Too late, the urgency of the crisis in Iraq, and the sheer ugliness of its civil war, seems finally to be dawning on the Bush administration. As usual, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and their stalwart secretaries of state and defense, are Johnny-come-latelies in their ability to understand how far gone Iraq is. Perhaps, as has been the case in the past, that is because they continue flagrantly to disregard what they are told by analysts in the U.S. intelligence community. Before, during and after the invasion of Iraq, with a rising sense of alarm, the CIA, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), and other agencies warned the Bush-Cheney team that the destruction of Iraq's central government could tumble the country into a civil war. In 2004, of course, the president famously dismissed such CIA warnings as "just a guess." Well, guess what, Mr. President? It's civil war. And it isn't pretty.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a leading know-nothing on Iraq -- it was her utter ignorance of the Middle East as national security advisor through 2004 that allowed the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal to get away with so much -- jetted to Baghdad in a hurry over the weekend. She dragged along Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, gallantly sleeping on the floor of her own plane while giving him her bed. No doubt, the Rice-Straw voyage to Britain's old colonial stomping grounds in Baghdad was the result of a panicky summons from the U.S. ambassador-cum-proconsul in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who seems to be at his wit's end in trying to solve the Rubik's Cube of Iraq's sectarian and ethnic political puzzle. Ambassador Khalilzad spent most of 2005 cozying up to the religious Shiites of Iraq while thundering about the threat of a Sunni-led insurgency. Late last year, however, he began -- imperceptibly at first, then with some speed -- maneuvering to switch sides: first pledging to talk to the former Baathists and to Sunni resistance groups, then ordering U.S. troops to attack the most heinous outcroppings of the Shiite fundamentalists' terror-torture-and-militias apparatus.
Finally, in advance of summoning Rice, the ambassador threw down the gauntlet once and for all. Led by Khalilzad, the United States has definitively broken with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the hopelessly incompetent religious fanatic that Washington helped bring back to Iraq in the first place, installing him as puppet prime minister of the interim government created (after months of back stabbing and deal making) in the aftermath of the January 2005 elections. Khalilzad seems to have discovered what just about everyone else in Iraq already knew: that Jaafari is closely allied to the Iranians.
In a recent interview in the Washington Post, Khalilzad slammed Iran and its Shiite allies, accusing the Iranian military and secret service of sponsoring the militias, paramilitary forces and death squads wreaking havoc in Baghdad and across southern Iraq. "Our judgment is that training and supplying, direct or indirect, takes place, and that there is also provision of financial resources to people, to militias, and that there is a presence of people associated with [Iran's] Revolutionary Guard and with the MOIS," he said, using the initials for Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Khalilzad spent much of last week busily delivering letters from President Bush -- letters, no doubt, that he wrote himself, and persuaded the less-than-knowledge-based president then to sign -- to various Iraqi political figures, in which Bush declared that the American empire no longer has any use for Jaafari's services as prime minister. (Delivered to Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the guiding power behind Iraq's Shiite religious party, the letter was officiously left unopened, and an aide to Sistani told reporters that the ayatollah was most unhappy with U.S. "meddling" in Iraqi politics. As if occupying the country with 130,000 troops isn't meddling.)
There are three points to make about the current American scramble to put Humpty Dumpty back together again in Baghdad.
First, it is by no means certain that the United States can force the corrupt politicians of Iraq's various parties -- Shiite, Sunni and Kurd -- to paper over their differences and announce the government of national unity that Khalilzad wants. The full-court press by the Americans is showing signs of having an effect, and Jaafari will eventually probably accede to U.S. pressure and step down. But whoever takes over, the government of Iraq will remain weak, divided and isolated inside Baghdad's well-fortified Green Zone. It is and, until the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, will remain a collection of charlatans and quislings, leavened with separatist warlords such as the Barzanis and Talabanis of Kurdistan and Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
What still holds them all together, and remains the only glue preventing Iraq from splitting into three separate states, is the self-interested greed of the warlords who have been installed by the American forces. None of them want to kill the golden goose that allows them to cash in on billions of dollars in Iraqi oil revenues and U.S. aid. Increasingly, however, that glue is losing its adhesive power. Iraq is succumbing to centrifugal pressures as more and more Iraqis identify with sectarian and ethnic affiliations. Under these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that even a new Iraqi government including Sunnis could put a halt to the Iraqi civil war.
