Analysis by Gareth Porter*

WASHINGTON, Jul 25 2006 (IPS) — The United States has been reduced to the role of passive bystander as a new stage of sectarian civil war has begun in Iraq, marked by military units with heavy weaponry carrying out mass killings.

Last week’s bloody massacre in Mahmoudiya illustrates both the new level of sectarian violence and the U.S. role as passive observer, even as the George W. Bush administration acknowledges that the primary problem in Iraq is sectarian violence, not the Sunni insurgency.

“Sectarian violence has now become the significant challenge to Iraq’s future,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jul. 13.

However, the unwillingness of the U.S. military to intervene against sectarian attacks on civilians casts a new light on the primary argument by administration and other opponents of a timetable for withdrawal – that the presence of U.S. occupation forces is the only thing preventing an even higher level of sectarian civil war and chaos.

In the past, sectarian militias have carried out massacres by rounding up individuals in Sunni or Shiite neighbourhoods and executing them. But the massacre of Shiites by Sunni gunmen in Mahmoudiya on Jul. 17, in which as many as 58 people were killed and 90 wounded, was a military attack on civilians by Sunnis using heavy machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks and rocket-propelled grenades.

The attackers were apparently a new Sunni militia group calling themselves “Supporters of the Sunni People,” but many of the troops wore Iraqi security uniforms. The group which took responsibility said the attack was in revenge for the slaughter of at least 40 Sunni civilians by masked Shiite gunmen in Baghdad which went on for several hours on Jul. 9.

Neither the Iraqi security forces nor a battalion belonging to the U.S. 101st Airborne Division stationed near Mahmoudiya did anything to stop the massacre or to pursue the killers, even though the U.S. troops were close enough to hear the detonations and gunfire, according to a story by Bassem Mroue of the Associated Press, and the attack lasted for 30 minutes, as reported by the Washington Post’s Ellen Knickmeyer.

The failure of the U.S. battalion to respond to the evidence of an attack or to pursue the attackers was not an isolated incident. According to the AP story, “Iraqi troops are responsible for security in Mahmoudiya, and American soldiers do not intervene unless asked by the Iraqis.”

According to United Nations figures released earlier this month, 14,338 civilians were killed in violence during the first six months of the year, and the monthly toll has been rising rapidly since 1,778 were killed in January. The report said 2,669 had been killed in May and another 3,149 in June.

The current U.S. rules of engagement regarding sectarian violence were set by a broad policy adopted by the administration at least as early as last March. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Mar. 9 that, “The plan is to prevent civil war, and to the extent one were to occur, to have the… Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they’re able to.” Rumsfeld later modified that only slightly, stating, “It’s very clear that the Iraqi forces will handle it, but they’ll handle it with our help.”

Those forces are certainly not going to fight to quell sectarian violence. As U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad acknowledged in a speech in Washington Jul. 11, “Unfortunately, there have been instances in which Iraqi forces gave way or even cooperated with sectarian militias.”

The main army brigade in Baghdad, the all-Shiite 1st brigade, which has responsibility for all of Baghdad west of the Tigris River, probably could not be relied on to fight Shiite militias, moreover. As reported by Knight Ridder’s Tom Lasseter last October, the views of its officers and troops on revenge against Sunnis are no different from the most militant Shiite militias.

U.S. officials have continued to talk as though the United States were determined to roll back militia violence. Before Nuri al-Maliki was finally chosen as prime minister last April, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at end of a two-day visit, “We have sent very, very strong messages repeatedly… that one of the first things is that there is going to be a reining in of the militias… It’s got to be one of the highest priorities.”

But Rice’s tough talk about forcing action on the sectarian militia problem has little to do with reality. “I don’t think there is a lot we can do about it,” said a Pentagon consultant who asked not to be identified. “The fact is we are becoming marginal players on the Iraqi political scene.”

The Bush administration nevertheless continues to cite the threat of future civil war as an argument for maintaining a longer-term military presence, while denying that a civil war already exists. In his Jul. 11 speech, Khalilzad said, “I do not believe that what’s happening could be described… as a civil war.” Khalilzad suggested that a “precipitous” U.S. withdrawal could ensure a sectarian war.

Even as he made the familiar civil war argument, however, Khalilzad hinted that the United States is willing to go only so far to do something about the problem. Given the risks of “an abandonment strategy,” he said, “we need to do everything prudently we can to help them stand on their own feet, contain the violence.”

Democratic hawk Sen. Joe Lieberman has long made the same argument. Opposing Democratic amendments calling for a timetable for withdrawal on Jun. 22, Lieberman said this would “signal the sectarian groups to hunker down and rearm their militias to strengthen themselves for the civil war that they fear will follow a premature American retreat.”

*Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in June 2005.


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