Who Might Be Shooting at Both Sides?

It’s strange that little of the news coverage of Iraq addresses this question. Doesn’t it seem obvious that some groups are fomenting the chaos? Getting tribes to fight each other is often easy. Most of them have some past injustice to avenge. The British Empire ruled much of its colonial world in this way, balancing off or favoring different tribes to rule others. In most of the Old World, tribes hated their neighbors more than foreign conquerors. See “Tribes, Veils, and Democracy."

Some 28 years ago I was in the Middle East with my mother, Freda Utley, author of Will the Middle East Go West? [.pdf]. In Beirut we met John Cooley, the well-known and long-respected reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. The civil war in Lebanon was just getting started, and cooler heads were trying to head it off. Cooley then told us that every time there was a cease-fire some shadowy elements appeared to be shooting at both sides in an effort to get the fighting started up again. They succeeded, and the subsequent war nearly tore the nation apart.

Today there is a similar situation in Iraq. Much of the slaughter doesn’t make sense among neighbors and friends. Peter Beinart of The New Republic wrote an excellent study of the past history of Iraq describing the unity of Sunnis and Shi’ites – indeed, the first Ba’athist leader was a Shia, though we think of Ba’athists, the party of Saddam, as all being Sunnis. But suppose some of the horrendous murder was being done by outsiders wanting to destroy Iraq by getting Sunnis and Shi’ites to wreak vengeance on each other. Tribal societies are particularly vulnerable to this kind of disruption.

With hindsight, one can argue that it was vital for Washington to prevent such a situation from occurring when the Army first occupied Baghdad, that the turning point was when the looting and chaos first started and U.S. forces did nothing to stop it. But today, for Washington to adopt a realistic policy, America must face the facts on the ground. Wishful thinking only brings disaster

Let’s look at all the groups with an interest in continuing the chaos.

  1. First, of course, there is al-Qaeda. Bin Laden must be laughing every day to see America’s Army being hollowed out as the Army chief of staff describes. Further, every picture of Arabs being killed by Americans furthers bin Laden’s objectives. There are too many ways bin Laden is "winning" to describe here; for details, see “36 Ways U.S. Is Losing the War on Terror.”
  2. Iraq’s neighbors. Neoconservatives and Bush virtually threatened that Syria and Iran were the next in line to be attacked by America. This stupidity gave them every reason to want to see America tied down and weakened in Iraq for as long as possible.
  3. The Likud Party in Israel. Although most Israelis want peace, their electoral system gives overwhelming power to their aggressive minorities. It is not hard to imagine that many want Arabs to fight and weaken one another. Israeli agents are very active with the Kurds, even training them. The U.S. occupation brought in Israeli advisers to teach American soldiers how to suppress Arab resistance. Israel has Arab speakers who can easily "mix in," as well as other resources. Dividing one’s enemies is the oldest strategy in the book. Some Israelis would like to see a massive Sunni-Shia war spread to other Muslim nations.
  4. The Kurds. They want a divided and weakened central government so they can gain their independence and take over the oil wealth of northern Iraq.
  5. Shia and Kurdish militias benefit greatly from being trained and supplied by America. The so-called Iraqi army and police are mainly composed of Shia and Kurds. The longer the strife continues, the better equipped they become for an eventual showdown against the Sunnis, who also bear the brunt of American "pacification." Meanwhile, the Shia are gradually "ethnically cleansing" Baghdad of Sunnis.
  6. Mercenaries, some paid as much as a thousand dollars a day. They want a good business to continue.
  7. The Beltway Bombers and companies set up in Washington to hire retired commandos, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs. They have gained hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts from the Pentagon to help out in Iraq. There are indeed a reported 100,000 or so bodyguards, non-military consultants, advisers, support staff, etc., mostly paid by the U.S. Treasury.
  8. Other oil-producing nations. All are happy to see most Iraq oil production off the market, which helps to keep the price of oil high. Russia certainly would benefit the most if other Mideast oil producers had "troubles," too.
  9. Weapons manufacturers in many lands selling millions and paying big commissions to all sides in wars.
  10. Gangster elements in Iraq, criminals who are thriving on the lawlessness, from petty thieves to big-time smugglers of oil and weapons.
  11. All the nations that want to see the U.S. weakened and humiliated. Russians are no longer friendly to America, and many fear us. The Chinese were once on notice from powerful Washington interests that they would be next, once America finished with the Muslim world. The Chinese understand that manufacturers of warships, missiles, and planes need a "real" nation with vast resources to justify spending for their products; fighting shoeless guerrillas in caves and cellars won’t cut it.
  12. The Armageddon lobby in America, which sees chaos in Iraq as helping along their fantasies of hurrying up God to fulfill His prophecies (as they see them) to kill most of the human race while giving them a quick pass to Heaven.
  13. Finally, there are smaller tribal elements in Iraq itself with their own agendas, which are almost impossible for Washington to discern.

This gives some idea of what America is up against. The electoral system foisted on Iraq by the early occupation authorities that divides power and establishes an almost dysfunctional government, e.g., favoring ethnic voting blocks, even without outside threats. The American objectives of pacification and "victory" look very difficult in view of all the above.

Author: Jon Basil Utley

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative. He was a foreign correspondent in South America for the Journal of Commerce and Knight Ridder newspapers and former associate editor of The Times of the Americas. He is a writer and adviser for Antiwar.com and edits a blog, The Military Industrial Congressional Complex.