20,000 more troops to support ethnic cleansing?

John Burns and Fareed Zakaria raise the question: will adding troops actually make the Shi’a militias even bolder in maltreating their Sunni countrymen?

Iraq has an insurgency, mostly Sunni. It also has a sectarian civil war, Sunni (and not just the insurgents, but everyone in some neighborhoods) against the Shi’a militias, private armies, death squads, plus the police and army that the militias, private armies, and death squads have infiltrated, with protection from Shi’a politicians including the Prime Minister. In his address to the country, the President promised that new rules of engagement that would accompany the surgulation would free U.S. forces of the need to defer to the pro-militia sensibilities of the politicians who run Iraq.

If that were true, it would count as a reason to support the plan, though (in light of its other problems) not in my view a sufficient reason. But there’s serious doubt about whether it’s true.

First, as Mark Seibel points out in a hard-hitting piece, the canned history offered in the speech was mostly false, and slanted in a way that laid all the blame for sectarian violence on the Sunni insurgents:

But the president’s account understates by at least 15 months when Shiite death squads began targeting Sunni politicians and clerics. It also ignores the role that Iranian-backed Shiite groups had in death squad activities prior to the Samarra bombing.

Blaming the start of sectarian violence in Iraq on the Golden Dome bombing risks policy errors because it underestimates the depth of sectarian hatred in Iraq and overlooks the conflict’s root causes. The Bush account also fails to acknowledge that Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite groups stoked the conflict.

President Bush met at the White House in November with the head of one of those groups: Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. SCIRI’s Badr Organization militia is widely reported to have infiltrated Iraq’s security forces and to be involved in death squad activities.

In addition, the speech was (naturally) reticent about the involvement of the Iraqi security forces and leading Iraqi political figures in war crimes and crimes against humanity. Diplomatic reticence is a praiseworthy thing, and I surely wouldn’t want less of it from this Administration. But it is a little bit harder to fight evil if you’re not willing to call it by its name.

Two other stories today increase my level of worry on this score.

John Burns, in the New York Times

… the signs so far have unnerved some Americans working on the plan, who have described a web of problems — ranging from a contested chain of command to how to protect American troops deployed in some of Baghdad’s most dangerous districts — that some fear could hobble the effort before it begins.

First among the American concerns is a Shiite-led government that has been so dogmatic in its attitude that the Americans worry that they will be frustrated in their aim of cracking down equally on Shiite and Sunni extremists, a strategy President Bush has declared central to the plan.

“We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem,” said an American military official in Baghdad involved in talks over the plan. “We are being played like a pawn.”

Fareed Zakaria, in Newsweek, is even grimmer and more circumstantial::

Maj. Mark Brady confirms reports that the Mahdi Army has been continuing to systematically take over Sunni neighborhoods, killing, terrorizing and forcing people out of their homes. “They’re slowly moving across the river,” he told Hastings, from predominantly Shiite eastern Baghdad into the predominantly Sunni west. If the 20,000 additional American troops being sent to the Iraqi capital focus primarily on Sunni insurgents, there’s a chance the Shiite militias might get bolder. Colonel Duke puts it bluntly: “[The Mahdi Army] is sitting on the 50-yard line eating popcorn, watching us do their work for them.”

So what will happen if Bush’s new plan “succeeds” militarily over the next six months? Sunnis will become more insecure as their militias are dismantled. Shiite militias will lower their profile on the streets and remain as they are now, ensconced within the Iraqi Army and police. That will surely make Sunnis less likely to support the new Iraq. Shiite political leaders, on the other hand, will be emboldened. They refused to make any compromises—on federalism, de-Baathification, oil revenues and jobs—in 2003 when the United States was dominant, in 2005 when the insurgency was raging, and in 2006 when they took over the reins of government fully. Why would they do so as they gain the upper hand militarily?


Over the past three and a half years, the dominant flaw in the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq is that it has, both intentionally and inadvertently, driven the country’s several communities apart. Every seemingly neutral action—holding elections, firing Baathists from the bureaucracy, building up an Iraqi military and police force—has had seismic sectarian consequences. The greatest danger of Bush’s new strategy, then, isn’t that it won’t work but that it will—and thereby push the country one step further along the road to all-out civil war. Only a sustained strategy of pressure on the Maliki government—unlike anything Bush has been willing to do yet—has any chance of averting this outcome.

Otherwise, American interests and ideals will both be in jeopardy. Al Qaeda in Iraq—the one true national-security threat we face from that country—will gain Sunni support. In addition, as American officers like Duke and Brady have noted, our ideals will be tarnished. The U.S. Army will be actively aiding and assisting in the largest program of ethnic cleansing since Bosnia.

(Emphasis added.)

So what Machiavelli called the “effectual truth” of the Bush/McCain surgulation may actually be Phil Zelikow’s genocidal “80% plan”: letting the Shi’a and the Kurds do what they will to the 20% of Iraqis who are Sunni Arabs.

Is that what this is all about? Are we really going to send another 20,000 troops to Iraq so they can hold the Sunnis’ arms while the Shi’a beat them up? I can’t really believe that this is what GWB thinks he’s doing. But I don’t have any trouble believing it might actually happen.

Footnote: The Seibel piece suggests that when the McClatchy chain absorbed Knight-Ridder, it absorbed some of Knight-Ridder’s feistiness. Good for them! Semi-outsider status has its advantages, it seems. McClatchy wasn’t going to get the exclusive backgrounder anyway, so its reporters can do less source-greasing and more truth-telling.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com