As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Return Of Sectarian Violence?

Violence raged in Iraq today, but the country has yet to be fully pacified; hundreds of Iraqis die every month in bombings and other actions. A certain level of violence is expected. What would truly change the dynamic toward an uneasy stability in the country can be found in stories like this:

The American military marked another milestone the other day in the initiative perhaps most responsible for taming the violence in Iraq: All but 10,000 of the 94,000 Sunni militiamen — many of them former insurgents who agreed, for cash, to stop killing American soldiers — had been turned over to the control of the Iraqi military.

Significantly, the militiamen themselves were not celebrating.

The same day, one group of the fighters north of Baghdad announced they were resigning from their Awakening Council, the Iraqi name for what the Americans call the Sons of Iraq. And in the town of Salman Pak, councils in southern Baghdad and its suburbs, an area once called “the ring of death,” met to denounce Iraqi efforts to integrate them.

These are among the signs that the fighters’ patience is fraying badly at a difficult moment. After months of promises, only 5,000 Awakening members — just over 5 percent — have been given permanent jobs in the Iraqi security forces. Those promises were made last year when Iraq was flush with oil money.

Now with Iraq’s budget badly battered by falling oil prices, the government is having trouble paying existing employees, much less bringing in Sunni gunmen already regarded with suspicion by the Shiite-led government.

In interviews with leaders from a dozen local Awakening Councils, nearly all complained that full-time jobs were lacking, that pay was in arrears and that members were being arrested despite promises of amnesty.

Perhaps most ominously, many expressed concern this might drive some followers back to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a largely Iraqi group with some foreign leadership, at a time when both Iraqi and American military commanders say that the group seems to be making gains, small but worrisome, around Baghdad.

We've been hearing that the Sunni Awakening forces were unhappy with the ruling government's indifference and even hostility toward them for a while. With a full rift along those lines, the country could easily lapse back into a resumption of the tensions and violence of the civil war period in 2005-2006. Some of this could simply be bargaining positions by the Sunnis, to get the best deal for their men. But commanders should take the threat of a renewed insurgency seriously. It was easier for the Maliki government to make promises about hiring 100,000 Sunnis when oil revenues were high. Since the collapse of the global economy, the government is in a much weaker position, and the Sunnis will surely be the first to get squeezed.

Perhaps the only good news that can come of this would be if everyone stopped their thrall to a "surge strategy" that may well not work and wasn't the exclusive province of the American military, anyway. Nobody "won" in Iraq; instead everyone punched themselves out, and neighborhoods were ethnically cleansed to the extent that something slightly less awful but no less fragile could predominate. Now this Sunni-Shiite rift would turn something slightly less awful into something just as awful, and it frankly doesn't matter a bit whether we have 150,000 troops or 100,000 troops or no troops standing by when the chaos erupts. Perhaps this should NOT be the model for next steps in Afghanistan, after all.

...More hopeful signs exist, as well.

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