The most significant new reality in Iraq—in fact, the country's defining feature—is sectarian violence. By any reasonable definition, Iraq is mired in a low-grade civil war between its Sunni and Shia communities. Communal tensions are high, and rising—everywhere. Violence has been mounting in all areas where these communities are mixed. Ethnic cleansing, either forced or voluntary, is increasing rapidly, with 365,000 people having fled or been forced from their homes since last February's bombing of a Shia mosque in Samarra. In Baghdad alone more than 2,600 Iraqis died in September, most of them as a result of communal attacks.The most difficult fact about the sectarian conflict is that there is little hope competing groups will seek accomodation:
Virtually everything about Iraq today must now be seen through this sectarian prism. President Bush says that we are building an Iraqi Army and police force and that as their troops stand up, America's will be able to stand down. In fact, we are building a largely Kurdish and Shia force. As its ranks have swelled, Sunnis have felt more threatened, not less, and as a consequence have fought harder. Shia militias, many of whose members are now enlisted in the Army and especially the national police, feel empowered. They have routinely rounded up groups of Sunni men and slaughtered them in gruesome fashion. Even the country's much-lauded elections have not proved an unmitigated good in this context. Last December's vote empowered religious parties with their own militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, and, as a result, made it more difficult to disband them.
Read the whole thing. To move forward, the Iraqi leadership must realize that political compromise is a prerequisite for a continued American presence in the country. Zakaria suggests that to preserve America's interests in Iraq, the administration should implement a phased drawdown from the country, eventually leaving troop levels in the 40,000 to 60,000 range, and bulking up the number of military advisors backing the Iraqi military and police.
The Shia leadership remains extremely resistant to any concessions to its former Sunni overlords. The Shia politicians I met when in Baghdad, even the most urbane and educated, seemed dead set against sharing power in any real sense. In an interview with Reuters last week, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki also said he believed that if Iraqi troops were left to their own devices, they could establish order in six months in Iraq. It is not difficult to imagine what he means: Shia would crush Sunni, and that would be that. This notion—that military force, rather than political accommodation, could defeat the insurgency—is widely shared among senior Shia leaders. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the single largest political party in Parliament, has made similar statements in the past. While they will occasionally say the right things, as Maliki did in his first week in office, their reluctance to fund projects in Sunni areas, or to investigate death squads, suggests they have little appetite for broader national reconciliation.
The Sunnis, for their part, seem consumed by their own anger, radicalism and feuds. They remain so incensed with the United States for their loss of power that they have been, until recently, blind to the reality that if not for U.S. forces, they would be massacred. What political leadership the Sunnis have is weak and does not appear to have much leverage with the insurgents. There is no Sunni with whom to make a deal.
All sides in Iraq are preparing for the day the United States leaves. They are already engaged in a power struggle for control of the post-American Iraq. The Kurds have ensured that their autonomous region is governed essentially as a separate country with its own army. The largest Shia parties want to maintain their militias to bolster their own power base, independent of the state. And the Sunnis do not want to wind down the insurgency, for fear that they will be impoverished or killed in the new Iraq. Nobody believes that, after the Americans, this power struggle will be resolved with ballots. So they are all keeping their bullets.
In an earlier post I suggested that we need to think about a rational withrawal from Iraq. As Zakaria notes in his conclusion, the U.S. deployment to Iraq has had it successes -- liberation from tyranny, Kurdish political ascendance, and the flowering of pluralist democratic institutions not seen anywhere else in the Middle East -- but these gains need to be consolidated before they are lost.