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Bush: “There is No Civil War” and “It’s Al Qaida’s Fault”

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This photo, a slide from a power point presentation prepared by the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), shows the drastic increase in sectarian violence in Iraq since the February bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra. CENTCOM is the military command that oversees the war in Iraq.

As of this writing, the slide is nearly two months old. October and November were the deadliest months for American forces in Iraq since the war began, and it was not exactly a picnic for the Iraqis. The death squads that roam Baghdad didn’t exist before Samarra’s bombing. Snipers were not out in the force that they now are. Scores of tortured, usually dismembered or decapitated bodies have been found daily in Baghdad since August. Anbar Province is practically lawless.

Why is the situation deteriorating? There are numerous reasons apparent from the slide.

• Iraqi police are ineffective at best, and are being rounded up and murdered by local militias.

• Moderate politicians have little influence and often are kidnapped or assassinated. Those who scream for drastic action get more attention and militant followings.

• More important than the political leaders are the religious leaders, and the moderates among them are being assassinated and silenced. Again, the militants seem to gravitate toward the extremists, not the moderates.

• Sectarian conflicts among the members of Iraq’s security forces are increasing.

• Police and military desert their posts and jobs in greater numbers.

• Militias, not the military or the police, seem to be “law enforcement” in Iraq, and they are becoming more and more active.

• Violence motivated by sectarian differences has moved into a “critical” phase.

Neighborhoods “allow” the violence to go on, according to CENTCOM. I question how the neighborhoods could stop armed militia members from their random kidnappings and murders, but CENTCOM obviously knows more that I do about that situation.

At the bottom of the slide, CENTCOM notes that “urban areas [are] experiencing ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaigns to consolidate control” and “violence [is] at all-time high, spreading geographically.” Based on the news reports I’ve seen, violence also appears to be increasing exponentially. The sheer number of mutilated, tortured corpses found since August, often at the rate of more than 50 a day, boggles the mind.

According to the New York Times, President Bush said Tuesday that al Qaida was responsible for the increasing sectarian violence in Iraq. He claimed that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaida leader in Iraq who was killed by American forces over the summer, operated al Qaida in Iraq with the primary purpose of causing this kind of conflict between the different branches on Islam in the country. Naturally the president says that the US “will continue to pursue al Qaida to make sure that they do not establish a safe haven in Iraq.”

Not surprisingly, neither the American military commanders most familiar with the situation nor Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, agree with Bush’s assessment of al Qaida. The conflict between Sunni and Shi’a that has heavily armed militias roaming the streets of Baghdad and other cities is more complicated that simply what happened at Samarra. Although the al Qaida-sponsored attack in Samarra may have started things back in February, neither that attack nor any continued efforts of al Qaida are credited with the roving bands of militia that kidnap, torture, mutilate, and kill members of the other sect in what amounts to sectarian cleansing of neighborhoods in Baghdad and other cities.

Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the senior spokesman for the American military in Iraq, says that mortar and rocket attacks between Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods are on the rise, and things are expected only to get worse because of last week’s attacks. Last Thursday, our Thanksgiving Day, a series of bombs exploded in a Shiite district of Baghdad killing more than 200 people. The following day, Shiite militias attacked Sunni mosques in Baghdad and in the nearby city of Baquba.

King Abdullah of Jordan and Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, have both said publically that Iraq teeters at the brink of civil war, something that President Bush seems to spend da great deal of time denying. Jordan is one of the moderate states in the Middle East that is on reasonably good terms with the US. In the geography of the Middle East, however, Syria and Iran, both of which border Iraq and both of which have large Kurdish populations, may have more influence than Jordan, and certainly more influence than the UN. Bush has repeatedly said that the US will never ask either of those countries for help to stem the sectarian violence in Iraq.

In August Gen. John P. Abizaid, who heads CENTCOM, publically mentioned the likelihood of civil war in Iraq. The sides in a civil war would be along sectarian lines – and there are essentially two divisions: Sunni and Shi’a. Throw in the Kurds’ eternal quest for a homeland and a third party comes into the mix.

Bush says it’s not a civil war, but earlier this month Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples of the Defense Intelligence Agency described the conflict between the two sects of Islam as an “ongoing, violent struggle for power.” Prime Minister Maliki says that the sectarian attacks are “the reflection of political backgrounds” and that “the crisis is political.”

What is a civil war but a political struggle for power between two or more opposing armed factions? The American Heritage Dictionary defines “civil war” as simply “a war between factions or regions of the same country.” Wikipedia, my go-to authority for anything that needs defining, goes into a little more detail:

“A civil war is a war in which parties within the same culture, society or nationality fight for political power or control of an area. Political scientists use two criteria: the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. The second criterion is that at least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side.”

Regardless of the definition used, I think the sectarian conflict in Iraq qualifies. In the NY Times article that supplied Wiki’s definition of the term, James Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford, agrees.  “I think that at this time, and for some time now, the level of violence in Iraq meets the definition of civil war that any reasonable person would have,” he said.

General Caldwell, the military spokesman,  described Al Qaida as having been “severely disorganized” by American and Iraqi efforts this year, but reminded us that it is “the most well-funded of any group and can produce the most sensational attacks of any element out there.” He summarized the continuing violence in Baghdad this way: Shiite militias conducting murders and assassinations in the city’s Sunni western section, and Sunni insurgents and Al Qaida staging “high visibility casualty events” in the city’s predominantly Shiite east.  And despite the fact that a tourniquet might be applied to the sectarian violence if influential neighboring nations exerted pressure on the warring factions, President Bush appears determined to ignore Iran and Syria, Iraq’s two key neighbors, as long as possible.

General Caldwell won’t say that Iraq is engaged in a civil war because the government still operates and there is not “another viable entity that’s vying to take control.”  Yes, that would take it out of the part of the Wiki definition, certainly, but the people of the middle east are not only accustomed to theocratic control of their governments, Islam demands it.  Sunni and Shi’a are battling in the streets to determine which branch of Islam will dominate Iraq’s government.  But struggles for political and economic power were taking place on many levels throughout the country, including fights among Shiite groups seeking dominance in the south and among Sunni elements in Iraq’s west.

The Wiki definition also says that civil wars occurs when there is fighting or voilence intended to force a major policy change.  Changing the government’s Sunni leanings to Shi’a and vice versa are huge policy matters in any Islamic state.

The question of whether the fighting constitutes a civil war has becoming an increasingly sensitive one for the Bush administration, as Democrats cite agreement among a wide range of academic and military experts that the conflict meets most standard definitions of the term.

Why is President Bush so reluctant to admit what seems obvious to so many experts? I wonder if Bush believes that if the administration is left with no alternative but to concede that Iraq is in a state of civil war, then the American mission there will have failed despite “Mission Accomplished” being declared there three and a half years ago.

I’d love to hear from politically conservative friends as well as the more liberal-leaning ones who tend to comment on my political blogs.

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November 15, 2006 - Posted by | Foreign Relations, Iraq, News, Politics

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