It has been three years since America’s military juggernaut rumbled its way across the desert landscape of southern Iraq towards Baghdad. Three years ago the invasion was justified as a necessary move to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s presumed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, and the invaders promised to transform Iraq into a prosperous, oil-rich democracy that would serve as a model to spark emulative transformation in the rest of the Middle East. Yet, as the conflict enters its fourth year, no weapons of mass destruction have been found andIraq is sinking ever deeper into the abyss of instability.
The anniversary of the invasion was an opportunity for a repetition of the now all-too-familiar upbeat assessments of top officials in US president George W Bush’s administration about the American military effort and political progress in Iraq. In a televised statement marking the anniversary on March 19, Bush said: “We are implementing a strategy that will lead to victory inIraq. And a victory in Iraq will make this country more secure and will help lay the foundation of peace for generations to come.”
Such assessments show that Bush and co. are still living in their old dream-palace, full of myths and wishful thinking, not only about what Iraq is but also about the military reality unfolding on the ground. The daily catalogue of car bombs, roadside bombs and suicide attacks, reports of American troops killed in insurgent attacks and counter-insurgency pacification operations (which all too often result in deaths of civilians), and scenes of misery proving the grim reality of life for ordinary Iraqis, gives the lie to Washington’s optimistic rhetoric and grandstanding. The insurgency is showing no sign of receding in the face of intense and grinding military pressure from both American and Iraqi forces. Worse still, the insurgency, which grew and unfolded against the backdrop of deep and bitter divisions, along sectarian and ethnic lines, over how to deal with the occupation and chart a new political order for Iraq, is fuelling communal tensions and chaos all over the country.
Nothing underlines the misfortunes of Iraq in the post-Saddam era like the nightmarish spectre of sectarian civil strife that is haunting the country. Sectarian killings were originally the preserve of salafist groups in Iraq, who attacked Shi‘i, and sometimes Christian, civilian targets in hopes of provoking civil war. But these killings have become widespread since the bombing on February 22 of the Askariyyah shrine, the burial-place of the tenth and eleventh imams of Ithna-Ashari Shi’ism in the town of Samarra, north of Baghdad. Since February 22, dozens of bodies have been found around Baghdad, as well as in other parts of central Iraq, with their hands bound, shot execution-style, apparently as part of a cycle of mutual revenge-killings between Sunni and Shi‘ah death squads. Media reports now speak regularly of mass graves being discovered in Iraq. These mass graves contain not the remains of the victims of Saddam’s brutality, but the rotting corpses of victims of sectarian killings. In one recent instance, a group of Iraqi boys playing football in a field in a neighbourhood of Baghdad discovered about 80 bodies when they noticed limbs protruding out of the earth and piles of garbage.
The fundamental problem with the current wave of sectarian and ethnic violence is that it has all the ingredients that will enable it to become a cycle of self-perpetuating bloodshed. The brutal crimes committed during Saddam’s reign of terror have resulted in a surfeit of pent-up anger and victimization: a fertile breeding-ground for impulses of revenge and retribution. The obsession of salafi groups with targeting Shi‘ah civilians has shown no sign of abating. The salafis’ doggedness in attacking Shi‘ah mosques, husayniyyahs, festivals, individuals and crowds gathered in markets, funerals, weddings and streets has led to the formation of Shi‘ah death squads that are currently spreading fear mainly in Baghdad’s Sunni neighbourhoods, but also elsewhere. One outcome of this cycle of retributive violence is that mixed Sunni-Shi‘ah neighbourhoods in Baghdad and other parts of central Iraq are being ‘cleansed’ along sectarian lines. If they are not kidnapped, tortured and/or executed, Sunnis living in predominantly Shi‘ah neighbourhoods and Shi‘ah living in predominantly Sunni neighbourhoods are being driven out of their homes.
The lack of a transcending supra-sectarian, supra-ethnic and supra-tribal loyalty among Iraqis is creating conditions conducive to private vigilante groups: they can carry out revenge attacks across the societal divides at will; worse still, it is encouraging members of the Iraqi armed and police forces, large portions of which are functioning more as sectarian and ethnic militias than as national security forces, to form extra-legal death-squads to carry out such attacks. The impotence of the Iraqi authorities and the absence of law and order are pushing Iraqis more and more to seek solace and protection in sectarian and ethnic clustering.
