Decades of violence will color Iraq’s future

? Iraq has endured civil war for 30 years. It has not suited Western policymakers or the media to call it that, nor to face up to the implications of the appalling sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing that this long conflict has generated. That must now change.

What peace there was in Iraq before the American invasion of 2003 was the peace of the graveyard. Saddam Hussein’s forces conquered Kurdistan in 1975 and launched the genocidal campaign code-named Anfal against the Kurds in 1987. The Shiite south was the target of mass murder and environmental warfare throughout the following decade.

That may sound like ancient history to Americans rightly concerned about the latest casualties in the continuing mayhem that the invasion helped magnify and beam around the world. But that history of violence lives on in today’s bomb blasts destroying Shiite shrines and the equally despicable “retaliatory” butchering of Sunni civilians.

The past reaches deep even into the defining of what is happening in Iraq today. When Sunnis kill Shiites on a wholesale basis, American front pages, news broadcasts and official policy statements call it insurgency. When Shiites kill Sunnis, we call it civil war or, more teasingly, imminent civil war.

There is an unacknowledged psychological basis for this seemingly irrational differentiation of massacres. Diplomats and reporters know that if the Shiite majority, which may make up 60 percent of the population, were to rise in a sustained onslaught against the 20 percent Sunni minority, the resulting bloodbath would be horrendous – and could spark regional intervention.

The neighboring Arab states have helped shape the perception that Shiite violence directed at Sunnis is somehow different – and more dangerous – than the violence used at first by Saddam and now by Sunni guerrillas, whether they are Baathist remnants, the Wahhabi fanatics of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or a combination of the two. In this view, Sunni-originated violence can be tolerated or even rewarded; Shiite violence is “civil war” that must be prevented.

The Sunni regimes of these Arab states kept quiet or actively helped in Saddam’s long reign of terror over the Kurds and Shiites. The burning of thousands of Kurdish villages or the draining of the marshes in the south to inflict death and force huge population movements was not “civil war” to these regimes, or to their official and corporate friends in Washington, London and elsewhere. No, these were unfortunate incidents that should now be subject to the statutes of limitation that Ramsey Clark and Saddam’s other lawyers indirectly invoke in a Baghdad courtroom.

The Kurds and Shiites are determined that there will be no statute of limitation on these crimes and that their populations will never again be subjected to organized brutality from a strong central government in Baghdad. Their determination needs to be taken into account more thoroughly by the Bush administration, which pursues an unrealistic vision of peaceful national reconciliation in Iraq that today is out of reach.

The principal actors are not available for that vision. The Kurds take a Garbo approach: They want to be left alone. The Shiites increasingly see the same degree of autonomy and separation from the center as the answer for the south as well. A genuine decentralization of power – a loose federalism that maintains Iraq as a concept for today and a real possibility for tomorrow – is both inevitable and desirable at this point.

That means in turn that the United States has every interest in maintaining a strategic relationship with the Kurds – who will need American help to keep Turkey from taking them over – and a tolerable working relationship with the mainstream Shiite forces, whatever is happening in Baghdad.

To promote an enforced phony national reconciliation built on concessions to Sunni extremists to wean them from violence, as Washington has repeatedly attempted, is self-defeating.

The Bush administration has made increased Iranian influence in the south a self-fulfilling prophecy by misunderstanding and mishandling Shiite nationalism. The normally adept U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, continued that pattern by publicly threatening the Shiites directly with the halt of U.S. aid to Iraq if they do not agree to a “cross-sectarian” – code word for Sunni – interior minister in the new Cabinet.

That was overreaching, as the turmoil ignited by the demolition of the Shiite Askariya Shrine in Samarra last week quickly demonstrated. The blast was apparently carried out by professional sappers in another attempt to provoke the “civil war” that has thus far been avoided – at least in the headlines and presidential statements, if not in fact.