July 05, 2005

Don't forget the Militias!

Over the weekend, Larry Diamond laid out what seems to be the consensus "moderate" view on what the United States should do in Iraq: don't set a timetable for withdrawal but make clear that we would like to leave by such and such a date if certain things happen; split the "nationalist" insurgents from the "diehard" Islamists and ex-Baathists; figure out how to draw the Sunnis into the political process, and maybe bring in the UN to facilitate those negotiations. Perhaps he's right that this is the way to go; presumably as a former CPA adviser he's in a better position to say than 99 percent of pundits here.

But there's one other thing Diamond never mentions. Piecing together all the day-to-day accounts of violence in Iraq, it seems that one of the major sources of instability here—or more precisely, one of the things making Iraq a particularly nasty place to live right now—are the Shiite militias that dominate southern and parts of central Iraq. Spencer Ackerman has just written the definitive story of the CPA's failure to disarm these militias before June of 2004, and for a vivid description of that aforementioned nastiness, check out the ethnic cleansing going on just north of Baghdad, or this report of brave young extremists splashing acid on the faces of women who don't cover themselves up properly. (True, the acid-splashers aren't identified as Shiite militiamen, but the M.O. here resembles the "fashion police" roaming around Basra, et al.) Presumably these militiamen, too, are part of the "death squads" torturing and executing Sunnis with U.S. and U.K. support. (The "Wolf Brigade" for instance.)

Ideally the U.S. would help dismantle these militias and either pay the gunmen fat retirement stipends or just integrate them into a national army controlled by civilians. (Read Peter Khalil's January testimony as to why it's so important to set up an Interior and Defense Ministry run by technocrats—and why this is even more important than the much-scrutinized pace of troop training. Indeed, it's sobering to think that Bayan Jabur, the current Interior Minister—a position that already has way too much concentrated power—is a former Badr Corps militiaman. Anyone with even a passing familiarity of the history of the Middle East knows how security forces can be, and usually are, abused in the wrong hands.)

Anyway, the militia situation is a hugely complex one, but it seems obvious that, were the United States to set a timetable for withdrawal, the Shiite militias would become even further entrenched, and all hope of their dismantling and disarming would be dead and buried. The Shiite government, meanwhile, would continue purging Sunnis from the security forces, for fear of a possible Baathist coup down the road. These don't at all seem like issues on which the Iraqi government would be more likely to compromise if only the United States started threatening to leave, as the Will Saletan theory has it. And because militias like Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps are such a major source of sectarian tension, it seems likely they would only further entrench the Sunni insurgency. (Ackerman tells of Shiite militiamen strolling through Baghdad announcing, "If anyone in our neighborhood is killed, we will respond by killing people in Haifa." A political solution indeed.) Stopping this vicious militia circle seems just as important as the "drawing the Sunnis into the political process" goal everyone's focused on right now. How that's done, I have no idea. Does anyone? Spencer Ackerman's piece suggests not. Sen. Joe Biden says the same thing: the U.S. seems to have given up on this problem.

Also, for all you praying types out there, put in a good word for 75-year-old Ayatollah Ali Sistani, yeah? Reading this report by Hemza Hendawi, it seems clear that Sistani's about the only thing standing between Iraq and full-blown civil war. A 2,000-strong-crowd was seen chanting outside SCIRI headquarters: "Al-Sistani is the sword of the Shiites, if he gives the order we will burn down Latifiyah"—a Sunni town. Obviously he didn't give any such order, but here's hoping the man has top-notch bodyguards. The ayatollahs who would, potentially, fill his sphere of influence don't seem nearly as big-hearted.
-- Brad Plumer 2:38 AM || ||