The single most basic fallacy underlying the present
American catastrophe in Iraq is the belief that the U.S. can somehow solve that
country's problems, however extreme and intractable they may seem; that, in
short, we are part of the solution in Iraq, not part of the problem. Once you're
thinking that way, it's always a matter of setting the latest incorrect or inept
tactics right, or of changing a policy that has been incompetently put into
operation by unprepared administrators wielding too few resources too poorly.
But the belief in the power of the United States to solve problems for others
– by force – reflects a deep-seated imperial mindset that exists not just in
the Bush administration, but among its mainstream critics as well. You can see
it everywhere, if you care to look. You can note it in the way, as things continue
to devolve in Iraq, the military and its various internal critics have been
bobbing and weaving from one set of counterproductive counterinsurgency tactics
to another (each time claiming that the previous set had somehow overlooked
basic insurgency doctrine or the lessons of Vietnam). The latest of these is
a modified version of the old (failed) Vietnam "ink
blot" strategy in which we pull troops back to Baghdad, a city now evidently
in utter, violent
disarray, to nail down at least some of the capital's neighborhoods (while denuding
troop strength in areas of Sunni Iraq where the insurgency rages).
Or consider the latest in Bush administration thinking. In a superb front-page
New York Times piece last week, "Bombs
Aimed at GIs in Iraq Are Increasing," reporters Michael R. Gordon,
Mark Mazzetti, and Thom Shanker offered impressive evidence that, since the
killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Sunni insurgency against the Americans
and allied Iraqi forces has only heightened. Perhaps most striking were the
final paragraphs of the piece, meant only for news junkies and buried deep inside
the paper (reinforcing my sense that the imperial press can sometimes most profitably
be read from back
"Yet some outside experts who have recently visited the White House said
Bush administration officials were beginning to plan for the possibility that
Iraq's democratically elected government might not survive.
"'Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are
considering alternatives other than democracy,' said one military affairs expert
who received an Iraq briefing at the White House last month and agreed to speak
only on condition of anonymity.
"'Everybody in the administration is being quite circumspect,' the expert
said, 'but you can sense their own concern that this is drifting away from democracy.'"
White House spokesman Tony Snow was forced to deny this at a press briefing
the next day, but it makes complete sense. This was, after all, the solution
the elder Bush's top officials looked to after the first Gulf War. They hoped
a war-weakened Saddam would be overthrown by a Ba'athist strongman from within
his own military, someone we could deal with – as we had with him in the 1980s.
Cole speculates that this time around it would be "a Shi'ite ex-Ba'athist
officer in the old Iraqi army who knew how to make people an offer they couldn't
refuse.") Even in the unlikely event that it were possible to put such a plan
into effect, it's a given that it, too, would fail. That the Bush administration
is looking for new solutions to the Iraqi conundrum, however, should be unsurprising.
So many situations in our world make a mockery of all attempts at prediction;
and yet Iraq, since March 2003, has seemed otherwise. There is a terrible logic
to the situation in that country, which has only worsened incrementally under
three-plus years of American (and British) occupation. Whatever the promises,
whatever the "turning points," whatever the provisional good news offered at
any moment, the situation in that country (and the
region) only gets worse.
In this case, history should be our guide. As long as Americans believe that
Iraq is some kind of imperial Rubik's cube, where what's at stake is hitting
on just the right combination of tactics, plans, and political mix inside Baghdad's
Green Zone, as long as we believe that we are indeed part of the solution, not
part of the problem, matters will only continue to worsen.
Michael Schwartz, a TomDispatch regular, offers seven facts that help explain
why the lethal brew our invasion let loose in that country will have no hope
of "solution" under present conditions. Tom
Seven Facts You Might Not Know About the Iraq War
by Michael Schwartz
With a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon
holding, the ever hotter war in Iraq is once again creeping back onto newspaper
front pages and toward the top of the evening news. Before being fully immersed
in daily reports of bomb blasts, sectarian violence, and casualties, however,
it might be worth considering some of the just-under-the-radar-screen realities
of the situation in that country. Here, then, is a little guide to understanding
what is likely to be a flood of new Iraqi developments – a few enduring, but
seldom commented-upon, patterns central to the dynamics of the Iraq war, as
well as to the fate of the American occupation and Iraqi society.
