Iraq's Anarchic Civil War

Almost three years into a war that has seen the loss of nearly 2,300 American servicemen and women, the infliction of more than 16,600 American casualties, and a cost to American taxpayers of more than $250 billion, the government of post-war Iraq still struggles to exceed the level of service and security provided in pre-war Iraq.

In January, the White House hoped that the continuing drumbeat of insurgent activity would disappear from the nation's newspapers and TV sets. "The more Iraq disappears off the front pages and onto Page A17 or A18, the better for us," said a White House adviser. But recent violence in Iraq demonstrates that the war continues to remain a central issue in the minds of most Americans, one that has demanded A1 coverage and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

With his unwillingness to change course, President Bush continues to be held captive to the events on the ground. Unless and until Bush is willing to embrace a new approach, the U.S. plans for a drawdown this year continue to look bleak. The Center for American Progress has a sensible, alternative approach -- Strategic Redeployment -- that more people outside the administration are beginning to embrace.

Curfews contain, but cannot stop, violence

At least 200 people have died since last Wednesday, when Sunni insurgents bombed the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam. Three days of daylight curfews in four key Iraqi provinces reduced the rate of violence, but could not stop it altogether.

In spite of the curfews, a car bomb in Najaf killed at least seven and wounded 54; a bomb in a bus station in Hilla killed five; and 29 people, including three U.S. soldiers, were killed by a roadside bomb planted in Baghdad. Sunni religious leaders said that nearly 200 of their mosques had been damaged in retaliatory attacks.

The curfews have taken their toll on Iraqis and restricted the flow of commerce for the past three days." Most shops and businesses remained boarded up, and streets normally chocked with traffic for Sunday's start of the work week were eerily empty." With the curfews now having officially ended, many are fearful of sectarian reprisals.

The long-predicted civil war

An anarchic civil war now grips Iraq, marked primarily by its lack of order and chaotic daily violence. Before the U.S. invasion, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) questioned, "What plans do we have to prevent Iraq from breaking up and descending into civil war?" Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) added, "The end of Saddam Hussein could mean the start of a civil war." Those fears have largely materialized because the administration was never willing to make the necessary commitment of U.S. troops from the outset to maintain the peace.

Now, faced with disorderly violence, the administration urges the public to stop "raising the specter they [Iraq] might fall into civil war." But in truth, fears of full-scale civil war continue to mount; U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad suggests civil war is a danger. The International Crisis Group continues to warn that Iraq is "on the verge of breaking up along religious, ethnic and tribal lines." Even if a full-blown organized sectarian war has not yet emerged, anarchy clearly persists.

Each group for itself

Bush's exit strategy hinges on the training of Iraqi troops. He continually repeats, "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." But the Pentagon reported this weekend that zero Iraqi battalions are capable of fighting independently. In September of last year, the Pentagon said that the number of independent Iraqi army battalions had dropped from three to one. Army Reserve Capt. A. Heather Coyne, a former White House counterterrorism official, said, "There is a total lack of security in the streets, partly because of the insurgents, partly because of criminals, and partly because the security forces can be dangerous to Iraqi citizens too."

Militias have stepped in to provide the security that the government cannot. Among the most prominent militias are the Badr Corps, the 20,000-strong armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Mahdi Army, the militia led by the emerging power-broker Moqtada al-Sadr. A leading cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called for Iraq's powerful tribes to protect themselves. Acknowledging the problem, Ambassador Khalilzad has stated that the "unauthorized military formations are a threat to a successful democratic society order." Indeed, the militias are said to be behind reported instances of death-squad killings and ethnic "cleansing." Hundreds of Iraqis are being tortured to death or summarily executed each month by death squads attached to the Interior Ministry in Baghdad; "quiet assassinations" are almost commonplace in areas of the country.

Conservatives distancing themselves

While the Bush administration holds to the untenable "stay the course" strategy, high-profile conservatives are beginning to distance themselves and drawdown their support. William F. Buckley Jr., the influential conservative thinker and founder of the National Review, wrote recently, "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed." Neoconservative Bill Kristol, who has been one of the war's staunchest defenders, now says "we have not had a serious three-year effort to fight a war in Iraq." And conservative columnist George Will, asked to describe the situation in Iraq, refuted the Bush administration's spin and stated plainly, "This is a civil war." Facing with such gloomy assessments, Fox News, the reliable bastion of conservative propaganda, tried to find a silver lining in the daily stream of violence, entitling one of its segments: "All-Out Civil War in Iraq: Could It Be a Good Thing?"

A sensible, alternative approach

The worsening situation in Iraq has highlighted the need for critics of the administration's approach to suggest "what the U.S. should do next." Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis of American Progress are the authors of a widely circulated proposal for a "strategic redeployment" of US forces in Iraq. The plan "calls for the drawdown of 80,000 troops by the end of this year, with some sent to Afghanistan, Africa and Asia and others positioned in Kuwait. Nearly all of the remaining 60,000 US troops would leave by the end of 2007." The deployment of troops to nearby nations "could respond to emergencies in Iraq and help fight terrorism in other countries." Given the availability of alternative strategies, Editor & Publisher asks, "One wonders what it will take for newspapers in this country to endorse the notion of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq starting, oh, how about now?"


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