Monday, January 29, 2007

Who has been murdering Iraqi civilians? - A reminder of the obvious

[Guest-posted on the weblog of Norman Geras - Normblog]

In a previous item guest-posted on Normblog in October 2005, I raised the question of Who murders Iraqi civilians? and suggested that we shouldn't lose track of the main answer. For an update on this answer, here are a few examples from one week in Baghdad (headlines from the Washington Post).

Baghdad Market Bombings Kill at Least 79 (Tuesday, January 23, 2007)
The near-simultaneous explosions of two powerful car bombs devastated a crowded street bazaar in central Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 79 people [death toll later revised to 88 - JW], wounding more than 140 and showering the pavement with shards of metal, tattered vending carts and bloodied human remains.

The midday attack at the Bab al-Sherji market was the second mass-casualty bombing attack in Baghdad in a week and the deadliest of the year. The T-shirt vendors, DVD dealers and fruit peddlers it targeted were primarily working-class Shiite Muslims, a sign that the Sunni Muslim insurgency remains capable of inflicting heavy losses even as Iraqi and U.S. forces prepare to intensify a security crackdown.

The attack came as Shiites were marking Ashura, the 10-day religious holiday commemorating the death of the prophet Muhammad's grandson in the 7th century.

The bombs exploded within seconds of each other around noon, a peak shopping time, and sent a dark mushroom of smoke high into the blue sky over Baghdad. Witnesses said a suicide attacker drove in with one of the bombs, veering his vehicle into a cluster of stands before blowing it up. A second car exploded about 150 yards to the northeast along the same street.
At Least 24 Killed in Car Bombings in Baghdad (Thursday, January 25, 2007)
Two car bombs detonated in a busy commercial area of central Baghdad on Thursday afternoon, killing at least 24 people [later revised to 26 - JW] and injuring dozens more, Iraqi officials said.

The bombs were placed in Karrada, a predominantly Shiite Muslim sector of the city, and wounded at least 60 people when detonated, according to a spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry. A set of car bombs killed at least 79 people in a Shiite market in central Baghdad on Monday.
Bomb kills 13 in new attack on Baghdad pet fair (Friday, January 26, 2007)
A bomb killed 13 people and wounded 33 in the second attack in as many months on Baghdad's much-loved Friday morning pet market, police sources said.

The blast hit the Ghazil market in the city center about an hour before a weekly 11 a.m. (0800 GMT) vehicle curfew in the Iraqi capital, aimed at protecting mosques during Friday noon prayers.

A police source said witnesses believed the bomb had been planted in a box that the bomber had punched with air holes to pass it off as a container for birds. Parrots, canaries, cats and more exotic pets are prime attractions at the market.

On December 1, also a Friday, a car bomb killed three people at Ghazil market. It lies in the crowded commercial district of Bab al-Sharji, where a double car bombing killed 88 people on Monday, in one of the bloodiest attacks of recent months.
Amidst the horrifying reports of death and suffering coming out of Iraq these days, it is occasionally useful to remind ourselves of some basic facts about the situation - including who, precisely, has been killing Iraqi civilians since 2003 (and before that).

There have been wildly differing estimates of the numbers of Iraqis who have died since the overthrow of the Ba'ath regime in May 2003, but one point on which all serious estimates agree is that killings by US and other Coalition troops account for a small proportion of the total. If we focus just on Iraqis killed in politically related violence (leaving aside estimates for disease, ordinary crime, and other categories), the great majority of the victims have been Iraqi civilians murdered either by the Sunni Arab 'insurgents' or, more recently, by a growing wave of reprisal killings by Shiite Arab death squads.

Over the course of 2006, this violence has exploded into a catastrophic bloodbath of inter-sectarian murder, torture, and mutual ethnic cleansing within Arab Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan, of course, has been fairly quiet and prosperous), in which both Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs have been victims. Unfortunately, experience shows that once this process of inter-group massacre, torture, expulsion, and other atrocities takes off it develops a self-reinforcing dynamic of its own that is very hard to break.