Second, the imperial treatment of Jaafari by the ambassador has shocked and stunned Iraqis, opponents and supporters alike. His public humiliation has been a blatant exercise of sheer American muscle, and it happened on the front pages of Iraq's newspapers. It makes a mockery of President Bush's alleged commitment to democracy. Paradoxically, since Jaafari -- whose alliance with rebel cleric and warlord Muqtada al-Sadr remains strong -- can now claim to have resisted American pressure, it will ultimately strengthen his political standing, since any Iraqi politician who opposes the United States becomes instantly popular. By the same token, whoever might now accept the job of prime minister, as Jaafari's replacement, will take office under the shadow of the U.S. occupation that installed him, giving that new leader zero credibility. Power in Iraq comes not from acquiescing to American might, but from resisting it.
Third, there is virtually no one in the ranks of the Shiite religious bloc who is any better than Jaafari. The leading replacement candidate from the Shiite alliance is Adel Abdel Mahdi, a chieftain of SCIRI with close ties to Iran's intelligence service, who is an apologist for the Shiite militias and their death squads. During a recent visit to Washington, when I asked him about reports of Shiite killings, he justified death-squad activities as merely a response to killings by Sunni "terrorists." He has also repeatedly demanded that Iraq's Shiite-led police units be unleashed against the Sunnis, and of course the very center of the Shiite death-squad operations is the Interior Ministry, led by a SCIRI colleague. For reasons that are unclear, the United States seems to support Abdel Mahdi over Jaafari, perhaps because SCIRI is seen as an opponent of Sadr's Mahdi army. Rather hilariously, the New York Times reports that Bush administration officials prefer to overlook Abdel Mahdi's many years in Iran and instead view him as a "Western-educated proponent of free market economics."
In fact, the United States is now facing two robust insurgencies in Iraq: a Sunni-led resistance of Baathists and army veterans, and a growing Shiite-led, Iranian-linked resistance. The former is not weakening, blowing up and shooting down Americans at a steady pace, with 13 U.S. troops killed in the first three days of April. The latter, however, is potentially more deadly, because it has the ability to mobilize so many among the country's 60 percent Shiite majority and because it has the support of Iran. Parts of the Shiite majority have already gravitated into outright resistance to the American occupation, including Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army.
By its assault in late March on a fortified building in Baghdad held by Muqtada's forces, in what may or may not have been a mosque, the United States formally launched its fight against the incipient second insurgency, the Shiite one. If things spin further out of control, as it's likely they will, U.S. forces may soon find themselves fighting a Sunni insurgency to the north and west of Baghdad and an urban Shiite paramilitary army in the south.
That, however, rather oversimplifies the contours of the spreading civil war in Iraq. To understand what Iraq will look like, recall the civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, a brutal struggle that left perhaps 200,000 people dead in a far smaller country. That war dragged on for 15 years, during which Lebanon's many-sided political culture constantly realigned itself like a reshaken kaleidoscope.
The main parties to that conflict were several Christian blocs, several factions of Palestinians, Shiite militias, Sunni armies, and the Druze mountain men. Alliances among them constantly shifted. Israel and Syria invaded Lebanon -- twice each -- and left residual forces there. The Lebanese capital, Beirut, was split down the middle, and its suburbs and nearby cities were turned into war zones, ethnically cleansed and fortified. Horrific massacres occurred, and political assassinations and car bombs were routine. Through it all, Lebanon maintained the fiction that it had a central government, held elections, and even regularly staffed embassies abroad. On the ground, however, power was with the various militias, and the toll in human life was crushing. The Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and Palestinians each maintained their own armed enclaves, battling over the carcass of Beirut.
That is precisely what the civil war in Iraq is beginning to look like today. Baghdad, like Beirut, is fast being transformed into a carcass to be fought over (as are cities like Kirkuk and Mosul). The Kurdish north, the Shiite south, and the Sunni Triangle are becoming fortified hinterlands for the struggle to control Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk. Iraq has become a Mad Max world in which angry youths wheel around in Jeeps and pickups, don ragtag militia uniforms, and set up checkpoints and roadblocks, guns drawn. The Shiite forces eye each other suspiciously and enviously, and their rivalries may yet turn to open warfare and violence. The two big Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, despise each other, and in the past have warred each against the other. The Sunnis too are thoroughly divided. Any of these factions might ally with just about any of the others, then break that alliance only to ally for a period with a former enemy and attack the former ally. There are no rules, only guns. Is it possible to imagine the U.S. armed forces in the midst of this chaos? No.
