Nicolas J S Davies

A collection of published articles and letters to policymakers regarding the crisis in United States foreign policy by Nicolas J S Davies.

Location: North Miami, Florida, United States

Friday, April 01, 2005

Whose War Is This Anyway?

Published in Z Magazine, April 2005:

Many of the government and media executives who participated in the marketing campaign for the U.S. war of aggression in Iraq are now calling it a serious mistake, and Richard Perle, the former head of the Defense Policy Board, has brazenly acknowledged that it is an outright violation of international law. (The Guardian, 11/20/03) What few of them will concede is that the United States now has any choice but to “win” or to “stay the course”, whatever that means and whatever horrors it may entail. From Fox News to the Brookings Institution, they insist that the alternative is unthinkable, and assert that Iraq minus U.S. occupation would quickly descend into “civil war”.

Preventing this hypothetical war is America’s new imperative for carrying on with the real one. Is there any rational basis for this, or are we still confronting “inherent, even unavoidable institutional myopia” under whose spell “options and decisions that are intrinsically dangerous and irrational become not merely plausible but the only form of reasoning about war and diplomacy that is possible in official circles”, as Gabriel Kolko put it so eloquently in Century of War?

Any discussion of violence committed by Iraqis against other Iraqis must be placed in its correct context, which is that the United States has been the perpetrator of most of the violence in Iraq as well as the cause of all of it. An Iraqi Health Ministry report blamed U.S. forces for 71% of non-combatant deaths between June and September 2004 and noted that the majority of these were the result of aerial bombardment (Miami Herald, 9/25/04). It is important to understand that the “precision-guided” Paveway Mark 82 500 lb. bombs that are the weapon of choice for U.S. air forces in Iraq strike within 40 feet of their target only 80-85% of the time, and that they are in any case designed to inflict 50% casualties to a radius of 50 meters (an area the size of 1-1/2 football fields). In addition to this aerial deluge of death and destruction, a New England Journal of Medicine study found that 28% of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and 14% of the 3rd Infantry Division reported personally killing non-combatants during their first tours in Iraq.

Besides direct violence by the occupation forces, the most insidious aspect of any hostile military occupation is that it forces every citizen in the country under occupation to make the wrenching choice between collaboration and resistance. Therefore, when it comes to acts of violence by Iraqis against other Iraqis, the critical question to ask is whether these are essentially a feature of the occupation, or whether the United States has succeeded in unleashing latent tensions between Iraqis that would erupt into civil war if the occupation were to end now.

Of 169 such acts of violence described in the international press during the month of January, 72 were directed at the armed forces of the “interim government” (army, national guard, police or “special forces”), 60 were election-related, aimed at candidates, election workers or polling places, 18 targeted interim government officials, 13 were aimed at local employees of the occupation forces, and the targets were not identified in the remaining 6 cases. Not one incident was reported as a case of straightforward sectarian violence. Even the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Baghdad before the election was clearly election-related, as one of the survivors noted that people in the neighborhood had just received threatening letters urging them not to vote. The illegitimate and flawed election has now set in motion a disturbing trend of resistance attacks against Shiite mosques, as some Sunni resistance fighters have evidently come to see ordinary Shiites as collaborators.

For some time, most violent resistance to the occupation has been by Sunni Iraqis, but this has not always been the case. After Shiite militiamen from Sadr City in Baghdad set up a base in Najaf to protect the Shrine of the Imam Ali, they were ferociously attacked by U.S. forces in April and August 2004. Safely back in Sadr City, they have undisputed control of a large sector of Baghdad with at least 2-1/2 million inhabitants. They have maintained an undeclared truce with U.S. forces, whereby the militia refrain from attacking the Americans as long as they in turn stay out of this effectively independent urban territory. Sadrist literature condemns both collaboration and “terrorism”, but the militia has never clashed with Sunni resistance fighters and has given them vocal and physical support in Fallujah and elsewhere (The Taming of Sadr City, Asia Times, 1/11/05). Unified resistance to the occupation is surely the worst nightmare of U.S. leaders, so that continued occupation can only be accomplished by creating and stoking dangerous tensions between Shiites and Sunnis.

The official western view of Shiite-Sunni relations in Iraq obscures a more complex web of geographic, sectarian, tribal and class relationships. In 1922, it was actually the Shiites who boycotted Iraq’s first election, which had been carefully designed by the British to produce a Constituent Assembly that would support the British mandate. Since then, the history of Iraq has had more than its share of tragedy, but one thing that has never happened is a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, and the two sects co-exist and frequently intermarry in many parts of the country. Certain Sunnis were privileged under Ottoman rule, and others who had fought in the Sharifian forces with the British against the Turks formed the officer corps of the Iraqi Army and a new privileged class under King Faisal. Shiites however were prominent in opposition parties during the monarchy and were well represented in the republic that was formed after the military coup of 1958.

