Press Room: Interviews

Iraq Explodes in Violence as Sunnis and Shiites Rise up to Oppose U.S. Occupation

Axis of Logic | 04-13-04

With intensifying combat in the Sunni triangle and new attacks from a Shiite militia group, U.S. troops in Iraq are facing a dramatic escalation of violence and instability. In response to the killing and mutilation of four employees of a private security firm in Falluja, American forces mounted a massive assault on insurgents in this, city which has become a symbol of resistance to the U.S. occupation.

On a new and dangerous front, eight U.S. soldiers and dozens of Iraqis were killed in the first day of battles between American troops and members of a militia group loyal to Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. The fighting broke out after the U.S. closed down Sadr's newspaper and arrested his close associates. In response, the militia group launched an uprising in six Iraqi cities. The U.S. occupation authority has since issued an arrest warrant for Sadr on charges connected to the murder of a rival cleric, but the Shiite leader's followers vowed to prevent his capture. Growing resentment of the American occupation in Iraq has led to an unlikely alliance of some Shiites and Sunnis now united in their calls for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Despite the increasing violence and chaos, President Bush maintains that a transfer of power from U.S. authority to an interim Iraqi government will proceed as scheduled on June 30. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with former CIA analyst Mel Goodman, a professor at the National War College and author of the book, "Bush League Diplomacy." Goodman assesses the dangers ahead for the U.S. military in Iraq, whose citizens are ever more hostile to continued U.S. occupation.

Mel Goodman: Well, the kind of conflict that we're facing is exactly what the critics of the war, starting over a year before the war began, warned about --- and I was among those critics.

We argued two things -- that you're entering an environment that the United States clearly does not understand. We're not very good at nationality problems, problems involving ethnic politics and ethnic violence.

There was a great chance that the country would break down into three parts, the Kurd part, the Sunni and the Shiites. The Kurds have been quiet because they're getting the kind of autonomy they want, but the Sunnis weren't going to go away quietly their livelihoods were really dependent on Saddam Hussein and on a minority regime. The Shiites, who were clearly the majority at least 65 percent of the population, were not treating the United States as liberators from day one; they were suspicious about our performance after Desert Storm when there was a serious Shiite uprising and the United States didn't come to their defense.

So, I think they've been biding their time and the catalytic agent for all of this was when the United States military, very unwisely, closed down a radical Shiite newspaper that belongs to Sadr's group. This I think unleashed tensions that have been building.

So, now in addition to serious Sunni resistance -- good fighters who are well-trained who probably were preparing all along to turn to a guerrilla struggle, which we are not good at dealing with -- this requires a different kind of paramilitary training than the United States military is prepared for. The Vietnam experience of the 1960s and 1970s gives you all of the graphic evidence that you need.

Now we're dealing with this large Shiite majority, 65 percent, who feel that if we're going to be talking about democracy, that a democratic regime is going to have to have a large and majority influence from the Shiite community. The problem that presents to us is the Shiites. If you look at their major religious leadership, most of them trained in Iran; they studied in Iran. Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush administration certainly is not going to permit -- even if it means they have to walk away from democracy -- they're not going to permit a Shiite government to emerge in Iraq that's going to have some kind of tie to the Iranian government.

So we're in a classic no-win situation. This is a real Hobson's choice in terms of adding troops or reducing troops. The Bush administration has really done no planning for post-war, and they're now in a post-war situation that is out of control.

Between The Lines: What are we likely to see unfold in the coming seven to eight months before the U.S. presidential election? Is there the possibility of an all out civil war between the various groups there, the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites and is there any way the United States could or should work to prevent that eventuality?

Mel Goodman: Well, the strongest adherents of the idea that there might be a civil war, interestingly enough, are the CIA people on the ground in Iraq. Now over the past year, it's been done quietly, but there have been three different station chiefs -- because as each CIA station chief, he is the leading CIA official, comparable to say the American ambassador who represents the president of the United States. As they continue to predict the possibility of civil war suddenly they're replaced and a new CIA station chief goes out. The third one is there now in less than ten months, he too, believes that we're headed into a civil war situation.

Paul Bremer, the leading American official on the ground, is very pessimistic in private, he's putting up a brave front in public, but his reporting back to Washington, I'm told is extremely pessimistic. Now there's a great debate going on in Washington about whether or not we can really turn over authority on the 30th of June.

Right now the situation is so complicated that it's hard to say whether it will be a civil war, or even the possibility of unity between Sunni and Shiite if they decide to turn against the United States. The only prediction that I think is reasonable, fair, and likely to happen, even in the short term, is greater violence.

The Iraqis have lived under Saddam Hussein for the past 20 years; they feel they deserve something better and they're not going to trade the tyranny of Saddam Hussein for the occupation and what they consider to be now the tyranny of the United States.

Between The Lines: Many observers have noted that the timetable for U.S. transfer of authority to an interim Iraqi government on June 30th was driven in large part, by the U.S. presidential election. What are your concerns about these intervening months and what kinds of reactions may come out of the White House to deal with growing violence in the interest of the White House re-election campaign?

Mel Goodman: Well, I fear two possibilities. The more I hear talk of overwhelming force and the more I hear talk of "taking on insurgents" -- an enemy that's going to be very difficult to find -- it means we're raising the risk of unnecessary civilian casualties and civilian deaths. I think this would be counter-productive. This would only create more terrorists, more insurgents and more opposition.

The other thing that concerns me is in the opposite direction, that we'll move prematurely, move much too quickly towards sovereignty for the people of Iraq. Clearly they're not ready for it and with all this violence that we're seeing now and with the United States sending signals that it wants out, the very Iraqi people that we're training on the ground -- the police, the intelligence, the military people who have now become targets of the Iraqi resistance, they don't see anything to be gained by cooperating with the United States at this particular time because they know in the long run that the United States is not going to be there, and whichever government authority emerges, it's going to look unfavorably on those people who cooperated with the United States.

So I can't imagine a worse situation. We've created it to a great measure, and now I guess we're going to have reap what we have sown in this case.


Copyright 2004, Axis of Logic. Read orignial interview here