A symmetry of evil in Iraq?

Jeff Weintraub thinks I’ve underplayed the problem of Sunni-on-Shi’a violence. I didn’t intend to. But it’s Shi’a-on-Sunni violence that’s part of the policy of the Iraqi state which our government created and supports.

In an email, Jeff Weintraub asks why posts in this space have concentrated on the massacre, torture, and ethnic cleansing carried out by the militias and death squads of Iraq’s majority Shi’a, to the exclusion of the mayhem by Ba’athists and jihadists from the minority, but long-dominant, Sunni Arab population. That’s a fair question.

The Shi’a control the Iraqi government. The militias and death squads are integrated into the Iraqi police and army: the technical term, as I recall, is “state-sponsored terrorism.” That’s the state set up as a result of our invasion and occupation, and which Mr. Bush is sending another 20,000 troops to prop up.

So while the victims of Sunni-on-Shi’a killings are just as dead as the victims of Shi’a-on-Sunni killings, I don’t have to worry about my government’s being complicit in them. More to the point, I don’t have to worry that adding more troops might increase their number, as it might well increase the number of Shi’a-on-Sunni killings by giving the Shi’a the upper hand in the sectarian war now in progress: in effect, holding the Sunnis’ arms while the Shi’a beat them up.

But Jeff is surely right to say that the early days of the occupation featured relatively little Shi’a-on-Sunni violence, and that whipping up the sectarian war was one of the objectives of the (mostly Sunni) insurgency, culminating in the destruction of the Golden Dome of the Al-Askari Mosque, a major Shi’a shrine. That helped increase support among the Shi’a for the murderous Mahdi Army and Badr Brigades, and their violence in turn helped increase the support for the insurgency among the Sunnis.

Right now, there’s ethnic cleansing going both ways, with Shi’a being driven from some neighborhoods of Baghdad and Sunnis from others. If I thought adding U.S. troops, or keeping them there longer, would on balance reduce the extent of that activity, that would in my view be a serious argument for doing so. But as things stand I don’t see it.

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