A tragicomedy of errors

By CRAIG UNGER  |  November 20, 2007

To anyone who believed in democracy, the sight of Iraqis voting was potentially inspiring. But the political reality on the ground was starkly different. Yes, Shi’ites flocked to the polls in huge numbers. But the Sunnis, alienated by America’s de-Ba’athification policies, which removed members of the largely Sunni Ba’athist regime from government, angry because they had lost jobs and security when the United States disbanded the police and the military, and enraged by the American assault on Sunni mosques in Fallujah, boycotted the election in droves. Even before the elections were held, Brent Scowcroft had warned that voting had “great potential for deepening the conflict” in Iraq by exacerbating the divisions between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, and that it might lead to a civil war. As the Bush White House basked in the glory of having shown the world it could create a new democracy in the Middle East, it soon became clear that Scowcroft had been prescient.

The Shi’ites took office, but the Sunni insurgency went after new targets. US forces had protected its own bases, including the Green Zone, but not the general population in Baghdad or any of the major cities. “When we did not secure the population,” General Jack Keane told PBS’s Frontline, “the enemy realized that the population was fair game. . . . All through ’05 they exploited it. They began to kill people, take them on. . . . In ever-increasing numbers they began to kill more and more of the Iraqis. . . . They were exposed.”

Immediately after the election, the Sunnis struck back with a vengeance. On February 3, bombs killed at least 20 people in Baghdad; insurgents stopped a minibus near Kirkuk and gunned down 12 of its occupants; gunmen ambushed and killed two Iraqi contractors near Baghdad; others overran a police station in the town of Samawah — not to mention innumerable assassination attempts, car bombs, and the like. On February 17, a string of attacks killed at least 36 people, mostly Shi’ites. The next day, at least eight suicide bombings and other attacks targeted Shi’ite worshippers observing the religious festival of Ashura. By the end of the month, suicide bombers targeted crowded marketplaces near Baghdad, killing as many as 115 people with one bomb.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden had ordered his supporters to attack Iraqi oil facilities — which they had begun to do with considerable success. Terrorists had begun an all-out war against the country’s oil facilities, costing it billions in lost revenue.

Having put so much stock in the Iraqi elections, the Bush administration now had another problem. Like it or not, the administration was wedded to a Shi’ite government led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Islamic Dawa Party, one of two major Shia parties in the ruling coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance. A militant Shi’ite Islamic group that had supported the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and that had received support from the Iranian government during the Iran-Iraq War, the Dawa Party had moved its headquarters to Tehran in 1979. There, according to Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, it “spun off a shadowy set of special-ops units generically called ‘Islamic Jihad,’ which operated in places like Kuwait and Lebanon.” The party, Cole wrote, was also “at the nexus of splinter groups that later, in 1982, began to coalesce into Hezbollah.” Moreover, the party had been founded by Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the uncle of Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shi’ite leader of the Mahdi Army, which has been tied to ethnic cleansing of Sunnis.

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