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Iraq War Bogswarm

A red herring will poison this upcoming Presidential election and cost the Democrats the White House if they are not careful. Red herrings have a habit of doing that. Remember the Silent Majority? Compassionate Conservatism?

This year’s red herring involves the Iraq War and has seduced more people than weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda combined. It is the Bloodbath Myth.

What has made this myth so powerful lies in the apparent impossibility of refuting it. After all, who can predict what will happen when we leave Iraq? The country could break into a bloody civil war that turns the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers red.

In reality Iraq has lived with a bloodbath for decades. We will never know how many died during Saddam Hussein’s brutal reign, which was driven by the same religious and ethnic rivalries people fear today. Hidden mass graves still lie under the sands that supposedly covered weapons of mass destruction.

A much-quoted article by Stephen Cass notes:

The Documental Centre for Human Rights in Iraq has compiled documentation on over 600,000 civilian executions in Iraq. Human Rights Watch reports that in one operation alone, the Anfal, Saddam killed 100,000 Kurdish Iraqis. Another 500,000 are estimated to have died in Saddam’s needless war with Iran. Coldly taken as a daily average for the 24 years of Saddam’s reign, these numbers give us a horrifying picture of between 70 and 125 civilian deaths per day for every one of Saddam’s 8,000-odd days in power.

These numbers have become part of a debate that has raged for several years over the number of deaths under Saddam and those since the American invasion. One interesting note that leads one to question these numbers is that the Documental Centre first had an office in London, but two sources, SourceWatch and Wiser Earth now list its office as in Tehran. The trial of Saddam might have cleared up some of the debate about how many Iraqis died under his rule, but unlike the careful documentation of Nuremberg, the trial of Saddam was a mess. In the end his execution came about because he was convicted of one event–the 1982 murders of 148 Iraqis from the predominantly Shiite village of Dujail.

More pointedly, American newspapers routinely publish the names of Americans killed in Iraq, but we forget the number of Iraqis who have died since what Frontline terms Bush’s War began. Estimates are as difficult to nail down as estimates of the dead under Saddam. In a study published in the October 14, 2006, edition of the peer-reviewed scientific journal, The Lancet, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated:

As many as 654,965 more Iraqis may have died since hostilities began in Iraq in March 2003 than would have been expected under pre-war conditions…The deaths from all causes—violent and non-violent—are over and above the estimated 143,000 deaths per year that occurred from all causes prior to the March 2003 invasion.

Other key points in the study noted:

[A] majority of the additional deaths (91.8 percent) [were] caused by violence.

The proportion of deaths attributed to coalition forces diminished in 2006 to 26 percent. Between March 2003 and July 2006, households attributed 31 percent of deaths to the coalition.

About half of the households surveyed were uncertain who was responsible for the death of a household member.

In a refutation of the Hopkins study, William Arkin of the Washington Post, asks:

Is the Hopkins study correct, and can reasonable non-partisan people feel comfortable with the conclusion that Iraq has suffered about 15,000 violent deaths a month every month since the U.S. invasion, about 500 deaths a day?

Arkin provides his own answer:

Compare this conclusion with a recent U.N. figure, 3,009 Iraqis killed in violence across the country in August, compiled from records of hospitals and morgues countrywide. The U.N. figures conclude a daily rate of about 100 deaths.

So even if we accept Arkin’s more conservative figures, Iraqis are dying at a rate under the American occupation comparable to the 70-125 per day that died under Saddam. If Saddam’s regime was a bloodbath, what is the occupation?

If we left, would the death toll be any higher? To even hazard a guess is to play a macabre “what if” game in which the Devil himself sets the rules.

But what of the arguments behind the Bloodbath Myth? How valid are they? First, it is reasonable to assume that if Sunnis and Shiites began slaughtering each other, Iraq’s neighboring states would not be happy. The Iranians would not stand by and let Sunnis slaughter Shiites and the Saudis would not stand by and let Shiites slaughter Sunnis.

With our usual false historical hindsight some liken the situation to that of Europe on the eve of World War I. There is an old saw that you always fight the last war, but this is going back a century! There are no entangling alliances that would suddenly bring the Middle East into a World War. Only Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria might be said to have a stake in whether Sunnis or Shiites dominate Iraq. Turkey has already made its will known about the Kurds.

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has the stomach or resources for a war. The Iranians know the Saudis trump them economically and the Saudis know a war could destabilize their already unstable monarchy. In the end both countries stand to lose more by precipitating or supporting a bloodbath than they do trying to prevent one.

