- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
This blog knows all too well that no one is right all the time, and that it is important to listen to people who know their stuff and disagree with you. So when I saw Nir Rosen, a fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security, make some comments that sharply disagreed with my pessimistic views on Iraq, I asked him to write a guest post for Best Defense explaining his take on the situation. Nir, who has been knocking around Iraq lately, graciously did so.
By Nir Rosen
Best Defense guest Iraq political commentator
It’s been frustrating to read the latest hysteria about sectarianism returning to Iraq, the threat of a new civil war looming, or even the notion that Iraq is "unraveling." I left Iraq today after an intense mission on behalf of Refugees International. My colleague Elizabeth Campbell and I traveled comfortably and easily throughout Baghdad, Salahedin, Diyala and Babil. We were out among Iraqis until well into the night every day, often in remote villages, traveling in a normal Toyota Corolla. Our main hassle was traffic and having to go through a thousand security checkpoints a day. Stay tuned for our report next month about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq (which deserves more attention than political squabbles) and the situation of Iraqis displaced since 2003. Stay tuned for my own article about what I found politically as well. And finally stay tuned later this year for my book on the Iraqi civil war, the surge, counterinsurgency and the impact of the war in Iraq on the region.
From the beginning of the occupation the US government and media focused too much on elite level politics and on events in the Green Zone, neglecting the Iraqi people, the "street," neighborhoods, villages, mosques. They were too slow to recognize the growing resistance to the occupation, too slow to recognize that there was a civil war and now perhaps for the same reason many are worried that there is a "new" sectarianism or a new threat of civil war. The US military is not on the streets and cannot accurately perceive Iraq, and journalists are busy covering the elections and the debaathification controversy, but not reporting enough from outside Baghdad, or even inside Baghdad.
Iraqis on the street are no longer scared of rival militias so much, or of being exterminated and they no longer have as much support for the religious parties. Maliki is still perceived by many to be not very sectarian and not very religious, and more of a "nationalist." Another thing people would notice if they focused on "the street" is that the militias are finished, the Awakening Groups/SOIs are finished, so violence is limited to assassinations with silencers and sticky bombs and the occasional spectacular terrorist attack — all manageable and not strategically important, even if tragic. Politicians might be talking the sectarian talk but Iraqis have grown very cynical.
When you talk to people they tell you that the sectarian phase is over. Of course with enough fear it could come back, but Shiites do not feel threatened by any other group, and Sunnis aren’t being rounded up, the security forces provide decent enough security, and they are pervasive, there is no reason for people to cling to militias in self defense and besides militiamen are still being rounded up, I just don’t see enough fuel here for a conflagration — leaving aside the Arab/Kurdish fault line, of course. (Though if Maliki went to war with the Kurds that would only further unite Sunni and Shiite Arabs.) The Iraqi Security Forces like Maliki enough, even if they prefer Alawi. The Iraqi army will not fall apart on sectarian lines, it would attack Sunni and Shiite militias, if there were any, but these militias are emasculated. They can assassinate and dispatch car bombs but they can’t hold ground, they can’t engage in firefights with checkpoints. The Iraqi Security Forces might arrest a lot of innocent people, but they’re also rounding up "bad guys" and getting a lot of tips from civilians. The Iraqi Security Forces might be brutal, sometimes corrupt, but they no longer act as death squads, they take their role very seriously, perhaps too seriously, but these days anything is better than the recent anarchy and sectarian massacres.
Of course Maliki is in the end still a Shiite sectarian actor and has a core constituency, as Chalabi cleverly forced him to reveal, but Maliki is not pro-Iranian (though Iran is too often demonized as well as if the dichotomy is pro-American and good or pro-Iranian and bad). It’s not a dichotomy of pro-Iranian or nationalist either.
It’s not about whether Iraqis are sectarian or not. They are, though the vitriol and hatred have decreased. It’s that they are not afraid of the other sect anymore. Fear is what led to the militias taking power and to the political and military mobilization along sectarian lines. There are attempts by some Shiite and Sunni parties to scare people again but in my conversations I feel it is failing. The fear is gone and the Iraqi Security Forces fill the security void, even if it’s not pretty.
There is concern about Sunnis being disenfranchised or getting the shaft. But they have been disenfranchised since 2003. In part they disenfranchised themselves but anyway none of them expect to get unshafted. It’s already done. The government is in Shiite hands and now it’s a question of whether it will remain in the relatively good Shiite hands of Maliki, who provides security and doesn’t bring down an iron fist on you unless you provoke him (sort of like Saddam), or the dirty corrupt and dangerous Shiite hands of Maliki’s rivals — Jaafari, Hakim, etc. I think these elections mean a lot more to Americans (as usual) and maybe to Iraqi elites than they do to Iraqis.
Besides, what can Sunnis do? Nothing, they’re screwed and they have to accept it, and they have. The alternative is far worse for them. Sunnis in the region will not go to war alongside the Sunnis of Iraq. That moment came and went in 2006. Iraqi Sunnis don’t even have a single leader who is charismatic and has real appeal, they’re divided among themselves and these days your average Iraqi just isn’t that into politics. I’ve heard it hundreds of times by now, they blame the religious parties, they say they got fooled and now they understand. Now that’s not completely true, but the militias were able to mobilize people because of a security vacuum. These days it doesn’t matter how remote and shitty the village I visit is, there are Iraqi Security Forces, and people have good things to say about them. Compared to the first three years of the occupation, Sunnis seem downright docile, maybe bitter or wistful, maybe angry, but their leadership is emasculated, in jail, abroad, just trying to survive, or just trying to make money.
Maliki will probably emerge the victor in the elections. His more sectarian and corrupt Shiite rivals are discredited and unpopular, but more importantly, he is an authoritarian ruler in the Middle East, he would have to be really incompetent if he couldn’t stay in power. If Karzai could do it, then Maliki should be able to as well. Of course there is nothing uniquely Middle Eastern about this. In fact maybe looking at post-Soviet states is useful — that is, the new ruler will not readily relinquish control, even if he has to bend the rules a bit, or operate outside the constitution. This has happened in Asia, Africa, and other places in transition. I hate to admit that I hope Maliki wins. He’s the best of all the realistic alternatives. It’s not like a more secular candidate is likely to win, so if it’s not Maliki it will be Jaafari or Chalabi. Frankly this is a rare case where I hope Maliki violates the constitution, acts in some kind of authoritarian way to make sure he wins the elections, because the alternative is fragmentation, or a criminal, sectarian kleptocratic Shiite elite taking over, and then Iraq might unravel. For now it’s still "raveling."
Nir Rosen is a writer and Fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security. He has spent over four years in Iraq since 2003. His first book on Iraq, In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, was published by Simon and Schuster early in 2006. His new book on Iraq and the region will be published later this year by Nation books. His work can be found on www.nirrosen.com.