Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Post-state Iraq

An old Iraq hand, Patrick Cockburn, provides a grim overview of the scene in Baghdad in the London Review of Books (subscription only). Particularly unsettling is this passage:

Hatred between Sunni and Shia Arabs has been intensifying over the past few months. Iraqis used to claim that sectarianism had been fomented or exacerbated by Saddam. In reality the tension between Sunni, Shia and Kurd has always shaped Iraqi politics. All the exiled parties returning after the fall of Saddam had a sectarian or ethnic base. The Sunnis opposed the US invasion, the Kurds supported it and the Shias, 60 per cent of the population, hoped to use it to give their community a share of power at last.

The army and police recruits killed by the suicide bombers are mostly Shia. Al-Qaida in Iraq, the shadowy group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, denounces the Shia as apostates. There are also near daily massacres of working-class Shias. Now the Shias have started to strike back. The bodies of Sunnis are being found in rubbish dumps across Baghdad. ‘I was told in Najaf by senior leaders that they have killed upwards of a thousand Sunnis,' an Iraqi official said. Often the killers belong, at least nominally, to the government's paramilitary forces, including the police commandos. These commandos seem increasingly to be operating under the control of certain Shias, who may be members of the Badr Brigade, the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the country's largest militia, with up to seventy thousand men.

The commandos, whose units have macho names such as Wolf Brigade and Lion Brigade, certainly look and act like a militia. They drive around in pick-up trucks, shooting into the air to clear the traffic, and are regarded with terror in Sunni districts. In one raid the commandos arrested nine Sunni Arabs who had taken a friend with a bullet wound in his leg to hospital. (The commandos claimed they were suspected insurgents, even though wounded resistance fighters generally keep away from hospitals.) The men were left in the back of a police vehicle which was parked in the sun with the air conditioning switched off: all were asphyxiated. Zarqawi has announced that he is setting up a group called the Omar Brigade specifically to target the Badr militia.

Unlike the death squads that used to operate in Latin America, the commandos rarely try to conceal their responsibility for killings. They arrive in full uniform, a garish green and yellow camouflage, at the homes of former Sunni officials and arrest them. A few days later the bodies – sometimes savagely tortured, with eyes gouged out and legs broken – turn up in the morgue.

All this has created terror in Sunni neighbourhoods, particularly among the hundreds of thousands who served under the old regime. The Badr Brigade, which fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, is often said to be an arm of Iranian intelligence determined to settle old scores. Air force pilots believe they are being singled out for assassination because they are suspected of having bombed Iranian cities nearly twenty years ago. This may not be true, but fear of the death squads is certainly pushing the Sunni community as a whole towards sympathy with the insurgents, who are seen as armed fellow Sunnis who might protect them.

In sum, post-Saddam Iraq has gone the way of other post-dictatorial states, such as Congo, and become simply a failed state. Cockburn concludes with these depressing words:
The chances of a unitary Iraq emerging from the conflict are dwindling. The Kurds, triumphant after fighting for half a century, are not going to give up the oil city of Kirkuk or abandon a level of autonomy close to independence. The Shias want as much power as they can get. The Sunnis have shown by their armed resistance that they can destabilise Iraq for as long as they want. But the insurgents will not be able to spread resistance beyond the Sunni community because of the savage attacks by the suicide bombers on Shia mosques and children playing in the street in Shia districts. The appeal of Iraqi nationalism is ebbing.

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