Derek Woolner is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre ANU.
Fascinating as Michael Ware's post is, it remains a fantasy. Its narrow focus on the Sunni insurgency ignores what the other 80% of Iraq's population was doing. These Shias and Kurds were just as militant and determined to shape the future of their country as were the former rulers.
Ware's thread of American missed opportunity rising out of ignorance went further than US treatment of the Sunni insurgency. Incompetence was embedded at the very inception of the campaign and Ware is wrong to separate the invasion from the rest of America's war.
The early decisions of America's political leaders fundamentally weakened the post-invasion environment. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld pursued his ambition to showcase America's technological superiority and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz argued Iraqi oil revenues would remove the need for post-invasion reconstruction planning. Both aggressively repelled wiser advice from the US military and the Department of State.
Consequently, the invasion delivered the US control of Iraq with forces insufficient to ensure civil order (let alone contemplate counterinsurgency) and without programs capable of restoring Iraqi infrastructure. Insecurity and lack of basic utilities became the driving force of Iraqi discontent. The US quickly became incapable of influencing the course of events.
Iraqi discontent was not restricted to the Arab Sunni. A poll of Iraqis conducted in April 2004 showed that almost 60% thought the Americans should leave immediately and more than half thought killing Americans was justified in at least some circumstances. Of course, polls are only expressions of opinion, but by this time Sunni insurgents had destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad and in April the Mahdi Army of Shia cleric Moktada al Sadr rose in armed revolt in the Shia holy city of Najaf.
The under-resourced Americans were forced to negotiate a ceasefire through the offices of the Shia's Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. Al Sadr was the son of a former Grand Ayatollah and a vociferous advocate of immediate US withdrawal. American attempts to arrest al Sardr had sparked the uprising but he was now beyond their reach and was to remain a central dealmaker in successive Iraqi governments.
That some Iraqis remained untouchable while the US pursued the Sunni insurgency was the corollary of another piece of American policy. The Bush Administration had decided to create in Iraq a model democracy that would, the Americans believed, create sweeping democratic change throughout the Middle East. They and their allies believed, almost with a passion, that the secularism of Saddam's Ba'ath Party would continue to guide Iraqi politics, but that was not a popular view. The parties that represented the Shi'ite community were irrevocably sectarian.
The Islamic Da'wa (Islamic Call) Party (of Iraq's first two prime ministers) was formed in the 1960s to revive Islamic values against Ba'athist secularism. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq grew from al Da'wa members who wanted to replicate the Iranian Islamic revolution in Iraq. Then there was al Fadhila (Islamic Virtue), the followers of Moktada al Sadr, which demanded an immediate American withdrawal.
The election of January 2005, boycotted as Michael Ware notes by the Sunni, demonstrated the Shia's tight sectarian allegiance in the overwhelming win of the Shi'ite sectarian grouping, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). With the Kurdistan Alliance (KA) it dominated the first Iraq National Assembly. Consequently, the Shia and Kurds controlled the drafting of the national constitution, which was designed to limit the future influence of the Sunni. For all that the Americans railed and Sunnis demonstrated against it, the draft constitution was adopted by national plebiscite in October 2005.
Contrary to Ware's illustration of the power of the Sunni insurgency, it instead demonstrated its irrelevance, for the UIA and KA again won control in the December 2005 elections, with al Fadhila returning the largest single bloc.
Further, any leveling of the political scales brought by Sunni participation was soon eroded by virtue of another American policy. Unable to leave while Iraq was in chaos, the US exit strategy centred on developing a new Iraqi military to enforce security. Very quickly the new military units came under the control of the constituent parties of the UIA, whilst the constitution gave the Kurds control of their peshmerga, at the time the most effective force in the country.
In effect, US forces sponsored a revolution in Iraq, similar to the German army opening the way for the Russian revolution. In the Shi'ite south and Kurdish north sectarian control was established, courtesy of President Bush's sponsoring of Iraqi democracy. In the centre and west, the Americans fought the Sunni insurgency on behalf of the new Iraqi government, that is, the sectarian political parties.
So it was that the Sunnis were to be sidelined until the present. Sectarian conflict was to become more brutal following the destruction the Shi'ites' hallowed Askariya mosque in February 2006. In the following 18 months, 4 million Iraqis became refugees. Even the American troop surge, prompted in response, merely institutionalised the sectarian divide in cities such as Baghdad with concrete barriers and checkpoints.
Photo by Flickr user The Poss.