The New York Times is reporting today that Shia and Sunni Iraqis have begun to flee from mixed Shia-Sunni areas. This migration comes on the heels of increased sectarian strife, death squad activity; and bombings targeting political figures, businesses, ordinary citizens and religious establishments.
The daily body count in Iraq ranges anywhere from 30 to 60 deaths, depending on which source you cite. That translates to 10950 to 21900 deaths per year if the current trend remains steady and does not accelerate. To put these numbers in perspective, consider that during the rule of Saddam Hussein from 1979 to 2003, the US Government’s estimate of the number of deaths is 300,000. That is, about 12500 deaths per year. The current death rate in Iraq equals or far exceeds the deaths during the rule of Saddam Hussein. So, if you pose to the common Iraqi the Ronald Reagan question, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" it should not come as a surprise if the answer is "No."
The reader can continue the gruesome exercise of comparing body counts with such well-known civil wars as Lebanon and Algeria. If you do work the numbers you will find that in terms of the death rate, Iraq today either equals or exceeds the death rates in these and other civil wars of the 20th Century.
The consequence of the Shia and Sunni communities separating geographically will be further bloodshed. Mixed communities were the last strands of the chord holding Iraq together. Without the countervailing force of these mixed neighborhoods there is nothing to slow the rapid acceleration of sectarian strife.
Into the imbroglio enter the United States. We have not too subtly asked the Iraqi Prime Minister to step down. Washington Post is reporting today that there are now calls from within Iraq for the Prime Minister to step down. The United States may unfortunately get its wish here. It is unfortunate because al-Jaafari’s likely replacement will be Adel Abdul Mahdi. Abdul Mahdi is the candidate backed directly by SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). I think the name of the organization speaks for itself. Incidentally, the Badr Brigade, the militia blamed for a large number of the killings, is the military wing of SCIRI.
The pushing aside of al-Jaafari, with the backing of the United States, will further de-legitimize the Iraqi Government. It will certainly give no comfort to the Sunni minority to see the U.S., however inadvertently, offering support to SCIRI. Further compounding the problem is the large-scale infiltration of the Iraqi police and army by the Badr Brigade and Mahdi Army militias. Of these police forces, GlobalSecurity.org reports that the U.S. Army General in charge of security in Baghdad, General James Thurman, said this week:
Iraqi troops and police units are more and more often taking the lead in counter-insurgency operations in Baghdad and the three provinces to the south that come under his responsibility. He also says more Iraqis are calling a special phone number to report insurgent activity. He says there have been more than 3,000 such calls since January, and that most of them have resulted in military operations that found insurgents, criminals or weapons caches.
The paradox is what looks like progress in training the Iraqi police and military is in fact resulting in these forces creating the very instability we are training them to control. We have, like it or not, taken sides in this civil war. Our stated objective is to stay out of any civil war that may be occurring or may occur in the future. But, the reality is that you cannot have a 138,000 strong army sitting on its hands while a civil war rages all around. The logic of the situation will force the United States to choose one side over another (consider the examples of Lebanon or Somalia).
What then will be the role of the U.S. military in Iraq with civil war breaking out all around them? There is no viable role for the military in Iraq that does not entail a long-term entanglement in the conflict – with the outcome decidedly uncertain. It is time, then, to withdraw our troops in some sort of orderly fashion. Very little further damage to our credibility will result from a quick withdrawal. Our three years in Iraq have damaged our credibility to levels below which it is unlikely to go.
I think the Iraqi conflict train has already left the station. We are left only with trying to affect a quick resolution of the civil war. This does not require a military presence, and in fact, a military presence might hinder any such progress for reasons mentioned above. Our goal from this point should and must be to try to work to ease tensions within Iraq and to work with Iraq’s neighbors to contain the conflict within Iraq’s borders.
It is not an attractive proposition, but we are where we are.