1. The Iraqi Government Is Little More Than a Group of "Talking
A minimally viable central government is built on at least three foundations:
the coercive capacity to maintain order, an administrative apparatus that can
deliver government services and directives to society, and the resources to
manage these functions. The Iraqi government has none of these attributes –
and no prospect of developing them. It has no coercive capacity. The national
army we hear so much about is actually trained and commanded by the Americans,
while the police forces are largely controlled by local governments and have
few, if any, viable links to the central government in Baghdad. (Only the Special
Forces, whose death-squad activities in the capital have lately been in the
news, have any formal relationship with the elected government; and they have
more enduring ties to the U.S. military that created them and the Shia militias
who staffed them.)
Administratively, the Iraqi government has no
existence outside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone – and little presence
within it. Whatever local apparatus exists elsewhere in the country is led by
local leaders, usually with little or no loyalty to the central government and
not dependent on it for resources it doesn't, in any case, possess. In Baghdad
itself, this is clearly illustrated in the vast Shi'ite slum of Sadr city, controlled
by Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and his elaborate network of political clerics.
(Even U.S. occupation forces enter that enormous swath of the capital only in
large brigades, braced for significant firefights.) In the major city of the
Shia south, Basra, local clerics lead a government that alternately ignores
and defies the central government on all policy issues from oil to women's rights;
in Sunni cities like Tal Afar and Ramadi, where major battles with the Americans
alternate with insurgent control, the government simply has no presence whatsoever.
In Kurdistan in the north, the Kurdish leadership maintains full control of
all local governments.
As for resources, with 85 percent of the country's revenues deriving from oil,
all you really need to know is that oil-rich Iraq is also suffering from an
fuel shortage" (including soaring prices, all-night lines at gas stations,
deal to get help from neighboring Syria, which itself has minimal refining
capacity). The almost helpless Iraqi government has had little choice but to
accept the dictates of American advisers and of the International Monetary Fund
about exactly how what energy resources exist will be used. Paying off Saddam-era
debt, reparations to Kuwait from the Gulf War of 1990, and the needs of the
U.S.-controlled national army have had first claim. With what remains so meager
that it cannot sustain a viable administrative apparatus in Baghdad, let alone
the rest of the country, there is barely enough to spare for the government
leadership to line their own pockets.
2. There Is No Iraqi Army
The "Iraqi army" is a misnomer. The government's military consists of Iraqi
units integrated into the U.S.-commanded occupation army. These units rely on
the Americans for intelligence, logistics, and – lacking almost all heavy weaponry
themselves – artillery, tanks, and any kind of air power. (The Iraqi "air force"
typically consists of fewer then 10 planes with no combat capability.) The government
has no real control over either personnel or strategy.
We can see this clearly in a recent operation in Sadr City, conducted (as news
reports tell us) by "Iraqi troops and U.S. advisers" and backed up by U.S. artillery
and air power. It was one of an ongoing series of attempts to undermine the
Sadrists and their Mahdi army, who have governed the area since the fall of
Saddam. The day after the assault, Iraqi premier Nouri
Kamel al-Maliki complained about the tactics used, which he labeled "unjustified,"
and about the fact that neither he nor his government was included in the decision-making
leading up to the assault. As he put it to Agence France-Presse, "I reiterate
my rejection to [sic] such an operation and it should not be executed without
my consent. This particular operation did not have my approval."
This happened because the U.S. has functionally expanded its own
forces in Iraq by integrating local Iraqi units into its command structure,
while essentially depriving the central government of any army it could use
purely for its own purposes. Iraqi units have their own officers, but they
always operate with American advisers. As American
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad put it, "We'll ultimately help them become
independent." (Don't hold your breath.)
