MORE THAN a year after the December 2005 Iraqi parliamentary elections, which resulted in the appointment of a four-year Shiite-led government in Iraq, the country is on the brink of a full-scale civil war that could lead to partition, destabilize the oil-rich Persian Gulf region and reshape the Middle East.
In 2005, the prospects of a political compromise between the newly empowered Shiite majority and the Sunni minority, whose members have lost their privileged status since the U.S. invasion, seemed good. But those prospects have diminished dramatically in the period leading up to the hasty and undignified execution of Saddam Hussein last month, bringing Shiite-Sunni relations to a boiling point and raising serious questions about whether the United States has erred in depending too heavily on the Shiites for rebuilding Iraq.
Several factors explain the deteriorating relations between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. At the top of the list is the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra by Sunni jihadists -- an act that threw the country into a vicious cycle of revenge killings. That bombing in February, and the sectarian fighting that followed for control of Baghdad, have underscored the U.S. failure to provide security and have undermined the budding political process.
Amid the raging sectarian warfare, Shiites have lost faith in the Americans to protect them and have come to view their militias -- primarily the Al Mahdi army under the radical cleric Muqtada Sadr -- as their only protector, while Sunnis in growing numbers have lent their support to the insurgents.
In the 11 months since the bombing of the shrine, the Shiite-led government has stopped bothering to hint that it will compromise with the Sunnis and has failed to take meaningful steps to conclude a power-sharing arrangement. For their part, Sunni politicians have refused to accept their loss of power and the new reality of a Shiite-dominated Iraq; instead, they have continued to demand as much as 40% of the seats in the national parliament and government ministries (though they make up barely 20% of the population).
Iraq and its neighbors, as well as the United States, are facing a moment of truth that could have long-term implications for the stability of the Middle East and for Washington’s standing in the region. Iraqis have already begun positioning themselves for the possibility of partition (as evidenced by the battle for Baghdad, in which Shiite militiamen have been driving Sunnis away from whole neighborhoods in hopes that a largely Shiite-populated capital can be added to a nine-province Shiite region in southern Iraq). And the sectarian tensions are no longer confined to Iraq but have spread to Lebanon and to the oil monarchies in the Persian Gulf, inflaming relations between Shiite and Sunni Muslims there.
There is no guarantee that any course of action adopted by the Bush administration at this point could stop Iraq’s slide into full-scale civil war and save the country from partition. But the U.S. must try: Iraq holds enormous strategic importance for the United States, and its fragmentation would further erode American global stature. What’s more, Turkey, Iran and Syria will not tolerate a partition plan that would lead to a Kurdish state for fear of the repercussions among their own restive Kurdish minorities. Indeed, they are likely to interfere militarily in Iraq to abort such a development.
Because of that, and because of the heavy human and material cost that would be exacted in the event of a war that leads to partition, the U.S. ought to make a last-ditch effort to bring Iraqis to the table to hold their country together.
To preserve Iraq’s unity, the U.S. military needs to secure Baghdad -- a precondition for any attempt to revive the political process. The administration also needs to engage Iraq’s neighbors in an effort to quell the fighting in Iraq and reintegrate the country into the Arab world.
A successful regional approach requires that Saudi Arabia, the champion of the Sunni cause, and Iran, its Shiite counterpart, cooperate on security issues relating to Iraq and act to reduce sectarian tensions in the Persian Gulf. This is admittedly a tall order (as the two countries are deeply suspicious of one another), but without Saudi-Iranian cooperation, a regional approach is likely to fail.
At the end of the day, the United States cannot forge a political pact among Iraqis. That responsibility lies mainly with Iraq’s Shiite leaders, including the senior clerics led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who in recent months has withdrawn from politics so as not to overshadow the lay politicians in the government.
TO JUMP-START the political process, the Shiites should offer to expand the governing coalition to include more Sunnis and to reduce the influence of Sadr’s supporters within the government. Such a move does not need to come at the expense of Shiite unity.
In addition, Shiites and Sunnis, as well as Kurds, must get back to work writing the Iraqi constitution, agree on a fair distribution of oil revenues and disband the militias or incorporate them into the Iraqi army.
The Bush administration has reached a critical juncture in its mission in Iraq. Whether it begins withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq or opts for a temporary troop surge, the administration owes Iraqis a final chance to work things out. The stakes in Iraq are too high for the U.S. to simply cut and run.
But Washington also needs to remain committed to the concept of a Shiite-led Iraq and must accept the rise of the Shiites as a power that, over time, can spur positive change in Iraq and the larger Middle East. The demographic reality of an Iraq with a large Shiite majority -- and the fact that Shiites make up 80% of the native population of the Persian Gulf -- cannot be ignored.
What’s more, unlike Sunni militants who have declared jihad against the United States and the West, Shiites in the Middle East since the 1990s have by and large been seeking to mend fences with the West.
Withdrawing U.S. support from Iraq’s Shiites now could radicalize them again and make our position in Iraq and in other parts of the Middle East untenable.