Death Squads and Diplomacy


A flurry of Arab diplomacy over the last few days is unfolding in a rear-guard effort to prevent the crisis in Iraq from exploding into what Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal warned last month could be a regional civil war involving not only Iraq, but all of its neighbors.

The main, and well-deserved, target of Saud's ire was the increasingly authoritarian and brutal rule of the main Iraqi Shiite parties, especially the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose Badr Brigade militia are terrorizing Iraq's secular, urban Shiite population and carrying out death-squad attacks against Sunnis. The attacks against the Sunnis are aimed not only at the Iraqi armed resistance but at secular, nationalist Sunni leaders and activists.

Last week, I reported on the fear of Shiite militias and death squads as reported by Aiham Al Sammarae, an Iraqi oppositionist and former minister under the interim government in 2004 who is trying to broker a deal with the Iraqi resistance. Since then, other reports have surfaced concerning the extensive violence carried out by paramilitary forces tied to SCIRI and to Al Dawa, SCIRI's partner in the Shiite religious bloc in Iraq. By now it is clear that if Tony Soprano lived in Iraq, he'd be a member of the Shiite militia. Consider the following report from CBS News:

CBS News correspondent Lara Logan reports there is a secret, ruthless cleansing of the country's towns and cities. Bodies -- blindfolded, bound and executed -- just appear, like the rotting corpses of 36 Sunni men that turned up in a dry riverbed south of Baghdad.
CBS News traced 16 of those men to a single street in a Baghdad suburb, where family members showed CBS News how the killers forced their way into their homes in the middle of the night and dragged away their sons and fathers.
"My uncles were tortured, they even poured acid on them," a young boy told CBS News.
Clutching photographs of the murdered men, the women and children left behind came together to grieve.
One woman said as her husband was marched away she sent her son after him with his slippers, but his abductor sent the child back with a chilling message: No need for slippers -- he will come back dead.
They were targeted for one reason alone: all were Sunnis.
Or this, from the Chicago Tribune:
In the dead of night, bands of armed men in Iraqi commando uniforms stormed Baghdad's Hurriyah neighborhood in late August, breaking down doors with sledgehammers and grenades.
If the family inside was Shiite, the gunmen moved on to another house, witnesses said. If the family was Sunni, the gunmen tore through the building, demolishing furniture and manhandling those inside. More than 70 young Sunni Arab men were whisked away.
Countless atrocities, too, have been perpetrated by Sunni gangs and by terrorists associated with Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. But the killings by the Shiite militias are far more chilling because they have an entirely different quality: They are carried out by gunmen tied to the U.S.-supported regime in Baghdad. They don't draw criticism from U.S. officials, and most American media reports continue to portray the Shiites as victims and the Sunnis as aggressors.

Still, it is the ferocity of the Shiite fanaticism governing Iraq today, and the ruling circle's ever-closer ties to Iran, that prompted Prince Saud to warn of a regional civil war sparked by the Shiites. He brought that message to Washington last week, talking to senators and to the Washington press corps. He then flew back to the Middle East to attend a meeting of Arab foreign ministers, including Iraq's Foreign Minister Hossein Zebari. We'll come to the Arab League meeting shortly, but first some background:

After Saud's criticism of Iraq's Shiite crazies, one of them -- Iraqi interior minister Bayan Jabor -- lashed out at Saudi Arabia.

"This Iraq," said Jabor, who as interior minister is directly responsible for the Shiite hit squads, "is the cradle of civilization that taught humanity reading and writing, and some Bedouin riding a camel wants to teach us!" 

He went on to lambaste Saudi Arabia and threaten to provoke an uprising of Shiites who predominate in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province. "There are more than four million Shiites in the kingdom who are considered second-class citizens," he sniffed.

Later, at the Arab League foreign ministers' meeting, two important things happened. First, the Iraqi foreign minister, Zebari, a Kurd, abjectly apologized for Jabor's calling Saud a Bedouin. More important, the League decided to launch an Iraqi peace initiative. The secretary-general of the Arab League is going to Baghdad on a mission to find common ground among Iraq's warring factions, including the Iraqi Sunni-led resistance. And the League is putting together a plan to convene a conference led by Iraq's Arab neighbors along with all Iraqi factions, in an effort to prevent civil war and stabilize the country.

It's a very important step, one that probably does not have much more than token support from the Bush administration, which is stuck on its stay-the-course fantasy of a victory strategy. But important people in Washington believe that Jordan and Saudi Arabia, both Sunni kingdoms, are the best mediators between the United States and the Iraqi opposition.

In that context, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad managed to find his way down to Saudi Arabia this weekend to talk to Saudi Arabia's crown prince about Iraq. Iraq -- and its Shiite fundamentalist ruling clique -- may be too far gone to be salvaged. Perhaps civil war is inevitable. But if the United States would get out of Iraq, give the Arab League and the UN a chance to manage things there, and take part in Arab-led talks with the Sunnis, catastrophe might be averted. It's not likely, but at this point we need straws to grasp at.

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