Eye on Iraq: The other Iraq report

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Dec. 20, 2006 at 1:16 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- A new report published Monday documents grim confirmation of the most pessimistic assessments we have made in these columns over the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq during the past 10 months.

Ever since Shiite militias across Iraq erupted into a frenzy of retaliatory random killings of Sunnis following the bombing of the al-Askariya, or Golden Mosque in Samara -- a cherished Shiite shrine -- on Feb. 22, 2006, we have charted and predicted in these columns the California-sized nation of 28 million people's rapid descent into a state of violent chaos. In the words of the great 17th century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life in Iraq has become nasty, brutish and short."

The new report, entitled "Iraq's Sectarian and Ethnic Violence and Evolving Insurgency: Developments through mid-December 2006" is by Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

The 92-page report was released to none of the media hoopla and obsession that greeted the Iraq Study Group report chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton. But it is even more frank and harsh in its assessments of the current chaos in Iraq than the ISG document.

The CSIS report acknowledged what we predicted and then saw confirmed in the fall: that the ill-fated U.S.-led Operation Together Forward II in Baghdad had only made "slow progress in clearing the volatile neighborhoods, and the initiative lacked sufficient forces to maintain peace in cleared areas"

"Baghdad was the center of the sectarian conflict, but violence spread to surrounding towns -- particularly Baquba, Balad, and Amara -- as the civil war threatened to engulf the entire country," the report said.

Cordesman noted that the United Nations had concluded that by mid-December, sectarian violence was killing 120 Iraqis a day. Back in the spring, we warned that the escalating violence by that point was on schedule to kill more than 30,000 people a year in Iraq., even if things did not get any worse.

Cordesman has now confirmed things have gotten worse than that. The U.N. figures he cites mean that even if the current levels of violence in Iraq do not deteriorate further (in fact they show every sign of doing so) 43,800 people will die next year there at the current rates of carnage.

Cordesman also confirmed our repeated warnings in these columns that the violence in Iraq was not divided along simple, clear-cut Sunni versus Shiite or "Sunni insurgent versus U.S. and Iraqi armed forces" lines, but that it reflected a splintered country where every neighborhood or district had its own different groups at odds with their geographical neighbors as well as their immediate ethnic rivals

"Sectarian fighting, led by the growth of some 23 militias around Baghdad, formed the foundation of the civil war," Cordesman wrote.

Among the Shiite militias, the Badr Brigades and the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr are locked in what promises to be an extremely bloody struggle for supremacy within the Shiite camp. But plenty of smaller allied and independent Shiite militias are vying for power and survival too.

And even the biggest militias are not monolithic or well-disciplined, coherent entities. Instead, they are full of violent, semi-independent factions endlessly vying for supremacy over each other as well as their wider enemies.

Cordesman confirmed this development too. "Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army developed rogue components that acted outside of his command. Sunnis formed loosely organized neighborhood death squads in the urban areas, some with ties to al-Qaida or ex-Baathist groups," he wrote.

Cordesman also confirmed the prediction we made back in April that the U.S armed forces, the Department of Defense and the Bush administration had yet to recognize the fundamental truth that what we called "Belfast Rules" or Beirut Rules" now operated across Iraq, especially in Baghdad.

"Baghdad and other major cities were almost completely divided into sectarian strongholds as both Sunnis and Shia fled neighborhoods in which they were a minority," Cordesman wrote. "Soft ethnic cleansing forced upwards of 400,000 Iraqis to relocate within Iraq since the February Samara mosque bombing."

Cordesman also noted that the Sunni Arab insurgency "remained focused in the western Anbar Province and benefited from the relocation of U.S. troops to quell sectarian violence in Baghdad."

And finally, Cordesman confirmed our conclusion in these columns that, far from creating a stable political basis for an effective democratic government in Iraq, the genuinely free democratic elections and the cumbersome parliamentary system that was created by them have made sectarian tensions far worse, not better.

By mid-December, "Tensions between Sunni and Shiite legislators reached an all time high as both sects accused each other of propagating sectarian killings by supporting death squads," he wrote.

Cordesman is no alarmist, defeatist, or amateur. He is one of the most respected, traditionally cautious and respected military analysts in Washington. His assessment reflects a sober, new mainstream consensus in the U.S. capital. The new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, who was sworn in on Monday, appears to privately share it. About the last person who doesn't is the president of the United States.

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