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Reframing the Conflict in Iraq

Commentary by Greg Lewis / TheRant.US
December 14, 2004

We now understand, based on our experience in trying to liberate the citizens of Iraq from despotism, that despotism can take many forms. It is becoming more and more evident — and this is something we could not have known until we had deposed Saddam Hussein and begun to deal with the forces which reorganized and redeployed themselves after his fall — that those committed to realizing power through inflicting death and destruction will likely persist in the form of Iraqi "insurgents" for the foreseeable future.

As has become clear, the notion that, after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraqi citizens would come forth openly and reveal to those who had liberated them the identities of the regime's supporters was not going to happen. This is in no small part cultural. Family and tribal loyalties are fundamental to the organization of Iraqi society, and enormous pressure is exerted on Iraqis to uphold them. In the face of such deep-seated loyalties, the idea of a western-style democratic government, for the purpose of instituting which Iraqis would need to inform on family and clan members, is, practically speaking, unrealistic. Even now such loyalties tear at the fabric of the Iraqi armed forces, exacerbating the already difficult task which we are engaged in of trying to rebuild them into something akin to a western style militia.

Indeed, even if you discount biased "mainstream media" representations of our difficulties in Carbombistan (with a nod to Jungle denizen Terrence in Sierra Madre), the efforts of (primarily) Sunni terrorist/insurgents in Iraq are plainly difficult to suppress. Nor do I want to hear that calling any Middle Eastern nation that harbors and encourages terrorism "Carbombistan" is politically incorrect or constitutes an unfair generalization, or that it's somehow America's fault that the current situation in Iraq is being played out. It's only because we called out Saddam Hussein and made good on a demand for compliance to UN resolutions that the United Nations had issued time and again but which that organization didn't have the moral fiber, not to mention the political will or the military resources, to back up that the region can legitimately be designated Carbombistan.

Put another way (to quote a phrase from the 1980 film, The Stunt Man, which the character of the stunt director in that film uses to describe a stunt man's relationship to the leading man): we became the UN's "cock and balls." In doing so we simply brought to a turning point a situation that had been simmering for more than a decade. (Did I mention, by the way, that Carbombistan's first citizen, Osama bin Laden, engineered and underwrote the attacks on America on September 11, 2001, which brought down the Twin Towers and killed some 3,000 American citizens?)

The situation in Iraq has also come about because of the omnipresence of intimidation, which is for most Iraqis part of their daily lives. Terrorists simply threaten Iraqi citizens and their families with torture and death if they reveal the identities of so-called "insurgents" to coalition forces. The uncovering in Fallujah of houses used by terrorist/insurgents for the purpose of torturing Iraqi citizens suspected of informing on "the insurgency" confirms this horrible fact of life in a city controlled by terrorists. I don't think there is a single person among us who would risk the lives of children and loved ones for what must still seem at best a remote chance for freedom, in itself a concept many Iraqis can have only a passing acquaintance with.

Overcoming such facts of life is a significant part of what faces the United States and its armed forces as we try to build a nation out of what remains a congeries of tribal groups whose political loyalties are defined within those groups and whose enmity for people of other ethnic-religious groups seems unbounded. Indeed, while there is ample evidence that terrorists from outside Iraq are participating in the insurgency, a significant majority of insurgent fighters and leaders come from the ranks of Saddam Hussein's army. They are overwhelmingly Sunni, and they are loyal, not so much to the idea of returning a Ba'athist government to power, but to the idea of not relinquishing Sunni power, which, despite the fact that Sunni Muslims make up less than a quarter of the population of Iraq, they had partaken of during Saddam's regime.

Sunnis have been used to holding power in Iraq by means of the most unspeakable brutality; why should we be surprised that they are intent on, if not regaining power, then at least preventing other factions from assuming it, through the same brutal means? Sunni leaders, anticipating the near certainty of a broad Shi'ite political victory, certainly see the Iraqi elections scheduled for January as the instrument of their disenfranchisement.

What is happening in Iraq at this time, then, is nothing less than civil war. Our deposing of Saddam Hussein has, in fact, had the unforeseen consequence of plunging that country into civil strife between tribal and religious factions, the only truly meaningful categories on which political differences are based in the Middle East. Indeed, as Michael Scott Doran puts forth (in a December 11 Wall Street Journal piece entitled "The Iraq Effect?"), "Shi'ite Muslims are even more hated by Sunni Muslims than are Jews and Christians."

The right to again govern their country is not a goal Iraq's Sunni insurgents can hope to realize through their present tactics, but to withdraw from violent conflict would seem to them to mean almost certainly to give up any hope whatsoever of influencing the direction Iraqi politics takes. Until political dialogue and compromise become part of the electoral process in Iraq, we can only hope that elections will go ahead as planned and that the outcome will result in a government that is able to proceed on the course currently proposed. If that course includes bringing under control, with the aid of the United States military, the predominantly Sunni Muslim forces opposed to democratic government in the civil war that currently rages in Iraq, then that is the first order of business that must be addressed by the new Iraqi government.


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