Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Be Prepared

Yet more violence in Iraq today. Today's Washington Post makes grim reading.
Grisly attacks and other sectarian violence unleashed by last week's bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine have killed more than 1,300 Iraqis [update on this below], making the past few days the deadliest of the war outside of major U.S. offensives, according to Baghdad's main morgue. The toll was more than three times higher than the figure previously reported by the U.S. military and the news media.
Claiming the dead has become automated. Morgue workers directed families to a barred window in the narrow courtyard outside the main entrance. A computer screen angled to face the window flashed the contorted, staring faces of the dead: men shot in the mouth, men shot in the head, men covered with blood, men with bindings twisted around their necks.

Men and a few women in black abayas pressed up to the window's black bars as the reek of the bodies inside spilled out.
Is is impossible for a pampered westerner like myself to fully grasp the horrors of it. This merely offers a tiny glimpse into the sheer inhumanity of the situation. News reports today, even from Sky News, are reporting that Iraq is on the brink of civil war (Tim Marshall for Sky reported that the "country teeters on the brink" and that this is "the most dangerous period for four years".) In an interview with James Rubin on Sky, Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, the man who would be king, said that historians will judge that the civil war started in 2005, not 2006. His view was that the media had failed to accurately report the scale of the tit-for-tat sectarian killings which have been going on for months. It may be an exaggeration to say that civil war has already started but the seriousness of the crisis is not in question.

The ICG report on Iraq says that the crisis could yet be controlled but warns that:
[R]egrettable though it is that this is necessary, the international community, including neighbouring states, should start planning for the contingency that Iraq will fall apart, so as to contain the inevitable fall-out on regional stability and security. Such an effort has been a taboo, but failure to anticipate such a possibility may lead to further disasters in the future.
Over the course of the last three years, many Iraqi leaders, political and religious, have made enormous efforts to try to prevent the break up of Iraq. And, genuinely, there are some truly heroic people in Iraq trying to maintain peace and stability. The many honest Iraqi election officials, working for democracy despite the death threats, are an insperation to us all.

The sectarian tensions, however, are not going away. On the contrary, every attack puts further pressure on already strained relationships. The bombing of the al-Askari shrine, and the reaction to it, will have a lasting impact on Shi'ites and Sunnis.

Yesterday, I noted that the clerics and religious Shi'ites of the UIA are the key to defusing the crisis. These Shi'ites are continually being attacked and sometimes killed by Sunni extremists and those extremists have suspected links to the Sunni political groups. To illustrate the difficulties the Shi'ites would have in compromising, here's a not perfect analogy. How likely is it that the Ulster Unionists would agree to a powersharing arrangment with Sinn Fein at a time when the IRA was still actively conducting it's "armed struggle" against unionists in Northern Ireland? This is obviously not a straight comparison but it does give some idea of the scale of the problem.

Like the IGC, I don't think all-out civil war is inevitable. (Unlike them, I have my doubts as to whether the continuing presence of US and UK troops is going to make any difference one way or the other though. More on that another time.) But civil war is an ever growing possibility. We are relying on the Shi'ites to compromise at at time when we, faced with a similar situation, almost certainly would not.

It is hard to know whether the coalition has contingencies in place to deal with the disintegration of Iraq if it does happen. They certainly should have but, at the moment, it'd obviously not be helpful for them to reveal any such plans. Realpolitik, and indeed just plain old politics, means that any planning for this contingency must be conducted in secret. We, the public, must trust that our elected representatives are acting in a competant and professional manner and have prepared for this eventuality.

That's a problem, of course. For those who opposed the war, the idea that we should trust our governments to act in this way is a joke which has long since ceased being funny. Even among those who support the war, there seems to be a growing acceptance that both the planning and the implementation of the policy has been very badly handled. Do you trust them to be able to plan for and implement an effective strategy against this scenario?

Any attempt to suggest that the incompetence and mismanagement of the UK and US governments is partly responsible for creating this situation will be met with howls of indignation in some quarters. The howls are, I presume, meant to drown out an uncomfortable truth. Iraq is today, after almost three years of inept coalition occupation*, very close to civil war.

We must hope that it doesn't some to that. For many Iraqis, it already has.

The 1,300 deaths reported by the WaPo may be questionable. Aljazeera report that Baghdad's main morgue has received 309 bodies since Wednesday. The BBC report that the Iraqi government, apparently in response to the WaPo claim, has announced an official death toll of around 400. Not a pleasant topic of conversation.

* It appears that some people dispute that the current situation is an occupation. Technically that may be true. To most Iraqis, I suspect it would also be considered to be sophistry of the highest order.

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