Juan Cole, professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, has lived in the Middle East and is fluent in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. His blog, Informed Comment, has earned its place at the top of the list for people interested in understanding events in the Islamic world outside of the typical mass media spin. While libertarians may object to his positions on some issues, those who have been following his work have unfortunately seen some of his early predictions about the Iraq invasion pan out. To hear my July 16 interview of Professor Cole, click [stream] or [download mp3].
As longtime CIA asset, truck-bomber, cold-blooded executioner, and former puppet prime minister Iyad Allawi said last week, Iraq is on the brink of civil war, though it could be argued that it has been a civil war since about the time George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” on May Day 2003. When Baghdad fell, many of Saddam’s soldiers went underground and kept fighting while others simply quit and went home. When Viceroy Paul Bremer told them to stay home, many of them found other work killing American occupiers.
Take all the Iraqis who have joined the insurgency after losing a loved one, add the foreign jihadists who have been radicalized by the war in Iraq (only recently has Bush come to recognize a distinction between the two), then add those who support or sympathize with them, and you have a substantial percentage of the Sunni population resisting the occupation. This is why after “flattening” Fallujah to “break the back of the insurgency” last fall, the U.S. succeeded only in killing innocents, destroying property, and recruiting more people to the cause.
Kirkuk, the capital of Kurdistan, is, according to Cole, “a tinderbox” ready to explode into violence. A traditionally Kurdish city, Kirkuk was the subject of a massive social engineering project by Saddam Hussein, who resettled thousands of Sunni and Shia Arabs there in the 1970s and ’80s to dilute the influence of the sometimes loyal, sometimes treacherous Kurdish factions lead by Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the warlords who are now the president of Kurdistan and president of Iraq respectively.
Now that the U.S. has come and the Kurdistan-for-Kurds types have consolidated their power, ethnic cleansing has begun. Cole says tens of thousands of Arabs have already fled south, and there are an incredible number of property disputes being fought over right now. The Turkmen in Kurdistan have their own problems. Kirkuk is a very valuable oil center [.pdf], and the distribution of oil money could be a major point of contention in the future. Were Kurdistan to break away completely, the possibility of further violence as Kurdish populations in Syria, Turkey, and Iran try to join them would be tremendous. Perhaps Ahmed Chalabi will be able to work everything out. For some reason, I doubt it. What these folks need is a belief in the individual and his inalienable right to property. Unfortunately, violence tends to reinforce a collectivist, us/them outlook, which only leads to more violence. Bush’s “global democratic revolution” has somehow failed to take hold.
Neither liberty and property nor what Iraq has now is the way it was supposed to be. Dick Cheney and the neocons wanted Ahmed Chalabi, old friend of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, to be their new puppet dictator. This fell apart because, contrary to his lies, no one in Iraq who had heard of him held him in much esteem.
The new Iraqi constitution, which is being written by the victors of the Jan. 30 elections, is stuck on the first sentence. Will Iraq be a federal system or not? The Shia, of course, want federalism with a strong central government, the Kurds a very weak one, and the Sunnis (those who are brave enough to show up) a single sovereign state that they run. This great “democracy” that the U.S. government has forced on the people of Iraq has been such a farce that War Party propagandist Charles Krauthammer says we ought to forget about drawing up an Iraqi constitution. After all, Britain doesn’t have one, and it’s great. What’s more, we have one that doesn’t mean squat. Point taken.
Down south where the Shia live, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is just biding his time. The minority Sunni have no foreign power to back their tyranny any more. The majority Shia, who hold the power in the constitution-drafting process, are just waiting for us to leave. The level of violence to come in this situation is hard to predict, depending mostly on the degree of control over the Sunni the Shia attempt to exercise using the new government. The Shia have proposed that their Badr Brigades, and the Kurds that their peshmerga militias, should be used against the Sunni insurgents since the American and Iraqi armies haven’t succeeded. The idea has so far been overruled by the U.S., but if the Badr Brigades and the peshmerga are unleashed before or after we leave, the Sunni resistance will be destroyed, along with a lot of innocent people.
According to Cole, if the U.S. leaves now, and an all-out civil war begins, the chances of intervention by neighboring states on behalf of those of their same ethnicity and religion will increase, threatening a catastrophic regional war that could destroy the world oil market. Unfortunately, our time on the radio was up before we had a chance to discuss his proposal for internationalizing the occupation rather than plainly and immediately withdrawing, which I favor, so I will not address that particular point here.
Practical rather than moral questions unfortunately prevail in debating whether or not Americans have the right to kill one more person or spend one more dime of other people’s money in support of a war that was never justified in the first place. The answers to such questions are clear: no and no. Instead, leaving Iraq is usually a question of whether the mass slaughter and destabilization left behind when we leave would be worse if we did it now or later. The answer cannot be known for sure, but recent events seem to indicate that the resistance is gaining strength with each passing day. If we have what amounts to civil war now, with 135,000 American troops in the country, how large an insurgency (or a crater) will we be leaving behind if we stay for another 12 years?