3. The Recent Decline in American Casualties Is Not a Result
of Less Fighting (and Anyway, It's Probably Ending)
At the beginning of August, the press carried reports of a significant
decline in U.S. casualties, punctuated with announcements from American officials
that the military situation was improving. The figures (compiled by the Brookings
Institute) do show a decline in U.S. military deaths (76 in April, 69
in May, 63 in June, and then only 48 in July). But these were offset
by dramatic increases in Iraqi military fatalities, which almost doubled in
July as the U.S. sent larger numbers of Iraqi units into battle, and as undermanned
American units were redeployed from al-Anbar province, the heartland of the
Sunni insurgency, to civil-war-torn Baghdad in preparation for a big push
to recapture various out-of-control neighborhoods in the capital.
More important, when it comes to long-term U.S. casualties, the trends are
not good. In recent months, U.S. units had been pulled off the streets of the
capital. But the Iraqi army units that replaced them proved incapable of controlling
Baghdad in even minimal ways. So in addition to fighting the Sunni insurgency,
American troops are now back on the streets of Baghdad in the midst of a swirling
civil war with U.S. casualties likely to rise. In recent months, there has also
been an escalation of the fighting between American forces and the insurgency,
independent of the sectarian fighting that now dominates the headlines.
As a consequence, the U.S. has actually increased
its troop levels in Iraq (by delaying the return of some units, sending others
back to Iraq early, and sending in some troops previously held in reserve in
Kuwait). The number of battles (large and small) between occupation troops and
the Iraqi resistance has increased from about 70 a day to about 90 a day, and
the number of resistance fighters estimated by U.S. officials has held steady
at about 20,000. The number
of IEDs placed – the principle weapon targeted at occupation troops (including
Iraqi units) – has been rising steadily since the spring.
The effort by Sunni guerrillas to expel the American army and its
allies is more widespread and energetic than at any time since the fall of
the Hussein regime.
4. Most Iraqi Cities Have Active and Often Viable Local Governments
Neither the Iraqi government nor the American-led occupation has a significant
presence in most parts of Iraq. This is well-publicized in the three Kurdish
provinces, which are ruled by a stable Kurdish government without any outside
presence; less so in Shia urban areas where various religio-political groups
– notably the Sadrists, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI),
Da'wa, and Fadhila – vie for local control, and then organize cities and towns
around their own political and religious platforms. While there is often violent
friction among these groups – particularly when the contest for control of an
area is undecided – most cities and towns are largely peaceful as local governments
and local populations struggle to provide city services without a viable national
This situation also holds true in the Sunni areas, except when the
occupation is actively trying to pacify them. When there is no fighting, local
governments dominated by the religious and tribal leaders of the resistance
establish the laws and maintain a kind of order, relying for law enforcement
on guerrilla fighters and militia members.
All these governments – Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni – have shown themselves capable
of maintaining (often fundamentalist) law and (often quite harsh) order, with
little crime and little resistance from the local population. Though often severely
limited by the lack of resources from a paralyzed national economy and a bankrupt
national government, they do collect the garbage, direct traffic, suppress the
local criminal element, and perform many of the other duties expected of local
5. Outside Baghdad, Violence Arrives With the Occupation Army
The portrait of chaos across Iraq that our news generally offers us is a genuine
half-truth. Certainly, Baghdad has been plunged into massive and worsening disarray
as both the war against the Americans and the civil war have come to be concentrated
there and as the terrifying process of ethnic cleansing has hit neighborhood
after neighborhood, and is now beginning to seep
into the environs of the capital.
However, outside Baghdad (with the exception of the northern cities of Kirkuk
and Mosul, where historic friction among Kurd, Sunni, and Turkmen has created
a different version of sectarian violence), Iraqi cities tend to be reasonably
ethnically homogeneous and to have at least quasi-stable governments. The real
violence often only arrives when the occupation military makes its periodic
sweeps aimed at recapturing cities where it has lost all authority and even
This deadly pattern of escalating violence is regularly triggered by those
dreaded sweeps, involving brutal, destructive, and sometimes lethal home invasions
aimed at capturing or killing suspected insurgents or their supporters. The
insurgent response involves the emplacement of ever more sophisticated roadside
bombs (known as IEDs) and sniper attacks, aimed at distracting or hampering
the patrols. The ensuing firefights frequently involve the use of artillery,
tanks, and air power in urban areas, demolishing
homes and stores in a neighborhood, which only adds to bitter resistance
and increasing the support for the insurgency.