As shown by civil strife elsewhere, sectarian and ethnic infighting in Iraq can become highly contagious. High-ranking members of the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association have spoken of elements of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army taking part in revenge attacks against Sunni mosques and civilians since the bombing in Samarra. This is a dangerous development. The staunchly anti-American followers of Muqtada al-Sadr have not only been opposed to the occupation of Iraq but until now have also maintained good relations with the Sunnis of Iraq.
The intensification of the vicious cycle of tit-for-tat killings in Iraq has given way to assertions that the raging Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence plaguing the country can only be characterised as a civil war. The latest such assertion came on March 19 from Iyad ‘Allawi, Iraq’s former pro-American interim prime minister, who told the BBC that the average daily death-toll throughout the country since the shrine attack in Samarra was between 50 and 60. “If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is,” Allawi said.
Nearly four months after general elections were conducted on December 15, Iraq still lacks an effective government that can really govern. Iraqi politicians are still struggling to reach agreement over the formation of a new cabinet that would represent the various ethnic and sectarian communities. At the time of going to press, this goal remains as elusive as a desert mirage. The stalemate, born primarily of bickering over the spoils of government and the distribution of Iraq’s oil revenues among the various regions, is fostering estrangement from the political establishment among large parts of the Iraqi population.
The political impasse and escalating communal tensions have led Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy to Baghdad, who has been try to broker the formation of a government of national unity, to acknowledge last month that the US invasion of Iraq has “opened Pandora’s box.” When Iraq’s new parliament was sworn in on March 16, Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni elder statesman of 82, appealed to his fellow parliamentarians to work “to prove to the world that civil war is not and will not take place among our people. The danger is still looming and the enemies are ready for us because they do not like to see a united, strong, stable Iraq.” Pachachi also told the brief parliamentary session that “the country is going through very difficult times and faces a big dilemma after the Samarra bombing and the attacks that followed. Sectarian tension has increased and it threatens national disaster.”
Not only do Iraqi civilians live in constant fear for their lives, but their living conditions are miserable. The effects of the void in government are compounded by the lack of proper essential services. Iraqis live in constant fuel shortages, long electricity-blackouts, and a lack of clean water. The Iraqi economy, which had shown some signs of recovery in the second half of 2003 and early 2004, has failed to progress since. Despite the soaring prices of oil on the international market, current growth continues to lurch along at an anaemic level of less than 5 percent. Unemployment remains high. In its March 7 issue, Tariq al-Sha’ab, the Iraqi Communist Party’s newspaper, quoted Idris Hadi Salih, the country’s labour and social affairs minister, as warning that “the unemployment rate is between 30 and 40 percent, which constitutes a heavy legacy … which exhausts Iraq’s human resources.”
The Iraqis’ patience is wearing thin; they often voice their frustration and anger. This newfound freedom of expression might be the only relatively positive outcome of the invasion. Under Saddam, there was no free press to criticise or question the people ensconced in the corridors of power, and Iraqis could not voice their dissatisfaction. The fall of Saddam gave many a glimmer of hope for the future, only for those expectations to be dashed by the rising tide of instability, government corruption and mutual revenge killings.
The invasion of Iraq grew out of dreams of grandeur steeped in neo-conservative delusions about the omnipotence of America. Three years ago, when American troops, cheered on by crowds of Iraqis, brought down the statue of Saddam in Firdows Square, central Baghdad, American officials relished the moment and spoke bombastically and profusely about how Iraqis were “shocked and awed” by the display of hi-tech weaponry of the US military. The conflict on the ground since then has exposed the reality of the limits of America’s power. LikeVietnam, Iraq is turning into a quagmire for America and its deeply-rooted, intoxicating arrogance of power. But there are more terrifying and sinister ghosts haunting Iraq these days; these ones hark back to post-Soviet Afghanistan, not to Vietnam. Instead of transforming Iraq into an oasis of democracy and prosperity, the invasion has turned the country into a quicksand of internecine civil strife that is in danger of drawing the whole region into a whirlpool of blood and destruction.