Another thread of the Bloodbath Myth concerns the Iraqis themselves. For a true bloodbath to occur it will take outside help, for neither the various Iraqi Sunni or Shiite militias have the arms, ammunition, logistics, support mechanisms and, most of all, the backing of a majority of their own people. If America with all its resources is having trouble sustaining a large scale operation in Iraq, it is doubtful either Sunni or Shiite militia force could carry it off without extensive outside help.

This lack of resources is precisely why the current situation involves dozens of militia groups using sometimes-primitive weapons to carry out small-scale assaults. The suicide bomber is not exactly the weapon of choice for a bloodbath, nor are IEDs.

These militias are the very reason no large-scale bloodbath could take place because even among the two largest religious groups there are intense factional rivalries that are every bit as nasty as those between Sunnis and Shiites. At this point neither religious faction is close to being able to mobilize a national mass movement. That factionalism also acts against outside meddling, for which militia do outsiders support? And if outsiders were to support one militia, what would the others do?

So what would happen if we leave? First, Iraqis would no longer have a common enemy, an easy scapegoat to blame for their problems which start with the economy–and that means oil. It is here that America’s meddling has probably been the worst. Yet the press as usual keeps reporting on the latest American casualties rather than exploring deeper into the mess we have created. To paraphrase a certain Presidential campaign, “It’s about the economy, stupid!”

The gospel according to Bush and Cheney has strongly supported so-called free market solutions to the issue of Iraqi oil, but their free market ideology ignores a basic reality in Iraq: what various factions in Iraq want is anything but a free market. Each wants a guaranteed piece of the action. A free market for Iraq oil would precipitate a free-for-all among Iraqis, for it would be the one thing that could trigger a bloodbath because every faction mistrusts the other. Think back to our own late-nineteenth century struggles with the beginnings of industrialization.

Instead it is a pretty good guess that what each faction desires is an economic structure ultra-conservative American advisors would reject out of hand. The Iraqis want communities not companies to control their resources. This, of course, represents rank heresy to the Bush Administration and corporate America. If we condone it in Iraq, what if people here start asking questions?

Yet it represents the only logical solution. My guess is that the much-discussed partitioning of Iraq would be less satisfactory to Iraqis than the partitioning of resources. There currently are no corporations in Iraq capable of running an oil business and the Bush Administration has so poisoned the well, that they probably would not welcome American corporations, either. The irony of this war is that if it is about oil, Bush and Cheney have made it more, rather than less difficult for their friends in Halliburton and other companies to do business in Iraq.

The community-based organizations that have the longest and most stable authority in Iraq are the various tribal groups. In 2003, a Brooking Institution Report noted:

The tribes are accustomed to acting in semi-independence, have followed a different rule of law than the rest of the country, and have precedent and tradition on their side. Managing them and bringing them in line with the policies of the central authority will be an important challenge for a new interim authority and a new, democratic Iraqi government.

That same year, a Council on Foreign Relations background report agreed:

Tribes are regional power-holders, and tribal sheiks are often respected members of Iraqi communities.

In the ensuing years a great deal of analysis has been devoted to Iraq’s tribes and American security forces have experienced some success in enlisting tribal leaders in stabilizing the country. Yet the focus on Iraq’s tribes has been political not economic. Instead we have tried to impose our own individualistic economic philosophy on people with an entirely different culture.

Curiously there is a precedent for a community-based solution to Iraq: the period at the end of World War II. In both Germany and Japan the destruction was so massive that private organizations had neither the will nor the resources to rebuild. I cite this because my grandfather, Max Brauer, was one of the leaders who helped rebuild Germany after the war.

When he began rebuilding the huge port city of Hamburg–which was known as the Hiroshima of Germany for the massive bombing destruction it suffered–it was, at first, a community effort. In the first winter after the war, the city was in danger of running out of coal to power everything from electricity to heat. My grandfather bartered an arrangement with the miners in the Saar region to provide the needed coal. It saved Hamburg. No private corporation, no free market pulled this off. Instead it was two communities.

If America would abandon its own rabid religious prejudice toward free markets in Iraq and let the Iraqis themselves resolve the oil problem, I can practically guarantee there will be no blood bath. The Republicans have spent the last two decades trying to force an economic counterrevolution on America that would take us back to the 1890s. We don’t need to have them export it to Iraq.

Instead the Iraqis must be free to create institutions unique to their traditions, communities and cultures. After all, isn’t that what this war was supposed to be about?

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