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August 23, 2007

Iraq: Avoiding The Killing Fields II
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

As the calls for US withdrawal from Iraq grow ever louder, both boosters and opponents of American disengagement are kept up at night by a common fear:  that the departure of American troops will eliminate the one thing standing in the way of Iraq’s descent into chaos and slaughter of a magnitude that could make the last few years look calm by comparison.

Some Iraqi politicians argue passionately that as bad as things are in their country, they would be far worse without the Americans on patrol.

Even those who want the US military out acknowledge grave risks to the human rights, security and welfare of the Iraqi population after withdrawal.  Presidential candidate John Edwards is among the most outspoken in the 2008 race about the need for pullback on a tight timetable, but he too calls for a “plan” to prevent genocide after the US goes.

The prospect of even wider ethnic killings, terrorist attacks, and abuses of civilians by militias and insurgents is of grave concern no matter where you sit.  For the Bush Administration and other  proponents of the war, the idea that the Iraq adventure could end in mass slaughter is the ultimate indictment of their flawed policies.   For opponents of the war who decry the bloodshed and disruption that it has caused, a stance that culminates in untrammeled civilian killings and human rights abuses is unconscionable.

For those mindful of international norms, a deterioration in conditions in Iraq would implicate the UN’s newly-minted “responsibility to protect” a global doctrine that mandates that the world not stand by in the face of genocide or mass atrocities that a national government is unwilling or unable to stop.  For Arab opinion-leaders and publics who protested the invasion and occupation of Iraq, concerns for both the wellbeing of the Iraqi people and the stability of the wider region are implicated. Given the growing inevitability of US (and UK) withdrawal, what are the realistic prospects for preventing an onslaught on civilians?  At least six possibilities are on the table, none of them close to satisfactory:

-         First is the notion, seeming to become more far-fetched by the day, that the Iraqi armed forces will take control of their country, protect the public, and tamp down the militias.  But Iraq’s security forces are infiltrated with  sectarian partisans and still heavily dependent on the US.  If the Administration thought they could forestall chaos without US involvement, withdrawal would have happened already.

-         A second avenue is the proposal of a negotiated partition of Iraq to provide for a peaceful divide along sectarian lines, preempting more violent ethnic cleansing.  But the mechanics of partition are complex and contested, and a majority of Iraqis polled say they oppose the concept.  The Iraqi population is residentially integrated in many areas, meaning that partition would require mass dislocations and loss of livelihoods and property. The idea that political momentum will materialize to shepherd through detailed agreements and large scale population transfers necessary to effectuate partition is far-fetched.  So is the notion that the US will somehow effectuate partition without the negotiated participation of Iraq’s population groups. 

-         A third scenario is that sufficient residual US troops (numbering in the low tens of thousands)  remain in Iraq to forestall large-scale abuses of civilians.  But, depending on the size and mandate of the presence, this could flys in the face of the idea that one factor fueling the insurgency is the very presence of US troops.  It also seems implausible given the inability of a much larger force to get Iraq under control.

-         A fourth possibility is that so-called safe havens and civilian corridors can be created such that even if out-and-out civil war erupts, the innocent can be temporarily protected and humanitarian aid provided.  It is true that large swaths of Iraqi territory remain peaceful and that some civilians might willingly go to such areas.  But it is unclear how so-called safe areas would actually be protected if they came under attack and, even if they were safe, such corridors could represent a path toward ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Shiite areas. 

-         A fifth scenario is that US troops withdraw “over the horizon” either to Kuwait or to offshore vessels so that they are poised to reenter in the event that conditions sharply deteriorate.  This is frankly absurd:  once American troops exit Iraq, they aren’t coming back, particularly if the terrible conditions and hopelessness that prompted their withdrawal have gotten even worse.  Their ability to stop ethnic cleansing from afar is almost certainly nil. 

-         A sixth scenario is that an international presence in some way takes over where the US leaves off, assuming responsibility for protecting the civilian population and trying to curb the violence.   US Ambassador to the UN (and former envoy to Baghdad) Zalmay Khalilzad is pushing for greater UN involvement, and Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has said the organization won’t shy away from this role.  But the idea that the UN, with its limited resources, finite mandates, comparatively miniscule firepower, and cobbled together troops can succeed where the US has failed seems remote.

While none of these measures, in itself, averts the potential for genocide, elements of several could be combined into a strategy to at least lessen the likelihood that US withdrawal leads to catastrophe.  The training of Iraqi troops should place primary emphasize civilian protection and upholding of human rights irrespective of sectarian and ethnic lines.  While wholesale partition of Iraq is probably infeasible, the potential should be explored to support the peaceful voluntary separation of populations already underway in some areas to foster stability and lessen the danger of violence. 

As many proponents of withdrawal acknowledge, some residual force remaining in Iraq to continue to train troops, root out terrorists and hopefully deter violence might be in both American and Iraqi interests.  The tiny UN presence in Iraq, if expanded under the right conditions, may be able to draw on the organization’s humanitarian and human rights expertise to monitor and deter violations, as well as aid needy victims. 

This kind of multifaceted approach needs to be formalized into a clear strategy laying out the role that the Iraqi military and the US will play in protecting Iraqi’s population in a withdrawal scenario.  If that doesn’t happen, the after-effects of the US’s exit from Iraq could wind up being even worse than the consequences of its entry.


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I suspect something in the general area of the sixth approach is the only hope. But the leadership on this issue has to be taken not in the UN, but by the main regional actors, especially those on Iraq's borders. The UN can later underwrite some regional initiative. A united front and coordinated strategy and plan of action by Iraq's neighbors might have some influence on the behavior of warring groups inside Iraq who are all tied via various kinds of tribal, familial, economic and sectarian networks to people outside Iraq.

