July 10, 2006

Quote(s) of the Day

"We've said it several times that there are people who want to create civil war....Today, this country is on the edge of civil war, not sectarian strife."

-- Wafiq al-Samarrae, an adviser to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani


Police picked up 57 bodies from the al-Jihad neighborhood, and three Interior Ministry policemen were also killed there, said Ali Hussein, a commando with the Interior Ministry who ferried bodies to Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital. Gen. Saad Mohammed al-Tamini of the Interior Ministry confirmed that more than 50 people were killed.

Some of the corpses that littered the streets lay handcuffed, pocked with bullet holes, while others were pierced with bolts and nails, witnesses said.

Iraqi officials and residents of the neighborhood identified the gunmen as members of the Mahdi Army, the powerful militia controlled by the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In the past three days, Iraqi troops, with the support of U.S.-led forces, have raided the homes of militiamen and detained some of their leaders.

U.S. commanders and diplomats say Sadr and his militia constitute one of the gravest threats to Iraq's security. Two years ago, U.S. forces fought Mahdi Army militiamen in Baghdad and in the southern holy city of Najaf. Sadr also holds considerable sway over the political system, with ties to more than 30 members of parliament and several cabinet ministers.

On Sunday, Iraq's deputy prime minister for security affairs, Salam al-Zobaie, accused the Defense and Interior ministries of working with the militias to carry out the killings.

"Interior and Defense ministries are infiltrated, and there are officials who lead brigades who are involved in this," Zobaie said in an interview on al-Jazeera. "What is happening now is an ugly slaughter...

...In al-Jihad, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood along the road to Baghdad International Airport, police in white pickup trucks patrolled the roads. Fighters gathered in the streets holding rocket launchers and belts of machine-gun ammunition while helicopters swarmed overhead. A hot wind scoured the neighborhood, scattering the black smoke that billowed from burning tires.

The Iraqi government later imposed a daytime curfew in the neighborhood, and mosque loudspeakers broadcast warnings that residents should flee or they would be killed.

Hayider Hussein, a resident, said that outside his house, militiamen were milling around a minibus in which the bodies of the driver and a dozen passengers could be seen.

"They were all shot in the head," he said.

Ali Muhsin, 58, a retiree who lives in the neighborhood, said he saw gunmen in three cars pull up near his house and begin shooting people. Four corpses lay on the ground about 100 yards from his door and he saw four other people shot at a vegetable market nearby, he said.

Muhsin described seeing gunmen get out of a sedan, remove two bodies from the trunk "and throw them on the street."

Residents said the violence stemmed from a car bomb attack on the Shiite al-Zahra mosque Saturday night, expanding into door-to-door pursuit of Sunnis by Shiites.

Outside the morgue at the Yarmouk Hospital, a distraught woman wearing a red head scarf searched for her missing brother. At 7 a.m., she said, black-clad gunmen broke into her house and demanded to know the family's tribal name. When her brother responded "Jubour," one of the gunmen said, "You are definitely Sunnis."

"I swear on Hussein, I swear on Ali, that we are Shiites," her brother, Muzahim Salman, pleaded, referring to relatives of the prophet Muhammad who are revered by Shiites.

The gunmen locked the woman, who refused to give her full name, and her mother in a room before kidnapping her brother. A half-hour later, she said, she called her brother's cellphone.

"The man who answered said: 'We are the Mahdi Army. We killed your brother. Go to the morgue and pick up his body.' "

"Go to the morgue and pick up his body." Call it a variant to Rumsfeld's "Stuff Happens" or "Freedom is Untidy", only more direct, you might say. By the way, to the extent we move to disarm and lessen Mahdi militia influence in the coming weeks at the Interior and Defense Ministries (as we must at least try)--I predict we will likely see a reignited Shi'a insurgency of some significance by the mid-autumn. (Rumsfeld has doubtless explored in depth contingency plans to handle such an eventuality should it come to pass). On the other hand, our efforts to reduce Shi'a militia influence in the 'national' army might be so halting, weak and amateurish that Sadr and fellow travellers might calculate it's in their better strategic interest to lie low rather than stoke a direct confrontation with the Americans.

