Will Iraq Descend To Warlordism?

While America anxiously waits for General Petraeus to report in mid-September on the military situation in Iraq, Democratic and Republican politicians are honing the verbal knives they'll use in the upcoming congressional debate over the future of America's involvement with the war. But there are grim signs that regardless of the American political debate, Iraq may be headed for an extremely lethal short-term future. While many have already called the current situation in Iraq a "civil war," this future may soon be more accurately be described as "warlordism." And the debate in Washington may ultimately prove to be about nothing more than whether the warlords take over sooner, rather than later.

This is not exactly "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," but rather debating endlessly whether the lifeboats should actually be lowered or not, and when to begin lowering them. While the ship sinks below the waves.

It is admittedly (as are all predictions of the future, necessarily) a debatable assertion. And it does have a ring of fatalism about it. But it is looking more and more likely as time goes by. Stripped down to essentials, what this means is that utter chaos may be inevitable in Iraq for some time to come.

[How this plays out politically in America is an interesting question... more on that later.]

This may seem like an overly negative assessment of Iraq's future. Recently, the Washington Post ran an article titled "In the Land of the Blood Feuds," which should be required reading for anyone interested in the real situation on the ground in Iraq. I say this because it is a piece of actual war journalism -- the author, Sudarsan Raghavan, went out and talked to some U.S. soldiers in order to see what they had to say. This was once, incidentally, a common occurrence from the mainstream media, but (sadly) it is now as rare as hen's teeth.

The article is long and detailed, and paints an extremely discouraging picture of the current situation in Iraq:

On the unruly outer fringes of the Sunni area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death, American soldiers navigate more than a dozen battle zones straddling the fault lines of sect and tribe. Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- identified by President Bush and his generals as the main U.S. enemy -- is just one of myriad armed groups competing here for influence and authority. This arid region nourished by the Euphrates River is a microcosm of the many often-overlapping conflicts that have erupted across the new Iraq.

"We're fighting in multiple directions," said Col. Michael Garrett, commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) of the 25th Infantry Division.

. . .

"We are in the middle of it," Garrett said, indicating the center of his area of operations, which is the size of Rhode Island. "I'm not fighting one sect or the other. I'm fighting both. And not only am I fighting both, but at certain points I have to put my forces in between the Sunni and Shia groups to protect the populace."

. . .

Intra-tribal, intra-Shiite and intra-Sunni clashes play out against a backdrop of byzantine allegiances and arcane codes of conduct.

"We are in the land of the blood feuds," said Maj. Rick Williams, a liaison to tribes in the area. "It's very difficult to tell a tribal fight from a sectarian fight because interests are pretty mixed. You can't just put up a fence."

. . .

On March 26, [Lt. Col. Robert] Balcavage's soldiers responded to fierce street battles between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias in Iskandariyah's center.

A series of tit-for-tat mosque attacks had put the town on edge. Then Shiite militiamen based in one mosque attacked a Sunni shrine down the street.

As a unit from the 1st Battalion rolled into the battle zone, not far from [Sabah al-]Khafaji's factory, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades suddenly targeted them, according to a military report.

"Both sides stopped shooting at each other, and both opened up on our men," [Maj. Craig] Whiteside said. The Americans had to fight their way out.

. . .

Sunni groups launch attacks from Khidr against Shiites farther south and east. Some fighters fleeing a six-month-old security push in Baghdad have sought refuge in the area, U.S. commanders said. And while U.S. forces here and in other parts of the country are working with tribes that have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq, loyalties are often fickle in this region.

"Any group you work with can turn on you," said Williams, the tribal liaison, noting that even Iraqi police units have attacked U.S. troops. "That is part of the operating cost."

. . .

But even before their mission to Khidr, frustration ran deep among his soldiers, who have spent months chasing a hard-to-define enemy.

"We haven't done anything here. We'll go for 24 hours and we'll see nothing," said Sgt. Josh Claeson, a radio operator, as he waited with nearly 200 soldiers under the glow of an orange moon for helicopters to Khidr. "Our basic mission here is to drive around and get blown up."

This is not exactly recruiting-poster material for back home, it should be pointed out.

But what if the "surge" actually works to reduce violence, as staunch Bush supporters ask? What would happen if the level of overall violence (and attacks against Americans in particular) declined to a level that would allow journalists to get out of the "green zone" and report what life on the ground in Iraq is like?

If this actually came to pass, every American television screen would be busy documenting the "ethnic cleansing" and "sectarian cleansing" (I personally hate those euphemistic terms with a passion, and apologize for using them) which is already occurring on a daily basis in Iraq. Occurring largely out of the world's view, due to the inherent dangers of reporting the story. Iraqis numbering in the millions are being told bluntly: "move or die." Others don't even get a warning, they are just summarily executed. This is happening on all sides within Iraq. Sunni-majority areas are becoming pure enclaves of Sunnis. The exact same can be said for Shi'ite and Kurdish areas. The only reason the world isn't outraged over this is because the larger tragedy that is the Iraq occupation today distracts from such an ugly reality.