Peacekeepers might be able to help at some point. But my guess is that money will help more. Substantial conditional commitments of cash and other material aid for reconstruction, tied to various kinds of progress and good behavior by key groups in the country, could help to settle things down. We need to see high-level Turks, Iranians and Saudis standing together at a press conference, armed with a united paln of action, and a barrel of donation checks from other countries.

The problem right now is that all of this worry about what will happen to Iraq when we leave is being used in order to maintain our presence. Bringing the troops home should be the first priority. The eventual fate of Iraq is a secondary concern. That's not to say it's unimportant but it is to say that it's secondary. And yes, if I had to make a black and white choice between the status quo or the troops leaving and a civil war fully erupting, I would still bring the troops home. We've lost too many lives and have spent too much money already.

I am sorry to say this, but there are still some people thinking we can actually DO something about this to reduce the civil war. The best we MIGHT be able to do is keep it from becoming a regional conflict. The bottom line is that we have helped arm both sides to the teeth and neither is interested in negotiating at the moment. They will have to fight it out for a while before that calculus changes.

In the meantime, our presence there is expensive and counter productive. Better just to redelpy to Kuwait and Kurdistan to contain the situation. There is just nothing to be done at the momenet until some negotiation space opens up. And THAT assumes that there is no intra-sectarian fighting among the Shias which could make even the current safe harbors become dangerous. If it degrades to the point of city-state against city state, then a Hobbesian nightmare is all that is left.

"the peaceful voluntary separation of populations already underway in some areas"
And to think that some people call this ethnic cleansing!
Ah, for some people the glass is always half-full.
I say, Cheer Up! It is morning in voluntary ethnicaly seperated Iraq again!

"Some Iraqi politicians argue passionately that as bad as things are in their country, they would be far worse without the Americans on patrol."

Oh, really, "some Iraqi politicians argue passionately . ."--and we base foreign policy on that? What do some other Iraqi politicians passionately argue, that things go better with coke?

How about listening to the Iraqi people, not some bought-and-paid-for politicians:

The Program on International Policy Attitudes released a new poll on Iraqi public opinion today which finds that seven in ten Iraqis want US-led forces to commit to withdraw within a year. Moreover, an overwhelming majority believes that the US military presence in Iraq is provoking more conflict than it is preventing. --Sep 27, 2006

That year will be up next month. We need to get out of Iraq. Quickly. And if we were to announce that, you'd be surprised how some Iraqi politicians would begin to solve their own problems, passionately, they way it should be.

You see, if we are sure that people will never get along together in Iraq then they will never get along. That's wrong.

The fact is that Sunnis and Shi'ites, Christians and Kurds, got along fine together before the US invasion and occupation. They lived on the same streets, worked together and inter-married. The new Iraqi constitution and the US policy of divide-and-conquer changed that situation to one where tribal and religious affinity became necessary for survival. Iraqi bloggers insist that on a personal basis people still get along, but when it becomes political then the thugs get involved and violence results.

President Bush has consistently given one reason for the US military staying in Iraq--that we are putting the damper on a civil war. Actually, the US military presence is stoking the civil war and US troops are being killed daily by Iraqis who don't want us there. These Muslims don't like being under martial law imposed and harshly enforced by a Christian foreign army. Who can blame them? But of course the US has to stay--for domestic political and profit reasons. So sustaining the 'civil war' construct is vital.

One of the major violence instigators is al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr has wanted the US out of Iraq for years, and so the US has had a price on his head. Al-Sadr is also against the Shi'ites in power as well as against Iran. The Badr Brigades and militias, aligned with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the Kurds and the Sunnis are other political blocs that have to be dealt with. It's easier to shoot them than to talk to them--but that doesn't make it right.

It's not enough to say that these people will never get along. We need someone to say: Their compatibility will be achieved--now how do we go about it? We need to think positive, not negative. Baghdad could become Belfast if we thought peace instead of war, and think leave instead of stay.

I was in Belfast, Northern Ireland in May right after the historic accords took place. Other than being hit on the head by a small pine cone as I toured the former battle areas (I was riding in the open top of a double-decker bus) there was no sign of the former extreme violence, but many signs of progress and investment, new buildings going up, etc. These people are now getting along. The pubs are full (I checked). They credit Bill Clinton, by the way.

Kucinich is correct. We need to think peace and not war.

"Peace is not a relationship of nations. It is a condition of mind brought about by a serenity of soul. Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is also a state of mind. Lasting peace can come only to peaceful people."--Jawaharlal Nehru

Every one of your solutions is oriented to some outcome the US wants. I don't see one that sounds like anything the Iraqis want. Usually we try to solve problems by taking into account the needs and desires of the other parties. That kind of thinking might lead to a whole different range of alternatives than yours.

I'm not sure how much thought Suzanne Nossel really gave to her invocation of the international community's "responsibility to protect" here, or the irony that she would invoke this at the prospect of sectarian killings by Arabs of other Arabs.

The irony arises from Democracy Arsenal's silence in the recent past as to the "responsibility to protect" black African civilians in Darfur. There has been any amount of gas produced on this site about the promotion of Arab democracy; Arab genocide is evidently not such a big deal as long as Arabs are merely the perpetrators and not the victims. I count reducing as best we can the potential for further sectarian violence one of the damage control measures we should consider once the decision to withdraw American forces from Iraq finally gets made. DA's discovery of this particular international norm here, though, leaves a sour taste in the mouth after all this time.

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