Recently I have read a few articles that have tried to summarize the last six years in Iraq and the surge in particular. Some authors have attributed the reduction in violence in Iraq more to Iraqis than to Americans. Part 1 of Nir Rosen’s “Ugly Peace” focuses on Washash, a Shia-majority district of Baghdad that saw its Sunni Arab residents expelled by Shia militias in 2006. Rosen got the "ugly" part right, but I'm not sure about the peace. He seems to minimize and even disregard the worst violence committed by Sunni extremists, which is ongoing. It seems that not only Rosen but many fine journalists have been ignoring or minimizing the events of 2004 and 2005, when Sunni extremists attacked Shia all over Iraq in the most brutal ways.
Rosen exposes the injustices committed by Shia militias, as every journalist should, and I'm glad he makes a distinction between criminal elements of Jaish al Mahdi and those who only wanted to protect Shia from Sunni extremists, but he writes as if Shia militias started the sectarian violence after the bombing of the Askari shrine in Samarra in 2006. He explains that after the Samarra bombing, JAM began killing innocent Sunni Arabs, without really explaining what happened to the Shia in 2003, 2004, and 2005.
Rosen summarizes the explanation for the fall in violence: “the increasing calm stemmed from the ‘exhaustion of sectarian violence’ and a ‘Sunni return to politics,’ among other factors.”
Sounds like good news, but I do not know what Rosen means by “exhaustion of sectarian violence”. Maybe he means Shia militias stopped attacking Sunni Arabs. Sunni extremists continue to attack Shia. Maybe he did not read about the dozens of suicide bombings that have been carried out this year by AQI, which has always been the worst of the sectarian militias.
“One explanation that few are prepared to discuss openly is that Iraq’s civil war ended because Shias won: violence against Sunnis ceased after Sunnis were brutally cleansed from Basra and large swaths of Baghdad, and Shias gained firm control of government ministries and local police. Sunnis knew they were defeated and Shias no longer worried that Ba’athist oppression would resume. With no external enemy, Shia militias began to fight each other and turned into criminal gangs terrorizing their own communities. The defeat of the Sunnis and divisions among Shias created space for new possibilities, and the government and American forces occupied that space.”
The Sunnis were “brutally cleansed” from Baghdad, as if Shia were not treated brutally before Shia militias began their murderous rampages. It is as if all of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have been kicked out of Iraq, as if they have no representation in the Iraqi government. The violence stopped because there are no Sunnis left to kill, and hence the "ugly peace".
Here is a map of Baghdad in mid 2008, showing many districts dominated by Sunnis:
In his article Rosen summarized some of the violence of 2003 and 2004, but he did not elaborate on the incredible violence aimed at Iraq’s Shia, except to call it simply a civil war and to write “by the middle of 2005 sectarian violence was endemic”, hinting that Shia too were innocent victims. But he does not go into detail about the ugly crimes of Sunni extremists. Instead he emphasizes the brutality of the Mahdi Army and gives examples of evidence of their crimes in Washash and other areas.
Here he details the violence aimed at Sunnis in 2003 and 2004, as if to rationalize subsequent Sunni attacks on Shia:
“In October 2003 a Sunni Sheikh, his brother, and a teenage assistant were riddled with bullets as they walked home from mosque. In August 2004 a police chief and a patrolman were killed in an explosion. In December 2004 several members of a Sunni Salafist group were killed. Sunni and Shia clerics issued a futile joint edict banning sectarian fighting, and by the middle of 2005 sectarian violence was endemic.
American soldiers raiding a house in 2006 found evidence that Shia militias were cleansing Sunnis from Washash. There was a list of nearly 70 homes where Sunni families were expelled and a list of “good” families who were not be disturbed. There were letters threatening Sunnis, as well as copies of a DVD with a message from the Mahdi Army: images of exploding houses.”
Not a single mention of the Sunni violence that was intended to destroy the new Iraq from the very beginning. No mention of the hundreds of Sunni suicide bombers who targeted Iraq’s security forces and ordinary Shia between 2003 and the 2006 bombing of the Askari shrine. Suicide bombings are a good indication of violence perpetuated by Sunni extremists; Shia do not participate in suicide bombings that target Iraqi civilians or security forces. The largest number of suicide bombings in the war occurred in 2005:
There have been more than 1700 suicide bombings in Iraq, many involving more than one bomber. This extraordinary statistic, which is symbolic of the violence perpetuated by Sunni extremists and is unprecedented in the history of the world, does not receive mention in Nir Rosen’s “ugly peace” analysis. Instead Mr. Rosen highlighted the crimes of the Shia militias and ignored the mostly one-sided sectarian violence aimed at Iraq’s Shia before 2006.
