Iraqis Warn Country Close to Civil War

Iraqi intellectuals living both inside Iraq and as members of the expatriate community in Europe and North America are warning that Iraq is perilously close to a civil war in light of recent events and decrees issued by both the US Civilian Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).

In chronological order,

1. Leading members of the Shiite majority in Iraq believe that they are about to be shortchanged once again in July 2004, when the CPA hands over control to a provisional Iraqi government which it claims will be more representative of the Iraqi people. Shiite clerics led by Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani have called for direct elections starting from a grassroots level to ensure that the provisional government avoid suspicion of acting as a US proxy and franchise the support and active participation of the Iraqi people. Al-Sistani has charged the CPA with failing to enjoin the democratic needs of the Iraqi people. Other Shiite clerics have also charged that they fear that a new Iraqi constitution will be far more secular than the Baathist legal framework and not cater to the Islamic flavor of the country. Al-Sistani’s position received strong endorsement from the current rotating IGC president Shiite cleric Abdel Aziz Hakim who used his inaugural speech to state that "A provisional national assembly should be elected by the Iraqi people, and this assembly should choose the government."

Several IGC members have defended the CPA plan citing the lack of a census upon which all elections must be based. A census determines the demographics of the population, does a count of eligible voters, carries out voter registration, and enhances the democratic process which the country requires. With no census, says the IGC, there can be no elections. However, in early November, the Iraqi Census Bureau submitted a plan to conduct a full national census in Iraq by Fall 2004. According to a recent Al Jazeera article, quoting Agence-France Press and the New York Times, Iraqi officials submitted their plan on November 1 and were asking for a decision by November 15. IGC officials admitted never seeing the plan which eventually fell to the wayside. Iraqis are beginning to suspect that there are elements both within the IGC and the CPA that are working to undermine Iraqi democracy.

2. The New York Times reported on November 25th that the IGC is trying to wedge its way out of its commitment to relinquishing control to an elected body: "But Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader who is serving as president of the council this month, said in an interview Monday that a majority of the council members ‘want to keep the Governing Council as it is now.’ Some council members who oppose this idea say they believe that the proposal is being promoted by members who are afraid that they may not fare well in the coming elections. Opponents of the idea also say they fear that staying on will be a public relations disaster for the nascent rebuilt Iraqi state." Iraqis are astounded that the CPA may indeed give in to urges from certain IGC members and keep them on in some kind of future arrangement. The fact that unelected elements may remain in power is incensing Iraqis who claim there is no difference between Saddam’s former henchmen and the IGC members who are considered self-serving and out for a power grab. The news that IGC members are bargaining to stay in power has, ironically, become an effective recruiting tool for the Iraqi resistance. Many Iraqis privately say they are waiting till July 2004 before deciding whether to work with the CPA or support an increasing Iraqi rebellion in key parts of the country. However, there may be ominous signs that members of the IGC may turn to violent means to enforce their political aspirations. Certain members of the IGC are protected by their local security guards and a heavy US security detail. Some of the council members have their own private little armies. Galal Talabani and Masoud Barazani, both rival Kurdish leaders, maintain highly-equipped armies of peshmerga who at one point fought Saddam’s armies, and at several junctions, one another. Ahmad Chalabi, who is wanted on charges of fraud and embezzlement in neighboring Jordan (he was sentenced to 20 years in absentia), has his own army of Iraqi opposition who were trained by the CIA and wear American-made uniforms and wield American-made weaponry.

3. In efforts to minimize the toll on US forces in Iraq (448 fatalities, 11,000 wounded or incapacitated) there has been a maddening rush to create an Iraqi militia force that would overtake many of the duties performed by Coalition forces – patrol, searching for insurgents, protecting key installations, etc. However, while the average rotation time for training new Iraqi police and/or militia is six months, many of the Iraqi forces on active duty have only seen three weeks of training, a discrepancy that is worrying some Iraq experts. Ali Jawad, a former Iraqi police recruit who left for Amman, Jordan when his comrades were killed in recent Baghdad attacks, claims that Iraqi police are poorly equipped, poorly trained, have communication barriers with coalition forces, and are constantly looking over their shoulders not only from Iraqi insurgents, but US forces which may be trigger-happy or uninformed of Iraqi patrol presence. He says that Iraqi police are stressed and many have domestic problems because of their torn loyalties. Jawad believes it wouldn’t take much for the Iraqi police to join the insurgency if conditions in Iraq further deteriorated.

US forces are aware that they are in a dilemma and have consequently drawn a plan they hope will alleviate the problem of putting Iraqi forces in charge of security. According to Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News, the CPA is using its influence with Kurdish factions to start using well-armed Kurdish peshmerga fighters, who formerly fought against the Iraqi Army, to patrol hotspots like the Sunni Triangle and Arab-dominated Mosul. Sunni religious leaders have expressed outrage over the proposed deal and have warned, in no ambiguous terms, that the Sunni areas will not tolerate being patrolled or policed by Kurdish (or Shiite) militia. They warn that a civil war would be inevitable.

4. Oil. Reports have emerged from Iraq indicating that Israeli technocrats and oil industry personnel have been seen mulling about in the Kurdish-held areas of Iraq. Independent Iraqi observers point to discussions between Israeli businessmen and government officials with the CPA and certain members of the Iraqi opposition that would later form the IGC. An article in The Guardian (April 20) said "Plans to build a pipeline to siphon oil from newly conquered Iraq to Israel are being discussed between Washington, Tel Aviv and potential future government figures in Baghdad. The plan envisages the reconstruction of an old pipeline, inactive since the end of the British mandate in Palestine in 1948, when the flow from Iraq’s northern oilfields to Palestine was re-directed to Syria." In late August, Israel’s daily Haaretz reported that "The new pipeline would take oil from the Kirkuk area, where some 40 percent of Iraqi oil is produced, and transport it via Mosul, and then across Jordan to Israel. The U.S. telegram included a request for a cost estimate for repairing the Mosul-Haifa pipeline that was in use prior to 1948." Iraqis are now concerned that a likely Iraqi civil war would be a shadow war to cover up the fact that Iraqi oil is being siphoned to Israel. "Now we see that it wasn’t about oil, this war, but about oil for Israel," said Shahim Al-Obeidi, an Iraqi chemist in Quebec City, Canada. "The Kurds might sell their pride to Israel, but the Arabs will not tolerate this. And they ask why people are joining the resistance," he said defiantly.

Almost all Iraqis interviewed for this article expressed a mixture of dismay, disgust and anger at the US mishandling of Iraqi affairs. They claim that they are glad that the Baathist regime has been dislodged but wonder why Iraqi civil society is marginalized in the reconstruction and re-politicization of Iraq. Talk of civil war is now common among Iraqis sipping tea in Baghdad teahouses or those who are professors in Europe and North America.

"I have very bad vibes indeed. Things look ominous, as if a civil war is imminent," said Fadi Wazan, an Iraqi businessman in Boston, Massachusetts.