Civil War in Iraq
The face of civil war in Iraq
LEMONDE.FR | 29.NOV.06 | 15h25 • Updated 30.11.06 | 12h22
Debate with Patrice Claude, Senior Le Monde reporter for Iraq, Thursday 30 November, 11:00 am
Q. Since when have we been talking of actual civil war? Do conditions exist in Iraq for civil war?
A. The debate really does not interest most Iraqis. But as to my opinion, and having witnessed at least one other civil war, I believe civil war occurs when communities do not trust one another, whether next-door neighbors or even in-laws. No one in Iraqi is willing to reveal any details about their private life. Sectarian militias armed with heavy weapons fire on each other between neighborhoods. Police barricades or pseudo-police are installed in different neighborhoods and shoot down any pedestrian on the sidewalk who belongs to the wrong community. I call that a civil war –a civil war that is worsening every day.
Q. Has sectarian division between Sunnis and Shi’a reached the point of no return? What about the Kurds? What’s their position in the civil war?
A. I have to tell you that few Kurds remain in Baghdad, where before the war most Kurds lived. Today, most of the Kurdish community has abandoned Baghdad. You realize this in visiting the north of the country and noticing the number of Kurdish families from Baghdad living in refugee camps and in stadiums. As to the point of no return, who can say? But when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki states that the crux of the issue is political, not confessional, he is correct.
I should tell you that a good quarter of the Arabs, both Sunni and Shi’a, have intermarried and are therefore mixed couples. I should also mention that most of the major tribes of Iraq have a Shi'ite branch and a Sunni branch. So, no, the point of no return probably has not yet been reached. The experience in Lebanon and elsewhere where there have been civil wars shows that nothing is final. I think with in a few years, we can hope that the Shi’a and the Sunni will reconcile.
Q. We now see that the big winner in the invasion of Iraq is Iran. How do the Arab states, especially in Saudi Arabia, feel about the creation of a Shi’ite Islamic regime in Iraq? Are they arming the Sunnis who are attacking the Shi’a?
A. Evidently the Saudis, the Jordanians and a few Sunni families of the Gulf petromonarchies are worried by what is going on in Iraq. The idea of seeing what King Abdallah II of Jordan calls a “Shi’ite crescent” forming in the region worries everyone, particularly all the Sunni regimes. Because all these countries have within their borders more or less significant Shi’a minorities with issues. If you take a look at a map of the Gulf today, you will notice that the petroleum reserves in Saudi Arabia and in all the neighboring oil producing countries have Shi’a minorities. Are Arab nations arming or financing the Sunni insurrection in Iraq? No one knows the answer to that question. These countries insist that they do not. But at the same time, all the Sunni autocrats in the region, beginning with Saudi Arabia, let it clearly be known that should the civil war worsen, they will not stand by.
Q. Does Moqtada Al-Sadr have links to Lebanese Hezbollah? Is the Lebanese Shi’ite opposition in the Siniora government aware of the sectarian rivalry in Iraq?
A. There are striking similarities between Hezbollah and the so-called “Sadrist movement” in Baghdad. After all, Moqtada Al-Sadr, like Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, share the same religious doctrine as regards the United States in particular and the West in general. This week, the United States accused Hezbollah of having trained several hundred Sadr activists, which Hezbollah has officially denied. But having interviewed Nasrallah, I know that he has greater sympathy for Sadr than for Ayatollah al-Sistani, who has refused to cooperate with the Americans but who regards them with a benign eye.
Q. How to the Americans fit into the civil war? Do they reject the idea of a civil war on the ground?
A. I don’t think they can deny that a civil war is transpiring. The US media has decided to call a spade a spade and is beginning to talk about civil war in Iraq. But the Americans on the scene reject the idea of partition of Iraq, which could worsen the war.
Q. Are the Ba’athists behind the armed insurgency in order to return to power?
A. Among the Ba’athists there are several schools of thought. Under US pressure over the last few weeks, the government has agreed to review the rules excluding former Ba’athists from public office. As we speak, nearly 95% of former Ba'ath pubic servants who were expelled by the administration in the wake of the U.S. invasion have gotten their jobs back, or retired. But as to high-ranking Ba’athists in the former dictatorship, especially in the military or in the security forces, many have gone into exile from where they direct the "resistance". Moreover, a reconciliation commission put in place by the Iraq government few months ago has met with many of them outside the country –in Amman, in Cairo and in the UAE. For the moment, there have been no concrete results.
