Anyone who knows anything about the nature of the sectarian violence in Iraq knows that there can be no “victory” in Iraq for the United States. Richard Haass, a former Bush State Department official, said recently, “The Iraq situation is not winnable in any sense of the word ‘winnable’.”

Mr. Bush knows this because he was told this by Fouad Ajami, a Shia intellectual and professor at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. Bush invited Ajami to the White House last June to discuss the Shia/Sunni sectarian violence. He told the president that the Shia resurgence in Iran and Iraq was a historical process that would prove difficult and probably could not be stopped. Ajami said, “The idea that the Shia will make their claim on political power in the affairs of the Arab world and that it will be peaceful is not really tenable.”

This meeting was reported by Martin Walker in the most recent issue of “Wilson Quarterly”, about “The Revenge of the Shia.” Walker’s article follows closely the understanding of the Shia/Sunni divide laid out in a remarkable little book by Vali Nasr, “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future”. Nasr is professor of Middle East and South Asia politics at the Naval Postgraduate School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Remarkably, Martin Walker reports in his article that the Bush administration also consults Nasr, who has warned them of a possible inter-Islamic clash of civilizations. Nasr has told the administration that everything hinges on the ability of the United States and Iran to normalize relations and work together to manage Shia-Sunni tensions. “If Washington and Tehran are unable to find common ground – and the constitutional negotiations [in Iraq] fail – the consequences would be dire,” Nasr warned.
So we have this dangerously ironic situation in which our President has actually availed himself of the first hand knowledge of two experts on the Shia and Middle East history, yet he does not seem able to integrate their information into his thinking and policy making. Instead Bush is locked in his “axis of evil” box and making contingency plans to bomb Iran to stop them from building an atomic bomb.

In the meantime, the Shia are moving toward a more moderate position in the Islamic world as they flex their newly found power in the first democratically elected Arab government led by a Shia majority in Iraq, if they can build security and stability and actually govern the country. It is the more radical and extremist Sunnis who are hell bent on preventing that from happening.
In this vicious and bloody sectarian civil war that is now raging in Iraq the only rational outcome to be hoped for is that the Shiites hold on to power in a unified Iraq. But how can the United States take sides in such a conflict? Shia and Sunni are killing each other and both are killing Americans. And Mr. Bush continues to treat Shia Iran as a dangerous enemy operating on the side of “terrorism”. So how could he now work to find “common ground” with this evil enemy?

The Sunni/Shia schism goes back to the dynastic struggle following the death of the Prophet in 632 CE. The differences are part political and part religious. The Sunnis are the vast majority of Muslims and they regard the Shia as second class Muslims at best and heretics at worse. In the distribution of economic benefits in the Muslim world, the Shias have always been on the short end of the stick. The only full fledged Shia dominant nation is Iran, which is Persian and has a history of enmity with the Arabs who are predominantly Sunni.

Iraq is one of the few countries in the Middle East with a large population of Arab Shia. As a result of our invasion and toppling of Saddam, Iraq finds itself becoming the first democratically elected Shia dominated government in the Arab world. Saddam and the Ba’athists were Sunni and ruthlessly oppressed the Shia. Now the Sunnis are desperately afraid of the new Shia dominance and are the main insurgent element in the killing of Shia and Americans in Iraq. They are being aided by Sunni extremists (e.g. jihadis) from Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Their goal is to wreck a new Shia-led Iraqi state.

The leading Iraqi Ayattolah, ali Sistani, a moderate Shia, favors a democratic government that is not run by the ulama (Muslim clerics). He has even cautioned the Shia against violent retaliation against the Sunni attacks and wants to avoid civil war. But when the Sunni insurgents blew up the Shia mosque in Samarra last spring the gloves came off and the violence has escalated. Moqtada al Sadr, a Shia, heads up a very large and well equipped militia that is fighting the Sunni insurgency. He and his followers are major supporters of the present government which has so far been unable to restrain al Sadr, let alone the Sunni groups.
Bush is waiting for Iraq to “stand up” before we can “stand down.” But you would never know it from the media or the Bush administration that the vast majority of recruits for the police force and security services are young Shia who have a huge stake in their Democratically elected government. And it is Sunni insurgents, mostly Iraqi, who are blowing up these Shia at their police stations.

Nasr writes: “Sunni responses to the Shia challenge have always been displays of force and power. The insurgency strove to show the Shia – and the United states – that the Sunnis could keep the violence going forever, in the belief that this would eventually force the United States to abandon the Shia, thereby paving the way for the return of some form of Sunni rule.” This means that resolutely “staying the course” must put us on the side of the Shias and keep alive the Sunni insurgency. We don’t have remotely the military power or will to impose this outcome on Iraq, however much it might be in the U.S. interest to do so.
Bush insists we are fighting terrorism in Iraq but this is a gross simplification. In many respects the anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric that flows from both sides is more of a mask obscuring the real fight between the Sunnis and Shia. It is to the Sunni extremists advantage to keep us pinned down in Iraq while they kill more Shias along with Americans.

