In Kansas, 150 years ago, brother bled brother as a shooting war broke out between pro-slavery Missouri “Border Ruffians” and free state “Kansas Jayhawkers.” Known as “Bleeding Kansas,” it was a period before the firing on Fort Sumter when the cycle of violence made thinking about a full blown civil war between north and south acceptable.
Up to this point in American history, sectional conflict was seen as a remote possibility, something only firebrands from each section talked about. But as killing begat killing on the Kansas frontier, and especially after John Brown slaughtered seven pro-slavery farmers near Pottawatomie Creek by hacking them to death with broad swords in retaliation for the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas by southern sympathizers, Americans suddenly woke up to the fact that they were looking across a great chasm of differences at each other. More importantly, they began to see those on the other side of this divide as the enemy. It was but a short leap to make from Bleeding Kansas to Fort Sumter.
The massacre of Sunni Muslims over the weekend in a mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood in the heart of Baghdad was unprecedented in its brutality and brazenness – even for Iraq. More than 40 Iraqis were dragged from their homes or cars, or simply picked up off the street and shot. This is clearly an escalation in the violence and must have ordinary Iraqis thinking very seriously about whether the low level sectarian conflict that has roiled the country for six months might finally break out into a shooting war in the streets:
A mob of gunmen went on a brazen daytime rampage through a predominantly Sunni Arab district of western Baghdad on Sunday, pulling people from their cars and homes and killing them in what officials and residents called a spasm of revenge by Shiite militias for the bombing of a Shiite mosque on Saturday. Hours later, two car bombs exploded beside a Shiite mosque in another Baghdad neighborhood in a deadly act of what appeared to be retaliation.
While Baghdad has been ravaged by Sunni-Shiite bloodletting in recent months, even by recent standards the violence here on Sunday was frightening, delivered with impunity by gun-wielding vigilantes on the street. In the culture of revenge that has seized Iraq, residents all over the city braced for an escalation in the cycle of retributive mayhem between the Shiites and Sunnis that has threatened to expand into civil war.
Witnesses say that the shooters wore black and were masked, the uniform of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Militia:
Iraqi officials and residents of the neighborhood identified the gunmen as members of the Mahdi Army, the powerful militia controlled by the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In the past three days, Iraqi troops, with the support of U.S.-led forces, have raided the homes of militiamen and detained some of their leaders.
U.S. commanders and diplomats say Sadr and his militia constitute one of the gravest threats to Iraq’s security. Two years ago, U.S. forces fought Mahdi Army militiamen in Baghdad and in the southern holy city of Najaf. Sadr also holds considerable sway over the political system, with ties to more than 30 members of parliament and several cabinet ministers.
What the Post refers to as a “raid” was actually a coordinated assault on several Mehdi militia strongpoints by Iraqi forces backed up by American air power which was carried out on Friday. This was the first concerted effort by Prime Minister Maliki’s government to rein in the militias who are responsible for most of the revenge killings in and around Bagdhad.
Could this massacre be al-Sadr’s response? What kind of game is the unpredictable cleric playing? How much control does he really have over his men?
Piously, the anti-occupation al-Sadr is condemning the massacre and calling for peace even as some Sunni political leaders are calling for his head:
After the killings, Sadr appealed for calm but criticized what he called a “Western scheme” that foments “a civil and sectarian war among brothers.”
“Iraq is passing through a critical phase and a worsening security situation in spite of the presence of an independent government,” Sadr said in a statement. “I call on all parties, both governmental and popular, to exercise self-control first, and to shoulder their responsibility before God and society.”
Other officials in Sadr’s organization condemned the killings in al-Jihad and denied that the Mahdi Army was involved.
“We regret the statements made by some Sunni Arabs who said that the Mahdi Army militia had conducted the raid at Jihad and killed the innocent people there,” said Riyadh al-Nouri, a top aide to Sadr and his brother-in-law. “If the Mahdi Army wanted to enter into a fight, Iraq would become a blood bath.”
