncommittal on dissolving death squads or the Badr Corps now operating with little or no restraint by the Interior Ministry. Nor did he acknowledge the plans of dominant Shiite leaders like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim for an autonomous Shiite region running from Baghdad south to Basra, which would require mass removals of the Sunni population.
Even Sunni political representatives, while demanding a timetable for withdrawal, increasingly worry that they will be more exposed to vengeful Shiite and Kurdish militias when the Americans leave. The Sunni bloc representative, Salman al-Jumaili, said with frustration, “We want the Americans out tomorrow. But we want negotiated timetables to fill security gaps and prevent a power grab.” He indicated that the nationalist insurgency “is looking for recognition…and a road map to ending the occupation through negotiations.”
These are more nuanced positions than the demands for immediate withdrawal that Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin recalls hearing in Baghdad street interviews three years ago. The qualified Iraqi demands for withdrawal reflect the virtual civil war that has arisen in the wake of the US occupation. Like victims of repeated battery, many Sunnis fear escalating attacks on their civilian population if the streets are dominated by the Badr militia after the Americans leave. They feel pressured by the Americans to abandon their aspirations for a unified Iraqi state, accept minority status in a partitioned country, or join as partners with their American occupiers to fight against pro-Iranian or Al Qaeda forces in Iraq.
The raging war in Lebanon has reinforced Iraqi paranoia that the United States, Britain and Israel intend to divide the Middle East into quarreling sects. Dr. Saleh al-Mutlaq of the Sunni-based Iraqi National Dialogue Front, which lost 100 campaign workers in killings during last year’s election, said, “Lebanon could be even easier to send into civil war than Iraq.” On the other hand, the US-backed Shiite coalition in Baghdad is loudly supporting its Shiite brethren in Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Not only are the complexities mind-boggling, but the pressures on the insurgents and Sunni organizations are beyond anything described in the mainstream American media. For example, on the flight home I met an American contractor with thirty years of security experience, who is a counselor to the top Sunni official in the new Iraqi government. “There are 10,000 or 12,000 Sunnis, mainly teachers, lawyers and professionals, being held without charges in Iraqi prisons, and the [Iraqi] guards are drilling holes in them,” he said bitterly. Of course, there are Sunni or foreign militias attacking the Shiite population as well, but the Sunni minority neighborhoods bear the brunt of attack. One member of Parliament, a Sunni, told us that “half of my friends have been kidnapped.” She lives most of the year in Jordan, returning only for parliamentary sessions.
At least 4 million Iraqis like this parliamentarian have become refugees since 2003, with 3 million sheltered in Syria, 1 million in Jordan and many thousands more living in various places from the United Arab Emirates to Europe.
It is difficult to estimate to what extent all this carnage is intentional, a cycle of revenge, blowback from the US occupation–or all three. Iraqis at the meeting complained of their country becoming a battleground in America’s war against Syria, Iran and jihadists in general. The US case for a divide-and-conquer strategy has been supplied by Stephen Biddle (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006 and July/August 2006), who advocates using military threats to maintain leverage with both the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority. He writes that the United States could remove the current constraints on Iraqi security forces and provide them with tanks, armored personal carriers, artillery, armed helicopters, and fixed-wing ground-attack aircraft, enlarging the capacity of the Kurds and Shiites to “commit mass violence against the Sunnis…dramatically…threatening such a change could provide an important incentive for the Sunnis to compromise [their withdrawal demand].”
At the same time, Biddle believes that “a US threat to cease backing the Shiites, coupled with a program to arm the Sunnis overtly or in a semi-clandestine way, would substantially reduce the Shiites’ military prospects.” Biddle’s goal would be to “keep U.S. troops in Iraq as long as would be necessary to protect the parties who cooperate.” A perfect equilibrium for the occupiers, in other words. But for Biddle, there is one bothersome factor: “recent polls of U.S. public opinion are not encouraging.” That could be a problem, Biddle believes, if voters can be convinced of the importance of keeping US troops in place. “Sacrificing U.S. lives now could save many more later, and staying is an imperative.”
Biddle’s worries about public opinion are justified. Few Americans share his enthusiasm for sending troops into the midst of an Iraqi civil war. The very phrase “civil war,” delicately hinted by US generals in recent Congressional testimony, is code for the tipping point in Iraq. Even Thomas Friedman called for a “Plan B,” meaning a withdrawal strategy, in the New York Times this week.
Despite all its complexity, the Iraq debate now heating up in American politics should favor opponents of the war. The White House’s insistence on “staying the course” sounds bankrupt given the daily news from Iraq. Antiwar candidates, alongside the peace movement, can offer a defensible alternative, as the interviews in Amman show, including:
1. A declaration by the United States of its intention to withdraw troops within a fixed timetable, including no permanent bases.
2. A parallel commitment to fix as many mistakes as possible in the same timetable.
3. An amnesty for Iraqi nationals who have fought against the occupation. If a US withdrawal timetable is agreed, the foreign jihadists will lose the margin of support they currently have.
4. An end to Paul Bremer’s de-Baathification policy and restoring former military and other professionals to security and civic roles.
5. Termination of US support, training, financing or advising of sectarian militias.
6. A paradigm shift away from neoconservative extremism toward diplomatic and political solutions to the region’s problems.
7. International efforts to rebuild Iraq after fifteen years of sanctions, bombardment, invasion, war and civil war.
The most contentious of these points concerns amnesty for Iraqis who have fought the occupation. But it should be remembered that the American Civil War ended with an amnesty for Jefferson Davis. Amnesties always are included in negotiated settlements, and this endgame looks to be no different. If we don’t achieve this, we will face a future of faith-based militarism until, as they say, the end of days.