Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The March to the Sea

The Strategy Page describes the futile efforts of a minority to terrorize a majority now risen to power. The Sunni insurgency is attempting to play its last card by starting a civil war in Iraq without success.

Sunni Arab antigovernment and al Qaeda gunmen now make no secret of their desire to trigger a religious and ethnic based civil war in Iraq. Attacks on Kurds (who are not Arabs) and Shia Arabs (who practice the form of Islam prevalent in neighboring Iran) are increasing. ... There are two reasons why the civil war has not broken out yet. First, the Sunni Arab gunmen represent a minority in the Sunni Arab community. ... One thing that makes the current situation different than the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90, is that the Sunni Arabs are not united to fight anyone. The antigovernment forces represent several factions, and many other larger factions want no part of a civil war.

This illuminates the second reason for no civil war; the Sunni Arabs are vastly outnumbered and likely to get quickly smashed. This is made worse by the fact that 80 percent of the population (the Kurds and Shia Arabs) would like to see the Sunni Arabs "punished" for generations of tyranny. Most Sunni Arabs understand this, but the minority who continue to murder and molest Shia Arabs and Kurds spend most of their efforts on terrorizing their fellow Sunni Arabs.

What the insurgency has done is remove the old Sunni chieftains from the field leaving it clear for those they formerly terrorized. An MSNBC article describes that while Sunni insurgents have forbidden participation in the elections their voice no longer carries the power of command.

As Iraq's first nationwide elections in more than a generation near, Hamra and other Shiite clergy, perhaps the country's most powerful institution, have led an unprecedented mobilization of the Shiite majority population through a vast array of mosques, community centers, foundations and networks of hundreds of prayer leaders, students and allied laypeople. The campaign has become so pitched that many Iraqis may have a better idea of Sistani's view of the election than what the election itself will decide. The momentum they have created has made a delay in the ballot difficult, if not impossible. Voters will choose a 275-member National Assembly, but powerful groups within Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority are boycotting the election or have called for a postponement so that they can bring calm to restive Sunni regions where insurgents have threatened to attack those taking part. ...

"Who wants to boycott, let them boycott, but the elections will happen regardless," said Hamra, sitting in an office with white walls bare but for a portrait of Sistani reading the Koran.

On December 3 a suicide car bomb blew up a Shi'ite mosque in Baghdad in an effort to reassert dominance but it merely increased scorn for the insurgents. The Financial Times found a curiously passive way to say the unsayable: that maybe some Shi'ites are joining forces with the government and America against the insurgents. For now at least

When bombers -- accused of being Sunni insurgents -- struck at Shia holy sites in August 2003 and February 2004, many Shia clerics saved their strongest criticism for the coalition authorities, who they said had failed to protect them from attack. However, insurgent threats against forthcoming elections, which have been strongly endorsed by senior Shia scholars such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, may be breaking down the clergy's resolve to stay aloof. ...

A black-turbaned Shia cleric drove through the streets of the southern Baghdad district of al-Amel on Saturday, carrying a loudspeaker and mocking the insurgents who scrawled anti-election slogans on the neighbourhood's walls. "Let those who wrote this show their faces, if they are men," residents quoted him as saying, as two dozen armed supporters followed his motorcade on foot, painting over graffiti that threatened to "cut off the heads" of voters. "Come and vote," the cleric said to passersby. "We will protect you." ...

Dozens of Shia, from clergy to army and National Guard recruits, have been killed by Sunni ultra-puritans while driving through Latifiya. Two weeks ago, a dele-gation of tribesmen from Basra calling themselves the "Brigades of Anger" approached Mr Sistani, asking him for permission to launch reprisals in Latifiya, says Sheikh Musa al-Musawy, a representative of the Grand Ayatollah in Baghdad. Mr Sistani refused them his blessing. "The government will deal with this problem, and the law will take its course," he reportedly said.

