DAMASCUS - This summer former US
ambassador Peter Galbraith released a
groundbreaking book called The End of Iraq: How
American Incompetence Created a War Without
End. One of the most interesting facts
presented by Galbraith was that two months before
the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George
W Bush was unaware that there were two branches of
Islam (Sunni and Shi'ite). Bush once also famously
said, "They are misunderestimating me."
Now, with the war in Lebanon having
overshadowed events in Iraq, perhaps it is the US
that is "misunderestimating" the situation
there, where July was the
bloodiest month in terms of deaths since the
invasion of March 2003.
Iraq and its
people have probably been the greatest losers in
the Israeli war with Hezbollah. For a month, the
world's attention was completely fixated on
Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah. The rising
sectarian violence in Iraq, until a ceasefire came
into effect in Lebanon this Monday, was ignored.
Before the Lebanon war started, it seemed
that Iraq was already on the verge of civil war,
due to the brutality of death squads and the
visible helplessness of Prime Minister Nuri
A month later, Iraq is
at civil war. Just look at the figures. In July,
the number of Iraqis killed in sectarian violence
- and what else can one call it? - was a
staggering 3,438 - two times the number of
Lebanese civilians killed during the 30 days of
daily air raids by Israel, and more than 100
deaths a day.
This is a 9% increase over
the death toll for June. And this is not Iraqis
being killed by Americans. It is Iraqis killing
one another. Last month, an average of 110 Iraqis
were dying per day in Iraq. Despite all the
denials both of US officials and of members of the
Maliki cabinet, this is war, and it is a war that
was started by the Bush administration.
These numbers mean many things. First, it
is clear evidence that the Baghdad Security Plan
of the Iraqi prime minister (started on June 14)
has completely failed. It was a plan much
trumpeted by Bush and Maliki because it called for
the creation of more Iraq-run checkpoints to
search for arms, explosives and gunmen.
Second, the staggering Iraqi death toll
means that the Sunni insurgency has not been
broken - or even weakened - by the death of its
leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
the transfer of full responsibility for security
to the Iraqi government seems as far away as it
has ever been since the invasion of 2003.
The Americans have already started
"Operation Together Forward" to reclaim parts of
the Iraqi capital from warring militias. Abd
al-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council
for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has called for
the creation of "people's committees" to provide
local security. In effect, he is saying that the
Shi'ites should protect Shi'ite districts, the
Sunnis should protect their own neighborhoods, and
mixed areas should be patrolled by joint
He has every
reason to lose faith in both Iraqi security and
the US military. A glimpse at some events over the
past few days provides tragic confirmation of the
widespread chaos across the country and the war
that has engulfed it.
On Wednesday, a car
bomb went off in Baghdad, killing 10 people and
injuring more than 40. Earlier in the day, clashes
had erupted in the towns of Basra and Mosul. In
Basra, armed groups engaged in combat with police
and the British army after they attacked the
office of the governor and the city council. In
Mosul, rebels were killed by Iraqi police.
On Tuesday, violence erupted in Karbala
between the Iraqi army and supporters of radical
cleric Mahmud al-Hasani, leading to the death of
12 Iraqis. The attack was blamed on the
"nationalist attitude" of Hasani, an ally of rebel
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is vehemently opposed
to the US presence in Iraq. After storming
Hasani's office, police arrested 250 of his
That same day, a suicide
bomber killed nine people in Mosul outside the
offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which
is headed by President Jalal Talabani. Five
members of the paramilitary peshmerga were
killed and 36 people were wounded.
this month, Iraq police clashed with members of
the Mehdi Army led by Muqtada. Maliki, who is
trying to build bridges between warring factions,
denied the attack, but it was confirmed by the
Ministry of Defense, making the prime minister
It also enraged Muqtada and
probably explains why so much violence took place
in the following week, all believed to be
Muqtada's doing. The clash, which took place in
Sadr City, lasted for two hours and resulted in
the death of two Iraqis and the wounding of 18. A
second clash took place when officials stormed the
Ministry of Health and arrested seven of Minister
Ali al-Shamri's bodyguards. The health minister is
For two years now the Americans
have been denying that Iraq is on the verge of
civil war. Last week, however, two US generals
spoke to Congress about the situation in Iraq. And
they spoke about civil war.
Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East,
said, "I believe that the sectarian violence is
probably as bad as I have seen it, in Baghdad in
particular, and that if not stopped it is possible
that Iraq could move toward civil war."
General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, told Congress, "We do have the
possibility of that devolving into civil war."
Both acknowledged that one year ago, they did not
expect things to turn so violent in Iraq.
Also last week, after the briefing of the
two generals, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
was asked whether the US would maintain its troops
in Iraq if civil war broke out. He declined to
answer, saying he didn't want to give the
impression that he, too, was implying that a civil
war was on the horizon. But he added that the
question must be handled by the Iraqis themselves.
Currently, there are 133,000 US troops in
Iraq, and this war has cost billions of dollars
and 2,500 American lives. The fate of these
troops, if civil war were indeed to be
acknowledged by everybody, is still uncertain.
Bush has already said he does not expect
US troops to leave Iraq during his presidency,
which ends in January 2009. On the civil-war
theme, a story leaked in Newsweek, quoting "a
senior Bush aide", said the White House was
seriously studying what it would do in Iraq if it
were to accept that civil war had broken out.
This was also confirmed in a cable sent
from William Patey, the outgoing British
ambassador to Iraq, to Prime Minister Tony Blair.
It sounded as pessimistic as the words of Generals
Abizaid and Pace. He said, "The prospect for a
low-intensity civil war and a de facto division of
Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a
successful and substantial transition to a stable
democracy." He added: "Even the lowered
expectation of President Bush for Iraq - a
government that can sustain itself, defend itself,
and govern itself and is an ally in the war on
terror - must remain in doubt."
these problems, there is the danger of the
"Hezbollah model" being adopted in Iraq. Muqtada,
who has been a nightmare for the Americans since
they invaded, has all the credentials to create
such an organization in Iraq, modeling himself
after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Muqtada is young. He is well connected in
the religious establishment, he hails from a
prominent Shi'ite family and he has a large
following among Iraqis. Like Nasrallah, he is
opposed to both the US and Israel. Like Nasrallah,
he is an Arab nationalist at heart who does not
want to see Iraq divided. The only difference is
that Muqtada wants to establish a theocracy in
He lacks Nasrallah's charisma,
however, and the flow of money and arms from Iran.
If he pulls the right strings, though, and makes
wise alliances, he could receive strong support
from the mullahs of Tehran - something that the
Americans wish to avoid at any cost.
happens, and Muqtada decides to end all restraint,
he could immediately bring down the Maliki
cabinet. Or he could withdraw his ministers from
the government and replace them with non-entities,
and transform the cabinet into a political dwarf
unable to make any real decisions. In this event,
what would govern the state of affairs under
Muqtada would be the power of the sword on the
One of the things cemented
in the minds of the Americans after the war in
Lebanon - because of the stunning strength of
Hezbollah - is that they do not want an Iraqi
Hezbollah. Muqtada already has ministers in the
Maliki cabinet and deputies in parliament. He has
strong veto power by virtue of his constituency
and popularity among Shi'ites.
Americans want to control his rapidly rising
popularity. They see the bitter reality that now
they have to deal with Lebanon's Hezbollah. They
truly wish that it was not there, but have not
been able to defeat it or destroy it, neither with
United Nations resolutions, nor through domestic
Lebanese dialogue, nor through the military might
of the Israeli army.
And with Iraq in such
civil strife, it could in all likelihood become a
battleground for the entire Persian and Arab
neighborhood. The Saudis would support the Sunnis.
Iran - and Lebanon's Hezbollah - would support the
The United States would be
trapped in the middle. It would be unable to side
with any one party against the other. Supporting
the Sunnis would mean supporting former
Ba'athists. Supporting the Shi'ites would mean
allying with Iran. And the Kurds, with whom the US
gets on, are not very strong anyway and do not
represent large numbers in Iraq.
United States stands in a helpless situation. If
only Bush had had a better idea of Sunnis and
Shi'ites before he invaded.