The Sunnis, an Islamic sect that makes up about 35 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, are being confronted with a stark choice, either accept subordination to the less-educated Shiite majority or face the devastation of Sunni neighborhoods, the imprisonment of many Sunni males and the deaths of large numbers of the Sunni population.
In referring to this possibility, many in Washington object to the word "genocide" - which is defined in international law as the destruction of "in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group" - but already there are troubling signs that Iraq's incipient civil war could slide into something close to that.
Retaliating against Sunni bombings and other attacks on Shiite targets over the past two years, Iraq's Shiite-controlled security forces have begun rounding up, torturing and executing Sunni men.
"Some Sunni males have been found dead in ditches and fields, with bullet holes in their temples, acid burns on their skin, and holes in their bodies apparently made by electric drills," Filkins wrote. "Many have simply vanished." [NYT, Nov. 29, 2005]
In November, a secret bunker - where Sunni captives were mistreated and apparently tortured - was discovered in an Interior Ministry building in Baghdad. The Shiite-dominated government has denied responsibility for the abuses and the murders.
But human rights groups and other investigators have blamed many of the Sunni killings on the Badr Brigade, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia associated with a leading element of the Iraqi government, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Council has close ties to the fundamentalist Shiite government of Iran.
U.S. officials also acknowledge that hard-line Shiite militiamen, who have penetrated the government's security forces, are operating "death squads" to terrorize Sunnis.
The killings and disappearances are reminiscent of the bloodshed in Central America in the 1980s when right-wing regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador unleashed security forces to round up, torture and kill suspected leftists.
That violence, however, was primarily defined by political ideology, rather than race, religion or ethnicity. An exception was the slaughtering of a Mayan Indian tribe in the Guatemalan highlands as part of a military scorched-earth campaign that later was investigated by a truth commission and denounced as "genocide." [For details about Ronald Reagan's tolerance of these atrocities, see Robert Parry's Lost History.
In Iraq, the religious component of the nation's incipient civil war is already apparent, although Bush often has presented the Iraqi conflict to the American people as a war largely between foreign Islamic "terrorists" and freedom-loving Iraqis.
Bush finally dropped that distorted analysis in his Nov. 30 speech about his plan for "victory" in Iraq. He divided the "enemy in Iraq" into three groups - the Sunni "rejectionists," who resent having lost their privileged status; the Sunni "Saddamists," who retain loyalty to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein; and the foreign "terrorists," who have entered Iraq to fight the American invaders and generally spread chaos.
U.S. military analysts estimate that more than 90 percent of the forces battling American troops come from the first two Sunni categories, with the foreign jihadists representing only from 5 to 10 percent of the armed opposition. Though Bush didn't give percentages, he did list the groups in declining order by size, with the "terrorists" the smallest.
Yet what is problematic about Bush's analysis in terms of the genocide issue is that he identifies the vast majority of the "enemy" as Sunnis. That means both Iraq's Shiite-dominated government and U.S. forces in Iraq are already targeting a religious minority for defeat, establishing one of the first conditions for the definition of genocide.
The next element in the equation will be how far the war against the Sunnis goes - or put differently, how stubbornly the Sunnis resist.
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