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Friday | May 16, 2003

On the road to Civil War

The New Republic has a very interesting article on the collapse of civil order in Iraq.

Beirut Redux
by Hassan Fattah

Every night for the past month, Mazen Al Bakir and his sister Layla have prepared themselves for the worst. Around 9 o'clock in the evening, the nightly security detail begins at their home in the southern Baghdad district of Saydiya. Bakir pulls a loaded pistol out of the closet, secures his front gate and doors with massive locks, and hides the keys. For the rest of the evening, the Bakirs stand guard at their home as sporadic gunfire from across their neighborhood ushers in another sleepless night in Iraq's capital.

The Bakirs' situation is hardly unique. Since the American takeover, Baghdad has turned into an Arab version of the Watts riots. Burning buildings dot the city skyline. Armed looters terrorize the population, tearing into homes and emptying them of their possessions. Petty crime has become rampant on the streets, virtually no one feels secure, and homes are never left unguarded at night.

The really scary part, however, may be yet to come. Thus far violence in Baghdad has been limited to unorganized gangs of looters carrying Kalashnikovs. But Iraqi security experts and other sources in the capital say that, under the nose of the American forces, Iraq's nascent political groups are forming armed militias and storing weapons as they prepare for a potential civil war for control of the country. In fact, The New Republic has learned, several Iraqis say even Hezbollah has formed a branch in Baghdad. Ultimately, if Baghdad's power vacuum is not filled soon, the rise of organized armed factions could turn Iraq's capital into a twenty-first-century version of 1980s Beirut.

General insecurity and looting has been the norm in Baghdad almost since the first Saddam Hussein statue fell. With small arms easily available from former members of Saddam's military and security services, many Iraqis have armed themselves and begun cleaning out the homes of Baghdad's wealthy and middle class. Street crime was infrequent under Saddam, but today random rapes, carjackings, and murders have become commonplace in many parts of the city, and as a result women have virtually disappeared from the streets. At Baghdad's Al Nouman Hospital, sources say 35 women who were raped and left for dead have been brought into the ward in recent weeks. Iraqis have become paranoid, reaching for their guns any time a suspicious-looking pedestrian passes in front of their homes. "This is not a normal life--you just can't continue like this," says Fadi, a young Kurdish man who lives in the Karrada section of Baghdad. Days earlier, Fadi had watched thieves hijack a car and then fight each other over it.

But, in recent days, Iraqi security experts, ranking members of several Iraqi political groups, and average Iraqis have told TNR that a greater danger than carjacking may be in the cards: inter-factional warfare. Since the fall of Saddam, more than 30 different political parties have established themselves in Baghdad, ranging from the Kurdish People's Front to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a theocratic group under the authority of newly returned Shia leader Mohammed Bakr Al Hakim. This should be a healthy sign. Except that, according to security sources, many of these parties have formed organized armed militias ranging in size from 500 men for Hizb Al Dawa, a leading theocratic Shia group, to more than 2,000 fighters for SCIRI, whose armed wing is called the Badr Brigade. SCIRI, like several of these organizations, allegedly received training for their militias from Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Even the long-repressed Iraqi Communist Party, led by aging Marxists, has supposedly set up a 600-man force.

Now, I disagree with this premise. I don't think factionalism would last long. These are relatively small groups and the need to ally would occcur quickly. But the general sentiment, that Iraq has devolved into a violent, anarchic place, is probably dead on.

The US is ignoring this and acting as if Jerry Bremer's orders will mean something. Everyone who is anyone is setting up to object to them with AK's and heavy weapons. Much of the Iraqi Army's weaponry disappeared with its soldiers and those ex-soldiers now direct miltias. The day Bremer gives an unpopular order, I'd lay even odds that our headquarters is going to be rocketed and mortared that night.

Do I think Iraq is going to turn into Lebanon? No. The US makes it easy to rally around a cause which will united these factions into a large guerrilla army ready to kill Americans. There may be some factional killing, but those guns will quickly be turned on the US.

The reality is that we don't have the stomach to disarm these groups, much less to have taken the basic step of preventing them from forming. The cloud kookoo land in the Pentagon is ignoring what rational people would call alarming signs of disorder moving into armed resistance. Common sense says if a man can arm to protect his home, then his neighborhood, why does he need you to protect his country. Every conflict with US troops could turn from shouting match to shooting match.

The article mentions the Watts riots, but I would suggest a far more ominous scenario, South Central LA of the late 1980's and early 1990's. In that you have multitudes of armed groups which have dictatorial control of small areas. A state of near permanent disorder. And that is what exists today.

One rule of group organization is that small groups become larger. These small militias will reform into a guerrilla army. Al-Hakim is talking elections, his military men are already starting to organize these groups. Their only possible target is the US occupation forces. Their presence in Iraq is unacceptable on its face and growing more unacceptable by the day to many people. We have no natural allies and our actions raise the deepest suspcions about our motives.

What Iraqi will stand with the US and be able to survive? The most capable man in the bunch, Al-Hakim, is already opposed and moving to seize power with either the ballot or the bullet.

The Americans want to build some legoland Iraq, one where they get to pick the leaders and rebuild the country in an experiment. The Iraqis have neither patience nor time for this. They are not going to consent to be our poly sci lab rats. The Kalashnikov makes them able to cast a very effective veto. They want the safety of Saddam without the mass murders and broken families. Democracy would be nice, but potable water and safe streets would be better. People who assume their water is clean and armed mobs won't rape their teenage daughter forget how important basic safety and clean water can be.

If the Americans cannot provide that, most Iraqis see no need for them, no matter what they promise.

Steve Gilliard

Posted May 16, 2003 11:23 AM | Comments (58)


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