April 1, 2006


The war in Iraq has entered a bloodier phase, with the killings of Iraqi civilians rising tremendously in daily sectarian violence while American casualties have steadily declined, spurring tens of thousands of Iraqis to flee from mixed Shiite-Sunni areas.

The first thing I thought of when I saw this article - even before I read it - was this class I took my senior spring. I had been planning to take a class about moral decision-making and political theory, but it was a lot like the amazing seminar I'd taken the semester before, and in the first week of classes, I heard about a directed reading1 on genocide. I went, and I felt this sense of responsibility, like even though it meant studying all of these incredibly horrific things, I couldn't possibly not take it. For the rest of the spring, I would periodically walk into the Hipster Monk's room and scream, because the things I was reading about were so horrific. The Political Schmientist is studying human rights violations in grad school right now, with some emphasis on sexual violence, and I think she's having a similar experience.

Folks, that's what's on its way to happening in Iraq. The NYT article I linked to doesn't have a lot of the explicit details of violence that are so difficult to read about, but the process it describes is familiar to me. Iraqis are starting to be scared - and apparently reasonably so - to be ethnic or religious minorities. They are leaving their homes to go to places where they will be members of the religious or ethnic majority, despite a long history of fairly peaceable coexistence and despite the major financial costs of doing so. Civilian casualties are increasing, not decreasing, and the focus of the violence is gradually shifting from Americans to Iraqis.2 These are warning signs of civil war, and especially of a civil war with the potential for genocide. The situation reminds me a great deal of the former Yugoslavia's disintegration: get rid of a violent dictatorship that overwhelms ethnic tension, then watch as the record of prior coexistence gets drowned in appeals to nationalism/sectarian ideology. Watch people dehumanize "the other side," then threaten them, then kill them, then try to wipe them off the face of the earth. It's not just civil war we're risking in Iraq, it's genocide. I don't know who's at greatest risk for a genocidal campaign, but the Sunni-Shiite violence right now has that potential.

I want to draw attention to one point in this article that hadn't really occurred to me: US training and arms for Iraqi police and military are fueling this conflict.
The migrations are partly caused by the fear of partisan Iraqi security forces, many of them trained by the Americans. The police and commando forces are infested with militia recruits, mostly from Shiite political parties, and are accused by Sunni Arabs of carrying out sectarian executions. One Sunni-run TV network warned viewers last week not to allow Iraqi policemen or soldiers into their homes unless the forces are accompanied by American troops.
It's not really surprising: part of the reason for the Taliban's success is that we armed and trained the people who became the Taliban when we thought we could use them against the USSR in Afghanistan; a major cause of brutal violence and human rights violations in Latin America is the training the US provides to 'friendly' Latin American military forces at the School of the Americas. Every time we arm and train combat forces, it ends up biting us in the ass. The US government has been talking a lot about "Iraqification" - turning over responsibility for security to Iraqis - but that, in and of itself, seems to be increasing the risk of a civil war and thus of genocide. What's surprising is that it didn't even occur to me until today to connect the training and weaponry we provide in Iraq with the results we've had in providing same things elsewhere. There's no reason to think Iraq will be better, which is pretty incredibly depressing to think about.

The worst, for me, is that I can think of absolutely nothing productive to do in response.

1. At my school, directed readings happened when a student wanted to study something and persuaded a professor to do it. We met slightly less than a normal class, and it was a one-off: it will probably never be offered again, especially since that professor's retiring. That meant it was a lot easier to get it to happen, because it didn't change the whole department's balance of course offerings.
2. The large majority (65%) of attacks are still against Americans and other foreign forces; in September, though, it was 82%.

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