The atrocities by both sides in this sectarian civil war need to be equally condemned. But we should also not forget that the prime mover in this story has been the savage and unrelenting campaign of terrorist mass murder against Iraqi Shiites carried out since early 2004 by the coalition of Ba'athists and Islamist fanatics at the core of the Sunni Arab 'insurgency'. (Some people refer to these fascist and jihadist mass murderers as the Iraqi 'resistance' - and I suppose this term is broad enough that it might fit, if we bear in mind that the Ku Klux Klan in the post-Civil War US south also saw itself as 'resisting' black emancipation, the elected Reconstruction state governments that implemented it, and the occupying Federal troops that protected them.) A central thrust of the Sunni Arab 'insurgency' has been a systematic strategy of murdering Iraqi Shiites - ranging from major religious and political figures through government employees and professionals to indiscriminately targeted ordinary people - in order to detonate a full-scale sectarian civil war that would render the country ungovernable and panic the US into leaving Iraq, after which they expect (rightly or wrongly) that they can crush the Shiites and restore the dominance of the Sunni Arab minority.

It took a while for this strategy to succeed, in part because the mainstream Shiite political and religious leadership made frantic efforts to prevent reprisals against Sunni Arab civilians while it pursued an alternative strategy based on coming to power through elections and majority rule (under US protection). But eventually this terrorist strategy worked. Most observers agree that the bombing of the Askariyah Shrine in Samarra in February 2006 was the critical event that finally pushed the Shiites over the edge and unleashed a wave of sectarian reprisal killings that rapidly spiralled out of control.

Of course, the long-term consequences of this brilliant tactical success may turn out to be a catastrophe for Iraq's Sunni Arab community, but the "insurgents" appear to have viewed this risk with equanimity--and perhaps a touch of denial, too. Among other things, this whole strategy seems strangely oblivious to the existence of Iran and to the fact that, if the Americans leave, the Shiite political forces expect to turn more heavily to the Iranians for support.

(For some of the background on all this, see:
Some thoughts on the terrorist strategy of the Iraqi 'insurgency'
The four wars for Iraq (Norman Geras)
Who is murdering Iraqi civilians? (Norman Geras)
Zarqawi - Man of the year for 2006?
Some unhappy thoughts on options in Iraq
'The jihad now is against the Shias, not the Americans'
Inside Baghdad's civil war (contd.)

=> Of course, there is a good deal of blame to spread around. Part of the responsibility for this horrible situation lies with the US administration for its astonishingly incompetent and irresponsible mismanagement of the post-Saddam occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, since this helped the Sunni Arab 'insurgency' to emerge and in other ways contributed to the socio-political conditions for the current sectarian bloodbath. Responsibility is also shared by a wide range of governments, institutions, and political groups who have either failed to aid the post-Saddam reconstruction of Iraq or have actively helped to sabotage it (some of whom have even supported the mass murderers of what they call the 'resistance' rhetorically or practically).

But these wider considerations, while important, should not allow us to evade what seem to me two central truths.

First of all, the primary responsibility for this ongoing mass murder, torture, and ethnic cleansing of Iraqi civilians lies with those who are actually doing it - and who have been doing it steadily for years.

And second, whether or not one thinks the 2003 Iraq war was wise or justified, and whether or not one believes that continued US involvement can help to achieve a decent political outcome in Iraq, there is absolutely no reason to believe that a US withdrawal at this point would end or reduce this ongoing sectarian bloodbath - quite the contrary. A US abandonment of Iraq (rapid or 'phased') might or might not serve long-term US interests. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into pretending that it would somehow be good for Iraqis.

Instead, it would almost certainly lead to an escalation of sectarian civil war, among other disasters, and it would certainly represent a victory for the mass murderers (on all sides). One might even want to argue that at this point such an outcome is inevitable, since all the alternatives are hopeless, so the US might as well get out of the way and let it happen - again, that's another discussion. But this is a reality that ought to be faced honestly. (Jeff Weintraub)