Either way, we continue to seem to be plodding along haphazardly hoping somehow that Maliki's unity government will prove some panacea as it consolidates power. But hope is not a plan. And while the kidnapping of a single Israeli corporal seems to be getting all the attention these days on the hostage-taking front, there is another hostage situation causing arguably greater problems. A Sunni legislator was kidnapped back on July 1, and a major Sunni bloc is threatening to pull out of the government if he isn't released. This national government is likely to face such crises on a weekly basis for many months still. It's in no way close to being able to cohesively lead and provide the order that is screamingly needed in Baghdad.

So it's quite clear that the U.S. must lead the show on security efforts rather than punt to Maliki and hope for the best, but I just don't see this happening now. To the extent this remains the trend-line, what is the point of staying, one must ask? Either our leaders come clean, tell the public this war is but at mid-stream and far from won, and make clear that talk of premature withdrawal in '06 or '07 is just folly (indeed we should be increasing our force posture by as many men as possible back up to around 160,000 or more)--or we continue to 'bow' to political realities at home, scale-back gradually, and basically concede the battlespace to militias and terrorists (unless by some miracle the Iraqi National Army turns into a big, loving family and bulwark of stability like Turkey's, and the local police forces don't remain infested by ethnic divides and rampant corruption). Again, hope is not a strategy, even if some in this faith-based gaggle of mediocrities might think differently. So if things don't improve just because we wish it to be so, what is our back-up plan, one must ask again?

P.S. See my post immediately below for more on the strategic quandaries facing the U.S. currently. I suspect neither the North Koreans nor the Iranians will be in a position to launch a credible nuclear missile for 5-10 years yet. Having a talented diplomat like Chris Hill handle the North Korea dossier, in the face of Russian, South Korean and Chinese reticence to get much tougher, is probably the best we can do just now. Ditto Condi's Iran diplomacy maneuverings. But whether it's our lack of adult supervision on the Israeli-Palestinian front (why has a major power station been bombed as a result of a single hostage taking, one can't help wondering, given the humanitarian difficulties and communal punishment this causes?), the detiorating security situation in Afghanistan or Sudan or Chad or Somalia, the neglect of Latin America providing Chavez and other leftists greater strategic maneuvering room, our risible attempts to chide China and Russia on back-tracking on democracy building (Cheney lectures Putin fresh from a cozy visit to Astana's sweetheart!)--American influence is heading towards a low ebb. The basic reason is that Iraq has sucked out all the oxygen among the key policy-makers, not to mention the monetary and human costs that grow daily.

And don't buy the tired bromides that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. As scores of Iraqis are routinely massacred in broad daylight by roving gangs of ethnic killing squads, our credibility lies increasingly in tatters as some credible, competent guarantor of varied security architecture across the globe. We can't even get Afghanistan and Iraq nailed down, which is why Kim Jong and Ahmadi-Nejad are basically telling us to eff off, and why they will more or less continue to do so until we get those situations under plausible control. Now, the problem is, you have varied dimwits who are prescribing ethnically stoked wars of 'liberation' in Iran (astoundingly idiotic arguments that leading bloggers, whose crediblity on foreign policy matters have plummeted of late, link to routinely), or other such ham-handed alternative strategies, if one can call them that, but what is really needed now is centrist, sober strategic thinking pursued on a bilateral basis--mostly focused on how to salvage Iraq--so that the next President will be on a firmer footing to tackle the residual mess there, not to mention the looming crises in Iran and North Korea if both regimes are still in place around, say, 2011 (when nuclearized weaponry in their hands becomes a more immediate concern). It's going to be a big election, to be sure, and until then--we can only hope that the damage caused by this one can be contained somewhat. In this era of incompetence (Iraq, Katrina etc.) and paranoia (Dubai Ports, brave-thinking new paradigmists junking Geneva, NYT as rogue enemy etc), I am not particularly optimistic, but at least the '08 election nears.

Posted by Gregory at July 10, 2006 08:49 AM

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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