Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Red Line

In Iraq:
The bodies of 14 Sunni Muslim Iraqis have been found shot and dumped in the country's capital, Baghdad. The interior ministry is investigating claims from Sunni groups the men were arrested during weekly prayers eight days ago and were not heard from again. The Association of Muslim Scholars said interior ministry forces had detained the 14 men.

Dozens of other bodies have been found in the past week, in ongoing violence between Sunni and Shia communities.
This is the sort of violence Blair and Bush didn't think would happen in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. These reports have not been unusual in the nearly three years since the invasion. It is happening, and, sadly, it's at least in part being orchestrated by the same people who've been elected to run the country.

The interior ministry, responsible for internal security, is one of the most important in Iraq. Rumours of the ministry's death squads are rife among the Sunni population and, by all accounts, with good reason. The US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been trying ensure that the ministry does not remain in the hands of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA, also known as the Unified Iraqi Coalition). It's currently under the control of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the main UIA factions (the one with probably the strongest ties to the Iranian government) and US efforts to remove them from that position have been ongoing for some time. The US military raid on an interior ministry torture facility in November, just a month before the election, was part of the effort to weaken UIA support and loosen their grip on the ministry (the US had apparently learned about these practices much earlier in the year). But the UIA's strong showing in the election means that they now have the strongest hand once again.

After the elections, on 19th December, Khalilzad said "[y]ou can't have someone who is regarded as sectarian as minister of the interior". He is fundamentally right. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and their Badr organisation, are wholly unsuitable candidates for the role.

This, again, reveals the desperate position in Iraq today. The UIA are by far the largest alliance in the new Iraq. If they decide that they want SCIRI people in charge of the interior ministry, it's very unlikely that the US ambassador, or the Kurds or Sunnis, who largely oppose the continuation of SCIRI control, can do anything about it. The internal security apperatus of the new Iraqi government would then be in the hands of fundamentalist Shiite Islamists with links to the Iranian government. The interior ministry would become the full time tool of the Islamists and would be used to consolidate and secure their power in Baghdad. Relations between the US and the UIA would irrecovably break down. The US administration would have to try to curb the excesses of the interior ministry or face the prospect of cooperating with a hardline Islamic government. The UIA would respond by accusing the US of meddling in domestic affairs. If pushed too far, the UIA would most likely demand that the US withdraws it's troops. As long as they have the interior ministry, they'll feel they can gain control of most of the country without US help.*

The UIA are saying that their control of the interior ministry is a red line which cannot be crossed while the US ambassador continues to insist that that they must give it up. If the UIA do retain control of the ministry, it'll definitely be time to pack up and go home. We'll have successfully removed Saddam's brutal regime and installed a totalitarian religious one instead. With control of the internal security apperatus, the UIA will become a permanent feature. Free and fair elections in four years time would be a fantasy. To continue to support that totalitarian religious government, to train it's security forces as it persecutes Sunnis for simply being Sunnis, as it tortures its opponents and imposes strict Islamic laws on the Iraqi population, would be an abhorrence.

The US and UK government's have done so up till now in the hope that the secular parties would do well in the December elections. This might have made it possible to install Allawi or one of his allies as interior minister. Unfortunately, his Iraqi National List (INL) won only 25 seats in the new parliament. Al Sadr, now a strong voice in the UIA, has said that cooperation with Allawi's coalition is not an option. In these circumstances, it is unlikely that his Iraqi National List will have any part to play in the new government. There's an outside possibility that the UIA might allow the INL a minor role as a token gesture but even that is currently looking highly unlikely. As one of the UIA spokesman said (can't find the link so this is paraphrased) "someone's got to be in opposition".

This is the position at the moment. No-one knows for sure whether Khalilzad, with Kurdish help, can wrestle the interior ministry from the UIA. Most think it highly unlikely.

Although Britain is apparently a full partner in the coalition, the UK government appears to have almost no influence when it comes to US strategy in Iraq. All we can do is watch from the sidelines and see whether the UIA backs down under pressure from the US ambassador. If they don't, it's all over bar many more years of intercine killing and violence.

The idea of abandoning Iraq and leaving the factions to fight it out is one I've resisted for a while. I've been in the "we've broken it, now we've got to fix it" camp. But we cannot continue to support, train and fund a government which operates sectarian death squads. That is the reality of Iraq under the democratically elected UIA. Barring something truly unexpected, there is no longer a right side to be on in the conflict in Iraq.

* One proviso. Cutting ties with the US government wouldn't be without difficulty. Ironically, the poor state of the Iraqi army is an issue here. Without a strong army (and US support), the UIA might feel unable to deal with threats from neighbouring countries. The stronger the Iraqi army becomes, the less this will be an issue and, of course, President Bush is committed to helping them rebuild their army. This is another bizzare situation. As the US strengthens the army, it increases the ability of the UIA to kick them out. If the US drags its feet, it'll delay the pullout which Bush desperately needs for domestic reasons. It might also lead the UIA to decide that the alliance no longer offers them any benefits and kick them out anyway.

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