These mini-wars can last between a few hours and, in Fallujah, Ramadi, or other
"centers of resistance," a few weeks. They constitute the overwhelming preponderance
of the fighting in Iraq. For any city, the results can be widespread death and
devastation from which it can take months or years to recover. Yet these are
still episodes punctuating a less violent, if increasingly more run-down, normalcy.
6. There Is a Growing Resistance Movement in the Shia Areas of
Lately, the pattern of violence established in largely Sunni areas
of Iraq has begun to spread to largely Shia cities, which had previously been
insulated from the periodic devastation of American pacification attempts.
This ended with growing Bush administration anxiety about economic, religious,
and militia connections between local Shia governments and Iran, and with
the growing power of the anti-American Sadrist movement, which had already
fought two fierce battles with the U.S. in Najaf in 2004 and a number of times
since then in Sadr City.
Symptomatic of this change is the increasing violence in Basra,
the urban oil hub at the southern tip of the country, whose local
government has long been dominated by various fundamentalist Shia political
groups with strong ties to Iran. When the British military began a campaign
to undermine the fundamentalists' control of the police force there, two British
military operatives were arrested, triggering a battle between British soldiers
(supported by the Shia leadership of the Iraqi central government) and the
local police (supported by local Shia leaders). This confrontation initiated
a series of armed confrontations among the various contenders for power in
Similar confrontations have occurred in other localities, including Karbala,
Najaf, Sadr City, and Maysan province. So far, no general offensive to recapture
any of these areas has been attempted, but Britain has recently been concentrating
its troops outside Basra.
If the occupation decides to use military means to bring the Shia
cities back into anything like an American orbit, full-scale battles may be
looming in the near future that could begin to replicate the fighting in Sunni
areas, including the use of IEDs, so far only sporadically employed in the
south. If you think American (and British) troops are overextended now, dealing
with internecine warfare and a minority Sunni insurgency, just imagine what
a real Shi'ite insurgency would mean.
7. There Are Three Distinct Types of Terrorism in Iraq, All Directly
or Indirectly Connected to the Occupation
Terrorism involves attacking civilians to force them to abandon
their support for your enemy, or to drive them away from a coveted territory.
The original terrorists in Iraq were the military and civilian officials of
the Bush administration – starting with their "shock
and awe" bombing campaign that destroyed Iraqi infrastructure in order to
"undermine civilian morale." The American form of terrorism continued with the
wholesale destruction of most of Fallujah
and parts of other Sunni cities, designed to pacify the "hot beds" of insurgency,
while teaching the residents of those areas that, if they "harbor the insurgents,"
they will surely "suffer the consequences."
At the individual level, this program of terror was continued through
the invasions of, and demolishing of, homes (or, in some cases, parts of neighborhoods)
where insurgents were believed to be hidden among a larger civilian population,
thus spreading the "lesson" about "harboring terrorists" to everyone in the
Sunni sections of the country. Generating a violent death rate of at least
18,000 per year,
the American drumbeat of terror has contributed more than its share to the
recently escalating civilian death toll, which reached a record 3,149
in the official count during July. It is unfortunately accurate to characterize
the American occupation of Sunni Iraq as a reign of terror.
The Sunni terrorists like those led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have utilized the
suicide car bomb to generate the most widely publicized violence in Iraq – hundreds
of civilian casualties each month resulting from attacks on restaurants, markets,
and mosques where large number of Shia congregate. At the beginning of the U.S.
occupation, car bombs were nonexistent; they only became common when a tiny
proportion of the Sunni resistance movement became convinced that the Shia were
the main domestic support for the American occupation. (As far as we can tell,
the vast majority of those fighting the Americans oppose such terrorists and
have sometimes fought against them.) As al-Qaeda leader Ayman
al-Zawahiri wrote, these attacks were justified by "the treason of the Shia
and their collusion with the Americans." As if to prove him correct, the number
of such attacks tripled to current levels of about 70 per month after the
Shia-dominated Iraqi government supported the American devastation of Fallujah
in November 2004.
