Wars within wars in Iraq

Despite what you may have heard, there is no "war" in Iraq. Rather, there are many wars raging through the Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni territories. These wars are complicated and deep-seated, with roots that, in some cases, go back centuries.

But this is not what Americans are often led to believe. The perception portrayed by the White House and the Iraqi government in Baghdad -- and all too often reflected, I'm sorry to say, in the news media -- is that the violence in Iraq is the result of a straightforward struggle between two opposing teams: the Freedom Lovers and the Freedom Haters.

In this Manichaean and simplistic view of the fighting here, the tale of the tape is:

* The Freedom Lovers: The 12 million Iraqis who plunged their fingers into purple ink on election day in December 2005, choosing freedom, moderation and democracy. Their team captains are the Iraqi government, the White House, the U.S.-trained Iraq security services and the roughly 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

* The Freedom Haters: Iraqi radicals, foreign jihadists, former Baath Party members and criminals supported by Al Qaeda, Syria and Iran who have formed an alliance of convenience to reject the democratization of Iraq. This team's captains are Al Qaeda in Iraq, Iranian and Syrian agents and, sometimes, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Al Mahdi militia.

But how could such a simple, black-and-white version of reality possibly be true? Does it comport with anything we know about war or politics or history or human nature? The reality, of course, is that there are many teams in Iraq fighting for many different reasons and hoping to achieve many different goals. And to tell the truth, most of them don't believe that they are fighting for democracy at all.

This came home to me in Baghdad last March as I sat, during a break in a diplomatic meeting, in a smoke-filled waiting room at the Foreign Ministry watching Iraqiya, the state-sponsored television station. It was the last day of the Shiite festival of Ashura, when several hundred thousand -- perhaps as many as 2 million -- pilgrims gathered in the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad. The TV images showed the Shiite devotees flagellating their backs with bundles of chains known as zangeel and cutting their heads with swords to mourn the 7th century martyr Hussein, who had been killed in Karbala during one of Islam's early civil wars.

On the screen, an actor dressed as Hussein in Islamic battle dress with a sword, flowing headdress and a colorful cape reenacted the battle by single-handedly fighting off a crowd of attackers until he was overwhelmed and heroically slain. Hussein's martyrdom, which many Shiites claim came at the hands of early Sunnis, is one of the central themes of Shiite Islam and establishes its basic premise that Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson, and his Shiite descendants are the true heirs to Islam but were defeated by Sunni usurpers.

But the footage on Iraqi state TV during Ashura had another message. Interwoven with the images of Hussein's struggle were images of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra that was destroyed by Al Qaeda militants in February 2006 and footage of car bombings in Baghdad, as well as pictures of crippled Iraqi women and children. The message was clear: The attacks on markets, Shiite mosques, restaurants and university campuses, mostly carried out by Sunni radicals, are a continuation of Hussein's battle centuries ago.

As pilgrims marched by our Baghdad bureau on their way to Karbala, I could hear them chant: "Kul yom Ashura! Kul ard Karbal," or "Every day is Ashura! All land is Karbala!" Simply put, they were saying that every day and everywhere in Iraq, Shiites are reliving Hussein's battles in Karbala. There was no talk of democracy or the Baath Party, of Saddam Hussein or the U.S. troop "surge" -- or of any of the other subjects that dominate the Iraq debate in the United States.

Many Sunni groups in Iraq are also fighting a war that seems to have little in common with the official U.S. and Iraqi characterizations. Al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies now fight under an umbrella group they call the Islamic State of Iraq. In April, the group issued an Internet statement saying it is fighting a "Zionist-Persian" conspiracy to rule Iraq. From what they wrote, they seem to believe that they are fighting an attempt to take over their country by Israel and Iran -- not against a U.S. mission to bring democracy to Iraq.

These are just two of the many competing power struggles young men and women from faraway places like Texas and California find themselves trying to mediate with Humvees and 50-caliber machine guns. Others include:

* Muqtada Sadr: The radical Shiite leader and commander of the Al Mahdi militia wants to surpass the influence of his father, one of Iraq's most revered Shiite leaders. Sadr has tapped into the frustrations of Iraq's poor, uneducated and unemployed Shiite community, which is increasingly fed up with the continued presence of U.S. troops. He wants to turn his army of bandits into Iraq's version of Lebanon's Hezbollah.

* The Kurds: Iraqi Kurds want independence in northern Iraq and control of the oil rich city of Kirkuk. They want to capitalize on their new freedom by establishing what they have been denied for centuries, an autonomous, prosperous oil-rich state.

* Abdelaziz Hakim: The infirm leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now known as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council) wants to control southern Iraq and carve out a ministate allied with Iran. His party would rule this emirate, containing both the rich oil fields in Basra and access to the Persian Gulf.

* Iyad Allawi: The former prime minister, ex-Baath Party member and Western intelligence asset wants to return to power, overthrow Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and unite Sunnis and Shiites under his secular rule. He wants to be Iraq's pro-American strongman.

* Nouri Maliki: His goals are unclear. At times he sounds as though he is reading talking points from the White House, but he also is beholden to Sadr. Maliki recently told me that he and Sadr are "from the same school" and that he does not see Sadr as a threat to Iraq. The U.S. military, which is keeping Maliki in power, does not see Sadr the same way.

U.S. politicians often complain that the Iraqi government "won't step up and do its job." The impression they give is that Iraqi officials are sitting around smoking hookah pipes, taking long, summer holidays (which they are) and refusing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, while U.S. troops are fighting and dying to "get the job done."

Perhaps the question should be: "Which job?" American soldiers often ask me when the Iraqis will "step up and fight for their country." The problem is Iraqis are already fighting for their country, and fighting savagely. They are just not fighting the war of the Freedom Haters versus the Freedom Lovers that many in the U.S. administration would apparently like them to be fighting.

Richard Engel is a Beirut-based Middle East correspondent for NBC News.

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