Iraq: The Avengers


September 18, 2005: The al Qaeda "war" against Iraqi Shia is now five days old. Some 250 Iraqis have been killed so far, most on the first day, and most of them civilians and Shia. But a growing number of the dead bodies found are Sunni Arabs, and it appears that some of the newly trained Shia police and soldiers are moonlighting as death squads. Sunni Arabs complain of raids, sometimes by men in uniform, that efficiently remove Sunni Arab men, who later turn up dead, and often showing signs of torture (indicating interrogation to obtain more information on who is attacking Shia civilians.) The government is not making a particularly strong effort to find out who the moonlighting police are, and stop them. The government keeps telling the Sunni Arab leadership that these al Qaeda attacks on Shia civilians can only end badly for the Sunni Arab population. While many Sunni Arab groups, still loyal to the Baath Party (or Saddam Hussein), and determined to have Sunni Arabs running the country again, continue to attack Shia Arabs, the victims are increasingly attacking right back. Terrorism, it appears, works both ways in Iraq. But instead of spectacular car bombs, the Shia Arab and Kurd "avengers" (as they see themselves) stalk individual Sunni Arabs (known to have been killers of Saddam, or terrorists today), and shoot them dead. Sunni Arab men known, or believed to be involved in terrorist operations, are rounded up at night, usually to be never seen alive again. All of this is in addition to legitimate counter-terrorist operations, where the people rounded up survive the process. 

Al Qaeda's man in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, is getting desperate. More and more of his key subordinates are being rounded up or killed. His bases in Sunni Arab areas are being captured or bombed (after their location is given up by locals angry with the continued terrorism). The war, however, is being fought in a traditional fashion. That means bloody raids by one tribe's warriors against each others populations, as well as attacks on the tribal leaders (both religious and civil.) Dozens of Sunni and Shia religious leaders have been assassinated in the past year, and the surviving ones increasing travel with large security details. But the Sunni Arabs have lost most of their military edge. That was not so bad when most of the troops they faced were American. But the recent battles along the Syrian border saw the majority of the troops being Iraqi. While the Americans still did some of the most difficult fighting (because that was, in the end, easier and safer than letting the less capable Iraqis do it, and possibly get into big trouble), it was the Iraqis that went in and screened the civilian population, and battled any stray holdouts. To the Sunni Arab civilians, this meant that these Shia Arab or Kurdish troops were taking names, and noting who was really hostile, and who appeared resigned to the "new Iraq" (run by the majority Shia and Kurds). The Sunni Arabs knew that the Americans were not going to protect them from pre-dawn raids by off-duty Shia or Kurdish policemen, or a carload of Shia assassins looking to avenge a kinsman killed by a Sunni Arab working for Saddam in the past, or  al Zarqawi today.

In this part of the world, such tribal conflicts are sometimes fought to the point where the weaker tribe is exterminated, with survivors scattered to distant refuges. Most Shia Arabs and Kurds are not unhappy with this outcome, for those Sunni Arab tribes that continue to support the terrorists. And some Sunni Arab tribes are determined to resist until the end. They do this believing that Sunni Arab majorities in neighboring countries like Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will ultimately come to their aid. This is largely a false hope. Only Saudi Arabia, and it's Gulf Arab allies, have the power, and they live in fear of an armed response from Shia Iran. Only America  has the power to stop the Iranians, and America won't do that in order to put the Sunni Arabs back in charge in Iraq.

Al Zarqawi is correct in viewing the struggle as one between the Shia Arab majority, and the Sunni Arab minority. Where al Zarqawi is wrong is in his belief that the Sunni Arabs cannot fail to win if they kill enough Shia Arabs. For al Zarqawi, this is a religious battle. The Sunni fanatics that run al Qaeda see all Shia as heretics, who do not have the support of God. That's not only bad theology, it's inaccurate. God sides with the Big Battalions. And in Iraq, those belong to the Shia.


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