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    Middle East
     Aug 20, 2005

Iraq at the gates of hell
By Ashraf Fahim

In early July, Iraq's former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi told the media that Iraq was "practically in stage one of a civil war". Since no known calculus exists for determining what level of violence qualifies as the initial stage of a civil war, we cannot know if Allawi was correct.

There has certainly been a rise in inter-communal killings, particularly between Arab Sunnis and Shi'ites, to go with the deadly battle between occupation and government forces and the insurgents. But we have not yet seen the kind of sustained military engagements, a la Lebanon, the Balkans or Sierra Leone, nor the specter of large-scale ethnic cleansing that would put Allawi's claim beyond doubt.

Two years ago, Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa predicted ominously that an invasion would "open the gates of hell" in the region. At the time, Western ears heard melodrama in that warning, the bombastic rhetoric of an out-of-time Arab nationalist.

In retrospect, of course, it was nothing if not prescient. The invasion unleashed unspeakable horrors - cities bombed to ruin, gritty urban combat, gruesome beheadings, apocalyptic car bombings. Civil war, however, would truly complete Moussa's prophecy. It would be a tragedy to dwarf Iraq's current blood-soaked chaos, ushering in not only a paroxysm of internecine killing, but perhaps a regional conflagration that would send ripples of instability far beyond.

Iraqi nationalism now appears to be dissolving as fearful Iraqis seek safety in confessional bonds. Patrick Cockburn has written vividly in the London Review of Books of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad living in terror of Shi'ite death squads that operate with apparent government sanction, and of Shi'ite neighborhoods traumatized by the unending wave of suicide bombers. "The bodies of Sunnis are being found in rubbish dumps across Baghdad," wrote Cockburn, "... 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."

One of the more recent suicide bombings in Baghdad killed 43 people on August 17; the targets were Shi'ite travelers headed to the southern cities of Najaf and Basra. Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, speculated about the agenda behind such apparently arbitrary slaughter. "They want a reaction against Sunnis to therefore deepen the sectarian crisis in the country," he said. There are also reports of Sunnis trying to drive Shi'ites from Ramadi (and Baghdad, according to Kubba), allegedly in retaliation for similar Shi'ite actions against Sunnis in the south.

With the future of Iraqi Kurdistan up for grabs in the current effort to draft a permanent constitution, the always tense relationship between Kurds and Arabs is nearing its moment of truth. Veteran Kurdish leader Masud Barzani nearly set fire to straw when he said on August 4 that "the Kurdish people have the right to secede". Barzani may well have been angling for concessions on the status of Kirkuk, the oil-rich northern city that is caught in a deadly tug-of-war between Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. "We are encouraging our people to claim their rights peacefully," a Turmken leader told the media. "But if talks with the Kurds break down, that will be the beginning of the civil war."

It is telling that even the new US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who is paid to be optimistic, recently broke a self-imposed American taboo by speaking openly of the possibility of civil war. But Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group, emphasizes that the die is not yet cast. "There are the signs of civil war, but it's not inevitable that civil war will come," Hiltermann told Asia Times Online. "Steps can still be taken to prevent it." Hiltermann stressed the importance of training the Iraqi security forces and bringing Sunni Arabs fully into the political process. "If things get out of control here it's going to be a bloodbath that will be something we cannot imagine, of a scale we cannot imagine," he said.

The deepening tensions between Iraq's basic communities are being played out in the constitutional deliberations. The divisive debate about federalism is perhaps most troubling. With the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite political party, now demanding an autonomous Shi'ite region in the south to mirror the Kurdish region in the north, the battle lines for a civil war may literally have been drawn. SCIRI's demand constitutes the sum of all Sunni Arab fears - the threat of exclusion from Iraq's oil wealth (which is buried in the north and south) and the possibility that perceived Western plots to divide Iraq will succeed. "We hoped this day would never come," said Sunni negotiator Saleh al-Mutlak on learning of SCIRI's demands.