The chaos of the present moment will certainly get worse, new Iraqi government or not. Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times reports that gun sales in Iraq are booming, with proliferating weapons bazaars that sell "machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers." He adds: "Militia ranks are swelling, too, with growing swarms of young, religious, mostly uneducated young men taking to the streets with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders."
The Sunnis, in particular, are fast building private armies to compete with the 20,000-strong Shiite Badr Brigade, the Mahdi army and other Shiite militias, as well as with the Kurdish peshmerga. The Los Angeles Times reports that Sunnis are "stashing guns in their mosques and knitting themselves into militias of their own." It quotes a young Sunni militant: "One little signal and you'll see us all in the streets." Day after day, scores of Iraqis -- mostly Sunni victims of Shiite gangs -- turn up bound and gagged, with electric drill holes in their bones, and bullets in their brains. They are found in mass graves, in vans stuffed with bodies, in ditches. Tens of thousands of Iraqis are fleeing cities and neighborhoods in which they are a minority or feel unsafe, becoming refugees in their own land.
It is precisely this phenomenon that marks the formal start of civil war in Iraq, and it can be traced back to the late summer of 2005, when a steady stream of Sunni murder victims began to turn up in hospital morgues around the country. Since last fall, according to reports from human rights observers, hundreds of dead Sunnis have been piling up in mortuaries each month. In the past month, according to various Iraqi officials, more than 1,700 Sunnis have been kidnapped, tortured and executed, and 50 or so new bodies are turning up on a typical day. Since last fall, the number of those killed by Shiite death squads has surpassed those killed by the Baathist-led resistance and by the terrorists linked to al-Qaida's suicide bombers -- as good a marker as any with which to pinpoint the moment when Iraq passed from one stage of political existence to another: Iraq has now gone from a country with a shaky, U.S.-backed regime fighting a resistance movement to a country in which sectarian killings and ethnic cleansing predominate.
Rational observers can only conclude that the U.S. occupation army in Iraq has no place in the midst of a civil war. But in the midst of such an escalating mess, how could Bush withdraw? The Bush administration is like the proverbial kid with a hand stuck in the cookie jar, grabbing a fistful of goodies. In order to get out of Iraq, Bush would have to let go of Iraq's goodies. In this case, that means letting go of Iraq's oil, and letting go of the dream that Iraq can become the anchor for a long-term U.S. military and economic presence in the Persian Gulf. To do so would mean a humiliating public admission of defeat -- defeat for the idea of Americanizing Iraq, defeat for America's hope of establishing hegemony in the Gulf, and defeat for the neoconservatives' determination to use military "shock and awe" tactics to intimidate potential regional rivals and opponents around the world. All of that would be gone -- and in the most public way possible.
Which brings us to former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht, currently a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. In 2002-03, Gerecht was among the loudest proponents of giving the Arabs the old shock-and-awe treatment, arguing that Iraqis, Arabs and Middle Easterners in general only understand the language of force. Writing in the Wall Street Journal on April 3, Gerecht warned bluntly that for the United States to succeed in Iraq might require far more bloody-minded tactics than have been utilized thus far. First, Gerecht notes with satisfaction that many Sunnis have been frightened and intimidated by Shiite militias, adding: "Sunni and Kurdish fear of Shiite power ... is politically overdue and healthy for all concerned." And then he gets to the heart of the matter:
"The Bush administration would be wise not to postpone any longer what it should have already undertaken -- securing Baghdad ... Pacifying Baghdad will be politically convulsive and provide horrific film footage and skyrocketing body counts. But Iraq cannot heal itself so long as Baghdad remains a deadly place."
Does Gerecht's proposal foreshadow a new effort, a last push, by neoconservatives to urge the administration to "win" the war in Iraq by overwhelming force, by sending yet more U.S. forces to engage in yet more fruitless shock-and-awe fantasies? Do Khalilzad's recent get-tough-on-Iran remarks foreshadow a neoconservative effort to expand the losing war in Iraq into Iran itself, while casting blame on Iran for the U.S. failure to secure or pacify Iraq? Can the United States persist in Iraq fighting not one, but two, growing resistance movements? Or is it time to cut our losses? Time to cut and run?
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.