a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Ringside seats to ethnic cleansing

Posted by Thomas Nephew on July 18th, 2006

Yes, Iraq can always get worse — the proof is in each day’s newspaper. But if we wouldn’t do anything about that either, why are we there? From Military-Style Assault Kills Dozens in Iraqi Marketplace (Ellen Knickmeyer, Washington Post):

Masked attackers with heavy machine guns mounted on pickup trucks slaughtered at least 40 people in a crowded market area south of Baghdad on Monday, hurling grenades to blow up merchants at their counters and shooting down mothers as they fled with their children, witnesses and authorities said.

The military-style assault on unarmed civilians in the mostly Shiite city of Mahmudiyah lasted 30 minutes and was vicious even for a country besieged daily by bombs and coldblooded attacks. At one point, the assailants entered a cafe and shot dead seven men — most of them elderly — while they were having tea, said Maythan Abdul Zahad, a police officer. He said the gunmen stepped on their victims’ heads to keep them still.

Good thing Zarqawi’s gone, we really turned a corner there. Meanwhile, Iraqi soldiers weren’t standing up — and American ones were sitting down, too:

Survivors said Iraqi soldiers let the heavily armed, highly visible attackers pass through a checkpoint near the marketplace. Witnesses described Iraqi security forces largely leaving the civilians to their fate, although survivors gave conflicting accounts as to whether Iraqi police, soldiers or Shiite militiamen had tried to fight off the attackers.

Iraqi survivors also condemned U.S. forces, saying they watched the attack from their posts but did nothing until the killing stopped. American troops reported hearing detonations and gunfire, the U.S. command said, but added that Iraqi troops are responsible for security in Mahmudiyah and that American soldiers there do not intervene unless asked by the Iraqis.

Not my job, man. Not theirs, either, apparently. “At least” it cuts both ways; yesterday, Dexter Filkins reported (“In an About-Face, Sunnis Want U.S. to Remain in Iraq“) reported that Sunni leaders (many? some? all?) now hoped American troops would stay and help protect them from similar Shiite militia rampages that have been occurring with increasing frequency.

The Sunni Arab leaders say they have no newfound love for the Americans. Many say they still sympathize with the insurgency and despise the Bush administration and the fact that the invasion has helped strengthen the power of neighboring Iran, which backs the ruling Shiite parties.

But the Sunni leaders have dropped demands for a quick withdrawal of American troops. Many now ask for little more than a timetable. A few Sunni leaders even say they want more American soldiers on the ground to help contain the widening chaos. […]

But again, Americans have often have been doing little to help:

In late June, gunmen set afire 17 shops in the town center as the Iraqi Army stood by, said Hamdi Hassoun, a provincial council member and a Sunni Arab.

“We have called on the Americans for help, we have called on the prime minister’s office,” he said. “The infiltration of the police and army is common.”

But the Americans are slow to give aid, he said. Residents of troubled areas are seeing fewer American patrols now than a year ago, adding to a sense of anxiety and lawlessness. “The American forces don’t target those who are not attacking them,” Mr. Hassoun said. “They don’t care about the militias unless the militias attack them.”

(The story does point to a raid capturing a Shiite militia leader.) Writing about the Filkins story, BooMan (“Booman Tribune”) argues:

If there is a way to prevent a near genocide in Iraq, we need to make that our top priority. But staying in Iraq indefinitely, working to prop up the very government that is carrying out that near genocide (or, at least, is powerless to stop it) it not an option. Think about it. It is really not an option.

I agree — but I’m not sure there is a way for Americans so inclined to prevent massive ethnic cleansing and “near genocide” any more in Iraq; I doubt Booman’s suggestion of a regional conference will do anything more than briefly salve consciences — and indications are this administration won’t do any more than it has to either.

I think the main thing here, from our point of view, is that the Cheney administration and the Pentagon are not and never have been motivated to stop the ethnic cleansing on either side of the Sunni-Shiite divide. Judging by these stories and ones like them, it seems to me that the actual strategy, if you can call it that, is to gradually just withdraw to the permanent bases and let Iraq burn. I don’t know what advantage they see in that — other than desperately hanging on to those damned bases, I guess — but that seems to be what they’re aiming at.

And at that rate, we should demand they just keep going, and get out of Iraq altogether. Staying there is more destabilizing than it is helpful, and I don’t know why American troops should be dying for the privilege of ringside seats to ethnic cleansing.

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