Nir Rosen: I think it shows just once more that events inside the Green Zone have really no relation to what happens on the street in Iraq. They are bickering among themselves about how to create a government. But outside the Green Zone, they wouldn’t last a minute, not one of these leaders, they would immediately be killed. Events inside the zone have been a big theater: What it does show is that they can’t even cooperate at a political level. Meanwhile, their militias are already fighting each other, whether they are Kurdish, Shia, or Sunni. It shows there is no hope of any political rapprochement. Not that that would have an impact on the ground, because on the ground it is the militia leaders who are in charge. Every neighborhood has its own little army, every mosque has its own little army, that’s where the power lies in Iraq, with the guys with the guns on the street.
FP: Is civil war in Iraq inevitable now? Is there a way out?
NR: People have been asking me that a lot lately. There’s been a civil war in Iraq since 2004. It’s on a low scale, and nobody has really been paying attention because it’s happening at night, away from where the journalists are. The casualty numbers are still fairly low, but they’ve been steadily increasing. In the north, immediately after the war, the Kurds emptied a lot of areas of non-Kurds, and Arabs have “ethnically cleansed” some areas of Kurds. So it’s been reciprocal. In the south, soon after the war started, Shiites were taking over Sunni mosques. In Baghdad, Shiites and Sunnis attacked each other’s clerics and mosques starting in 2004. In Sunni-majority neighborhoods, they drove out Shiites with threats and killings. There were population exchanges basically. It was sort of like “Bosnia light.”
Militias are getting stronger and stronger. Hatred is growing between Sunnis and Shiites. To Sunnis, all Shiites are Iranian. To Shiites, all Sunnis are Baathists, Saddamists or Wahabbis. Iraq is now not just in a civil war, it’s practically a regional war, because you have Iran strongly supporting the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, and Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and individuals from Syria supporting the Sunnis because they’re terrified of a Shiite-dominated Iraq. And as the civil war in Iraq escalates, you’re going to find that the nation-state concept is sort of irrelevant. If a Sunni tribe is attacked in Iraq and they have relatives in Jordan, Syria, or Saudi Arabia, as many do, those tribal relatives are going to come in at a certain point, too, and it’s going to draw in the whole region.
FP: Are these tribal and sectarian ties stronger than the Iraqi national identity?
NR: This wasn’t the case in the beginning. I think the United States contributed to this. There certainly were grudges, Shiites had good cause for that, as they were the primary victims of Saddam. But in 2003, nobody used the words “Shiite” or “Sunni”, there was a very strong nationalist discourse. Sunnis and Shiites held joint prayers, and sectarian attacks were rare. [Abu Musab al] Zarqawi’s movement contributed a great deal, of course, because his ideology despises Shiites more than anything—even Jews or Christians, in fact. And U.S. policy alienated the Sunnis right from the beginning, dismissing the army and the Baathists for example, which disenfranchised the community and treated it as the enemy. And by apportioning seats on the interim Governing Council according to the faction—Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite—we sort of enshrined sectarianism. And we made the Shiites the good guys, the Sunnis the bad guys, this is a process that Washington contributed to. And it’s going to get much worse. I think you’re looking at Mogadishu in 1991 or Beirut in 1982. Soon we will stop seeing 50 people dead every day, and start seeing thousands. My friends in Amria, the Sunni neighborhood, tell me that three bodies are found every morning lying there on the main street.
FP: You favor a withdrawal of U.S. forces. Wouldn’t a withdrawal empower Islamist extremists and result in even greater bloodshed?
NR: Islamic extremists took over the country on April 9, 2003. The U.S. military was present, but it wasn’t in control. The vacuum we created by dissolving the security forces immediately led to clerics and tribal leaders taking over—the most reactionary, conservative forces of Iraqi society. The country hasn’t recovered from that. The looting contributed as well, there was no Iraqi infrastructure left, there were only clerics controlling various neighborhoods, both Shia and Sunni. And one of the reasons why Washington resisted Iraqi calls for elections in the spring of 2003 was because it was afraid that clerics and tribal leaders would win the elections. In fact, they both took over in January 2005. So we basically had almost two years of destruction for nothing. At this point, U.S. forces perhaps control whatever military base they’re on, but when it comes to ruling Iraq, the clerics are in control.
