The explosion of fighting this week among Iraq’s leading Shi’a militias and political factions is the latest episode in a long-standing intra-Shi’a civil war. This latest violence highlights that the Bush administration’s surge of combat troops into the country last year has temporarily masked tensions between rival groups competing for power, instead of creating a sustainable security and political solution to Iraq’s conflicts.
Resurgent fighting stretching from Baghdad to Basra pitting elements of Muqtada Al Sadr’s Madhi Army against Abdul Aziz Al Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Badr Organization (also known as the Badr Brigade), with support from Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s Iraqi Security Forces and the U.S. military only brings into the open this long-running intra-Shi’a civil war. Adding another layer to just one component of Iraq’s complicated civil wars, a third Shi’a faction, the Fadhila movement, is also engaged in the struggle for power in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city.
At the same time, anti-U.S. and anti-Maliki Sunni insurgents have continued to clash with all three Shi’a militias as have (to a lesser extent) the mostly Sunni “Awakening” militia allied with the United States—at least for now. Further confusing the Iraqi battleground, the mostly Sunni Awakening militias and U.S. forces continue to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, with help from the Kurdish pesh merga fighters, who are also engaged in fighting with Arab Sunni groups in northern Iraq.
At the same time, Maliki’s mostly Shi’a and Kurdish Iraqi Security Forces are facing pressure from the U.S.-backed “Awakening” militias, which are growing increasingly restive over the Maliki government’s failure to include them in supposedly national ISF military units.
Well, it’s equally difficult for the U.S. military to sort out friend from foe in Iraq these days, as our forthcoming report “How Does This End: Strategic Failures Overshadow Tactical Gains in Iraq” will make clear. In it, we detail how Iraq’s fractured and well-armed political factions all paused for a bit in their confusing, multiple civil wars amid the U.S. military’s surge. Now, it seems, all that fighting is about to break out again in earnest.
Hopeful happy talk from the Bush administration and its conservative allies in Congress about the success of the surge will not mask the underlying realities on the ground in Iraq. In fact, the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq and the wider Middle East today could be best described as “strategic confusion.” For the sake of short-term and fleeting security gains, conservatives have strengthened the hand of Iran’s closest allies inside of Iraq, including the ruling Shi’a elite in the central government. At the same time, the United States has sent millions in U.S. taxpayer money to former Sunni insurgents with the blood of American soldiers on their hands.
Problem is, conservatives in Washington and key Iraqi factions expect the United States to remain as the chief of police in Iraq trying to referee their multiple civil wars. With the surge now winding down and unraveling, more American casualties are unfortunately in the cards because of this strategically misplaced task. Instead of remaining trapped in the trenches of Iraq’s multiple internal conflicts, the United States needs to get back to its core strategic interests and focus on other fronts, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Al Qaeda central is located.
There’s clearly a better strategic way forward. The United States cannot impose democracy on Iraq. Only the Iraqis can do that, and they will not attempt to do so (and perhaps fail) until the United States begins a strategic reset of its military forces in Iraq and around the region. That will force Iraq’s warring factions and Iraq’s neighbors—all of whom have critical stakes in finding stability in Iraq—to face up to the difficult task of sectarian and ethnic reconciliation.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.