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Archive for November, 2006

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently ordered the removal of U.S.-erected barriers around Sadr City. Those barriers were erected for the stated purpose of helping us find a missing U.S. soldier believed to have been held by his captors in Sadr City. Sadr City is a Shiite slum in Baghdad and the home base of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who has often been at odds with U.S. goals and policies and who commands a potent militia known as the Mahdi Army.

This event is a clear example of the factionalism that has always plagued Iraq and has been made worse by our invasion. It is one of the most intransigent problems facing us in Iraq, one that could easily have been foreseen, and one that should have alerted architects of current Iraq policy about the folly of invasion.

Al-Sadr is one of the prime minister’s main political backers, having put his considerable weight behind al-Maliki during the selection process prior to the December 2005 elections. Both are Shiites and, in the absence of contrary evidence, it must be assumed that they have similar political goals, or at least that al-Maliki regards the backing of al-Sadr’s militia as critical to his continued political viability
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The Mahdi Army was formalized by al-Sadr in June 2003 and has grown into a force approaching 10,000 fighters. Its current activities include political intimidation, coercive influence on local government, infiltration of the police and army, and factional vigilante activities designed to terrorize Sunnis and their supporters.

Iraq is irrevocably divided among its factions. That is the elephant in the room — one well known to students of Iraq, yet one that administration policy makers seem somehow to have missed or ignored. Having never really been a country, but rather an agglomeration of factions whose “statehood” was convenient for the British as a counterbalance to the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Iraq is no more viable today than it was then. It has never existed without repressive central governance.

Iraq has not changed much in the last 100 years, leaving the same mix of hostile factions that have always been there. Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Baathists, sectarians and nonsectarians ebb and flow in shifting coalitions formed around whatever issue is at hand. In the absence of controlling central authority, violence has been promoted by religious extremists who believe Islam should rule, by old Baathists who seek a return to power, and by Iraqi nationalists who are fighting against what they view as a foreign occupation. The only thing that unites them at any given moment is the presence of American troops.

We now want to exit Iraq gracefully. The Bush plan is to “stand up” the police and army to the point where we can “stand down.” Because Iraq is so divided, we appear to believe that we must “unite” the security organs. The Army and police will be made up of Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis roughly in proportion to the total population: 60 percent Shiite, 20 percent Kurd and 15 percent Sunni.

In our own democratic way, we are insisting that all Iraqi factions be included in the new organs of national security. Do we believe that these new police and soldiers are going to drop their sectarian and ethnic loyalties when they join up? Fat chance! With our insistence on parity, we are ensuring that Iraqi strife will be built into the new security system, virtually guaranteeing that it will be impotent. What Shiite soldier will sign onto an operation to disarm the Mahdi Army? What Sunni soldier will agree to suppress insurgents in Fallujah? What Kurdish policeman will do anything to harm those who share his ethnicity in the northern part of the country? And yet the alternative — creating all-Shiite, all-Kurdish and all-Sunni units — won’t work because those segregated forces would be seen as the enemy when dispatched to a region where they weren’t among their own people.

And that’s the dilemma. When we invaded Iraq, the neoconservatives and their allies within the Bush administration who promoted the invasion either did not understand those realities or summarily dismissed them. In either case, since there was a healthy body of academic and governmental expertise that did have a better grasp of the situation, the administration’s promoters of the invasion are truly guilty of getting us into a mess that was predictable and could easily have been avoided.

The United States has permitted a small group of highly motivated, inexperienced ideologues with scant input from world realities to undertake a critical foreign policy gambit based almost entirely on ideology and wishful thinking. We are paying a steep price for this blunder, and it will dog us for decades to come.

Haviland Smith retired as a CIA station chief in 1980. He served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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