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Al Qaeda, Impeachment, and Iraq

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If there is anything George Bush can rely on to keep us in Iraq, it is the threat that we will be "handing it over to Al Qaeda" if we withdraw, and inviting civil war. Whether you support the occupation, supported it before but now regret it, or were against it from the start, our options have dwindled to zero. We can't stop the world's worst humanitarian disaster from unfolding before our eyes - a proportionate number of refugees in the US would equal 50 million people - but we can't pull out. This is the classic definition of a quagmire.

There is only one problem: What if neither of these Apocalyptic premises are true?

Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said: "I have never been persuaded to believe that whether we stay there six months, a year, or two years, that if we would leave, that somehow Iraq would turn into a haven for terrorists." The evidence would indicate Hagel is correct. Al Qaeda in Iraq is roundly hated for targeting civilians. It is a small foreign force of at most 2000 fighters (the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group puts it at closer to 1300.) That's about ten percent of those taking up arms against the US occupation.

Al Qaeda consists of Yemenis, Algerians, Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and other nationalities. They speak different dialects of Arabic with different accents. What's clear to Iraqis is they are not Iraqi. Iraq is above all a tribal society, closely knit by bonds of kinship, intermarriage, and locality. People know who you are, who your brothers are, and who's new in the neighborhood. Col. Gary Anderson (USMC, retired) says "the people in Iraq who are going to be most sorry to see us go are Al Qaeda. We're the only rationale for them being around. Absent us, they become foreigners."

I hope to show that not only is our presence in Iraq beneficial to Al Qaeda; they actually need us there to survive. Al Qaeda is neither wanted nor liked in Iraq. The sooner we pull out, the sooner the local populations will identify and expel them, or kill them.

What the occupation has managed to do is to make Al Qaeda the devils the Iraqis will tolerate in their fight against American troops. The 2006 Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group found that 61 percent of Iraqis favor attacks on American forces. After the 2006 bombing in Samarra, of one of the Shias' holiest sites, a spokesman for the Sunni insurgent group Al-Sunna said "our people have come to hate Al Qaeda, which gives the impression to the outside world that the resistance in Iraq are terrorists. Fighting should be concentrated only on the enemy."

There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq before the summer of 2003, when it burst on the scene with characteristic violence. Its attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad which killed Brazilian diplomat Sergio DeMello and 21 other UN personnel forced the UN to pull out. The message was : Don't work with the Americans. In bombing after bombing Al Qaeda has shown its gift for alienating the local population. In July of 2007, Ansar Al-Sunna and six other nationalist and Sunni Islamist resistance groups united behind an anti-Al Qaeda platform, opposed attacks on civilians, and called for negotiations with Americans on a full withdrawal.

The fear that US withdrawal will unleash an intractable civil war betrays a misreading of Iraqi history. While a little knowledge makes it easy to subscribe to the idea that 'Saddam kept a lid on it, now we've got to' and 'they've been at each other's throats for a thousand years,' (and I admit I once subscribed to this fallacy) deeper study shows that the embers of sectarian division have always been fanned by those interested in a strategy of divide-and-dominate. Whether under the Ottomans, the British, or under Saddam Hussein, the pattern has been to set one tribal or religious faction against another, in order to, as Jonathan Steele writes in his book Defeat, "fragment Iraqi society and prevent opposition coalescing around groups with a potentially national appeal."

Left to itself, the natural forces in Iraqi society show a remarkable gravitational pull inward, expressed by high rates of intermarriage between Sunni and Shia, mixed neighborhoods, inter-religious cooperation, and the refusal of many Iraqis to identify themselves as members of one sect or another. During the American offensive against the Sunni stronghold of Falluja in 2004, which most Iraqis view as collective punishment for the killing and mutilation of four American contractors, American journalist Dahr Jamail reported that he "saw crowds of Shiites at the Abu Hanifa mosque in the heavily Sunni and Baathist Baghdad neighborhood of al-Adhamiya loading trucks with bags of food, blood for transfusions and many young male "humanitarian" volunteers-all ready for shipment to besieged Falluja." Similarly, after the 2004 Kerbala and Kadhimiya bombings against Shia shrines in 2004, Sunni imams in Falluja used minaret loudspeaker systems to urge people to donate blood, calls which by one account more than 1000 Sunnis answered.

