The U.S. Should Stop Training Forces for the Expanding Iraqi Civil War


As the violence in Iraq mounts and the U.S. military experiences a spike in deaths and casualties, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’a, has refused to begin disarming Shi’ite militias, which have infiltrated the government security forces. Al-Maliki has also resisted allowing the U.S. military to conduct large-scale operations in Sadr City against the Mahdi Army, a radical militia that is part of the government and responsible for many sectarian killings. Despite his reluctance to take on these militias, al-Maliki predicts a substantial withdrawal of U.S. forces early next year, as the number of U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces rises. Taken together, what all this means is that the U.S. strategy of training Iraqi security forces to permit an eventual U.S. withdrawal is merely preparing another set of fighters for the rapidly escalating civil war.

Al-Maliki’s words and actions imply that he is convinced that an all-out sectarian bloodbath is inevitable. Because al-Maliki wants to keep as many Shi’ite fighters as he can for the upcoming rumble, he will continue to postpone disarming the militias. Once the U.S. has trained enough Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi security forces to supplement and become infused with these militias, al-Maliki, like the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, would just as soon get rid of the foreign occupier.

Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and John Warner, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have both given the al-Maliki government two to three months to improve security–”that is, to disarm the Shi’ite militias. But these warnings, along with President Bush’s recent statement that he would invite a change in strategy if the administration’s current plan is not working, make it likely that the administration will change course after the mid-term elections in the U.S. It is also likely that the Baker Commission will be used to suggest a policy redirection; one which the administration can tolerate.

Although Senator Joseph Biden, ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted some enthusiasm on the commission for the far-reaching solution of partitioning Iraq into three or more autonomous regions or states, James Baker, the chairman of the commission, has publicly rejected the idea. More than likely, the administration will change its “stay the course” policy to begin a slow U.S. withdrawal, with a “Vietnamization”-style replacement by Iraqi security forces–whether they are ready to stand alone or not.

Even if the Iraq security forces weren’t infiltrated with Shi’ite death squads, no one has ever elaborated on how rag-tag Iraqi security forces would be able to suppress the Sunni insurgency when the best army in the world has not been able to do it. At least during the failed “Vietnamization” program, South Vietnam had existing security forces that the U.S. could bolster and improve–”forces that have had to be completely reconstituted under fire in Iraq. As those forces have stood up, they have been permeated with sectarian Shi’ite thugs.

The U.S. government doesn’t like to admit it, but the U.S.-supported Iraqi government is dominated by militant Shi’a with close ties to Iran. It is interesting that while the U.S. government is very hostile to Iran, it is in such a weak position in Iraq that it has had to put up with Iranian allies in power in Baghdad.

Thus, a continued U.S. military occupation, which continues to train Shi’ite forces, will only intensify the civil war after the U.S. leaves. A better option would be to establish a more immediate date when all U.S. forces will be withdrawn from the country. That action would force the Shi’ite-Kurd dominated Iraqi government to give the Sunnis some incentives for ending their insurgency and agreeing to a decentralization of Iraqi governance. The Sunnis are the only one of the three major Iraqi groups that wants a unified Iraq, because in a loose confederation of autonomous states or a partition, they would get little oil. The oil is located primarily in the Kurdish north and Shi’ite south of the country, not in the central Sunni region.

A rapid U.S. withdrawal and decentralization of Iraqi governance is the last hope to avoid a full-fledged civil war, because the three groups don’t want to live together and are frightened that a strong central government could be used to oppress the group or groups that don’t control it. A strong Iraqi central government has a bloody historical legacy.

A rapid U.S. withdrawal would halt the training of Shi’ite forces for an expanded civil war and foil al-Maliki’s plan to win it. Also, by threatening to remove U.S. backing from a government dominated by the Shi’a and Kurds, the U.S. would put pressure on those groups to reach a decentralization settlement that shared either oil revenues or oil wells with the Sunnis. A decentralization of government and sharing of oil revenues was part of the agreement that ended the Sudanese civil war, which killed millions of people. The animosity among Iraqi groups is not yet that great, but it is growing rapidly out of control. To prevent the tragedy of a full-blown civil war, the U.S. must first quit deepening the hole it is in and then use its climb out to fill back in the dirt for Iraq’s future.