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Gareth Porter Headshot

Why U.S. Withdrawal Will Hasten an End to Civil War

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The proponents of the indefinite continuation of the U.S. war in Iraq, including the current leading Democratic presidential candidates, remain enthralled by the argument that a quick withdrawal - meaning any withdrawal on a timetable - would make the sectarian bloodshed much worse.

The proper response answer to this patently propagandistic argument for indefinite American involvement in a sectarian war in Iraq is that the U.S. military role only ensures that the civil war will be prolonged, and ending it completely will bring the civil war to end sooner. There are two reasons for that linkage: the first is that U.S. occupation continues to build up the Shiite regime's war machine, which militant Shiite leaders hope to use to crush the Sunni community by force. The second is that U.S. support for the dominantly Shiite security forces provokes greater Sunni fears of the Shiite regime and more support for al Qaeda in Iraq.

It should be understood that sectarian civil war in Iraq is a direct result of the U.S. need for allies against the rising tide of Sunni resistance in 2003-2004. The militant Shiite parties and their Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade, restrained themselves during the first two years of the occupation to ensure that the United States would support national elections, which they knew would bring a Shiite government to power for the first time in Iraqi history.

For its part, the Bush administration was willing to make its peace with the militant Shiites, who were regarded by the neoconservatives as likely allies against the states they planned to target. In 2004, there was a tacit understanding under which the Bush administration tolerated the Shiite militias, because they and the Kurdish militias were the only Iraqi forces available for that purpose. As Paul Wolfowitz told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2004, disarming those militias was "not part of the mission unless it is necessary to bring them under control." After the U.S. had set up an "alternative security institution," he said "then the militias can go away."

Once in control of the organs of state violence - and particularly of the interior ministry -- in spring 2005, the militant Shiites took advantage of their new position to deploy paramilitary groups, including the Badr Brigade and the Wolf Brigade, to suppress any possible future Sunni resistance to their takeover. They made mass arrests of former Sunni leaders and security figures, and terrorized Sunni communities in Baghdad. In July 2005, Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite former Prime Minister famously declared that Iraq was already "practically in stage one of a civil war...."

But the Bush administration was in the process of using the Shiite-dominated state to build military and police forces that would be dependent on the United States and would help it suppress the Sunni resistance. Those forces were overwhelming Shiite and Kurdish, and their anti-Sunni operations made sectarian war more likely, as U.S. military analysts conceded privately in May 2005.

Later in 2005, the Bush administration did an about-face, turning on the Shiite parties and their militias, as they tried to prevent from maintaining their power over the interior ministry. Bush even considered reaching an agreement with the Sunni resistance, which shared its concern about Iranian influence exercised through the Shiite militias. But by then, the Shiites had already consolidated their grip on the levers of power and under the approving gaze of the Bush administration had just adopted a constitution that signaled to the Sunnis that there would be no respect for their rights as a minority.

Even as the Bush administration clucked its disapproval of Shiite intransigence toward the Sunnis, it continued to arm and train a national police force that was known to be a tool of Shiite sectarian interests against the Sunnis, facilitating, if not actively supporting the activities of Shiite death squads. During the much-ballyhooed Baghdad security operation last August, as a U.S. battalion commander later told the New York Times, the national police set up check points on routes the Sunnis took to get fuel and medical assistance to "terrorize them to the point that they would leave."

Meanwhile, the United States has lavished new arms and vehicles on a largely Shiite army, carried out joint operations with it and provided it with the logistical and air support. U.S. politicians appear to believe they must genuflect before the objective of continuing to build up that Iraqi security forces, treating them as though it were a non-sectarian institution. But the U.S. intelligence estimate on Iraq issued in January 2007 concluded that the Iraqi security forces - including the military -- would be unlikely to survive an American withdrawal as a "non-sectarian unit." That means Iraqi army units remains loyal, for the most part, to Shiite sectarian interests.

Is it any wonder that the Shiite-dominated government refuses to make any of the political and security concessions to the Sunnis without which there can be no end to the conflict? It has a clear vested interest in milking the U.S. occupation for as long as possible to increase its own power position in relation to the Sunni community. By remaining intractable toward the Sunnis rather than compromising, they get material, logistical support and financial support from the United States, while the Americans continue to die fighting their enemies, the Sunnis. The withdrawal of the U.S. from the war in Iraq would eliminate a major part of the incentive for the Iraqi government to resist any serious move toward a negotiated settlement with the Sunnis

At the same time, it would take away the two main arguments that al Qaeda in Iraq has been able to make in asking support from the Sunni population - the unwanted presence of U.S. troops and the Shiite effort to terrorize the Sunnis and leave them at the mercy of a Shiite regime. It would encourage more of the Sunni resistance to turn against al Qaeda and to seek a negotiated end to the violence.

After a U.S. withdrawal, the Shiite parties might well try to use the improved power position they have obtained from the occupation to try to eliminate by force any possible basis for Sunni power in the country, although Sadr's shift to an anti-occupation coalition with the Sunni resistance would make such an offensive against the Sunnis much less attractive to the other Shiite parties.

If they did choose a sectarian war without the United States, they would soon find such a war costly and unsuccessful, and they would then have much more interest in the option of a negotiated settlement. We cannot say when the Shiite party leadership would come to the conclusion that it is time to make pace with the Sunnis. But we can be say with confidence that it would come sooner with a swift U.S. withdrawal than it would with the long U.S. patronage of the Shiite government now proposed by the Bush administration and the leading Democratic candidates for President.

Repeat after me: the sooner we get out, the sooner sectarian civil war will end.