Many Iraqis take offense at reporters' efforts to identify them as Sunni or Shiite. A 2004 Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies poll found the largest category of Iraqis classified themselves as "just Muslim." The journalist Jamail says "on the ground, Sunnis and Shiites are much more intertwined by bonds of tribal affiliation and family than is commonly understood in the United States. Descend from the politically charged worlds of the Shiite imams, Sunni sheiks and mainstream media to the realm of everyday people, and the danger of civil war seems more remote."

The Sunni-dominant, Shiite-subordinate model of Iraq under Saddam is a vast oversimplification which gets in the way of understanding what will happen when we leave. It's true that under Saddam, the ruling Baath Party was predominantly Sunni, but it's more important to remember that everyone suffered under Saddam, including Sunnis. Saddam's great skill was to play Sunni against Sunni, Shia against Shia, and of course the two sects against each other. In 1991, as the U.S. incited Shiites to revolt after Saddam's thrashing in the first Gulf War, he put out propaganda on state television about Shia mobs rampaging out of control, to turn the middle classes against the uprising.

Saddam co-opted, punished, bribed and tortured Sunni and Shia alike. During the 2003 invasion, as coalition forces approached the southern city of Basra, US and British forces were surprised to meet resistance from black-clad members of the local Saddam Fedayeen, who were local Shias. The Saddam Fedayeen along with the Republican Guard were Saddam's two personal elite units. The invading forces had assumed all Fedayeen were Sunni. In fact under Saddam there were many Shiite Baath party members. Lost in the narrative of the Sunni-dominant, Shia-subordinate model is the fact that when Saddam consolidated power in 1979, his first victims were Sunni in his drive to favor his own tribe and clan, the Baijat, and the Albu-Nassir.

The ways of Iraq's clans have proven a source of constant mystery to Middle East observers. When Lt. General Hussein Kamel, Saddam's cousin and son-in-law, defected to Jordan in 1995 to tell the West about the state of Saddam's biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs, he was promised safety if he would return to Iraq. He was promptly killed in a 13-hour firefight against other family members. It is hard to believe Kamel was a naive man who did not know that Saddam's promises of safety were hollow. A family member said "family honor had been restored." If Americans are to understand the balance between violence and long-term equilibrium in Iraqi society, the best model is not the Sunni-dominant-Shia-subordinate model, but perhaps the gangland politics of New York.

Sectarian and inter-tribal violence are not inevitable, although it flares up now and then. As the Turk said in Coppola's Godfather, blood is a big expense.

Defeat author Steele says: "Occupations are inherently humiliating. People prefer to run their own affairs. A foreign army that topples a regime needs to leave within weeks or, at most, months. Otherwise, suspicion will quickly grow that the foreigner's real aims are imperial - to run the country directly or through the locals it puts in charge, and to exploit its resources." When the occupier overstays, they are "drawn into a cycle of action and reaction, which undermines their initial goals. Improvisation and short-term crisis control replace strategic thinking. Insurgency is met with repression. Those who thought they came as liberators are perceived as murderous outsiders. Those who work with them are seen as traitors."

Al Qaeda understands that when we leave, it is vulnerable. This explains its brutal campaign to spark war between Sunnis and Shiites. But over and over, and ominously to lesser effect the longer we stay, the leading Shiite cleric Ayatollah Sistani and his counterparts in the Sunni community call for a rejection of revenge. After the 2004 car bombings which killed 200 Shia civilians in Kerbala and Kadhimiya, the Shia cleric Ayatollah Hadi al-Muddaresi said "There are parties and groups that are willing to push Iraq towards civil war, but the material to make it happen isn't there. We as Shias refuse to be drawn into such a conflict."

Iraqi political scientist Wamid Nadhmi says, "It will take Iraqis something like a quarter of a century to rebuild their country, to heal their wounds, to reform their society, to bring about some sort of national reconciliation, democracy and tolerance of each other. But that process will not begin until the US occupation of Iraq ends." Division to the point of warfare along class, ideological, religious, ethnic, or national lines has a long and complicated history in human affairs. At times economic and political forces seem to take hold and propel the sides to the tragic conclusion, as in the American War Between the States. But at other times embers are skillfully inflamed. Iraq's history suggests that, like the New York mobs, full-scale war occasionally breaks out in fits and starts, but the equilibrium tends toward coexistence.

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Ralph Lopez majored in Economics and Political Science at Yale University. He writes for Truth Out, Alternet, Consortium News, Op-Ed News, and other Internet media. He reported from Afghanistan in 2009 and produced a short documentary film on (more...)

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