Sunnis and Shi’ites are now sliding toward a civil war, and the Bush administration has shown no interest in trying to avert it. With Congress growing increasingly restless over the absence of an administration exit strategy, opponents of the occupation could take the offensive by offering a clear alternative policy of using U.S. influence to encourage a Sunni-Shi’ite peace settlement.
The Bush administration hopes that the media will continue to reassure Americans that it is working to head off civil war by including the Sunnis in the coming negotiations on drafting a new constitution. But those negotiations will not settle the fundamental Sunni-Shi’ite power struggle. Neither Shi’ites nor Sunnis believe that a constitution alone will determine the distribution of power in Iraq. Each side views Iraqi politics as a zero-sum game with the organs of state repression as the key to power.
Thus, the primary arena for defining the power relationship between the two sides is the struggle over control of the military, the intelligence agencies, and the secret police. In that contest, there is little space for an accommodation between two factions sharing a political culture that is Hobbesian rather than Jeffersonian. But the Bush administration has made no effort to work on creating a solution that would reassure both sides.
Instead, it has exerted its power to put the key elements of the repressive apparatus of the state under former Ba’athist foes of the Shi’ites. Almost as soon as the policy of "de-Ba’athification" was initiated by the Bush administration in May 2003, the CIA began recruiting former Saddamist military and secret police officers to help track down insurgent leaders and ultimately to support the destabilization of Iran. But the "re-Ba’athification" policy accelerated in spring 2004 when the administration realized that militant Shi’ites with close ties to the Iranian mullahs would probably win the direct elections.
The secret police organization organized by the CIA was led by a former Ba’athist who had collaborated with the CIA to overthrow Saddam, and staffed primarily with Sunnis from the old regime. The administration used interim prime minister and longtime CIA asset Iyad Allawi to place ex-Ba’athists in key military, interior ministry, and intelligence posts and to bring the Shi’ite-controlled de-Ba’athification campaign to a virtual halt. During the three months of negotiations on the formation of a government, U.S. officials pressured the Shi’ite leaders both privately and publicly to abandon plans to purge these Ba’athists from security organs. The CIA refused to relinquish its control over the Iraqi secret police organization or the files left behind by Saddam’s secret police to the new government.
Instead of trying to find a solution that would reduce tensions between the two communities, the Bush administration exacerbated the problem by pushing for ex-Ba’athist domination of much of the international security apparatus. In doing so, they were nudging the Sunnis and Shi’ites toward civil war.
Opponents of the war have not focused on the administration’s hostility toward peace in Iraq, largely because of the popular belief that it is impossible to negotiate with dozens of unknown guerrilla leaders who have no political demands. Last week, however, the former electricity minister in the interim government, Aiham Alsammarae, revealed that he had been meeting with leaders of two insurgent groups, the Islamic Army and the Mujahedin Army, which he said are interested in negotiating with both American and Iraqi officials about ending the armed conflict in return for withdrawal of U.S. troops and meeting other Sunni political demands. Then, a spokesman for the new prime minister confirmed that the government, too, has had "preliminary contacts" with "some insurgent groups." In a later interview, Alsammarae said the two groups were close to appointing representatives to meet with the government.
The real problem is not that it is impossible to negotiate with insurgent leaders but that the Bush administration does not want the negotiations to include the issue of U.S. withdrawal. Publicly, the administration continues to reiterate its commitment to an indefinite occupation. And Anglican Canon Andrew P. B. White, who met with Shi’ite and Sunni leaders earlier this year with Pentagon encouragement, told me in April he was not permitted to discuss the possibility of a U.S. military withdrawal as part of a peace agreement in his discussions with Sunnis.
This refusal to negotiate over withdrawal reinforces the inclination of hardline Shi’ite leaders to reject compromise with the Sunni insurgents, and it will certainly discourage many insurgents from joining the negotiations. It is another way in which the Bush administration encourages the slide into civil war.
Given its broader interests in destabilizing Syria and Iran and its distrust of the Shi’ite leaders, of course, the administration does not see such a war as an unwelcome prospect. It would give the CIA opportunities to work with anti-Iranian Sunnis and make it easier to check the power of the Shi’ites. Essentially, the Bush strategy involves using Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Kurds to oppose the armed resistance, while using Sunnis to counterbalance the Shi’ites.
Despite the cynicism of the Bush administration toward civil war, there has been virtually no political debate on that issue. Many politicians in both parties are still arguing the United States can’t withdraw because it would lead to a civil war. But that could change very quickly if opponents of the war were to seize the opportunity to offer a clear alternative policy proposal aimed at averting civil war in Iraq.
The alternative policy could require that the new Shi’ite-dominated government offer to negotiate a reasonable political-military settlement with the Sunni insurgents, including the laying down of arms by a large proportion of insurgent organizations and an end to the occupation. It would also declare the U.S. readiness to withdraw completely under such an agreement. If such an offer is not forthcoming within a reasonable time, the policy would call for setting a timetable for complete U.S. withdrawal. That policy would give the government a strong incentive for crafting a realistic position and beginning a negotiating process. It would also reinforce the tendency among Iraqi nationalists in the resistance to think seriously about negotiating for an alternative to a long, bloody, and uncertain war.
There is no guarantee that such a policy would prevent a civil war. At this stage of Iraqi history, a peaceful settlement between newly empowered Shi’ites and the beleaguered Sunnis may not be possible. But the Bush administration policy promises to make U.S. troops part of a civil war for years to come. Opponents of the Iraq adventure should be able to exploit that fact to pull the softest segment of political support for the occupation in Congress away from the administration and begin the inevitable process of unraveling of that support.