Fears Grow of Civil War in Iraq
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GWEN IFILL: New violence, political instability, and worries about civil war dominated another day of uncertainty today in Iraq. In and around Baghdad, at least 16 people were killed in a spate of car bombings and mortar fire.
And yesterday, a top Iraqi general was assassinated in western Baghdad, adding to the more than 400 people who have died since last month’s bombing of the holy Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra.
But at the Pentagon today, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the country has not yet descended into full-scale civil war.
JOURNALIST: Do you believe that the reports of the potential for civil war were overstated?
DONALD RUMSFELD: There’s always been a — it’s not for me to judge that. I do not believe they’re in a civil war today. There’s always been a potential for a civil war.
That country was held together through an oppressive regime that put hundreds of thousands of human beings into mass graves. It was held together, not by a constitution, not by a piece of paper, not by respect for your fellow citizens of different religious faiths, but it was held together through force and viciousness.
And that’s gone. And the natural historical differences that have existed in that community still exist, and they’re being reflected and manifested in one way or another.
GWEN IFILL: And Joint Forces Chief General Peter Pace also said the latest up-tick in violence is not a sign that a sectarian civil war is imminent.
GEN. PETER PACE, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: If you take it from a year ago to now, month to month, January to January, February to February, the attacks now are down compared to last year.
However, if you look at the last month or two, the attacks have been up a little bit, but of a — not of a magnitude that indicates a significant change. To answer your question, the attacks are terrorist attacks on the infrastructure and the leadership of the country.
GWEN IFILL: Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, offered a more pessimistic assessment in a newspaper interview published today, saying that the potential is there for sectarian violence to escalate into full-blown civil war.
“We have opened the Pandora’s box,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “And the question is: What is the way forward? The way forward, in my view, is an effort to build bridges across communities.”
The recent violence has underscored a growing political power vacuum. Nearly three months after Iraq’s elections, the country’s political leaders are still struggling to form a new government. At the center of that battle is the current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is resisting efforts to deny him a second term.
The standoff appeared to deepen today with the postponement of parliament’s first meeting again. Jaafari was nominated by parliament’s largest bloc, the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance. But the recent unrest has prompted Iraq’s various Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular leaders to join in pressing Jaafari to withdraw his bid. When Iraq’s parliament does finally meet, it will have 60 days to choose a prime minister and cabinet.
While the uncertainty in Iraq continues, popular support in the United States appears to be fading. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released today found 52 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should begin withdrawing troops, and 80 percent think that the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites make a civil war very or somewhat likely.
GWEN IFILL: So is the violence driving the politics or is the politics driving the violence? For the latest assessment of the uncertainties of waging a war and building a government in Iraq, we turn to Mohammed Hafez, a visiting professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri. He’s the author of “Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World.”
Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. He’s also author of “Sacred Space and Holy War,” about Shiite politics and history
And Reuel Gerecht, he served in the CIA’s clandestine service, focusing on the Middle East from 1985 to 1994. He’s now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
So, Reuel Gerecht, when we listened to Secretary Rumsfeld and General Pace today saying this is something that’s historic, this idea of sectarian violence, and you listen to the more pessimistic assessment from Zalmay Khalilzad on the ground in Iraq about the potential for civil war, who’s right?
REUEL GERECHT: Well, I mean, I think Ambassador Khalilzad is always a very thoughtful man. I think he tends to think out loud, which is good.
I mean, the potential is certainly there. There has been growing sectarian strife, and I think that’s probably a better way to describe it rather than civil war.
There’s no doubt about it; the constant pounding that the Shia community has taken, particularly in the slaughter of women and children by insurgents and particularly by Sunni holy warriors, has fractured, I think, a certain fraternity that had existed before amongst the Sunni and the Shia.
The attack on the shrine in Samarra was very, very bad. I think the scarring from that was likely to be deep. So you do have slowly but surely an increasing breakdown in trust.
Now, I don’t think this has gone beyond the point of repair. I think that was evident after the attack on the shrine. You saw both sides, particularly the clergy on both sides, trying to bring calm to the situation, so I think Iraqis do realize, and Secretary Rumsfeld is right there, that the precipice awaits them and they are pulling back. We’ll see what happens.
GWEN IFILL: Juan Cole, what do you think?
