The Magazine

The Consequences of Failure in Iraq

They would be awful. But failure can still be averted.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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With little American appreciation, Iraq's Shiite leadership, particularly the traditional clergy behind Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has endeavored to keep its own from imploding into hostile, warring militias. A Shiite dictatorship, the only other possible outcome in Iraq, is still a verboten subject among the Shia. By comparison, it's not hard to find Sunni Arabs pining for the return of a Sunni strongman; since its early love affair with Ayad Allawi, much of Washington would have gladly compromised democratic principle for dictatorial strength.

The Iraqi Shia still seem to know that they cannot go down the dictatorial road without provoking internecine strife. As Sistani and his followers have tried to point out, democracy for the Shia is first a matter of communal survival. And as long as this conviction holds, the compromises necessary to keep the Shiites together offer Iraq's Sunni Arabs a way out of insurgency and holy war. This will be neither easy nor pretty. Even in the best of circumstances--even if a successful American-led counterinsurgency takes hold and Iraqi politics slowly becomes more normal--Shiites wanting revenge for Sunni atrocities, and Sunnis wanting revenge against Shiite death squads, will seek opportunities to strike. If Westerners reflected on the violence of their own democratic evolution, they might be more appreciative of the distance the Iraqis have come under ghastly circumstances.

The miracle in Iraq is that the Iraqi government, feeble and sectarian as it is, hasn't given up trying to play by the rules and hasn't forsaken completely its imperfect constitution. The presence and power of Americans is undoubtedly the primary reason the worst hasn't happened. But only the blind, deaf, dumb, or politically malicious cannot see that the Iraqis themselves, especially the Shia, are still trying desperately to avoid the abyss. Having seen, then, that there is still sufficient political hope on the Iraqi horizon, let us return to the matter of what will likely happen in Mesopotamia and the Middle East if the United States departs.

Certainly the most damning consequence of failure in Iraq is the likelihood that an American withdrawal would provoke a take-no-prisoners civil war between the Sunni and Shiite Arabs, which could easily reach genocidal intensity. The historical parallel to have in mind is the battle between subcontinent Hindus and Muslims that came with the independence of India. Although of differing faiths, the pre-1947 Hindus and Muslims were often indistinguishable culturally, linguistically, and physically. Yet they "ethnically cleansed" their respective new nations, India and Pakistan, with exuberance. Somewhere between 500,000 and one million Muslims and Hindus perished, tens of thousands of women were raped, and more than ten million people were forced to flee their homes. This level of barbarism, scaled down to Iraq's population, could quickly happen in Mesopotamia, long before American forces could withdraw from the country. (And it's worth recalling that few British officials anticipated the communal ferocity that came with the end of the Raj.)

Certain Western observers of Iraq, and many Arab commentators, have suggested that it is the American presence in Mesopotamia that aggravates the differences between Shiite and Sunni. If the Americans were to leave, then a modus vivendi would be reached before massive slaughter ensued. Shared Arabism and the Prophet's faith would helpfully reassert themselves. Yet, this seems unlikely. Iraq since 2003 strongly suggests a different outcome. Violence in both the Shiite and Sunni zones has gone up, not down, whenever American and British forces have decreased their physical presence in the streets and their intrusion in government affairs. Sunnis and Shiites who see no Americans are killing each other in greater numbers than Sunnis and Shiites who do see Yanks patrolling their neighborhoods.

Although it would be very difficult for either Sunni or Shiite Baghdadis to say so, they probably both look back nostalgically to those days in 2004 when anxious, trigger-happy American military convoys posed the greatest risk to life and property on the roads.