The Balkanization of Iraq

While ethnic cleansing plagues "liberated Iraq," Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the powerful Shi’ite Mahdi militia, has issued an ultimatum to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Sadr warned that if Maliki met President Bush in Jordan this week, the cleric and his 30 followers in Iraq’s parliament would pull out of the shaky ruling coalition, effectively ending (or so Sadr hopes) the first democratically elected Iraqi government. The meeting’s agenda includes a discussion of the role that Iran and Syria can play in pacifying Iraq. Sadr objects to Bush’s involvement because, he claims, U.S. forces are backing the Sunni insurgency. The young Shi’ite leader accuses Americans of being complicit in the killing of thousands of innocent Shi’ites in Iraq. Yet, until recently, America considered Sadr a man they could work with. One can only imagine Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in his comfortable position in the Jihadist Martyrs’ Paradise, laughing at the latest twist in the Iraqi saga.

Of course, Sadr has never been a loyal U.S. ally. How many now remember that the Iraqi insurgency began in April 2003 in Sadr City, the miserable Shi’ite suburb of Baghdad? Under the leadership of Sadr, residents took up arms against coalition forces to protest the lack of basic infrastructure: water, electricity, and security. In June 2003, after similar uprisings erupted across the country, Sadr formed the Mahdi Army, whose task was to foment violence against Coalition forces and against Iraqi Sunnis, especially former members of the Ba’ath Party. Yet, the Shi’ite insurgency went unpunished. Protected by religious leaders such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and politicians close to Washington such as Ahmed Chalabi, Sadr was able to unleash his militia across Iraq.

In August 2003, when Zarqawi entered the Iraqi arena, the country was already in the grip of the Shi’ite insurgency. Like Sadr, the Jordanian fought on two fronts: he targeted both Coalition forces and his Iraqi religious enemies, as evidenced by his spectacular first attacks. In August 2003, Zarqawi masterminded the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing several members of the UN delegation, and the suicide attack against the Imam Ali Mosque, which killed, among many others, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Both Sadr and Zarqawi used powerful rhetoric to justify the targeting of Iraqi civilians. While Sadr attacked the Sunnis, accusing them of being Saddam’s henchmen, Zarqawi drew analogies to the 13th-century Mongol invasion of Iraq, which was backed by the Iraqi Shi’ites. Zarqawi wrote to bin Laden that Sadr and his political backers had allied with Coalition forces, i.e., the new Mongols, to force Iraq into chaos in order to take control of its resources. Sadr’s recent attempts to carve a Shi’ite state out of Iraq, cutting the Sunni population out of oil and gas revenues, seem to validate this analysis.

From summer 2003 to summer 2004, Coalition forces battled against both Shi’ite and Sunni militias. Yet, because of the strategic alliance between Washington and the Iraqi Shi’ite leadership, the Mahdi militia went systematically unpunished while the Sunni resistance was criminalized. Zarqawi was wrongly portrayed as the leader of the Sunni insurgency, while in reality he headed a very small group of mostly foreign jihadists. Fed information by the U.S. Army, the media depicted Zarqawi as the new Saddam, the butcher of Nicholas Berg, the leader of the Islamist Republic of Fallujah, the ultimate international terrorist. So blind was U.S. policy that, in August 2004, after Sadr’s militia ignited violent clashes against coalition and Iraqi police forces in Najaf, Karbala, and Sadr City, killing hundreds of people, Ayatollah Sistani was given the go-ahead to broker a deal on behalf of the Americans with Sadr. The Mahdi militia, under siege in Najaf by coalition and Iraqi forces, walked free with their weapons, tramping on the bodies of the people they had killed. A few days later, Iyad Allawi, the Shi’ite interim prime minister of Iraq, issued an ad hoc amnesty to clear Sadr and his militia of all wrongdoing. This allowed the Shi’ite cleric to participate in the forthcoming election and win a seat in the Iraqi parliament. Thanks to that seat, he can today throw down the gauntlet to Maliki.

As it did during the bloody war in the Balkans, in Iraq the West is constantly entering into alliances, including with terrorist organizations, as if a clear divide existed between the good and the evil, and the West knew which was which. In Iraq, as in the Balkans, this "divide" shifts daily. In 1998, in Kosovo, following the attacks by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) against Serbian police and civilians, the U.S. accused the KLA of being a terrorist organization. The British followed suit. Then, in March 1999, foreign policy in the U.S. and the UK underwent a radical shift and both governments condemned the Serbs. Suddenly, members of the KLA were no longer terrorists but freedom fighters, and the KLA was summarily removed from the U.S. State Department’s terror list. American politicians even praised the organization. The new status was then reversed when, a few months later, the KLA supported an Islamist insurgency against the government of Macedonia – a U.S. ally – and it was once again listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department. One wonders how many times since George Bush declared ‘Mission Accomplished" in Iraq should the Mahdi Army have been entered and erased from this list.

The Balkanization of Iraq goes well beyond homegrown ethnic cleansing and civil war. It springs from the willingness of countries such as America and the United Kingdom to police the Middle East. It is proof that Western intervention can destabilize entire regions now that the world is no longer trapped in the Cold War Manichean straitjacket. Iraq’s future may well replicate the end of the Vietnam War, when America declared victory and airlifted its people out, leaving the country in the hands of a "neighboring power," i.e., the Chinese-backed North Vietnamese Army. Only this time, Iraq will be ravaged by voracious ethnic militias – backed by foreign countries militarily and politically too weak to impose their own rule – not because America withdrew, but because the U.S. invaded the country in the first place, unleashing these forces. Today, almost four decades after the end of the war, Vietnam is a leading exporter and an emerging economy because North Vietnam was able to impose peace, which eventually led to prosperity, safely locked within China’s sphere of influence. Today, Iran and Syria’s involvement in the Iraqi civil war will continue to drag the country further into sectarian warfare and may even give al-Qaeda the longed-for opportunity to carve out their own state. This is the terrifying legacy of this unjust and illegal war, a legacy that should not be hidden by political propaganda. Nevertheless, the sooner the West pulls out of Iraq, the better the chances Iraqis will find their own way out of the present morass. The danger, of course, is that peace in Iraq will come only when nothing is left standing but the ruins of ancient Mesopotamia.