Q. Is re-Ba’athification a positive factor in relieving social tension?
A. First, I don’t think "re-Ba’athification" exists. There are certainly former Ba’athists who got their jobs back in the administration but anyone attempting to re-Ba'athify the country would encounter no success. Today in Iraq it’s the Shi’ite and Sunni religious parties who rule.
Q. It’s hard to believe that people who used to get along are now ripping each other apart. What do you believe are the deciding issues?
A. Issue Number One for the Sunni and Shi’a armed militias is to control as much territory as possible in the capital, Baghdad. The second issue is to control as much territory within the country as possible. The phenomenon has already begun. For example, the Sunni minority in the south of the country, around Basrah and Diwaniyeh, which was never greater than 20% of the population, has fled en masse to the west, i.e., the Province of al-Anbar.
Q What effect will the execution of Saddam Hussein have on the “civil war”?
A. I think that certain groups, and in any case all those who were politically close to the Ba’ath Party or to old school Arab nationalism, will not let the occasion pass without conducting some large-scale operation for the purposes of propaganda and expressing their outrage. But overall, I really believe that no one in the insurgency imagines the return of Saddam Hussein or has much sympathy for him. I don’t think the execution would change much within the “resistance”.
Q. In the Arab media, especially al-Jazeera, there’s news of a proclamation of an Islamic state by armed Sunni groups. They demand imposition of Shari’a. How should we react to the news? Is this the reality on the ground?
A. No, there is no construction of a grand emirate. For the moment, it’s an announcement divorced from reality, except perhaps sporadically in some quarters of Baghdad run by small-time radical guerrilla warlords, who have imposed the veil, Shari’a and all the other trappings of radical Islam. That’s the extent of it for now.
Q. Given the quagmire, is there the possibility of involving all parties, including neighboring states, in a win-win solution?
A. I don’t know that there is a solution. In any case, a solution seems to me to be impossible without effectively including neighboring states, who risk suffering severely from a worsening of the civil war or a partition of the country.
Q. Does the conflict between Shi’a and Sunnis result from genuine tensions between the two groups or from the US invasion?
A. Without a doubt, it results form the US invasion. The Americans committed a host of errors from the beginning. They contributed in “communitizing” the government: for the Shi’a, the Sunni, the Arabs, the Kurds and the Christians. Through willing ignorance they set the stage for what is taking place today. However, I don’t believe for a second that they are promoting the spread of this confessional plague. I think they belatedly, as usual, realized their mistake, and now they don’t know how to put the country back together again.
Q. What is happening to Iraqi Christians in all this violence?
A. The Christians, who were protected under Saddam Hussein during the dictatorship, have nearly all abandoned Baghdad. Numerous churches have been attacked and set ablaze. Most Christians who have the means have gone into exile abroad or to Kurdistan, where they live in relative security.
Q. Do you think partition of the country in imminent?
A. No, I do not. But if you are talking about de facto partition, it is ongoing. But a partition de jure into three parts –Kurds in the North, Sunnis in the Center and Shi’a in the South– that seems to me to be totally impossible. First, because the Americans don’t want it; second, because the neighboring Sunni states don’t want it and, third, at least until now, no one in the government has suggested partition. Should this extreme solution be adopted, the bloodbath we’ve seen so far would be nothing compared to what would follow.
Q. Is there really an exodus of Iraqis towards neighboring states? Is there a risk of a humanitarian crisis?
A. The exodus is quite real. It is estimated that there are 800 thousand Iraqis in Syria, 500 or 600 thousand in Jordan and at least 100 thousand in the UAE. And we’re only speaking of those who are officially registered. The United Nations estimates that in 2004, more than 2 million Iraqis left the country in order to survive. The worst of it is that the refugees represent the country’s social, economic and political elite.
Q. What are the chances for the reconstruction of Iraq should the Americans pull out as quickly as possible?
A. I’d hand it to someone who could answer that question. I think that eventually Iraq will be reconstructed. But probably not in a way that will match the aims of American Neo-conservatives. History will decide.
Chat moderated by Gaïdz Minassian