While ethnic cleansing plagues "liberated
Iraq," Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the powerful Shi'ite Mahdi militia,
has issued an ultimatum to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Sadr warned that
if Maliki met
President Bush in Jordan this week, the cleric and his 30 followers in Iraq's
parliament would pull out of the shaky ruling coalition, effectively ending
(or so Sadr hopes) the first democratically elected Iraqi government. The meeting's
agenda includes a discussion of the role that Iran and Syria can play in pacifying
Iraq. Sadr objects to Bush's involvement because, he claims, U.S. forces are
backing the Sunni insurgency. The young Shi'ite leader accuses Americans of
being complicit in the killing of thousands of innocent Shi'ites in Iraq. Yet,
until recently, America considered Sadr a man they could work with. One can
only imagine Abu
Musab al-Zarqawi, in his comfortable position in the Jihadist Martyrs' Paradise,
laughing at the latest twist in the Iraqi saga.
Of course, Sadr has never been a loyal U.S. ally. How many now remember that
the Iraqi insurgency began in April 2003 in Sadr City, the miserable Shi'ite
suburb of Baghdad? Under the leadership of Sadr, residents took up arms against
coalition forces to protest the lack of basic infrastructure: water, electricity,
and security. In June 2003, after similar uprisings erupted across the country,
Sadr formed the Mahdi Army, whose task was to foment violence against Coalition
forces and against Iraqi Sunnis, especially former members of the Ba'ath Party.
Yet, the Shi'ite insurgency went unpunished. Protected by religious leaders
such as Ayatollah
Ali al-Sistani and politicians close to Washington such as Ahmed
Chalabi, Sadr was able to unleash his militia across Iraq.
In August 2003, when Zarqawi entered the Iraqi arena, the country was already
in the grip of the Shi'ite insurgency. Like Sadr, the Jordanian fought on two
fronts: he targeted both Coalition forces and his Iraqi religious enemies, as
evidenced by his spectacular first attacks. In August 2003, Zarqawi masterminded
the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing several members of the
UN delegation, and the suicide attack against the Imam Ali Mosque, which killed,
among many others, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the spiritual leader of
the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Both Sadr and Zarqawi
used powerful rhetoric to justify the targeting of Iraqi civilians. While Sadr
attacked the Sunnis, accusing them of being Saddam's henchmen, Zarqawi drew
analogies to the 13th-century Mongol invasion of Iraq, which was backed by the
Iraqi Shi'ites. Zarqawi wrote to bin Laden that Sadr and his political backers
had allied with Coalition forces, i.e., the new Mongols, to force Iraq into
chaos in order to take control of its resources. Sadr's recent attempts to carve
a Shi'ite state out of Iraq, cutting the Sunni population out of oil and gas
revenues, seem to validate this analysis.
From summer 2003 to summer 2004, Coalition forces battled against both Shi'ite
and Sunni militias. Yet, because of the strategic alliance between Washington
and the Iraqi Shi'ite leadership, the Mahdi militia went systematically unpunished
while the Sunni resistance was criminalized. Zarqawi was wrongly portrayed as
the leader of the Sunni insurgency, while in reality he headed a very small
group of mostly foreign jihadists. Fed information by the U.S. Army, the media
depicted Zarqawi as the new Saddam, the butcher of Nicholas Berg, the leader
of the Islamist Republic of Fallujah, the ultimate international terrorist.
So blind was U.S. policy that, in August 2004, after Sadr's militia ignited
violent clashes against coalition and Iraqi police forces in Najaf, Karbala,
and Sadr City, killing hundreds of people, Ayatollah Sistani was given the go-ahead
to broker a deal on behalf of the Americans with Sadr. The Mahdi militia, under
siege in Najaf by coalition and Iraqi forces, walked free with their weapons,
tramping on the bodies of the people they had killed. A few days later, Iyad
Allawi, the Shi'ite interim prime minister of Iraq, issued an ad hoc amnesty
to clear Sadr and his militia of all wrongdoing. This allowed the Shi'ite cleric
to participate in the forthcoming election and win a seat in the Iraqi parliament.
Thanks to that seat, he can today throw down the gauntlet to Maliki.
As it did during the bloody war in the Balkans,
in Iraq the West is constantly entering into alliances, including with terrorist
organizations, as if a clear divide existed between the good and the evil, and
the West knew which was which. In Iraq, as in the Balkans, this "divide"
shifts daily. In 1998, in Kosovo, following the attacks by the Kosovo Liberation
Army (KLA) against Serbian police and civilians, the U.S. accused the KLA of
being a terrorist organization. The British followed suit. Then, in March 1999,
foreign policy in the U.S. and the UK underwent a radical shift and both governments
condemned the Serbs. Suddenly, members of the KLA were no longer terrorists
but freedom fighters, and the KLA was summarily removed from the U.S. State
Department's terror list. American politicians even praised the organization.
The new status was then reversed when, a few months later, the KLA supported
an Islamist insurgency against the government of Macedonia – a U.S. ally – and
it was once again listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department.
One wonders how many times since George Bush declared 'Mission Accomplished"
in Iraq should the Mahdi Army have been entered and erased from this list.
The Balkanization of Iraq goes well beyond homegrown ethnic cleansing and civil
war. It springs from the willingness of countries such as America and the United
Kingdom to police the Middle East. It is proof that Western intervention can
destabilize entire regions now that the world is no longer trapped in the Cold
War Manichean straitjacket. Iraq's future may well replicate the end of the
Vietnam War, when America declared victory and airlifted its people out, leaving
the country in the hands of a "neighboring power," i.e., the Chinese-backed
North Vietnamese Army. Only this time, Iraq will be ravaged by voracious ethnic
militias – backed by foreign countries militarily and politically too weak to
impose their own rule – not because America withdrew, but because the U.S. invaded
the country in the first place, unleashing these forces. Today, almost four
decades after the end of the war, Vietnam is a leading exporter and an emerging
economy because North Vietnam was able to impose peace, which eventually led
to prosperity, safely locked within China's sphere of influence. Today, Iran
and Syria's involvement in the Iraqi civil war will continue to drag the country
further into sectarian warfare and may even give al-Qaeda the longed-for opportunity
to carve out their own state. This is the terrifying legacy of this unjust and
illegal war, a legacy that should not be hidden by political propaganda. Nevertheless,
the sooner the West pulls out of Iraq, the better the chances Iraqis will find
their own way out of the present morass. The danger, of course, is that peace
in Iraq will come only when nothing is left standing but the ruins of ancient