The Shi’ite Question

Reuel Marc Gerecht takes a hard look at Iraq’s Shi’ites and how they can determine the future of Iraq. As StrategyPage notes, the Sunni insurgency is all but dead – the Sunnis have realized that armed conflict isn’t going to get them anywhere. That doesn’t mean that the violence will stop, but the organization behind it has largely collapsed. The brief flirtation between Sunni nationalists and al-Qaeda has ended, and al-Qaeda fighters are no longer welcome in many of their former safe zones.

Ironically enough, the Sunnis now have every reason to want the US to stay in Iraq for as long as possible – US troops are one of the few things capable of preventing the Shi’ites from taking revenge for decades of oppression. The violence in Iraq has not yet reached civil war status, but without our help it would almost certainly do so. The Sunnis have belatedly figured out that they’re not going to be the masters of Iraqi society anymore, and that they must either accept their new position or risk a civil war that they are sure to lose – which is why the formerly rejectionist Sunni community has found new interest in advancing the political process.

Gerecht also notes that the Shi’ite community is hardly united, nor are they the theocrats that the ignorant Western media often insinuates they are:

Though declining, the odds remain decent that Iraqis will do their part to stop the descent. On the Shiite side–and the Shiites will either make or break the Iraqi democratic experiment–no party, not even the firebrand Muqtada al Sadr, has advanced a nondemocratic political ideal. Though one can certainly find Iraqi Shiites who admire an Iranian-style theocracy, they have been philosophically crippled in their own country since no prominent Iraqi cleric has come forward to challenge Ayatollah Sistani and the other senior ulema, who have rejected clerical rule in favor of democracy.

Unfortately, Gerecht is hardly sanguine about the future of Iraq. He argues that the only way to ease the situation is to restore law and order to Baghdad, and that will be difficult in the extreme:

We are now in the unenviable position of having to confront radicalized, murderous Shiite militias, who have gained broader Shiite support because of the Sunni-led violence and the lameness of U.S. counterinsurgency operations. The Bush administration would be wise not to postpone any longer what it should have already undertaken–securing Baghdad. This will be an enormously difficult task: Both Sunnis and Shiites will have to be confronted, but Sunni insurgents and brigands must be dealt with first to ensure America doesn’t lose the Shiite majority and the government doesn’t completely fall apart. 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. And the U.S. media will never write many optimistic stories about Iraq if journalists fear going outside. To punt this undertaking down the road when the political dynamics might be better, and when the number of American soldiers in Iraq will surely be less, perhaps a lot less, is to invite disaster.

I’m beginning to believe that Gerecht is right. We are creating a cadre of effective Iraqi troops in the region, but the Iraqi police are still questionable – many of them are part of the problem of sectarian violence rather than the solution. The enemy (meaning al-Qaeda in this case) wants to discredit the Interior Ministry and the military by launching attacks disguised as Iraqi police and military personnel – something they did in the Samarra bombing. This strategy has been quite effect as many Iraqis distrust the police and military, thinking that they are part of ethnic death squads – and in some cases they’re right.

The problems in Baghdad are not intractable – but they require the US and trusted Iraqi forces to be willing to engage in the biggest crackdown since the war. That means arresting criminals and insurgents and getting them off of the streets. In essence, the situation in Iraq has gone from a military action to a police action – there is no longer a credible military force that can challenge us in Iraq, but instead criminality is rampant.

What Iraq needs is a Rudy Guiliani – someone who will do what it takes to clean up the streets of Baghdad. SCIRI’s al-Mahdi may be that man, but achieving that goal will be difficult at best. It will mean not only going after Sunni insurgents, but Shi’ite militias as well. It will alienate a lot of people, but will help restore order and governmental legitimacy with the Iraqi people. Already the US and Iraqi forces have shown they can do this – Route Irish used to be the most dangerous road in the world before the insurgents were driven out. Gerecht gives the example of Tal Afar, once a stronghold of the insurgency and now an island of calm in al-Anbar Province.

The situation in Iraq doesn’t equate to civil war – there’s no side that is dominant enough to challenge the central government’s authority. However, the biggest threat that Iraq faces is a collapse of authority leading to a Lebanese- or Algerian-style bloodbath. That won’t happen as long as US troops are there to restore order, but if we abrogate that responsibility, or we withdraw too early, the chances of Iraq falling apart increase exponentially.

We cannot shirk this responsibility. The President is right to make it clear that our withdrawal will be based on events, not on timelines. However, it is clear that we are planning for withdrawal. While we have the strength, we need to help the Iraqis restore order – only then can we start speaking of withdrawal. That means working with Iraqi authorities to control both the Sunni insurgents but also the Shi’ite militias. There is a vital center in Iraqi politics – Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has made it clear that he finds theocratic rule unacceptable – but unless we are willing to restore order, the legitimacy that the Iraqi government needs to succeed may erode to nothing.

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