The Only Hope to Avert Civil War

As I travel around this country speaking about my experience as an unembedded journalist in Iraq, calling for an end to the occupation, I am inevitably asked the same question: “If the U.S. military leaves Iraq, won’t there be a civil war?”

This, I think, is the wrong question. Since toppling Saddam Hussein in April 2003, the U.S. government has consistently pursued policies that pit Iraqis against each other. The way I examine the situation, the risk of civil war is one of the reasons to end the occupation.

Look at the way America arranged Iraq politically. Rather than encouraging elections after the fall of Saddam, the Bush administration hired a North Carolina company called Research Triangle International (RTI) to appoint new political leaders for the country.

For the princely fee of $427 million, RTI implemented a policy they called (and this is not a joke) “selections not elections.” They would invite everyone in a particular community to attend a meeting. At the meeting, the company would pick the new government, making sure to reserve a specific number of seats to Iraqis from each of the country’s major ethnic and religious groups – Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, Turkmen, Kurd, and Assyrian/Chaldean Christian.

Under RTI, Iraqis were required to organize on the basis on their ethnic and religious background.

Imagine if a similar plan were implemented in one of America’s more diverse cities. Imagine if a foreign company came to San Francisco to pick a new government and said: “Okay, we need eight white heterosexuals, five gays, five Asians, three African-Americans, and three Latinos.” People in San Francisco would have no choice but to organize on the basis of their race rather than ideology. Is it any wonder, then, that after this January’s election Iraqis organized themselves on sectarian grounds?

But America’s culpability in a possible civil war goes beyond the way the Bush administration organized the political process. Throughout the occupation, the U.S. military has asked folks from different factions to fight each other. This creation of a factional fight may not be done purposefully by the American government, but it happens anyway.

During the April 2004 siege of Fallujah, for example, half of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army deserted rather than fight. Most of the deserters were Arabs, while former Kurdish peshmerga from Iraq continued to fight. So Kurds were fighting Arabs in Iraq – all under American command.

When the Iraqi police go on joint patrols with the U.S. military in Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, arresting residents and taking them to prison, the policemen usually come from Shi’ite sections of Baghdad. Those who join the police are usually poor Shia who need money and work. When they arrest Sunnis in another part of town, sectarian tensions grow and civil war becomes more likely.

At some point, the Bush administration will have to face reality: by its very presence in Iraq, the U.S. exacerbates each of the disasters we seek to avoid.