My uncles who lived most of their lives in Amriya, a neighborhood of western Baghdad, were expelled from their homes in the summer of 2005. From my perspective, it was Sunni extremists who began expelling Shias from their homes in Sunni-dominated neighborhoods and even turned Amriya, which according to Columbia University had a Shia majority in 2003 (I will call it “mixed” in 2003), into a Sunni majority district by 2006.
Maybe I should not be so critical of Nir Rosen, who is an excellent journalist and with “Ugly Peace” he has shed some light on the sectarianism that is the root of Iraq’s political problems. It’s just sad for me, as a liberal Iraqi American, to see liberal journalists seemingly taking sides and ignoring history.
Nir Rosen is not the only one who seems to be biased. Even in the documentary “Understanding the Surge”, which I posted last week, it is suggested that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs turned to Al Qaeda because Shia militias were expelling Sunnis from their homes, implying that Sunni Arabs allied themselves with AQI in 2006, after the Samarra bombing. Sunni militia actually began joining forces with AQI in 2004, after Saddam was captured, when it became clear that the US was determined to prevent hardcore Baathists from regaining power and to ensure a democratic government was established in Baghdad.
People who insist that Baathists, being secular, could not possibly ally themselves with Salafi (fundamentalist) groups should remember Saddam’s alliance with Saudi Arabia in the 80s and they should understand that hardcore Baathists would do anything to gain and retain power. Saddam and his cronies were experts at manipulating Islam for political gain. They called their attempt to exterminate Iraq’s Kurds the “Anfal”, a Qur’anic term that refers to the spoils of war belonging to Allah and his messengers. Saddam and his henchmen played God and the Wahhabi Arabs supported them in the 80s, so why would one be surprised by an alliance between Baathists and Salafi groups today? In the 1980s Saddam's regime also expelled tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia - today this is known as "ethnic cleansing", so they already had experience in that area too. Some might even dare to call it "sectarian violence". But in the eyes of many journalists, it seems that "sectarian violence" happens only when Shia militias attack innocent Sunnis.
Rosen did offer this bit of truth about the pre-2006 violence aimed at Shia, quoting an Iraqi Army Captain who commented on the security situation in 2004:
“At the time,” he told me, “there was only al Qaeda, not the Mahdi Army. We confiscated a lot of weapons and car bombs. This was before the sectarianism started.”
I should thank Rosen for quoting the Iraqi Army Captain who said there was only Al Qaeda in 2004 and no JAM. He also mentioned Baathist oppression, but he does not mention the expulsion of Shias from Sunni neighborhoods before the spike in sectarian violence of 2006. Perhaps he did not know about the expulsion of Shias from Sunni neighborhoods before 2006, or maybe I'm taking this too personally, or maybe with “Ugly Peace” he wanted to focus only on the sectarianism in Washash. Maybe Part 2 of "Ugly Peace" will be different from Part 1.
Rosen also quoted another Iraqi who said this: “most Sunnis supported al Qaeda and turned on them because of pressure from the government.”
So Rosen did offer bits of truth about the violence aimed at Shia before the Samarra bombing, but in the entire article he did not elaborate on the violence directed at Shia except to quote an Iraqi who said that there was only AQI in 2004. What did AQI do in 2004? What did Saddam's ousted leaders do? I suppose it is not worth mentioning or researching, or it would have made the article too long to read.
Many journalists’ accounts of recent history in Iraq read as if Iraqi Baathists were fighting a legitimate war against occupation, as if Baathists did not engage in sectarian violence against Iraqis. It is as if Rosen is afraid or unwilling to put Iraq’s Sunni Arabs in a bad light. The people who expelled my Shia relatives from Amriya in 2005 may not have been Iraqi, but the people who committed those crimes could not have known where the Shia lived in Amriya if they had not received help from locals, from Iraqis.
It seems that this Wikepedia entry, also the source for the numbers of suicide bombings since 2003, has it right:
‘A 2005 Human Rights Watch report analysed the insurgency in Iraq and highlighted, "The groups that are most responsible for the abuse, namely al-Qaeda in Iraq and its allies, Ansar al-Sunna and the Islamic State of Iraq, have all targeted civilians for abductions and executions. The first two groups have repeatedly boasted about massive car bombs and suicide bombs in mosques, markets, bus stations and other civilian areas. Such acts are war crimes and in some cases may constitute crimes against humanity, which are defined as serious crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population."