JUAN COLE: Well, I think people realize there’s a precipice in front of them, but people are not always good about avoiding that. We’ve seen over and over in Yugoslavia and Lebanon how, almost without meaning to, people slip into civil war.
I think there’s an unconventional civil war going on in Iraq at the moment. There are armed groups attacking mosques. People show up dead 15, 20 in the morning with bullet holes behind their ears. And these are sectarian killings on an almost daily basis.
So I agree that it’s not — there’s not a full-scale civil war, but there is a kind of civil war going on already. And I think we came to the brink of having it heat up into a conventional civil war just two weeks ago with the Samarra incident.
I don’t think that this is something that’s intrinsic to Iraq. That is to say, Sunni-Shiite violence has not been a big feature of 20th-century Iraq. This is something new. If you go back in history, there were riots between leftists and rightists, or there were problems with the Christian minority or with the Kurds, but Sunni-Shiite violence among the Arabs at this scale is something new. And it’s not fair to see this as something that’s always gone on in Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: Mohammed Hafez, in your study of insurgencies and how they build or how they don’t, in this case, how do you distinguish between — if there is such a thing — a garden variety insurgency and a brewing civil war that’s about to spin out of control?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, I think you could have both. We’ve seen examples of this in Algeria and Lebanon, et cetera, where you could have ongoing fighting, external countries come in and try to flare up that civil war.
But what we’re seeing in Iraq is that part of the insurgent groups, particularly those associated with Al Qaeda, which of recent months have merged into this Mujahedeen consultative council, these people have always had a strategy of sparking sectarian strife for their own agendas.
They want to collapse the political system that’s emerging. They see the Shia as heretical, as apostates. And they have an interest in sparking that civil war for creating a base for Al Qaeda, one that they’ve lost in Afghanistan.
GWEN IFILL: If they have that interest, Mr. Gerecht, does that mean that this interest that they will be able to achieve, given especially what happened in Samarra?
REUEL GERECHT: Well, I mean, they certainly had some success. I mean, I don’t think there’s any way you can deny that the Sunni holy warrior attacks, which have led to the wide-scale killing of civilians, again particularly the killing of women and children, has taken a toll. I think the attack on the shrine was psychologically very, very damaging.
So, again, I have to emphasize I think the majority of the Shia community is probably still behind Sistani, who wants this — Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the most important Shiite cleric in Iraq, wants this process to go forward, but it’s difficult.
And on the Sunni side, I think the intimidation, the targeting of important Sunnis, particularly military men — you’ve had a general not that long ago, an important military officer was killed who was protecting the roads from Baghdad down south to the holy city of Najaf, which led to a deterioration — these type of targeted killings have been effective and certainly intimidate the Sunni community, too.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Cole, I want to know if you agree with that. And I also want to know if you agree with what Secretary Rumsfeld was saying today. We heard in the news summary that Iran has had a very specific hand in all of this in sending members of its revolutionary guard across the border, government-sanctioned intervention — meddling, I think, Secretary Rumsfeld would call it — in the continuing unrest.
JUAN COLE: Well, of course, I don’t have access to any particular information about this; I should be very clear. However, it doesn’t make any sense to me.
Iran has a strong interest in Iraq staying together as a united country. It has a strong interest in the Shiite-dominated political process in Baghdad going forward smoothly. And I do not believe that the Iranians have a reason to send armed groups in to stir up trouble. I think they would much rather there not be so much trouble on their borders.
Every indication so far has been that most of the violence is conducted by Iraqis, mainly Sunni Arabs, nationalists of various sorts, whether religious or secular, and with some help from outside Sunni jihadi infiltrators.
Very, very few Iranians have been captured in Iraq. Most of those were misguided pilgrims suspected of espionage or something and often let go fairly soon. So I do not understand why Mr. Rumsfeld is saying this, and I don’t see the evidence for it.
GWEN IFILL: Do you understand it, Mr. Gerecht?
REUEL GERECHT: Well, I think it is fair to say that the Iranians have an interest in seeing that the radicals within the Iraqi community move forward in advance. I would not have put the emphasis on Iran, certainly, dealing with the insurgency and the Sunni holy warriors.
