The war in Iraq seems to have fundamentally changed character.
The violence has reached hitherto unheard-of proportions. In today's and yesterday's news reports, at least 30 Iraqis were killed in a bomb blast at a U.S.-Iraqi joint military base west of Mosul; 30 corpses, many headless, were found near Baqubah; 13 corpses, many of them handcuffed before being shot, were found around Baghdad; and, most ominously, somewhere from 16 to 37 supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr killed in a mosque raid carried out by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. In a particularly macabre episode, an Iraqi doctor admitted, presumably under torture by Kurdish security forces, that he had killed 35 patients under his care, members of the Iraqi army and police.
News reports alone show perhaps 50 people a day being killed in Iraq; the true number is, of course, significantly higher. Individual murders don't even make the news any more.
This level of violence has only been matched during a few months of last summer, when a sensational wave of suicide bombings was unleashed following formation of the Iraqi government in late April. This time, it doesn't even involve Zarqawi and the suicide bombers, who have drastically decreased their level of attacks. Responding to severe criticism from everyone from the Iraqi insurgency to Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda, they have stopped beheading prisoners, cut down on car bombings, and are now reconfiguring, supposedly with an Iraqi leader. In U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's words, "More Iraqis are dying today from the militia violence than from the terrorists."
At the same time of this explosion of violence, the anti-occupation struggle has fallen to a low ebb. March will see fewer U.S. fatalities than any month since February 2004, before the events of late March and April 2004 permanently altered the character of the occupation.
Although the bombing of the shrine in Samarra on February 22 triggered the shift, it had been building for a long time. The shift is not all peaches and cream for the Bush administration. They appear to have lost control of the country (although they never really had it); the car-bombing campaign of last summer, which gave the same impression, helped drive down Bush's job approval rating significantly.
Still, the United States seems to be viewing the prospect of Iraqis killing Iraqis and ignoring Americans with, shall we say, great equanimity. Indeed, it plays well into the strategic shift that I wrote about earlier. Although U.S. forces are still occasionally attacking the Sunni insurgency, they are beginning now to openly attack the Shi'a militias, in concert with Iraqi troops.
This serves several purposes. The United States needs to reign in Shi'a militias because the Shi'a political parties they're associated with have grown too powerful and independent. The sectarian killings provide an excuse to attack Moqtada al-Sadr, who has become their number one enemy - partly because he still opposes the occupation and partly because he has made serious attempts to build unity with Sunnis, including clerics from the Association of Muslim Scholars. Joint maneuvers against militias with Iraqi troops serve the goal of trying to detach the Iraqi soldiers' loyalty from the militias and transfer it to the U.S. military. Simultaneously, those maneuvers, presumably largely with Kurdish troops, help disrupt the Kurdish-Shi'a bloc that had been emerging but that threatened to be hegemonic, reinforcing the current much weaker Kurd-Sunni Arab bloc.
Daniel Pipes, in an op-ed in early March, almost seems to lick his lips as he contemplates Iraq's possible descent into civil war, pointing out that "when Sunni terrorists target Shiites and vice versa, non-Muslims are less likely to be hurt," adding that, from his point of view, "Civil war in Iraq ... would be a humanitarian tragedy but not a strategic one."
Although Pipes' attitude is probably shared by many neoconservatives, it is not by the Bush administration or the bulk of the foreign policy establishment. This level of violence is not good for U.S. interests. It imperils the oil flow and makes the occupation look like a failure. But if it lays the foundation for permanent ethnic-sectarian feuding by warring factions, all of whom look to the United States to be an "honest broker," then indeed it will be worth the temporary cost to them.
One thing is for sure: the United States was not asked to invade Iraq by anyone and it is morally culpable for all the resulting mayhem.
Rahul Mahajan teaches at New York University. He has been to Iraq twice and reported from Fallujah during the siege in April. He maintains a blog Empire Notes
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