“As usual, I find things there amiably awful!” Mephisto retorts when God chides him for caviling about evil circumstances on Earth. After two years of predicting civil war in Iraq, Mephisto’s words come to mind now that civil war has arrived. God helps drunks, small children, and the United States of America, the old saying goes. Someone is helping the United States in Iraq, although here it might not be God but rather the other fellow.

One reads dire predictions everywhere that civil conflict in Iraq might lead to regional war. That is true, but no one fears this more than the government of Iran. Iran sent its cat’s paw, the sectarian butcher Muqtada al-Sadr, running home from Lebanon last weekend with a message of religious brotherhood. Iran has only one military objective, namely to own nuclear weapons. Without them its military is an ill-equipped rabble; with them, it is the dominant regional power. For Tehran, anything else is a distraction.

“I call upon all believers, Sunnis and Shi’ites, to unite. All Iraqis should be brothers to each other,” said Muqtada on Sunday, after prayer services on Friday at which 20,000 of his followers prayed for Sunni-Shi’ite unity, and after a set of violent attacks upon Sunnis during the weekend. In this case Muqtada is a paragon of sincerity. His supporters in Tehran count on the threat of a Shi’ite rising as an instrument of strategic blackmail against the United States, for the Shi’ite militias can ruin Washington’s dream of a unified and democratic Iraq. If Washington’s soap-bubble pops, down goes Iran’s ability to intimidate Washington.

More wishful thinking has been wasted on the notion of regime change in Iran than on the lottery. The Ahmadinejad regime represents the majority of Iranians, poorly educated people with few prospects in the modern world. Whom are such people supposed to choose as an alternative? Iran’s regime cannot be subverted, unless, of course, it becomes embroiled in a foreign military adventure in which President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s supporters come to dislike their role as cannon fodder.

That is why Tehran’s policy all along has been to support US efforts on behalf of constitutional government in Iraq to bring that country’s Shi’ite majority into power by peaceful means (see A Syriajevo in the making?, October 25, 2005). Despite Iranian efforts to build up the capabilities of Shi’ite irregulars inside Iraq, the capabilities of the Sunni military caste remain formidable even after the dissolution of the Saddam Hussein regime, and the outcome of full-fledged civil war would be uncertain. Power within Iraq now is balanced the way the British intended it to be when they stitched together this Frankenstein monster of a country after World War I.

In fact, the worst outcome from the vantage point of Washington’s interest would be a stable constitutional government in Iraq. Once Shi’ite elements controlled leading ministries, Iran would have unlimited means to meddle in the classic Middle Eastern style of infiltration, bribery and intimidation. Middle Eastern governments, after all, are not governments in the Western sense, but rather hotels in which different factions rent rooms. With footholds inside the Iraqi government, Iran could develop forces on the ground in depth and at leisure.

Full-scale civil war, however, would make it difficult for Iran to stand by while Shi’ites were slaughtered, yet open intervention in Iraq would give Washington the opportunity to make a horrible example of the Islamic Republic, with or without the issue of nuclear weapons.

Resistance to gradual Iranization comes from the Sunni military caste, not from foreign infiltrators, whose numbers and military capabilities both are overrated (see Will Iraq survive the Iraqi resistance?, December 23, 2003). The Sunnis already have shown themselves willing to employ suicide attacks on a scale larger than Japan’s World War II kamikazes, and cannot be defeated except by bloody attrition (see Why Sunnis blow themselves up, June 14, 2005). But they cannot attain victory either. After a millennium of martyr status, the Shi’ites are prepared to sacrifice themselves in frightful numbers to achieve the potential of their historic moment (see The blood is the life, Mr Rumsfeld!, October 12, 2005).

The Iraqi Kurds, meanwhile, have established a quasi-independent province. They have all the benefits of partition without the liabilities, such as fending off outraged and humiliated Turks.

America’s military already has repositioned to the periphery of cities; there will not be another siege of Fallujah. Although the proximate cause of this redeployment was reduction of US casualties, it has two other effects. One is to allow both Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias freedom to assemble military forces capable of inflicting large-scale atrocities on each other. The second is to prevent either side from massing sufficient forces to launch a full-scale civil war.

The result will be a low-intensity civil war that can persist more or less indefinitely. Populations caught in the middle will do what such populations normally do, that is, migrate to areas of sectarian control that offer greater protection. It will not be necessary to announce a partition. The Iraqis will partition themselves with household items piled into pickup trucks.

Two years ago I speculated that the United States might steer events in Iraq toward this outcome (The devil and L Paul Bremer, January 20, 2004). But there is not a speck of evidence that Washington has done anything but stumble into a position that is as advantageous for US interests as it is miserable for the Iraqis. Father Joseph du Tremblay, Cardinal Richelieu’s 17th-century intelligence chief, did this sort of thing as he perpetuated the Thirty Years’ War (see The sacred heart of darkness, February 11, 2003). But there is no Gray Eminence in today’s Washington; the contemporary world is incapable of producing personalities of this sort.

Instability favors the side with the greatest strategic flexibility, and that is the United States. The Russian Federation, not an enemy but at least a competitor of the United States, wants to reduce US flexibility. That is why Russian diplomacy is attempting to deflect the US from confronting Iran over the issue of nuclear-weapons development. Washington’s best move on the chessboard would be quietly to agree to forget about “color revolutions” in the remains of the Soviet Union, in return for Moscow’s solidarity with its efforts to rein in Tehran.

That leaves the issue of Saudi Arabia, where a car-bomb attack on the country’s largest oil facility on Friday cast in relief the kingdom’s potential weakness. Any country in which foreigners hold 90% of the jobs and most young men live off government dole will produce a small army of fanatics. But the Saudi business is less complicated than it looks. If al-Qaeda can cajole and threaten Saudi officials, so can Washington.


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