The primary problem there for the holy warriors are the networks coming in from surrounding Sunni Arab states and for the almost tacit support that the insurgents have received also from places like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. I think that is a far greater concern than Iranian mischief and nefarious activity, which the clerical regime is quite capable of; I just don’t think they’ve been that successful in Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: And Professor Hafez, when the United States makes statements in the form of the ambassador or the defense secretary about these things which they believe are driving the violence, does the United States help calm the waters or exacerbate the problem?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, I think the U.S. is doing several things that are correct. Pushing the Shiite-dominated political process to start sharing power, particularly when it comes to the defense ministry and ministry of interior, to open the doors for the Sunnis, I think that is a positive move and a necessary one.
But also the U.S. presence in the area is actually very helpful. Whatever we believe about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, whether right or wrong, the fact that U.S. forces are there now, I think, is really helping prevent a full-scale massacre on both sides, not just Sunnis killing Shiites, but Shiites killing Sunnis.
GWEN IFILL: On the political front, Mr. Gerecht, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, why is he so unpopular? Why, if the suspicions are true, do so many people seem to have a hand in trying to get him not to run for a second term?
REUEL GERECHT: Well, I think the general consensus in Iraq is that he’s incompetent; even his friends think he’s incompetent. And they want to push him out.
They also think — and particularly, I think, on the Sunni side and also on the Kurdish side — that he has done a very, very poor job of trying to exert greater pressure to ensure that militias, Shiite militias, have been incorporated into the security structure. The official security organizations don’t engage in revenge killings and rogue operations.
And there’s also, I must say, there’s a lot of distaste for Jaafari, I think, on the Shiite side of the house. The problem is, is that I think there’s a general fear that, if the United Iraqi Alliance, this alliance of Shiite parties, were to come apart that the Shia community could fracture. And that is why Jaafari is able to so far maintain his position, not because anyone thinks all that highly of him.
GWEN IFILL: What is your sense of why Jaafari seems to be in such political peril, Professor Cole?
JUAN COLE: Well, I have a different take on it. I don’t think it’s a matter of personality. Jaafari represents the Dawa Party and was elected, in part, with support from Muqtada al-Sadr’s group. And they are dedicated to a strong, central government in Iraq.
The Kurds don’t want that. Jaafari really wants to prevent the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the north from going into Kurdish hands altogether because he’s afraid it would break up the country if the Kurds are able to monopolize that resource. And he’s been doing diplomacy with the Turkish government in order to try to push back Kurdish attempts to take Kirkuk.
And I believe that President Talabani, who is a Kurdish politician, is really functioning as a Kurdish politician when he tries to dislodge Jaafari in favor of someone who is more amenable to the Kurdistan model for Iraq, which is one of strong provincial autonomy. It’s really a matter of central government versus states rights.
GWEN IFILL: Do these uncertainties, Mr. Gerecht, make it possible that a political solution, if it remains so elusive, will make it more difficult for the United States to continue on a path toward troop withdrawal?
REUEL GERECHT: Well, I mean, I suspect that the Pentagon is dedicated to some form of troop withdrawal and that the counterinsurgency tactics they’ve adopted to incorporating U.S. soldiers inside of Iraqi units are actually going to allow them to draw down perhaps even substantially.
I’m not sure that’s a good idea, but I think that’s the direction they are going. And they’re going to go in that direction, I think, irrespective of the level of violence in Iraq.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Hafez, which is the chicken and which is the egg when it comes to the choice between violence and withdrawal? Does one affect the other?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Absolutely. I think, as I mentioned earlier, the presence of the U.S. really helps maintain at least a semblance of a political process. What the insurgents are counting on is a rapid U.S. withdrawal will allow them then to collapse the security services, which they believe they’re not in a position to fight back the insurgency.
And if that happens, I think really then we get into the civil war, because the Shiites have nothing to protect them, not a central state to be able to protect them. And they will rely on the militias, whether it’s the better organization or the Mahdi army. And, certainly, the Kurds have their own with the Peshmergas.
So U.S. Presence in the area is key to maintaining the political process. It’s problematic; there are a lot of dilemmas that we have to choose between here. But at a minimum, I think we need a few more years so that the security services can be able to withstand the onslaught of the insurgents after the U.S. leaves.
GWEN IFILL: Mohammed Hafez, Juan Cole, and Reuel Gerecht, thank you all very much.
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Thank you.