The Sunni terrorists work with the same terrorist logic that the
Americans have applied in Iraq: Attacks on civilians are meant to terrify
them into not supporting the enemy. There is a belief, of course, among the
leadership of the Sunni terrorists that, ultimately, only the violent suppression
or expulsion of the Shia is acceptable. But as Zawahiri himself stated, the
"majority of Muslims don't comprehend this and possibly could not even imagine
it." So the practical justification for such terrorism lies in the more immediate
association of the Shia with the hated occupation.
The final link in the terrorist chain can also be traced back to the occupation.
In January of 2005, Newsweek
broke the story that the U.S. was establishing (Shi'ite) "death squads" within
the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, modeled after the assassination teams that the
CIA had helped organize in El Salvador during the 1980s. These death squads
were intended to assassinate activists and supporters of the Sunni resistance.
Particularly after the bombing
of the Golden Dome, an important Shia shrine in Samarra, in March 2006,
they became a fixture in Baghdad, where thousands
of corpses – virtually all Sunni men – have been found with signs of torture,
including electric-drill holes, in their bodies and bullet holes in their heads.
Here, again, the logic is the same: to use terror to stop the Sunni community
from nurturing and harboring both the terrorist car bombers and the anti-American
While there is disagreement about whether the Americans, the Shia-controlled
Iraqi Ministry of Defense, or the Shia political parties should shoulder the
most responsibility for loosing these death squads on Baghdad, one conclusion
is indisputable: They have earned their place in the ignominious triumvirate
of Iraqi terrorism.
One might say that the war has converted one of President Bush's
biggest lies into an unimaginably horrible truth: Iraq is now the epicenter
of worldwide terrorism.
Where the Seven Facts Lead
With this terror triumvirate at the center of Iraqi society, we
now enter the horrible era of ethnic cleansing, the logical extension of multidimensional
When the U.S. toppled the Hussein regime, there was little sectarian sentiment
outside of Kurdistan, which had long-standing nationalist ambitions. Even today,
opinion polls show that
more than two-thirds of Sunnis and Shia stand opposed to the idea of any further
weakening of the central government and are not in favor of federation, no less
dividing Iraq into three separate nations.
Nevertheless, ethnic cleansing by both Shia and Sunni has become
the order of the day in many of the neighborhoods of Baghdad, replete with
house burnings, physical assaults, torture, and murder, all directed against
those who resist leaving their homes. These acts are aimed at creating religiously
This is a terrifying development that derives from the rising tide
of terrorism. Sunnis believe that they must expel their Shia neighbors to
stop them from giving the Shi'ite death squads the names of resistance fighters
and their supporters. Shia believe that they must expel their Sunni neighbors
to stop them from providing information and cover for car-bombing attacks.
And, as the situation matures, militants on both sides come to embrace removal
– period. As these actions escalate, feeding on each other, more and more
individuals, caught in a vise of fear and bent on revenge, embrace the infernal
logic of terrorism: that it is acceptable to punish everyone for the actions
of a tiny minority.
There is still some hope for the Iraqis to recover their equilibrium.
All the centripetal forces in Iraq derive from the American occupation, and
might still be sufficiently reduced by an American departure followed by a
viable reconstruction program embraced by the key elements inside of Iraq.
But if the occupation continues, there will certainly come a point – perhaps
already passed – when the collapse of government legitimacy, the destruction
wrought by the war, and the horror of terrorist violence become self-sustaining.
If that point is reached, all parties will enter a new territory with incalculable
Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology and faculty director of the Undergraduate
College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, has written extensively
on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics.
His work on Iraq has appeared on numerous Internet sites, including TomDispatch,
Asia Times, MotherJones.com, and ZNet; and in print in Contexts,
Against the Current, and Z Magazine. His books include Radical
Protest and Social Structure, and Social Policy and the Conservative
Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). His e-mail address is Ms42@optonline.net.
Copyright 2006 Michael Schwartz