25 Mar 2007
The outgoing US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has warned that the sectarian divide currently tearing Iraq apart may engulf the whole Mid East region if nothing is done to halt and reverse the trend. The diplomat was echoing what political observers of the Iraqi situation have been predicting. This is not the first time Khalilzad has spoken candidly on this particular topic. In March 2006, the diplomat departed from the Bush administration’s usual upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq to declare that the US invasion of Iraq had opened a Pandora’s box of conflicts that could usher in a regional war and give rise to religious extremists who “would make Taliban Afghanistan look like child’s play”.
Certain mistakes committed by the Americans might have played a significant role in shaping the current Sectarian strife. Looking back at the start of the occupation, the actions and pronouncements of the Paul Bremer administration (first US civilian administrator of Iraq) aided in no small way in opening the Pandora’s box. For unexplained reasons, prior to the crackdown and pacification of the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah towards the end of 2004, top US political and military leaders kept on repeatedly referring to the ‘Sunni Triangle’. I do not know whether the appellation ‘Sunni Triangle’ was an American invention or it was an existing name under Saddam’s Iraq. What ever its origin was, it was improper for those administering Iraq to employ it when it was obvious that they were playing into to the hands of Sectarian Extremists.
Thus the Americans displayed a lack of sophistication in handling the transition in Iraq from the onset. Instead of acting like an impartial broker, the US gave the impression that they were more allied to the Shiite Muslim majority. This perception alienated most Sunnis and paved the way for Al Qaeda to gain grounds within their ranks. The ‘debaathification’ of the Iraqi army resulted in the retrenchment of many trained Sunni soldiers, some of who left with bitterness to join the insurgents including Al Qaeda.
Between 2003 (when the country was invaded) and today, Iraq has undergone unbelievable transformation especially with regards to internal cohesion and tolerance. Saddam was a brutal dictator but he managed to hold this country together and contained extremist forces. Iraq was an outstanding secular Arab country where religious minorities felt safe and Sunnis and Shiites coexisted peacefully albeit with some difficulties. Today, the Sunnis and Shiites are at each other’s throats and minorities like Christians seem to have just two options to choose from - - convert to Islam or migrate. Suicide bombing that was unheard during the Saddam years has become fashionable in today’s Iraq. Blind violence initiated by these suicide bombers has instilled a culture of permanent fear in the community. In today’s Iraq, it is like embarking on an adventure if you want to go to the market, to school, to work or even to a place of worship. The Iraqis have become the hostages of fear. That fear has driven over 2 million Iraqis across the border to neighboring Syria and Jordan. Two million more have been displaced internally. It is a very terrible situation to live with. It will be very unfortunate if this Sectarian conflict is allowed to move out of Iraq into neighboring countries.
The continued presence of Americans in Iraq is an incentive for that scenario to become reality. It is about time that the Bush administration accepts the obvious reality that no practical solution to the Iraqi problem will emerge as long as Americans remain in that country. Ever since America admitted that she used a false pretext to invade Iraq, she should have apologized to the Iraqi people and draw a timetable to pull out of the country. Her continued stay will only give credence to those that claim she ‘cooked’ the reasons to justify an invasion for different aims.
Recently it was reported that the Iraqi government was making exploratory contacts with insurgents with a view to negotiating an end to the violence. That was a salutary move. The only drawback is that they may not get any headway as long as the factor of future American presence is not clarified to the insurgents. Remember that Bin Ladin actually applauded the American invasion of Iraq. That invasion did not only eliminate his sworn enemy (Saddam) but it also gave a cause celebre (American Presence) for Al Qaeda to rally people around it within Iraq. Insurgents have killed several people suspected of collaborating with the Americans in Iraq. The fear of being targeted by extremists will certainly deter those among the insurgents that want to talk with the Iraqi government.
It is my opinion that the Americans can facilitate this dialogue by declaring a pullout deadline. The US took the unpopular decision to lead the so-called ‘Coalition of the willing’ to invade Iraq. She must do everything possible to try and prevent Iraq’s neighbors from being contaminated by the Sectarian strife that is destroying the country.
An American pullout, I believe will facilitate negotiations with insurgents and will also eliminate the rallying point that militants employ to make recruitment.
The US house of Representatives has already passed a bill urging the Bush administration to pull out of Iraq next year. The Bush administration needs to figure out how she can blend this pullout with the proposed negotiations between the Iraqi government and insurgents. It certainly will not serve anybody’s interest if George Walker Bush continues to stick to his old thinking and threatening to veto the bill on American withdrawal from Iraq.
Njei Moses Timah