Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Comparing Iraq to Bosnia and Rwanda

An interesting article (thanks Z!) by Murtaza Mohsin, who compares Iraq to Yugoslavia and warns that Iraq could become the next Rwanda, although I wonder if the Shia militias would slaughter the Sunni Arabs like the Hutus slaughtered the Tutsis. I hope not.

The mother of all genocides
By Murtaza Mohsin

Genocide is an ugly word. It describes the vilest instincts that humanity has retained. Whether it be Genghis Khan's pyramids of skulls, the genocide waged by the Young Turks against Armenians in the aftermath of World War I, the atrocities of Pol Pot, the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia-Herzegovina or the 100-day killing rampage that was the Rwandan genocide, it shows the depth of the ability of humanity to hate.

In the last two cases, the world stood by and watched as whole populations were decimated. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization shamefully did nothing to curtail the Bosnian genocide in the backroom of Europe, the Balkans.

There are startling similarities that the situation in Iraq bears with those of the conflict in Bosnia and the Rwandan genocide. As if genocide of its own people were not enough, Iraq holds the seeds to the greatest regional conflict since World War II. While the possibility of a civil war is often mentioned, one grim specter is seldom mentioned, one with bleak reminders from the previous century, that of genocide.

Madaen, a town south of Baghdad, earned notoriety in April 2005 when upwards of 150 Shi'ite men, women and children were massacred. Despite being extremely gruesome even by the blood-drenched standards of the violence in Iraq, the incident has largely been forgotten. The event was repeated elsewhere, particularly in Diyala province, with insurgents attempting to decimate the local Shi'ite population.

The phrase "ethnic cleansing" emerged during the Bosnian civil war. One side forced expulsion or killing of the undesired ethnic group as well as the destruction or removal of the physical vestiges of the ethnic group, such as places of worship, cemeteries and cultural and historical buildings. Bosnian Serbs used ethnic cleansing to expel Muslims in the north and east of Bosnia. This parallels the situation in Iraq, with both Shi'ites and Sunnis being forcibly expelled from homes in areas dominated by the opposing community.

The situation in Iraq today bears considerable resemblance to the prelude to the Bosnian genocide. Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991 when communist strongman Josip Broz Tito died. With his death, strong nationalist forces were unleashed, with Slobodan Milosevic leading the Serb nationalists. In conjunction with a weakening of the Communist Party, he managed to implement amendments to the constitution reasserting control over the autonomous region of Kosovo, attempting to maintain a Yugoslavia under Serb dominance.

This was met by the rise of nationalist forces in Croatia in the form of the Croatian Democratic Union, which set the stage for the independence of Croatia and Slovenia through armed conflict. Subsequently, demands for independence in Bosnia were met with arms, and the Bosnian civil war began.

Now we see in Iraq that a dictator, Saddam Hussein, has been removed. This matches the death of Tito. Iraq like the former Yugoslavia is a patchwork of different ethnic groups with a single group in demographic dominance - Serbs in Yugoslavia and Shi'ites in Iraq. A single unifying political system collapsed in both cases, Ba'ath Party rule in Iraq and communism in Yugoslavia.

Without the iron rule of Tito, Yugoslavia dissolved. Milosevic attempted to use his own form of iron rule, yet he could not hold back the Hydra of independence he himself had unleashed. Serbian death squads, formed out of paramilitary units such as Arkan's Tigers, the White Eagles and others, unleashed a wave of atrocities on Muslims and Croats. In Yugoslavia, atrocities were committed by all sides, but they paled in comparison with the campaign waged by the Serbs enjoying the advantage of the heavy weaponry inherited from the old Yugoslav army.

It is all too easy for Iraq to go down this path. Already Shi'ite groups and Kurdish politicians proclaim federalism and autonomy according to region. Many observers agree this is a step away from independence of the various regions, that Iraq will break apart in this form of federalism, matching the collapse of Yugoslavia.

In another reminder from the Bosnian conflict, death squads are widespread in Iraq, with groups often directly linked to the Ministry of Interior. These include those linked to the Badr Brigades, which are in turn part of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shi'ite political group. Paramilitary units were also linked to political parties in the Bosnian conflict.

Iraq differs from Yugoslavia in one vital aspect. Unlike Serbs in Yugoslavia, Shi'ites never dominated Iraq. Saddam brutally suppressed Shi'ites and any possible aspirations for power during the decades of Ba'athist rule. Additionally, Sunnis and Shi'ites in the main both want the country to remain united. Many Iraqis continue to hold strong nationalist feelings not for their ethnic identity but for Iraq. Yet there are still too many similarities with the Bosnian situation for comfort.

However, there are disparities too, which force us to look further afield. In Rwanda, starting from April 6, 1994, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists within a hundred-day period. The genocide was remarkable as much for its speed and sheer scale as by the lack of response on the part of the United Nations and the First World, which stood by as hundreds of thousands were slaughtered.

