America lost Iraq as soon as it won the war. A pervasive sense of lawlessness set in immediately following the fall of Saddam’s regime from which neither Iraq nor the Americans ever recovered. On the ground, it was apparent from the first month of the occupation that things would be much worse than anybody had imagined. Observing the violence, often caught up in it, listening to sermons in mosques throughout the country, reading the posters on the walls and the graffiti and the banners in demonstrations and religious processions, I could not predict what would happen, but I felt there was no hope. I knew, too, that the main obstacle to progress in Iraq, the chief cause of insecurity and violence, was the American presence. It is heartening but also depressing that finally, after two and a half years, policy makers and academics have also begun to realize this.
The United States should leave, as Barry Posen and many others now realize, but I am less sanguine than Posen about the likely results of an end to the American occupation. Much damage has been done. Iraq is a failed state. The three governments that have existed since Saddam was removed have been unable to impose themselves outside of the fortified military base they inhabit, the Green Zone, now renamed the International Zone. Iraqi society has suffered yet another blow, after having been destroyed by dictatorship, wars, poverty, and sanctions. The brutal presence of hundreds of thousands of foreign soldiers, the redistribution of power they caused, and the ethnic and religious forces they released have further destroyed Iraqi society. Power was distributed not only from one group, the Sunnis, to others, the Kurds and Shia, but also to everybody, that is, to anybody with a gun. In the absence of any political or civil authority, religious and tribal leaders gained supreme power. In places where there was no religious or tribal authority, criminal gangs took over. Elsewhere, the lines between the three were difficult to distinguish.
While observers have pondered whether a civil war is imminent, Iraqis have been fighting a civil war since at least 2004. Barry Posen is wrong to suggest that the United States is preventing anybody from attacking or killing other Iraqis. It is in fact helping to prolong the civil war. Ethnic and religious militias govern the country, clinging to their fiefdoms, whether territorial or governmental. Kurds have been expelling Arabs from Kurdistan. Kurds have been pushed out of Arab areas that border Kurdistan. Sunnis and Shias have been assassinating each other’s leaders daily and expelling civilians from their neighborhoods, and Sunni groups have been killing Shia civilians on a mass scale. Now it emerges that the Shia militia controlling the ministry of interior has been acting as a death squad and also holding Sunni civilians in secret prisons where they are tortured. While revenge is influential in this, as is the legacy of Saddam, Iraq’s newest torturers and extra-judicial killers have certainly had a fine example from their American instructors.
As long as the United States remains in Iraq, no Iraqi government will be viewed as legitimate. Sunnis will continue to view Shias as collaborators and boycott the government, fighting both Americans and their Shia accomplices. Iraqi militias allied with the United States will feel free to continue torturing and killing, knowing their American big brother supports them. Americans will continue to alienate more and more Iraqis through humiliation and killings, adding recruits to the resistance. Radical Islamist hostility to the occupation will increase. More foreign mujahideen will infiltrate Iraq, seeking to fight against “the Crusaders and Jews” in a battle to re-establish the caliphate that will end only on judgment day. The jihad will spread, as it already has, as veterans of the jihad in Iraq take their fight elsewhere.
Posen is correct that the American presence inflames the resistance, but more than that, it is the cause of the resistance. Many Sunnis would have welcomed regime change initially, but the United States has made the Sunnis its enemy. Posen is wrong to view the resistance, or the insurgents, as former Baathists or radical fundamentalists in league with foreigners. The Iraqi resistance fights to liberate Iraq and end the occupation. They are not interested in Salafi Islam, Crusaders, Jews, the caliphate, or any international jihad. There is no threat of a government run by al Qaeda or sympathetic to it taking over Iraq, or even parts of Iraq, once the Americans leave. It is only because of the current chaos and the need to throw fresh bodies at the Americans (and Saudis are more eager to die than Iraqis) that there are foreign fighters in Iraq now. Nor is there threat of a Baathist government coming back into power. Baathism is a spent force among Sunnis. Unfortunately, it has combined with Sunni Islamism to create a worse admixture. There are no Baathist leaders—Saddam made sure he had no competition. The balance of power has shifted and now the Shia majority is in control, and even if it is inexperienced, it has large, well-armed militias and controls the nascent army and police. The Sunnis never took over Iraq before; they were given it, first by the Ottomans and then by the British.
When American forces leave, Iraqis may in fact fight it out amongst themselves. The Kurds are certain to secede sooner or later. They are not Iraqi and do not want to be. It is possible that when they declare their independence and expel more Arabs, Sunni and Shia militias will attempt to protect their brethren. It is also likely that following the American withdrawal there will be fighting among the Arab militias. Fighters from the Mahdi Army, the Badr Organization, and Muhamad Yaqubi’s Fadila party have already clashed. Sunni resistance groups have fought each other as well. It is possible that there will be an expedited cleansing of Sunnis from Shia parts of Baghdad and Shias from Sunni parts of Baghdad, where there is the greatest intercommunal mixing. It is likely that the armed criminal gangs who wreak havoc throughout Iraq will continue to do so.
The only source of hope is that both the Shia militia members and the indigenous Sunni, who constitute the majority of the resistance, are fierce Iraqi nationalists. They have come together before to assert their Iraqi identity, and their leaders are sure to rein their forces in eventually. The best way for the Americans to support this constructive outcome is to withdraw quickly—even to begin the withdrawal now. It is encouraging that the Sunni resistance has shown an increased willingness to negotiate, and former Sunni and Shia rejectionist leaders, observing the new government’s composition and the drafting of the new constitution and feeling left out, have decided to participate in politics and the government, even if they have not relinquished their arms. Once the Americans leave and Sunnis are taking part in the government, which they will no longer view as collaborationist, they will have no common cause with foreign mujahideen, only a conflict of interests that will be quickly and violently solved, resulting in no more foreign fighters enjoying Iraqi hospitality.
Two final comments on post-occupation prospects: Posen is wrong to think that the United States protects the Kurds from the Shia and Turkey. Kurdistan is virtually free of U.S. troops and is protected by the competent Kurdish security forces. The Kurds are in complete military control of a region mostly free of non-Kurds. The Shia have no army to attack the Kurds in their mountains, and the Shia militias are far away from the Kurdish peshmerga, who outnumber them. The Shia cannot even protect Shia Arabs and Turkmen from the ethnic violence and intimidation they have experienced in Kurdish areas since April 2003. Turkey will be happy as long as it receives oil across the new Kurdish border and guarantees that no Turkish Kurds will be allowed to cause trouble from Kurdistan’s borders. Kurdish independence is a certainty and should be welcomed. If the United States opposes concentrated control over oil, as Posen claims, then it should encourage the emergence of an independent Kurdistan, a pro-U.S. state with a large oil supply that Turkey depends on.
And Posen warns of Iraq’s neighbors carving it up. Which one of them wants to do that? And which could? Turkey does not want more Kurds. Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia are not interested in obtaining parts of Iraq, and Iran seeks only influence. Iraqis have shown that they will not tolerate foreign interference—that goes for their neighbors as well as the Americans. And when the American military has trouble in Iraq, which of Iraq’s neighbors would attempt anything? One lesson that Iraq’s neighbors already knew and the Americans are finally learning is that Iraqis will accept a dictator but not a foreign occupier.
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Nir Rosen is a journalist who has written extensively on the American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.