Indeed, this is right out of bin Laden’s playbook. As Lawrence Wright has reported in his book, “The Looming Tower”, “Al-Qaeda’s duty was to awaken the Islamic nation to the threat posed by the secular, modernizing West. In order to do that, bin Laden told his men, al-Qaeda would drag the United States into a war with Islam – ‘a large-scale front which it cannot control.’” Our invasion of Iraq would seem to be just what bin Laden wanted and succeeded in elevating his stature throughout the Muslim world.
In short, the incompetent Bush war on Iraq has created a near impossible concatenation of contradictions. We thrust ourselves into the middle of an ancient enmity, an old order that must give way to a new one in the future if there is to be any peace and stability in the Middle East. Yet there is no way that America can broker this change through military power. There is no possibility of a “victory” the way Bush imagines it. It can only be resolved by the parties to the conflict, which do indeed pose a danger to Western interests during the period of transition.

Nasr writes: “It is in the interests of Shias, Sunnis, and the West to minimize the pains of transition and hasten its end. This means contending with the reality of sectarian rivalries and understanding what motivates them and how they play out socially and politically….It is not possible to tell how the sectarian struggle in Iraq will turn out, or when and where the next battle between Shias and Sunnis will be joined, or how many sectarian battles the Middle East must endure and for how long. What is clear is that the future for the Middle East will not be brighter than the past so long as the shadow of sectarian conflict hangs over it. This is the conflict that will shape the future.”

If Mr. Bush has any grasp of this “reality of sectarian rivalries”, he does not know what to do about it in Iraq. I am persuaded by the many analysts with deep knowledge of the Iraq situation that the American military occupation is like the burr under the saddle, a contributor to the problem, not a solution. We need to withdraw our forces and the sooner the better.
The Bush strategy to “stay the course” and achieve “total victory”, by which he seems to mean a stable, secure, democratic Iraq friendly to the United States, is clearly a failure, no longer supported by the American public. An old friend of the Bush family, James Baker, has been called in to head up a commission to propose alternatives to this failed strategy. Rumor has it that they will suggest some sort of withdrawal process.

The Democrats are poised to take control of the House and possibly the Senate. What will they propose? The public doesn’t seem to have much faith in the Democrats coming up with anything better. Withdrawal or “cutting and running” as the Republicans call it, is associated with the dire consequences of all out civil war involving Iraq’s neighbors. Yet “staying the course” offers a reality just as bad along with more American lives sacrificed and a higher and higher burden of debt.

There is no shortage of informed and experienced experts on Iraq, the Middle East, and the Sunni-Shia schism, yet no one, as I quoted Nasr above, can tell how the current struggle will turn out. Any strategy that requires American military to remain in Iraq to insure a peaceful outcome to the sectarian violence will represent a commitment of years, if not decades, and is clearly unsustainable. This conflict can only be solved by the contending parties in the Muslim world.

There can be only one policy for Mr. Bush or a new Democratic controlled American government to pursue in Iraq and that is withdrawal of all troops and no permanent bases left behind. Such a withdrawal need not be unilateral, but proceed with the cooperation of the Iraqi government and with diplomatic support from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and any other parties to the conflict there.

Sunni extremists are, indeed, a danger to the U.S. and to the West, but without the galvanizing presence of a U.S. military occupation in a Muslim country, the rest of the Muslim world will begin to see that their own interests are best served by reaching an accommodation as brothers and sisters in the Islamic faith.

Martin Walker sums up the situation this way: “In a sense, the Islamic world is undergoing almost simultaneously its Renaissance, its Reformation, and its Enlightenment, and the Shia are living their version of the civil rights movement, all while reeling from the impact of economic and media revolutions. Considered in this light, the emergence of Al Qaeda might be seen as a particularly virulent symptom of this tumultuous Arab transformation and as a response not just to the perceived sins of the West, but also, in the case of Zarqawi, as an extreme Sunni reaction to the Shia resurgence. Of all the tectonic shifts now jarring the Middle East, the rise of the long-subdued Shia promises to be the most potent, and potentially the most destructive.”

For better or for worse Mr. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, under the false pretense of national security and making war on terrorism, has jump started the Shia revival in Iraq. The result is now beyond America’s control. Only by ending our occupation and embarking on multi-lateral diplomacy and cooperation that respects all the nations of the Middle East can we hope to have any positive influence on what is an ancient and festering division in the Muslim faith.


David Cook is Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Stout
He lives in Menomonie, WI

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