Like Sunnis in Iraq, Tutsis, forming 20% of the population, had long been the political elite. They were the aristocracy until majority rule by Hutus began in 1959. Since then, Hutu political parties harped on Hutu nationalism and marginalized the Tutsis, forcing many to flee to refugee camps in the following decades.

In the early 1990s, Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led a revolt from neighboring Uganda demanding better rights for Tutsis. The Rwandan government portrayed the invasion as an attempt to bring the Tutsi ethnic group back into power. Juvenal Habyarimana, the Rwandan president, himself reacted by immediately repressing Tutsis.

Rhetoric continued to rise in this period, egged on by radio, which began a campaign of hate and fear. The main culprit was the government-owned Radio Television Libre de Mille Collines, which issued calls for violence and anti-Tutsi propaganda. All that was required was a catalyst to bring about catastrophe.

It came with the assassination of president Habyarimana. The Mystere-Falcon jet carrying Habyarimana was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali. As though the assassination were a signal, military and militia groups began rounding up and killing all the Tutsis they could capture, as well as political moderates irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds.

Local militias, known as Interahamwe, organized by the government waged, the genocide. The RPF responded by renewing the conflict and invaded Rwanda. The Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu regime and ended the genocide in July 1994, but about 2 million Hutu refugees, some of whom had participated in the genocide and feared Tutsi retribution, fled to neighboring countries. This set the stage for the Congo war, regarded as "Africa's World War", directly involving nine African nations, as well as about 20 armed groups.

There are an alarming number of similarities in Iraq to Rwanda. Shi'ites have gained political power at the expense of the traditional power elite, the Sunni Arabs, and the demographics also directly match the situation in Iraq if one discounts the Kurds. Although it took decades for the concept of "Hutu power" to gain the proportions needed for genocide to happen, the violence currently being waged against the Shi'ites can more easily bring about rage equivalent to that in Rwanda.

I fear that local media, which in Rwanda were used as a tool of genocide, may be used in Iraq to increase ethnic tensions. Already there are allegations that media are increasingly widening the gap between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

The Rwandan genocide happened because the government created it; it was supported at all levels. Again I fear that Iraq may follow the same path if ever the Americans leave Iraq in the precarious situation it is in now and a Shi'ite-dominated government arises that is ruthless and determined to preserve its hold over power at any cost. It could wage total war against Arab Sunnis in a manner similar to the Rwandan government's war on the Tutsis.

Eventually, some political entity will fill the gap and make brutal decisions. It will not take the form of the civil war that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his followers so ardently tried to provoke. It will instead be a long list of atrocities, like the two genocides discussed in detail. It will take the form of massacres carried out by militias that are numerically stronger, better organized and better armed than the insurgency.

Those who have been forced out of their homes will return as guides for the death squads. Iraq will succumb to violence of unbelievable levels; whole neighborhoods will be wiped out in a manner similar to the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Hutus and Serbs. Kurds will probably attempt to exploit the violence to break away as an independent entity, with a wary Turkey watching.

It is likely that both the army and police, like their counterparts in the Rwandan genocide, will actively take part in the violence. Despite efforts to keep both non-sectarian in nature, the Iraqi army and police are riddled by internal divisions. The composition of the army and police is mainly Shi'ite and Kurd. This army may turn its weaponry against the people of Iraq.

Civil conflicts often have a transnational dimension, in that neighboring states may provide support to one party in hopes of making gains. Iraq is no exception; the conflict there is being fueled, at least in part, by its neighbors. Saudi Arabia continues to be the main external source of funding for the insurgency and provides the main source of funding and suicide bombers.

Iran supports Shi'ite militias including the Badr Brigade. In a civil conflict with genocidal overtones, neighboring countries will undoubtedly intervene; we may see what has happened to Congo in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Religious tensions will be exacerbated by the presence of refugees, in much the same way as Hutu refugees exacerbated inter communal tensions in Congo, triggering the Congo war.

Neighboring countries will no doubt intervene using the rhetoric of protecting their co-religionists; Jordan would claim it was protecting western Iraq from genocide. It would attempt to invade and hold parts of Iraq because of its weakened state, particularly exploiting that ever-valuable resource, oil, in much the way that Congo was exploited by foreign invaders. Turkey would move into northern Iraq, strenuously claiming it was trying to prevent cross-border Kurdish raids, and take over the northern oilfields.

Eventually, Iraq may turn into one massive battlefield, with the whole of the Middle East fighting over the oil-rich country. It is also doubtful that the First World, emerging powers such as China, resurgent powers such as Russia, and others will not become involved in what may prove to be one of the largest conflicts the world has ever seen.

While much of the analysis given above is pure hypothesis, there exists too much chance for this horrible sequence of events to occur. We may be on the brink of the "mother of all genocides", which will pale all other genocides in comparison.

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