Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam was published in June 2005. During the Vietnam War, Porter was a Ph.D. candidate specializing in Vietnamese history and politics who debunked the Nixon administration's "bloodbath" argument in a series of articles and monographs.
Of all the faults of the Iraq Study Group the most serious was its warning, highlighted by Co-Chairman Lee Hamilton, that a “precipitate withdrawal” would cause a “bloodbath” in Iraq as well as a region-wide war. The cry of “bloodbath”—now given bipartisan status—will certainly be used to crush any attempt in Congress to advance a plan for a timetable for withdrawal.
In offering this bloodbath argument, the ISG has unconsciously mimicked the argument used by President Richard Nixon to justify continuing the U.S. war in Vietnam for another four years. Nixon, too, warned of a postwar “bloodbath” if there was a “precipitate withdrawal” of U.S. troops. If the Vietnam era bloodbath argument sought to distract the public’s attention from the very real bloodbath that the U.S. war was causing, the new bloodbath argument distracts attention from the relationship between the U.S. occupation and the sectarian bloodbath that is continuing to worsen with every passing month.
You would think that the political elite might be wary of an argument suggesting that the U.S. military presence in Iraq somehow helps restrain the Shiites and Sunnis from civil war—in light of the escalating sectarian killings in Baghdad since thousands of U.S. troops poured into Baghdad ostensibly to curb the sectarian war. Yet that is exactly what we are asked to believe by the ISG.
The bloodbath argument evades the central fact that the U.S. occupation has never been aimed at avoiding or reducing sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites. On the contrary, the U.S. has used sectarian conflict for its own purposes. The main purpose of the U.S. occupation has been to claim victory over those who resisted it, which has meant primarily suppressing the Sunni armed resistance throughout the Sunni zone. The Bush administration had to have Iraqi allies against the Sunni resistance, and after Sunni security units showed in 2004 that they would not fight other Sunnis on behalf of the occupation, the administration began relying primarily on Shiites to assist its war against the Sunnis.
Thus the militant Shiite political parties and their military wing became the administration’s primary Iraqi allies. Unfortunately those were the very sectarian organizations that were motivated by revenge against Sunnis. As soon they had gained control of the state organs of violence through the January 2005 election, those organizations began to unleash retribution against the Sunni community in Baghdad—seizing Sunni mosques and killing Sunni political and religious leaders. The torture and killing of Sunni detainees by such Shiite paramilitary groups as the Badr brigade and the Wolf brigade were well documented by mid-2005.
The Bush administration was hardly unaware of the dangerous rise of the pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Baghdad who intended to carry out ethnic cleansing against Sunnis. Their closest Iraqi collaborator, the secular Shiite interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, was warning them in no uncertain terms. In July 2005 , Allawi warned publicly that Iraq was “practically in stage one of a civil war as we speak.”
For a period of months in late 2005 and early 2006, the administration fretted over the new threat of sectarian civil war. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad publicly resisted Shiite control over the interior and defense ministries and threatened to reconsider U.S. assistance if they were not put in non-sectarian hands. As reported by the Sunday Times of London December 10, Khalilzad even carried on secret negotiations with Sunni resistance leaders for two months on their offer to be integrated into the national army and to “clean up” the pro-Iranian militias in Baghdad with arms provided by the United States.
In the end, however, Bush pulled back from making a deal with the Sunnis. When a permanent government was finally negotiated under firm sectarian Shiite control in April 2006, the administration resumed its support for its Shiite allies in the official war against both the Sunni resistance and al-Qaida-related terrorists. The interests of the military command and the White House in claiming a success in “standing up” an Iraqi army and police force trumped any concern about sectarian civil war.
The ISG failed to consider the full implications of that policy. Contrary to the official administration line that involvement in sectarian violence is limited to a minority of “extremists” in the military and police, in fact virtually the entire structure of Shiite military and police units is either actively participating or complicit in terrorism against Sunnis. When the SCIRI and its allies took over the interior department in 2005, its Badr militia was given wide latitude to infiltrate thousands of its loyal militiamen into the national police.
Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militiamen dominate the police both in parts of Baghdad and the Shiite south. Both Badr and Mahdi army recruits have been implicated in sectarian killings. The Defense Department admitted in its August 2006 report to Congress that it has no system for screening police for membership in Shiite militias. Wayne White, who was Deputy Director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s Near Eastern Division and coordinated Iraqi Intelligence until his retirement in 2005, and an adviser to the ISG, says the Iraqi police force have such close ties with the Shiite militias that it is “probably beyond help.”
The U.S.-sponsored Iraqi army is scarcely less sectarian in nature. The ISG itself admits that there are “significant questions about the ethnic composition and loyalties of some Iraqi units—specifically whether they will carry out missions on behalf of national goals instead of a sectarian agenda.” Reporter Tom Lasseter, who was imbedded in the all-Shiite first brigade in October 2005, was told by one sergeant that they would do to the Sunnis what Saddam did to Shiites: “Start with five people from each neighborhood and kill them in the streets and go from there.”
Nevertheless, the United States has already transferred 287,000 AK-47 rifles, 17,000 machine guns, 7,600 grenade launchers, and 1,800 high mobility wheeled vehicles to these forces, according to official Central Command figures. The transfer of weapons to the police accelerated this past year, despite the well-known involvement of police units in death squad activities. And the Defense Department plans to send yet another 50,000 rifles to the police and another 86,000 to the army—along with 3,000 more vehicles.
We have every reason to fear that these weapons will become the basis for a higher level of warfare by Shiites against Sunnis in the future. Despite the administration’s complaints that Iran is supporting the Shiite militias who are causing sectarian violence, the United States itself is the quartermaster of the forces of sectarian civil war. And the recommendations of the ISG would continue this role for the indefinite future.
Why, then, should the occupation be considered as representing a restraint on the sectarian civil war already underway? It has no realistic plan or strategy for protecting the victims of “sectarian cleansing” except for “pressure” on the Shiite prime minister, which Shiite leaders rightly regard as serving domestic U.S. political purposes. And the idea that thousands of U.S. trainers swarming into Iraq will somehow transform the existing sectarian anti-Sunni army into one that will effectively oppose sectarian violence is, of course, laughable.
The notion that years more of U.S. military occupation will help stanch the bloodletting between Shiites and Sunnis is a self-deception of monumental proportions. If the objective were really to end the bloodletting, the United States would actively seek a peace agreement with the Sunni resistance based on a rapid, phased withdrawal and stop supporting the Shiite war against them. That would give international diplomatic efforts a more serious chance to succeed.
The bloodbath argument foisted on the public by the ISG is really about the refusal of a large segment of the political elite to accept the fact that the United States has broken Iraq in a way that can no longer be fixed by U.S. power—and has lost a war it entered into with such arrogance. It is a statement of ideological belief by an elite still deep in denial.