Civil War Is Here
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone.He can be reached through his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com
It is no longer possible to say that there is no civil war in Iraq. It’s here. It has begun.
The civil war that war opponents warned about, the one that Middle East experts said might be coming, the one that Bush administration officials say isn’t likely to happen has already started. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the neoconservative strategist who served the United States in two failed occupations—Afghanistan and Iraq—still doesn’t get it. In an interview with Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper, Khalilzad warned that Iraq “is bleeding and headed for civil war.” But he’s wrong. Iraq is no longer headed for civil war. It’s there.
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, looking grim at a Pentagon news conference on Monday, remains in denial. “Do I think we’re in a civil war at the present time? No,” he said. The Department of Defense is war-gaming a civil war, he told reporters. What would a civil war in Iraq look like? Well, said Rumsfeld, “I will say, I don’t think it’ll look like the United States Civil War.”
Rumsfeld is right about that. It won’t. But it will look a lot like the civil war that is being waged in Iraq today. And that one looks very much like the Lebanese civil war, the grinding, 1975-1990 conflict that left hundreds of thousands dead. To understand what the Iraqi civil war is, think Lebanon.
For a long time after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it made sense to argue that the fighting in Iraq was not a civil war, but a Sunni-led insurgency against the U.S. occupation forces and the series of transitional, interim and “permanent” puppet governments supported by those U.S. forces. For a long while, the majority of those killed in Iraq were either combatants on one side of these battle lines or another, or they were civilian “collateral damage” killed by the United States or who died in spectacular car bombings and other terrorist acts carried out by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi’s religious right. That is no longer the case.
Sometime over the past twelve months—long before the demolition of the Golden Dome in Samarra—that balance shifted dramatically. It might truly be said that the Iraq War became the Iraqi Civil War when the number of those killed in sectarian and ethnic clashes, in death squad activity and in assassinations, torture and executions surpassed the number killed in the war between the United States and the resistance. It’s hard to say exactly when this happened, but it took place last summer, at least, and it has continued to this day.
John Pace, the former United Nations human rights chief in Iraq, might have been announcing the start of the Iraqi Civil War when he declared that as many as 1,000 dead Iraqis per month were turning up in morgues with obvious signs that they had been bound and gagged, tortured and executed. Pace, whose forthright declarations have not gotten the attention they deserve, said:
The Baghdad morgue received 1,100 bodies in July alone, about 900 of whom bore evidence of torture or summary execution. That continued throughout the year and last December there were 780 bodies, including 400 having gunshot wounds or wounds as those caused by electric drills.
Now the newspapers are beginning to report the carnage. Yesterday, there were widespread reports that 87 dead Iraqis were found in mass graves, in bloody vans, in heaps in the street, on Monday morning. But those 87—virtually all Sunnis, murdered by Shiite death squads run by pro-government militias—are just the tip of the iceberg. Ellen Knickmeyer of The Washington Post, one of the very few reporters willing to look into the face of this horror, reported yesterday that the Baghdad morgue sent 150 unclaimed bodies to be buried on Friday and 70 more on Monday. According to Knickmeyer, the Iraqi authorities are putting enormous pressure on morgue officials not to talk about the mass killings.
American military officials are openly admitting that the deaths from sectarian strife and militia killings have surpassed the insurgency as a threat to the security of ordinary Iraqis. That is not to say that the insurgency has lessened, only that the civil war slaughter has intensified.
Those, like me, old enough to remember Lebanon’s civil war understand the pattern. Civil war in Iraq does not look like the American Civil War, with armies clashing on fields of battle. In Lebanon, a kaleidoscopic mix of Maronite Christian militias, Sunni warlords, Shiite militia, Palestinian guerrillas and others formed shifting alliances with each other over fifteen long years. Some parts of Lebanon were relatively stable and quiet, while Beirut, Lebanon’s seaside capital, and towns and villages surrounding it became bloody battlegrounds. Barriers, checkpoints, red lines and green lines divided the capital and its suburbs. There were scores of ceasefires which later collapsed.
Throughout it all, there were elections, and Lebanese governments came and went. Presidents were assassinated. As the fighting raged in Beirut, all sides drew on the resources of their twin hinterlands. The first “hinterlands” were the ethnic and national enclaves, which were like armed camps, who provided the troops, arms and supplies for the main fighting. The second hinterlands were the foreign powers who supported various sides in Lebanon. Above all, that meant Syria and Israel, but it included Iran, Iraq, Libya and others.
So, too, in Iraq. Baghdad, with one-fifth of Iraq’s population, already resembles Beirut. Neighborhoods, and surrounding towns, are being ethnically cleansed. Barriers are up. Militias rule. The Sunni triangle, Kurdistan, and the Shiite south are the immediate hinterlands, and Iraq’s neighbors are surreptitiously joining in, with Iran supporting the Shiites, the Sunni Arab countries backing their co-religionists, Israel helping the Kurds. Alliances are shifting—who knows what side the Barzani Kurds will end up on?—as they always do. But the pattern is clear. Soon, the killing will escalate from midnight kidnappings and car bombs to artillery and heavier weapons. Is Rumsfeld gaming that?
Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst at the Brookings Institution, points out that Iraq will not quietly divide itself into three pieces and be done with it. Those analysts, such as egregiously ill-informed partisan of the Kurdish warlords, Peter Galbraith, who believe that Iraq can neatly divide itself, are obscenely wrong. I hate to agree with Pollack, whose war-mongering in advance of the 2003 invasion convinced many hawkish liberals and New Republic types that war was a good idea. But Pollack is right when he points out that the division of Iraq will be ugly:
The problem is, the Sunni and Shiite communities of Iraq are themselves deeply divided. The first thing that would happen in any civil war is that they would likely fragment, and you would have severe infighting among them. Beyond that, you have enormous areas of mixed population inside Iraq, and you would probably undergo a long process of ethnic cleansing to determine who is going to control those parts of Iraq.
So if we ever did get to a situation where we had three separate statelets in Iraq, it would take some time, and probably many tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people, would die before you got to that point. And of course, there would be all kinds of spillover effects for Iraq’s neighbors. We are likely to see fragmentation and civil war, not this kind of easy, clean breakup into three pieces that some people have been positing.
Pollack, whose remarks appeared on the web site of the Council on Foreign Relations, had the good grace not to mention the names of the “some people” he cited, since one of them is Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of CFR.
President Bush, whose happy-talk PR offensive on Iraq is in the midst of yet another spurt, suggests that Iraqis “looked into the abyss” and decided that they’d rather avoid civil war. In fact, however, Iraqis are deep inside the abyss, looking out.