The country is sliding into a civil war, but this reality is overlooked by the U.S. despite heavy casualties in sectarian violence.
WITH the world's attention focussed on Israel's barbaric assault on Lebanon and Palestine, the ongoing war in Iraq seems to have been forgotten. As the Israeli army pounds Lebanon and Gaza, the blood-letting in Iraq has continued without respite. Iraqi civilians continue to bear the brunt of the violence; the United States-led occupation forces are also being bled. Every other day, there are reports of casualties among the occupation forces. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in June was the highest for a month since the occupation began three years ago; the United Nations reported that more than a hundred civilians were killed each day in that month alone. July too proved to be a terrible month. Scarcely a day passed without reports of suicide bombings. Shia and Sunni vigilante groups are busy targeting each other by bombing mosques and public places. Sunni groups allege that there is a concerted campaign against them going on with support from influential sections of the government.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry has denied allegations that "death squads" operate clandestinely under its command. Iraqi and international agencies, however, claim that in many cases the perpetrators of violent crimes are personnel belonging to the Police and the Interior Ministry. In many places where murderous attacks took place, American and Iraqi forces chose not to intervene. Senior U.S. army commanders said until recently that American forces would not intervene in Iraq's civil strife.
U.N. officials have said that the number of violent deaths have gone up steadily since the beginning of this year. According to them, the civilian death toll jumped more than 77 per cent, from 1,778 in January to 3,149 in June. The U.N. based its figures on the statistics provided by the Iraqi Ministry of Health and the main morgue in Baghdad where the bodies of those who met with violent deaths are sent. Most of the casualties have been in Baghdad and nearby areas. One-fifth of Iraq's population resides in Baghdad. In its report, the U.N. said that 14,338 civilians had died violently in Iraq in the first six months of this year: 1,778 civilians in January, 2,165 in February, 2,378 in March, 2,284 in April, 2,669 in May and 3,149 in June.
From available indications, the figures for July are going to be worse. In the first three weeks, an estimated 2,000 Iraqis met with violent death. On July 9, Shia militiamen invaded a Sunni area in an upmarket section of Baghdad and went on a murder spree. Women and children were not spared. Sixty Iraqis were reported dead in that incident. Sunni retaliation was not long coming. On July 17, Sunni gunmen killed 48 people in broad daylight at a marketplace in Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad. The following day, there was a suicide bombing in Kufa, a stronghold of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in which 48 people died.
Sectarian violence in the country has gone from bad to worse. The U.S. occupation army has chosen mainly to stand aside and watch as the country lurches towards anarchy. U.S. President George W. Bush chooses to remain oblivious to the ground reality in Iraq. He is instead busy advertising Iraq as a "success story" for democracy and a case study for other nations to emulate. It was left to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to tell the international media in a joint press conference he addressed with the U.S. President at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg that Iraq was a bad example for the kind of democracy the West wanted to impose on the rest of the world.
There are many in Iraq and in the international community who claim that Iraq is already in the throes of a civil war. Though Baghdad and its surrounding areas continue to be the most volatile areas, the violence has spread all over the country, including the relatively peaceful north and the south of the country. Most of the international community as well as the majority of Iraqis hold the Americans responsible for the state of affairs. Saddam Hussein had famously warned that if the lawful Iraqi government was overthrown, there would be chaos and anarchy. "Even 10 Saddam Husseins will not be able to control the country after that," he predicted before the invasion. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq against the advice of the U.S. Intelligence Community and the U.S. State Department. He also rode roughshod over international opinion and international law, knowing fully well that the secular Ba'ath government had no links with Al Qaeda or international terrorism. The Iraqi people are now paying the price.
In recent months, senior officials of the American-installed government have started criticising the U.S. role. The Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Mahmoud al Mashadani said that the U.S. occupation "is butchers' work under the slogan of democracy and human rights and justice". He also said that the aim of the Bush administration was to keep Iraq "under the American boot". Israel's war on Lebanon may complicate matters further for the American military in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al Maliki, while strongly condemning the Israeli onslaught against Lebanon, said that the action would encourage "fundamentalism and extremism" in the region.
The "Mahdi Army", which owes allegiance to Moqtada al Sadr, has announced that it is planning to send 1,500 of its elite fighters to help the Hizbollah in Lebanon. "We say no, a thousand nos to Israel and terrorism, and everybody knows that we in Iraq will not remain quiet against the rampaging Zionists," al Sadr said in a statement issued from the holy city of Najaf. A leading Sunni cleric, Abdul Rahman al-Duleimi, also announced a recruitment effort to help the people of Lebanon. In a rare show of unity, the 275-member Iraqi Parliament issued a statement describing the Israeli strikes against Lebanon as an "act of criminal aggression".
A prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Al-Husseini Baghdadi, based in Najaf, accused the "international arrogant forces, especially America," of igniting the internal strife between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq and encouraging Israel to attack Palestinian territories and Lebanon. American policy makers are fearful of the "Shia crescent" spreading to Iraq sooner than predicted as a consequence of the Israeli attack on Lebanon. The senior-most Shia cleric of Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has urged Iraqis "of different sects and ethnic groups" to wake up to "the danger threatening the future of the country". He cautioned Iraqis from falling into the "trap of sectarian and ethnic strife", which he said would only delay the departure of the American occupation forces from Iraq.
The Bush administration announced on July 26 that it was rushing in more forces to Iraq. Addressing a joint press conference with the visiting Iraqi Prime Minister in Washington, Bush finally admitted that the situation in Iraq was "terrible". The President's announcement is also an indication that U.S. troops will be staying in Iraq for quite some time.
The U.S. military spokesman in Iraq said that there was an average of 34 attacks a day against U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad alone. The U.S.-supported Iraqi government has proved itself incapable of providing security to the people. Most of the additional U.S. forces will be based in Baghdad, where law and order seems to have broken down completely.
There are strong indications that the U.S. army has once again decided to confront the Mahdi Army, which is modelled after the Hizbollah militia. It is estimated to be 10,000-strong and well-represented in the Iraqi Parliament. The senior-most U.S. commander in West Asia, General John Abizaid, said in an American talk show that the crackdown was necessary. "If you don't do this, you end up with a situation like you have in Lebanon, where the militia becomes a state within a state. It makes the state impotent to be able to deal with security challenges," he said. Until recently, U.S. forces concentrated most of their firepower on the Sunni-led resistance. After the events in Lebanon, the focus seems to be shifting to Shia insurgent groups. In the third week of July, American forces killed 15 Mahdi militiamen in an encounter near Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the killings in Gaza continue unabated. On July 26, Israeli planes and mortars killed 24 Palestinians, including a baby and two toddlers. So far, 140 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli assault. Living conditions for the 1.4 million people of the Gaza Strip have deteriorated further. Hospitals are not functioning, garbage remains uncollected and food remains scarce.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during her visit to Jerusalem, refused to endorse Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' call for an immediate ceasefire by Israel. Washington views the continued suffering of the people in the region as the "birth pangs" of a new West Asia, as Condoleezza Rice chose to describe it.