With heavy US pressure being exerted on the constitution negotiators, there may well be an agreement on at least the framework for a charter. But major disputes - over federalism, what role Islam should play in shaping Iraq's laws, how oil wealth will be distributed - are profound, and a document that papers over these questions could be worse than none at all.

Iraq's descent into zero-sum sectarianism has increased fears in the Arab world that it will become another Lebanon, where a gruesome 15-year civil war tore that country's intricate sectarian mosaic asunder. The denominational map in Iraq is not as maddening as it is in Lebanon, but the grievances of Iraq's three major communities are becoming ever more intractable. And Iraq's population of 25 million, 10 times larger than Lebanon's, clearly has a stellar per capita rate of martial acumen to go with an apparently endless reservoir of arms. An all-out conflict in Iraq would therefore make Lebanon seem quaint.

It is a pretense of many in Lebanon that their civil war was actually a proxy war fought on Lebanese soil. In reality the war had its roots deep in Lebanese domestic politics and history. But to some degree Lebanon did eventually become a battleground for competing regional interests. Unfortunately, there is vastly more at stake in Iraq, the most blessed Arab country in terms of natural resources and strategic geography. Iraq shares long borders with Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, all of whom it has had at least contentious relations with previously. In a civil war, the temptation for Iraq's neighbors to forcefully assert their interests would be irresistible.

Given all this grist, how might the dark mill of civil war begin turning in Iraq? It might simply develop out of a continuing, steady rise in the vicious cycle of revenge killings. Alternatively, a sudden breakdown of the political process could lead each sect to quickly assert its interests by force: the Kurds attempting to seize Kirkuk, for example, or Arab Sunnis and Shi'ites fighting for control of the mixed Sunni-Shi'ite towns south of Baghdad - all of which would entail ethnic cleansing. Further ideological and interdenominational divisions would also arise. Inter-Shi'ite rivalries were recently on display in the southern town of Samawa, where supporters of SCIRI and influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr clashed. Muqtada espouses a brand of Iraqi and Islamic nationalism that could lead his Mehdi Army to side with those opposed to federalism if civil war did erupt.

And then there are the neighbors. As professor Juan Cole, an expert in Iraq and Shi'ism, recently wrote in the Nation: "If Iraq fell into civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ites, the Saudis and Jordanians would certainly take the side of the Sunnis, while Iran would support the Shi'ites." In essence, a civil war would see the eight-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s replayed on Iraqi territory. To complicate matters, any Kurdish success would draw in Turkey. Beyond Iraq, a civil war could destabilize the Gulf, and thereby the world economy. Sunni-Shi'ite tensions could be kindled in states like Bahrain, Kuwait and most importantly, Saudi Arabia , where an occasionally restive Shi'ite population forms a majority in the eastern part of the country (where all the oil is).

This situation presents the US with an unenviable quandary. If civil war does break out it will be blamed regardless - either because of the provocation of its enduring presence or the vacuum left if it withdraws precipitously. To an extent, the Bush administration has only itself to blame for Iraq's simmering sectarian tensions. Iraq was hardly a model of communal harmony under Saddam Hussein. But US support for sectarian political parties and the creation of a political system centered around confessional quotas has significantly elevated identity politics. If the administration intended to divide Iraq's communities in order to make them more malleable, its success could come at a very high price.

The joke in Iraq before the invasion was that Iraqis actually wanted the gates of hell to be opened so they could get out. But even Iraqis' stubborn gallows humor is fading as the prospects for a better future after Saddam diminish. Every hour the violence continues there are countless new scores to be settled, new hatreds born and old ones reinforced, and a greater likelihood that Iraq will disintegrate.

Yet there are slivers of light amid all this darkness. Reports out of Ramadi tell of Sunni Arab tribesmen bravely fighting off insurgents who had come to drive away their Shi'ite neighbors. In the testing days ahead, that kind of unity will have to be the rule rather than the exception if Iraq is to survive.

Ashraf Fahim is a freelance writer on Middle Eastern affairs based in New York and London. His writing can be found at www.storminateacup.org.uk

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