Friday, January 13, 2006

Civil War?

In the weeks after the parliamentary elections in Iraq there were allegations from some Sunni factions of improprieties as well as a spike in violence prompting some to bring the possibility of civil war back to the forefront of debate. In the last week or so the Alito confirmation has taken center stage relegating the issue of civil war to the proverbial backburner. Once those hearings are over, barring some unforeseen incident, I am relatively confident that the subject will once again surface. To understand the prospects for such a conflict one must take a look at history. Since the beginning of the Iraq War this has been done but I think it is pertinent to revisit the issue as we now find ourselves at a turning point in Iraq.

The Kurds, traditionally nomadic, ethnically close to the Iranians, and mostly Sunni have been resisting subjugation since first being conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century. During that time they have endured numerous massacres suffered at the hands of the Turks, Iranians, and Iraqis. In more recent times heavy fighting between the Iraqis and Kurds broke out in response to the Iraqi government attempting to impose a plan for limited autonomy in Kurdistan. In 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran was formed. Shortly thereafter they commenced to slaughtering the Kurds and systematically assassinating Kurdish leaders. The Kurds were subjected to numerous attacks at the hands of the Iraqis throughout the Iran/Iraq War. The most brutal of these was the poison gas attack of 1988. An estimated 200,000 Kurds were killed that year.

In 1991 after the Persian Gulf War the Kurds rose against Iraq and Saddam Hussein only to be crushed by the Iraqi army. Under UN protection the Kurds were able to institute a form of self-rule in Northern Iraq. However, true to their history of political disunity, two factions quickly formed that from time to time engaged in combat. A peace was settled between the two factions in 1999 and in 2003 the Kurds gladly helped with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The rift between the Sunnis and the Shi’a is that of a religious one that started soon after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. The dispute stems from who was to be Muhammad’s successor. The Sunnis believe that Muhammad’s father-in-law was the rightful heir to Muslim leadership. The Shi’a believe that Muhammad’s son-in-law was the rightful beneficiary. Three decades later the argument started the first Islamic civil war.

Some Sunnis, particularly extremist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda do not accept the Shi’a as Muslim and openly encourage their persecution as heretics. Persecution has certainly been prevalent for the Shi’a throughout their history. This is especially true in Iraq where a Shi’a rebellion was quashed by the British during the 1920’s aided by Sunnis. Since, they have suffered under every independent Iraqi regime since 1932, especially under Saddam Hussein, despite being a majority of the population.

Saddam’s ruthlessness towards the Shi’a has been truly realized after his fall. Stories of murder and torture and the discovery of countless mass graves are an attestation of the barbarity of his regime. It is estimated that some 300,000 Shi’a were killed or captured never to be heard from again after the 1991 uprising. It is also estimated that some 5 million Shiites were murdered under the Baathist regime.

The paragraphs above are just a brief history providing the reader a glimpse into the great divides between the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. These three groups are not political parties whose philosophies differ on how to govern. They are three distinct sectarian groups that have been divided on religious and ethnic grounds since the 7th century. A division which has often times been very bloody and very brutal. Illustration of these differences is not meant to show the impossibility of these three groups forming a coalition government. It is merely meant to show the magnitude of the differences that have to be overcome.

Overcoming these differences is not something that is going to happen overnight. One can certainly understand the reservations the Sunnis have about no longer being in power after ruling for so long. Especially since they had to relinquish power to a people that many of them believe are not true Muslims. Knowing that their rule was a ruthless one it is also easy to see why they would be wary of possible Shiite vengeance. Equally as obvious is the Kurdish desire for autonomous rule. Something they have been seeking but have been denied for centuries. Rule over the Kurds was no less brutal than that of the rule over Shiites. Correspondingly, you could understand the temptation of the Shiites to seize absolute power.

History shows us that there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the prospects for a peaceful democratic coalition government taking hold in Iraq. Conversely, there are also many things to be optimistic about. Despite the persecution endured by the Shi’a throughout their history they have generally striven for unity. More recent history shows that the Shiites have shown great restraint with their new power even in the face of relentless attacks from both foreign fighters as well as Sunni insurgents. Over the last few months the Kurds and the Shiites have shown not only a willingness to work together in the arduous process of establishing a coalition government, but also a willingness and desire to include the Sunnis in this process. As a result of this many Sunni factions have indeed decided to join in the political route.

Detractors stated that we should not have attempted regime change in Iraq because it would plunge the country into a civil conflict. Luckily for America and for the Iraqis our President does not shy away from doing the right thing just because it presents harsh difficulties. Despite these difficulties our troops, coalition partners, and governmental advisors have done an outstanding job of preventing the country from civil war. Credit also has to be bestowed on the Shiites and Kurds for their willingness to work toward an inclusive government and peace.

In the days and weeks leading up to the elections the Administration repeatedly expressed their optimism that elections with Sunni participation would eventually help quell the insurgency. After the Sunni disappointment with election results and the major attacks took place these critics latched on to that as a sure sign of an impending civil war and proof positive that these sectarian groups could never interact in a democratic form of government. The mainstream media and those on the left brought all of this back into the limelight shortly after these events not out of concern for Iraqis, but as an attack on the Bush Administration. In the minds of those that oppose Bush a civil war equates to a failure of his policies. Of course this is utter nonsense. America has rid Iraq and the world of a murderous dictator and has given the people of Iraq the best opportunity to live in peace. That opportunity has come in the form of security and training from our troops. It has come in billions of dollars of money for the rebuilding of the Iraqi infrastructure. It has also come from our example as a free and democratic nation.

It is of course entirely possible that once we have left Iraq the Shiites will exploit their advantage of being the majority and establish an Islamic state. This act could and most likely would thrust the country into a very bloody civil war. A war in which Iran would be all to happy to assist the Shiites. This of course would not bode well for American intentions of spreading democracy throughout the middle east, not to mention the destabilization it would cause the region. This possibility however was not an appropriate reason not to invade Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a serious threat not only to the region and to the United States but also to his own countrymen and we absolutely did the right thing in removing his regime.

In the end it is up to the Iraqi people. They have to decide for themselves if they want to continue centuries of bloodshed or if they want to accept each other and work together for the betterment of Iraq. We are eventually going to leave the Iraqi people to their own devices, much in the way God gives all men free will. If the Iraqis fail to make the most of the situation presented to them the fault lies squarely with them and not with President Bush.

Linked at bRight & Early and Stop the ACLU and Don Surber
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