Never in the course of human conflict have so many done so much so quickly to disillusion so few, referring of course to President George W. Bush and his advisers. Iraqi, Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian leaders kicked away the props behind Washington’s stage-set for democracy in the Middle East, all within the space of four days.

Hezbollah, after sweeping elections in the south of the country on June 5 in Lebanon’s staggered polls, laughed at American demands that it disarm. Hamas holds the balance of power in Palestine after Mahmoud Abbas postponed parliamentary elections scheduled for July 17. Syria, meanwhile, went back to its usual business of intimidating local as well as Lebanese opponents. And on June 8, Iraq’s Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders embraced the ethnic militias now engaged in a low-level civil war with the country’s Sunni Arabs.

What should frighten Washington is not the quantity, but rather the character of attacks against coalition forces and their Iraqi auxiliaries. The resistance lost its capacity for frontal assault after Fallujah, but has undiminished capacity for suicide attacks, a method that bespeaks incurable desperation. As the chart below makes clear, the consistency of the coalition casualty rate suggests that a broader trend is at work, rather than a few instances of die-hard fanaticism. It is hard to obtain accurate monthly data for casualties among Iraqi forces, but they scale the same way.

Blowing oneself up to kill one’s enemy is not the sort of gesture we expect from groups that have given serious thought to parliamentary democracy. The US authorities now admit that foreign fighters comprise an insignificant fraction of Iraqi resisters. It is not only the Islamist fanatics, but also the locals who walk into a crowd of Iraqi police recruits with a bomb belt.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is iraq-casualties.gif

Washington still refuses to believe that the Iraqis themselves are driving the situation toward civil war. Anthony Cordesman of Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a May 12 draft entitled “Iraq’s evolving insurgency”, argues:

Key insurgent elements include Arab and Islamist groups with significant numbers of foreign volunteers, as well as Iraqi Islamist extremists, like the one led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is unlikely that such groups make up more [than] 10% of the insurgent force, and may make up around 5%, but in some ways they are the most dangerous element in the insurgency since they seem to be deliberately trying to provoke a civil war between Iraq’s Arab Sunnis and its Arab Shi’ites, Kurds, and other minorities. The insurgency already has long been a low-level civil war, and is being driven towards a broader Sunni vs Shi’ite conflict by Islamist extremists. [1]

Cordesman, I think, has missed the point. Even if foreign Islamists provide more than their due share of the cannon fodder, Iraqi Sunnis are willing to kill themselves to get at their American as well as their Iraqi enemies.

No more than a dozen or so Sunnis engage in suicide bombings over the course of a given month, to be sure, and one might argue that these are singular individuals. But here the singularity defines the situation. What sort of population produces such a steady trickle of suicide bombers, much larger than the Palestinians sent against the Israelis? One cannot dismiss the suicide campaign of the Iraq resistance as Islamist extremism, because their leaders derive from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, which drew on Nazism more than on the Koran. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka staged fewer than two dozen such attacks over the space of a decade. The Sunni rate of political suicide appears to be the highest in modern history, excluding a tribe or two of Amazon aboriginals. [2]

Evidently, the Sunnis see their prospects differently than does Bush. Rather than Wal-Mart and the Parent Teachers’ Association, Iraq’s Sunnis see an endless horizon of poverty and humiliation, such as they inflicted on the Shi’ites in the past. Since the British installed the Hashemite dynasty in the Mesopotamian province liberated from the Ottoman Empire, the Sunnis have held the whip hand against the Shi’ite majority. A few more seats in Iraq’s parliament will alter their circumstances not a whit.

The Mesopotamian Sunnis, like Hezbollah or Hamas, well may understand their position better than does the president of the United States. Minorities that have withstood a thousand years of invasions, oppression and massacres now face a new and deadlier threat. During the past century, 2,000 ethnic groups have gone extinct, but an equal or larger number will go extinct during the next decade, as two spoken languages disappear each week.

Prosperity today comes at the price of leveling traditional relationships of all kinds, everywhere, that is, except for the oil-producing nations of the Middle East, where petrodollars have kept traditional society alive in a sort of iron lung. The oil producers did not have to send their young men to work in German factories, like Turkey, or their young women to work in German brothels, like Ukraine. The complex of tribal, religious and linguistic associations that divide the peoples of Iraq will not go out with a whimper, like cultures that the global marketplace slowly has eroded. Instead, they will go out with a bang.

Sudden impoverishment motivates men to fight to the death. In the modern era the most remarkable example is the American Civil War, in which died an astonishing two-fifths of Southern men of military age. The South fought for its “way of life”, that is, for the fact or opportunity of membership in a leisure class supported by slave labor. [3]

Gaming the odds on civil war in Iraq has blossomed into a minor industry during the past few months. I wrote in January 2004, “No one in the Bush administration wants to let slip the dogs of civil war. On the contrary, the White House still hopes that Iraq will set a precedent for democracy in the Muslim world. Yet civil war is the path of least resistance.” [4] This is tragedy, not malice or forethought, even if Bush comes across like an outtake from Aristophanes rather than a character in Aeschylus. Some in the Bush camp view the promotion of Arab democracy as an asymmetric bet. “Either it will be very good for us [if it works], or it will be very bad for them [if it doesn’t].”

America lacks the cultural capacity to create the sort of military and intelligence assets that would be required to manipulate local events. Just 3,000 British officers staffed the British Raj in India, Sir John Keegan observes (in Intelligence in War), and they “wore a version of native dress, spoke Indian languages and prided themselves on their immersion in the customs and culture of their soldiers”. No such imperial adventurers can be found among the Shi’ite militias (although there are a few advisers working with the Kurdish peshmerga).

I continue to argue, as I have for two years, that the meat grinder of civil war will reduce the numbers of those who would rather die than accept the mediocrity of their circumstances. Washington will make gestures to Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Sunni resistance to no avail; the latter will demand that America fight them to the death. Reluctantly, Washington will have to oblige.

[1] See

[2] See Live and Let Die, Asia Times Online, April 13, 2002.

[3] See Happy birthday, Abe – pass the blood, Asia Times Online, February 10, 2004.

[4] See The Devil and L Paul Bremer, Asia Times Online, January 21, 2004

Leave a comment