Shiites also occupied a majority of leadership positions in the Baath Party before it came to power in 1963, and they continued to be represented at all levels in proportion to their numbers in the population and to hold a majority on the Revolutionary Command Council until the first Gulf War. When Iran invaded Iraq in 1982, its army was turned back by a predominantly Shiite Iraqi force under a Shiite general. The Shiites then supplied 75% of the lower ranks throughout the war without any widespread mutiny, in spite of intense Iranian propaganda appeals to their Shiite brothers to join their Islamic Revolution. The disastrous Shiite revolt in 1991 did lead to a reduction of their role in government, and the surviving leaders of the revolt now view their central mistake to have been their failure to involve Sunnis and Kurds in the uprising, which was politically motivated against the Hussein regime rather than sectarian in character.

In Iraq, differences between secular and religious groups and between urban populations and more conservative rural tribes generally run deeper than those between Sunnis and Shiites. In the later years of the Baath regime, Islamism became its principal rival ideology among both sects, and Islamists from Salafis to Sadrists are now the fiercest opponents of the U.S. occupation and are ready to take their share of power. The United States Government is choosing to continue the war in an increasingly desperate effort to set up a government that will support American interests and to recruit forces that will fight for it against Islamists and other opponents.

The greatest danger facing Iraq today is that the United States will be partially successful in building and arming such a force, and that, with U.S. support, this force will continue to wage war against its own people, gradually destroying what is left of the country. U.S. efforts to isolate the Sunni resistance are a logical part of its misconceived strategy, but threaten to unravel the entire fabric of Iraqi society. In August 2003, former French Foreign Minister De Villepin correctly predicted that this process of “decomposition” would continue absent a true restoration of sovereignty. Monsieur De Villepin is not blessed with second sight. He simply accepted the objective analysis that American leaders continue to ignore, that the source of this decomposition is not found in any preexisting differences in Iraqi society but rather in the fact and the nature of U.S. occupation, and that it will therefore continue until the occupation ends. The longer the occupation continues, the harder it will be for Iraqis to overcome the divisions it has created, and the only rational and legitimate policy is to withdraw U.S. forces as quickly as possible.

The Kurds, the other major ethnic group, are heavily represented in the armed forces that are being recruited and trained by the Americans, and their participation in the destruction of Fallujah has led to bloody and continuing reprisals against Kurdish collaborators in Mosul and elsewhere. The longer the U.S.-sponsored decomposition of Iraq continues, the greater the incentive for the Kurds to leave the sinking ship and go their own way, possibly annexing Kirkuk and the northern oil-fields. A U.S. retreat to bases in South Kurdistan, from where they could continue attacks against other parts of the country and the region, would be a fallback position consistent with the present strategy. However, such a course would only perpetuate the self-destructive pattern of U.S. policy in that part of the world, gaining military bases and isolated allies while generating more widespread popular hostility to American interests. The legitimate course to a resolution of this crisis remains, as it has always been, a full restoration of Iraqi sovereignty, with U.N. assistance, and a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Americans have been led to believe that the persistent failures of U.S. military ventures in the Third World have been attributable to a lack of commitment of either money, blood or political will, and that, given sufficient investment of these commodities, there are few limits to American power. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is myth, not history. In reality, it is in the countries where the United States has made its most extensive commitments that it has experienced its greatest failures, from China in the 1940s to Korea, Lebanon (twice), Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola, Iran, Somalia and now Iraq. In each case, policy has been formulated around myths of democracy and American power in place of accurate analyses of resources and interests relative to the history, politics and culture of the country in question, even though such analyses were always readily available. The result has been that popular movements in all these countries have frustrated American ambitions and won military and political victories in spite of huge economic and military imbalances in favor of the United States. The only exceptions to this record of failure during the past half-century have been attacks on small countries in the Caribbean basin that already had quasi-colonial relationships with the United States, and of course the first “Gulf War”, which turned out differently precisely because it was a U.N.-authorized collective action to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty, as opposed to an unprovoked war of aggression.

For some time to come, institutional myopia and vested interests will almost certainly continue to blind our leaders to the clearest lesson of our history, that war and militarism are not the answer to any of our economic or strategic problems and are in fact the cause of most of them. It is therefore more important than ever that we understand our own history, teach it to our children and grandchildren, and engage our fellow Americans in serious conversations about our country’s history and foreign policy. The dominant economic position of the United States in the 20th century permitted its leaders to make serious mistakes with relatively mild consequences to the country and themselves. The 21st century may not be so forgiving.


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