That last statement may be precisely the point. Al-Sadr doesn’t want a civil war as much as he wants influence in the government. His militia is all he really has to bargain with at the moment and the recent assaults may have hurt badly. The Iraqi troops apparently took out two of his major brigades, including one led by a legendary butcher named Abu Deraa:
The Shia terror against Sunni Arabs has a name, Abu Deraa. He’s being called the “Shia Zarqawi” for organizing death squads to take revenge after Sunni Arab suicide bombs kill Shia. But Abu Deraa isn’t the only Shia death squad leader. There are several, plus smaller ones from family or tribal groups organized to take vengeance for kin lost to Saddam’s thugs. This desire for vengeance, and the unwillingness of Shia to fight Shia, has, until recently, allowed a low level civil war to go on unchecked. But now the Shia are ready to fight their own, and in the last week, Shia and Kurdish police and soldiers fought Shia radicals, led by men like Abu Deraa. The Sunni Arab community know Abu Deraa by name, and have even posted pictures of him. That hasn’t changed anything, because Abu Deraa’s death squads still roam central Iraq, killing Sunni Arabs. Several dozen died in Baghdad yesterday, pulled from their cars, identified as Sunni Arabs, and killed on the spot.
There is some question of how much control al-Sadr actually has over his men. This is because unlike the larger and better organized Badr Brigade which answers to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest Shia party, al-Sadr’s political influence is restricted to a few ministers and members of parliament. Independent operators like Abu Deraa may have their own agendas and any influence exercised by al-Sadr may be negligible.
But al-Sadr is not above using the violence to score political points, something he has done in the past with some success. Following the February bombing of the Shrine at Samarra, al Sadr’s black-clad militiamen were seen by many Shias as saviors as they set up security checkpoints and guarded Shia mosques from vengeful Sunnis who themselves were reacting to militia atrocities against their co-religionists.
Prime Minister Maliki has checkmated al-Sadr at every turn lately, as the two major Shia parties – The Daawa and SCIRI - have frozen the radical cleric out of most deliberations regarding the future of the country. The massacre could be al-Sadr’s brutal way of reminding the politicians that he still has clout where it counts – in the streets. It may not be the best of tactics but it’s all he has at the moment.
As for Maliki, he seems to be grasping the reins of power and accepting the major challenges facing Iraq much more quickly than many observers imagined. By initiating hostilities with major elements of al-Sadr’s militia, he has correctly identified one of the primary obstacles to getting control of the security situation in the country. Instead of starting with some of the smaller Shia militias, he has thrown down the gauntlet to the most troublesome of them.
As StrategyPage points out, Maliki has a long way to go:
It’s not like the Sunni Arab leadership can just push a button, and make their bad guys go away. In Arab culture, the process moves a lot more slowly, and involves lots of talking, coffee, promises, deceit and drama. Apparently the drama has been convincing, because the Shia politicians running the country have persuaded Shia military and police units to go after Shia death squads. All of this is going to take months to play out. There will be cries of “Betrayal!” from the Shia community. Some Shia cops and soldiers will balk at busting fellow Shia, even if the perps are stone killers with dozens of bodies on them. However, the national leadership has agreed that peace with the Sunni Arabs, and an end to the vengeance killings, is necessary. Making this happen is the next crucial battle in the war.
Where are the US armed forces in all of this? Right where they should be; in the background offering logistical and air support to Iraqi army units who are doing the bulk of the fighting. This is an Iraqi problem and can only be solved by Iraqis. Our role will continue to diminish as Iraqi troops demonstrate more confidence and competence in handling combat operations on their own. While this is good news, it is getting to a point where we should begin asking questions about how much more good we can do and should our withdrawal be tied to political developments in Iraq that have little to do with any military calculations. As more and more Iraqi troops are trained and, more importantly, demonstrate that they are ready to handle the nation’s security problems on their own, the more we should be asking how much we should be beholden to the politicians in Iraq who don’t have our people’s interest at the forefront of their concerns.
Whether or not Iraqis see this latest escalation of violence as a line that has been crossed or simply more of the same horror remains to be seen. But there is no denying the fact that at the moment, Iraq is bleeding. And only resoluteness on the part of the government will be able to staunch the flow of blood that is making the lives of ordinary Iraqis a nightmare and the prospects for a significant American troop withdrawal remote.