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A 'Sectarian Battle Royale'?

4:27 PM, Sep 18, 2007 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Danger Room editor Noah Shachtman has just returned from Iraq and his reporting is getting much deserved attention, particularly this bit tucked away in a larger piece about counter-IED technology:

Sunni political and tribal leaders are increasingly throwing in their lot with U.S. forces here against Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent types. But, to get them to come over to our side, the American military has fed them a steady diet of anti-Shi'ite propaganda.

Arrests and killings of Shi'ite militants are announced from loudspeaker blasts; President Bush's bellicose rhetoric towards Shi'a Iran is reported on friendly radio programs. But the majority of this country is Shi'ite. Are we setting ourselves up as the enemies of the majority here? Are we priming the pump for an all-in sectarian battle royale? It seems like a possibility.

I take Noah's reporting at face value, but I will quibble with his analysis, which has been picked up and amplified by a number of lefty blogs. Matthew Yglesias makes a huge leap from what Shachtman writes to "Schactman reports on Bush administration efforts to lay the groundwork for massive bloodshed in Iraq," easily shifting from a question of results to one of intentions. He adds, "this supports my view that our policy may, on some level, be deliberately aimed at fostering sectarian conflict in order to keep both sides friendly to the idea of an open-ended American military presence."

Sectarian conflict was spinning out of control before the surge and the concurrent Anbar Awakening. No one is disputing the recent drop in violence (see today's Rueters story on the "sharp fall in victims of violence" at Baghdad's hospitals), though some have tried to dispute the administration's explanation of it--asserting that ethnic cleansing had already progressed to such a point as to begin burning itself out. Yglesias's belief that the administration is acting to foster sectarian violence doesn't merit rebuttal, but Shachtman's concern that our propagandizing threatens to plunge Anbar into a war against the central government also doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

In the bad old days before Anbar turned the corner, the population there was being fed a steady stream of anti-Shiite propaganda from al Qaeda, and before that the propaganda came from Saddam. The pump was not only primed for civil war, it was pumping--Anbar has been at war with Iraq's Shiites for decades. U.S. forces have managed to deescalate the situation in Anbar and turn the population against al Qaeda. The next project should be to bridge the rift with Iraq's Shiite majority, but one step at a time. Now that U.S. forces have pacified the once violent province, they can't be accused, at the same time, of setting the stage for further bloodshed. The stage was already set, this new strategy is the only thing stopping it. If Shachtman worries that U.S. forces have gone too far, that is something to be carefully evaluated, but to believe that this strategy will turn Anbar against the Shia...we arrived far too late in the game to be held responsible for that.