But what will happen when American forces leave may well be a sharp escalation from civil war to warlordism, and from ethnic/sectarian "cleansing" to outright genocide. And as I wrote recently, the Bush administration appears to be telling the American military to be more evenhanded in who we are supporting in Iraq (this will be one of the pillars of Petraeus' report -- that we are "winning over" Sunni sheiks in Al-Anbar province) -- but what we may actually achieve is to enrage every single faction in Iraq, even the Kurds who have actually supported us up until now. Right before we leave. Boy, that's certainly going to have a calming effect on the situation, eh?

Lest you think this is a problem the United States has created for itself in Iraq, for whatever reason (i.e., Bush is an idiot, Rumsfeld was an idiot, conspiracy theories dealing with oil, conspiracy theories dealing with Princess Di, or whatever...); you need look no further than the current situation in Basra to see that this is a solely Iraqi problem, not just a problem created by us. Which (if true) means that it does not matter when or how we leave -- this problem is still going to remain after we go. We could continue the surge for five years, we could pull all our troops out next week -- and the problem in Iraq would still remain for the Iraqis to sort out in whatever way they choose (no matter how brutally they do choose to solve the problem).

Basra, if you'll recall, was supposed to be a British success story in Iraq. For years, the White House has been spinning this as: "Things in Basra Are Relatively Calm." When the British had 30,000 soldiers in southern Iraq, this may have indeed had a grain of truth to it. However, the British force is now down to 5,000 -- and they are basically holed up, barricaded within their base of operations. Basra itself, meanwhile, has descended into absolute anarchy -- as reported by USA Today, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Because the new Prime Minister of Great Britain got elected on an anti-Iraq-war platform, the British will likely precede us in withdrawing forces from Iraq. So we will have front seats for a preview of how the country's situation at large is going to play out after we leave. No matter when we leave. I would advise searching for news from Basra in the next four to six months. It will likely be hard to find, as the American media may completely ignore it. But the British media won't. Basra is "their baby," so they will likely cover the aftermath better than American media will.

I have to sum this article up by pointing out what I consider an extreme irony in American politics (if, that is, you fully accept the main premise of this article: Iraq's going to be chaos no matter when we withdraw).

The irony is that whoever wins the upcoming September battle in Congress will likely lose in next year's elections, because the American public will not like the outcome -- no matter which political party wins the debate in Congress.

Think about it. If chaos is inevitable, then you have the Democratic choice of "chaos soon." Or, you can choose the Republican version of "chaos later" -- but this postponement will come at the cost of thousands of American military lives. Which, incidentally, the public is already strongly against.

When presented with this choice, a rational observer would obviously side with the Democrats -- which the American public has already overwhelmingly done.

But remember -- the public is notoriously fickle. They're also notoriously reluctant to blame themselves for any political decisions based on their own popular opinion. And, finally... the 2008 election is fifteen whole months away.

So if the Democrats have their way, the "chaos" in Iraq is going to come "soon" -- in other words, before the election. Which means that the chaos is going to be visible to the American public (if -- and only if -- the American media continues to cover the current situation in Iraq).

So we'll have a steady diet of chaos and massacres in Iraq. Right in the middle of the campaign. And you can bet your bottom dollar the right-wing noise machine is going to be loudly beating the drum of: "Democrats Lost Iraq! They Won't Keep You Safe!!" The further Iraq descends into genocide and warlordism (think Somalia and Darfur put together, and on a much larger scale), the more this message is going to resonate among the public. Republicans are very deft and adept at playing the "fear" card on national security; and if they do so successfully, Democrats may pay a price next November for "ending the Iraq war sooner" -- as strange as that may sound today.

On the other side of the coin, what happens if the Republicans continue to successfully obstruct congressional Democrats, and also to successfully frighten Democrats into voting more and more money for Iraq with the same blunt instrument of: "The Troops Are Running Out Of Money!! We've Got To Support The Troops In The Field!!"? What happens if the Iraq war goes on right up to election day, 2008 (which is, ultimately, George Bush's plan -- to hand the whole mess off to his successor)?

In this case, the public (already 70% against Iraq) is going to slaughter Republicans at the polls in November (if -- and only if -- Democrats successfully make their case: "Republicans are preventing us from ending the war in Iraq"). This could wind up making the Democratic victories in 2006 look like a Sunday-school picnic to the GOP. A two-thirds majority of the Senate may even be possible for Democrats to achieve, if there are 160,000 (or even anything over 100,000) American soldiers still in Iraq come election day.

Which would be the ultimate irony. Because then, whichever party wins the debate next month in Congress (one way or another -- and right or wrong on Iraq policy) may actually pay the political price for such a victory next November. Winning this debate may mean losing big next year, politically.

And I don't think either party has truly faced up to this possibility. But maybe they better start thinking about it.


[Lest I be accused of all sorts of personal political positions, I must state that I am heartily for withdrawing troops from Iraq as soon as possible, no matter what the political fallout may be next year.]


Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com