The Sunnis, an Islamic sect that makes up about 35 percent of Iraqs 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 Iraqs 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, Iraqs 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.
U.S. officials also acknowledge that hard-line Shiite militiamen, who have penetrated the governments 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 Parrys Lost History.
In Iraq, the religious component of the nations 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.
Yet what is problematic about Bushs analysis in terms of the genocide issue is that he identifies the vast majority of the enemy as Sunnis. That means both Iraqs 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.