FP: In a recent article, you suggested that Moktada al-Sadr is the only man who can keep Iraq together. How?
NR: I don’t think anyone can keep Iraq together at this point. But if you try to think of a leader who is respected by all sides, ironically, it’s Moktada, because his rhetoric is Iraqi nationalist and people identify him as an Arab, whereas they view the Supreme Council in Dawa as Iranian implants. Moktada, right from the beginning, held joint prayers and demonstrations with radical Sunnis, he helped them in their fight against U.S. forces. And radical Sunnis have helped Moktada fight U.S. forces in the south. So when I speak to insurgents, Moktada is the only leader they respect. His own men refer to the two intifadas they fought against the Americans in the spring and summer of 2004. His staunch anti-Americanism is actually what unites Sunnis and Shiites. But at this point, I don’t think anybody can save Iraq, but at least he is somebody who hopefully will be involved in bringing the tensions down at some point, though unfortunately his men have recently been involved in a lot of sectarian reprisals as well.
FP: How will the Iraq war impact geopolitics in the long term?
NR: I think we are going to see decades of hostility between the West and the Middle East now. Very well-trained fighters who have gained experience in Iraq can now go to Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East. There have been several attempts in Jordan recently. Just last week they arrested 2 Iraqis and one Libyan, with a lot of explosives attempting to bomb some civilian location. Likewise in Saudi Arabia, in Syria, you are going to see increased sectarianism. I think the Muslim Brotherhood will take over in Syria, and sectarianism is increasing even in Lebanon, where Sunni and Shiite hostility had not been so intense before. There were recently demonstrations where Sunnis where chanting for Zarqawi and threatening the Shiites of Hezbollah. So throughout the region you have a huge civil war. It’s looking bad everywhere.
I’m not the first one to say this, but Iran is the big winner in all of this. The United States has no leverage over Iran at this point. If the United States were to strike Iran, Iran could simply support the Shiites in Iraq. And if the Iraqi Shiites start attacking U.S. and British forces en masse, it will make the Sunni insurgency look like child’s play.
Since the war, radical Islam has strengthened in Iraq. Hamas won in Palestine, and the Muslim Brotherhood gained strength in Egypt. Throughout the region, political, radical Islam, which might have been a spent force until a few years ago, is only strengthening. This is blowback, just like in the 1980s when a generation of Arab jihadists went to Afghanistan and gained skills. We are now going to have a new generation of young fighters experienced in jihad from Iraq. They’re going to lead the fight for the next 20 years. When I was in recently in Pakistan, near the Afghan border, I bought a magazine dedicated to the heroes of Fallujah. I was in Mogadishu this summer, and there was actually a store named after Fallujah, and guys walking around wearing Fallujah T-shirts. Throughout the Muslim world, people actually believe that America is the enemy of Islam and even if this might not be true, they have Abu Ghraib and the destruction of Iraq to point to. We’ve also given reform and democracy a bad name. Suddenly, the dictatorships in the Arab world don’t look so bad, in comparison to Iraq, and people are more suspicious of change.
FP: Christopher Hitchens has proposed a “Nixon goes to China” approach to Iran. What do you think of this idea?
NR: I think that’s probably the first intelligent thing I’ve heard Hitchens say in the past five years. I think that’s very important. Had this happened earlier, perhaps Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have not won the elections. The Iranians have been speaking about a dialogue of civilizations for a long time, and Washington has responded only with threats and enmity, really. I think increased business ties would certainly strengthen the U.S.-Iranian relations. I don’t think there’s any reason for the United States and Iran to be enemies, apart from the Iranian-Israeli hostility. I think they are natural allies. It’s about time Washington made an overture to Iran. We certainly don’t want to miss the boat and let the Europeans make inroads economically in Iran, a market the United States needs. The Iranian people have no inherent hostility toward the United States. I think such a move would work.
Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New America Foundation. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The New Republic. His book on postwar Iraq, In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, will be published by Free Press in May 2006.