Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"The War Between the Sunnis and Shiites is Now Over"

A lot of us are fretting the rise in bombings in Iraq as of late portends a resumption of the bitter civil war between Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis. Nir Rosen says in an article from a few weeks back that however it's the exact opposite; that in fact the war is over, and Sunni militants stand no chance against the powerful Iraqi central government:

The prevailing order in Iraq today is a Shiite-dominated one, but the balance of power is not divided along exclusively sectarian lines: it is between those close to the state and those without its backing – as some wags put it, between the “powers that be” and the “powers that aren’t”. Maliki has pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy among Sunnis, rewarding some local leaders with prestige and privileges while arresting or crushing others. Many Sunnis are more than willing to accept an authoritarian prime minister in exchange for a reduction in violence.

What has not followed the drop in violence is a political settlement: for the past year analysts have worried that the failure to disarm or integrate the Sunni Awakening groups into the state risked sowing the seeds of a new insurgency. But the tepid response to the arrest of Mashhadani and other Awakening men suggests that a political reconciliation may not have been necessary. The burgeoning Iraqi state, embodied by Maliki himself, can simply continue to expand its power and crush any rivals. One US Army Iraq expert, who worked closely with General David Petraeus to plan and implement the surge, told me in 2008 that the civil war would end when the Shiites realised they had won and the Sunnis realised they had lost. Based on the conversations I had during a trip through Iraq last month, both sides seem to accept that this is the case.


In September 2008 Maliki – in a concession to the Americans – issued an order calling for the integration of 20 per cent of the eligible Awakening men into the ministries of defence and interior. The following month the government of Iraq began to assume responsibility (financial and otherwise) over the Awakening groups. But as of today less than five per cent have joined the Iraqi Security Forces. At the same time, senior Awakening leaders and many of their men have been arrested, while others have been relieved of their duties (and their pay) and told to go home. It is a quiet and slow process, but one that continues to emasculate one of the last groups that rivalled the authority of the Iraqi state.

There is nothing the Awakening groups can do. As guerrillas and insurgents they were only effective when they operated covertly, underground, blending in among a Sunni population that has now mostly been dispersed. Now the former resistance fighters-turned-paid guards are publicly known, and their names, addresses and biometric data are in the hands of American and Iraqi forces. They cannot return to an underground that has been cleared, and they still face the wrath of radical Sunnis who view them as traitors. They have failed to unite and as their stories demonstrate, they are on the run.


A spate of bombings followed the clashes in Fadhil, giving rise to more concern about a return to sectarian conflict. Shiite neighbourhoods in Baghdad were struck by coordinated car bombs, and attacks against American soldiers, Iraqi Security Forces and Awakening members also increased.

Some of these attacks may represent a warning by Awakening leaders that they can still obstruct American goals in Iraq; they are more likely an opportunistic attempt by al Qa’eda-like groups to take advantage of Sunni grievances and provoke further violence. But there is little prospect for another outbreak of war: today there is no area controlled by al Qa’eda in Iraq, and it does not appear likely the group can seize any territory.

The remaining Awakening men have burnt their bridges with their more radical former allies and are now hunted by them; the Iraqi Security Forces have improved their intelligence and strike capability and have little problem tracking those men they want to arrest. Sunni civilians have no interest in backing a new insurgency after their own bitter experience – and they no longer feel targeted by Shiite militias.

The occasional al Qa’eda suicide attack can still kill masses of innocent civilians, but it has no strategic impact; in fact it is difficult to understand what motivates such attacks today, since their effect is almost nil. It would be naive to say that Iraq’s future is certain, or even likely, to be a peaceful one, but the war between Sunnis and Shiites is now over.

Perhaps so, but it's true that there are those in Iraq who are not convinced yet that they lost the war, and another bombing in Baghdad today that killed 35 people is evidence of their intransigence. So what's happening? No one knows, but it's clear that more Iraqis will die, either in slightly greater numbers than we've witnessed in the past year and a half, or in much greater numbers. And that even if the latter is the case, there's not a whole hell of a lot we're going to be doing about it. It's amazing to me the way in which Iraq has in a very short period of time-from about last summer until now-assumed second-order importance when compared with Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is partly because the situation has worsened so dramatically in such short time in the two countries (and especially in Pakistan, where the army is presently fighting the Taliban in Swat province) but it's also certainly because of a dramatic turn in the political winds here brought on by the dramatic downturn in violence in Iraq and a political transition here at home. Whatever Iraq's future may be, I think it's safe to say that we are everyday becoming a smaller part of it.

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