The Iraqi Government found the strongest possible terms, borrowing unconsciously from a cult horror classic, to assure the nation that they would not waver nor yield in the face of terror -- and those words were spoken by a Sunni.

As the powerful, mainly Sunni tribe led by Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar's uncle rallied behind an electoral bloc formed by leaders of the long oppressed Shi'ite majority, Yawar urged people not to identify the insurgency with the Sunni cause. Speaking after a particularly bloody few days in which more than 70 people have been killed, Yawar said: "Right now, we're faced with the armies of darkness, who have no objective but to undermine the political process and incite civil war in Iraq.

"But I want to assure the whole world that this will never, ever happen... After all these sacrifices, there's no way on earth that we will let it go in vain," said Yawar, who holds a largely figurehead position in the administration set up in June to take over responsibility from the U.S.-led occupation forces.

But words are in the end sustained by action. John Burns of the New York Times recounts that for the Marines, providing security for the elections means pursuing an enemy fleeing upon his own ground.

For marines staging a night raid on suspected rebel hide-outs across this insurgent heartland outside Baghdad, heading out of their heavily fortified base at midnight on Friday was a moment to make sinews stiffen. In the 10 weeks since their battalion began operating in this area south of Baghdad, raids like this one by Strike Force Two have captured more than 250 people identified as suspected insurgents. Others, fleeing or resisting, have been killed. The raids have taken an American toll, too. Since late September, the Second Battalion of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit has lost eight men.

The primary mission of the 2/24 battalion, a Chicago-based Reserve force of 1,200 troops, is to destroy a network of insurgent cells that United States military intelligence has identified as the nerve center of the Sunni insurgency in central Iraq. ... The focus of the marines' attention has been on two powerful tribal families, the Janabis and the Kargoulis, feudal overlords of much of the land between the rivers that the 2/24 marines now patrol. Under Mr. Hussein, the Janabis and the Kargoulis were richly rewarded. Their area was the base for Republican Guard units, munitions factories, weapons research establishments and battlefield testing grounds, as well as a host of new industrial plants and depots. After the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when a Shiite uprising across southern Iraq was met with brutal repression, parts of the area around Mahmudiya, Latifiya and Iskandariya, where Sunnis and Shiites mixed were subjected to a form of ethnic cleansing, with Shiites of military age rounded up and shot and their houses bulldozed to make way for new Sunni homes. ...

The marines have fought pitched battles, including one on Nov. 12 at Mullah Fayyad, west of Yusufiya, that began with an insurgent ambush and developed into a fight that lasted more than four hours. Lt. Col. Mark A. Smith, the 2/24's commander, said the rebels were trying to open lines of retreat from Falluja. "This is where the leadership of the insurgency have always lived, and now that they can't be in Falluja, they've got to come home," he said. "But our rule is, 'You ain't comin' home.' "

It was, for the chieftains, a long fall from Babylon. Twenty years before Saddam Hussein had set himself the task of rebuilding the storied city as a capital commensurate to his glory.

When Saddam Hussein rose to power in Iraq, he conceived a grandiose scheme to rebuild the ancient City of Babylon ...Adjacent to Nebuchadnezzar's ancient palace and overlooking the Euphrates River, Saddam Hussein built a new palace for himself. Shaped like a ziggurat (stepped pyramid), Saddam's Babylonian palace is a monstrous hill-top fortress surrounded by miniature palm trees and rose gardens. The four-storey palace extends across an area as large as five football fields. Villagers told news media that a thousand people were evacuated to make way for this emblem of Saddam Hussein's power.

On the ceilings and walls of Saddam's palace, 360-degree murals depicted scenes from ancient Babylon, Ur, and the Tower of Babel. In the cathedral-like entryway, an enormous chandelier hung from a wooden canopy carved to resemble a palm tree. In the bathrooms, the plumbing fixtures appeared to be gold-plated. Throughout Saddam Hussein's palace, pediments were engraved with the ruler's initials, "SdH."

It would be sad if it weren't so grotesque.