A 2008 RAND Research Brief Counterinsurgency in Iraq: 2003 - 2006 depicts a chart that shows in June and July 2004, Iraqi insurgents began to shift their focus away from attacking U.S. and coalition forces with roadside bombs and instead began targeting the Iraqi population with suicide bombers and vehicle-borne IEDs. By increasing the number of suicide bombings against civilians and accepting their targeting in retribution, the insurgents sought to expose the weakness of the coalition-Iraqi security and reconstruction apparatus, threaten those who collaborated with the government, generate funds and propaganda, and increasingly enact sectarian revenge. The U.S. failure to adapt to this shift had dramatic consequences. By June 2004, U.S. deaths represented less than 10% of overall deaths on the battlefield and Iraqi deaths represented more than 90% - a figure that remained constant for the next 18 months of the War.’
From my perspective based on my experiences and what I have heard and read, the truth about Iraq that most people seem to avoid is the fact that Iraq has been in a state of ethnic and sectarian conflict since 1980. There was a relative peace after the end of the war with Iran 1988, but it lasted only two years. The Arabs don’t like talking about it, but in general the Arabs have seen Iran as an enemy for decades, and Saddam used Iraq to fight that war that Sunni Arab states supported financially. That war with Iran, which Saddam always saw as an extension of the ancient war between Mesopotamia and Persia, continues today.
The war of 1991 and the following Shia rebellion against the dictator resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Approximately half of my relatives fled Iraq in the 80s and 90s. Journalists did not seem as concerned about those Iraqi refugees. In 2003, after the Liberation, two more of my relatives left Iraq because they finally could without risk of harm to their families. Many Iraqi Shia fled Iraq after 2003, even after they “won”.
There have been 76 suicide bombings in Iraq this year. I consider that to be sectarian violence. Sunni extremists continue to attack the Iraqi government and its security forces, even attacking police in Sunni towns, but primarily targeting the Shia-led government.
Discussing last month's bombings of three Shia-dominated Ministries,
'The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, told a news conference last week that he believed a number of insurgent groups, including Baathists and al-Qaida in Iraq, were behind the bombings.
"This is a very complex issue. It's not black and white," he said.'
I would not call the situation in Iraq an “ugly peace”. It is no peace at all. Iraq has been in sectarian conflict since 1980, and the sectarian conflict continues, even as democracy sprouts in Iraq.
The criminal actions of AQI and the Baathists who supported them have shown that democracy and security in Iraq are very difficult to achieve. The hardcore Baathists will always attack the Iraqi government until they become the government. Baathists used violence to gain power in the first place, and they used violence to retain power for three decades.
Even as some of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs continue to support violent attacks against the Iraqi government and security forces, many Iraqi Sunni Arabs are participating in government, showing off their political strength. Tareq al Hashemi, one of Iraq’s Vice Presidents, has vetoed the recently passed election law, which the Iraqi parliament had been arguing about for weeks, because he said it does not include enough parliamentary seats for Sunni Arab refugees. This would be like a Shia VP of Saudi Arabia vetoing an election law because he believes it does not provide enough seats in the Saudi parliament for Saudi Shia (there are no elections and no Shia ‘VP’ in KSA). Like in war, in politics Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are playing hardball.
Even in a state of war, Iraq seems to be more democratic than most Arab countries. And Iraqis want better. Most Iraqis I know are tired of Maliki’s government, and they want to see big changes. I hope Iraqis will vote secular this time, and I hope the outcome of the election will result in true peace in Iraq, not just an “ugly peace”.
Iraqis must resolve their differences, and when they do so, hopefully they will also bring peace, justice, and prosperity to all of Iraq’s districts. Iraqis are making progress towards reconciliation without government efforts. One of my uncles who was expelled from his home in Amriya in 2005 was able to visit that house a few weeks ago and he found living in it a Sunni family, who graciously agreed to pay rent to my uncle. I have also read about Shia families being invited back to Adhamiya. I think that getting the history right, as difficult as it may be, may also contribute to the healing.
The Shia did not “win” in Iraq by expelling Sunni Arabs from Basra and Baghdad. The Shia sorta won by establishing a democracy, or at least a semblance of one, with the help of Americans. Clearly there are hurdles to overcome, and Baghdad is more segregated along sectarian lines than ever before. But there are still large numbers of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, and it seems the Shia militias' "cleansing" and killing of innocent Sunni Arabs ended many months ago. Iraq’s Shia, after all their struggles, have not won a huge victory, and they will not be victorious until all of Iraq is truly peaceful, like it was before 1980. Real democracy in Iraq, and therefore victory, will be realized when power is passed peacefully from Nouri al Maliki to an Iraqi who will end the era of corruption and sectarianism and lead Iraq to a real peace.