The Sunnis, an Islamic sect that makes up about 35
percent of Iraq’s 26 million people, are being confronted with a stark
choice, either accept subordination to the less-educated Shiite majority
or face the devastation of Sunni neighborhoods, the imprisonment of many
Sunni males and the deaths of large numbers of the Sunni population.
In referring to this possibility, many in
Washington object to the word “genocide” – which is defined in
international law as the destruction of “in whole or in part, a
national, ethnical, racial or religious group” – but already there are
troubling signs that Iraq’s incipient civil war could slide into
something close to that.
Retaliating against Sunni bombings and other
attacks on Shiite targets over the past two years, Iraq’s
Shiite-controlled security forces have begun rounding up, torturing and
executing Sunni men.
“Hundreds of accounts of killings and abductions
have emerged in recent weeks, most of them brought forward by Sunni
civilians, who claim that their relatives have been taken away by Iraqi
men in uniform without warrant or explanation,” New York Times
correspondent Dexter Filkins reported from Baghdad.
“Some Sunni males have been found dead in ditches
and fields, with bullet holes in their temples, acid burns on their
skin, and holes in their bodies apparently made by electric drills,”
Filkins wrote. “Many have simply vanished.” [NYT, Nov. 29, 2005]
In November, a secret bunker – where Sunni captives
were mistreated and apparently tortured – was discovered in an Interior
Ministry building in Baghdad. The Shiite-dominated government has denied
responsibility for the abuses and the murders.
But human rights groups and other investigators
have blamed many of the Sunni killings on the Badr Brigade, an
Iranian-backed Shiite militia associated with a leading element of the
Iraqi government, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in
Iraq. The Council has close ties to the fundamentalist Shiite government
U.S. officials also acknowledge that hard-line
Shiite militiamen, who have penetrated the government’s security forces,
are operating “death squads” to terrorize Sunnis.
The killings and disappearances are reminiscent of
the bloodshed in Central America in the 1980s when right-wing regimes in
Guatemala and El Salvador unleashed security forces to round up, torture
and kill suspected leftists.
That violence, however, was primarily defined by
political ideology, rather than race, religion or ethnicity. An
exception was the slaughtering of a Mayan Indian tribe in the Guatemalan
highlands as part of a military scorched-earth campaign that later was
investigated by a truth commission and denounced as “genocide.” [For
details about Ronald Reagan's tolerance of these atrocities, see Robert
In Iraq, the religious component of the nation’s
incipient civil war is already apparent, although Bush often has
presented the Iraqi conflict to the American people as a war largely
between foreign Islamic “terrorists” and freedom-loving Iraqis.
Bush finally dropped that distorted analysis in his
Nov. 30 speech about his plan for “victory” in Iraq. He divided the
“enemy in Iraq” into three groups – the Sunni “rejectionists,” who
resent having lost their privileged status; the Sunni “Saddamists,” who
retain loyalty to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein; and the foreign
“terrorists,” who have entered Iraq to fight the American invaders and
generally spread chaos.
U.S. military analysts estimate that more than 90
percent of the forces battling American troops come from the first two
Sunni categories, with the foreign jihadists representing only from 5 to
10 percent of the armed opposition. Though Bush didn’t give percentages,
he did list the groups in declining order by size, with the “terrorists”
Yet what is problematic about Bush’s analysis in
terms of the genocide issue is that he identifies the vast majority of
the “enemy” as Sunnis. That means both Iraq’s Shiite-dominated
government and U.S. forces in Iraq are already targeting a religious
minority for defeat, establishing one of the first conditions for the
definition of genocide.
The next element in the equation will be how far
the war against the Sunnis goes – or put differently, how stubbornly the
For his part, Bush reiterated that he will only be
satisfied with “complete victory,” which suggests he is resolved to
break the back of the Sunni resistance at whatever cost.
The Bush administration also wants to keep a tight
hold on information that might put the U.S. war effort in a negative
light. That means the American people can expect to be shielded from
many of the worst secrets in Iraq, much as the White House has continued
to fight release of video showing abuses at Abu Ghraib and other
U.S.-run prisons in Iraq.
According to U.S. military experts I’ve
interviewed, a great deal of emphasis in the future will be on
“perception management,” the concept of shaping how both Iraqis and the
American people perceive the events in Iraq.
This media manipulation, combined with secretive
“death squads,” adds even more to the recipe necessary for war-time
atrocities that might cross over into genocide.
Other warning flags were raised in a New Yorker
article by veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, whose sources
cited both Bush’s messianic commitment to stay the course in Iraq and to
a shift toward a reliance on aerial bombardment of “enemy” targets, as
U.S. troop levels begin to decline.
“A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned
in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American
troops will be replaced by American airpower,” Hersh wrote. “Quick,
deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve
dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat
“The danger, military experts have told me, is
that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground
troops are withdrawn, the overall level of violence and the number of
Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over
who bombs what.”
One of the risks is that the power to target U.S.
air attacks would be put in the hands of Iraq’s Shiite-controlled
government, which could then rain down American death and destruction
from the air on Sunnis and other rivals.
An example of this kind of horror occurred in the
early days of the war in March 2003 when the U.S. military relied on a
false report from a supposed informant that Saddam Hussein was eating at
a Baghdad restaurant. The restaurant was bombed, killing
14 civilians, including seven children, though
Hussein was not there.
The Sunnis also got a
taste of U.S. destruction from the air during the
assault on Fallujah in April 2004. With U.S.
warplanes shattering the city with 500-pound
bombs, hundreds of Iraqis – many of them
civilians – died. There were so many dead that the city's soccer
field was turned into a mass grave.
Hersh’s sources said, too, that Bush’s
fundamentalist Christianity has added another complication to the U.S.
pursuit of a realistic strategy in Iraq.
“Bush’s closest advisers have long been aware of
the religious nature of his policy commitments,” Hersh wrote. “In recent
interviews, one former senior official, who served in Bush’s first term,
spoke extensively about the connection between the President’s religious
faith and his view of the war in Iraq.
“After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the
former official said, he was told that Bush felt that ‘God put me here’
to deal with the war on terror. The President’s belief was fortified by
the Republican sweep in the 2002 congressional elections; Bush saw the
victory as a purposeful message from God that ‘he’s the man,’ the former
official said. Publicly, Bush depicted his reelection (in 2004) as a
referendum on the war; privately he spoke of it as another manifestation
of divine purpose.” [New
Yorker, Dec. 5, 2005]
Caught up in his divine mission, Bush has
repeatedly rejected cautionary advice about Iraq, dating back to
pre-invasion warnings from the likes of Gen. Brent Scowcroft, national
security adviser under President George H.W. Bush. Even now, military
advisers say Bush gets angry when they bring him negative news about
This mix of Bush’s religious zeal and his refusal
to accept reality adds another layer of danger as the United States
slouches toward potential genocide in Iraq.
But some in Washington say it’s outrageous even to
suggest the possibility of the U.S. government engaging in a crime
against humanity as severe as genocide. Despite the historical fact that
much of the American continent was settled after genocide against Native
Americans, the notion of such a present-day crime is considered
The Bush administration, however, already has
crossed other bright lines of international law, including the invasion
of a non-threatening foreign nation and complicity in torture, such as
subjecting captives to simulated drowning in a process called
So, how unthinkable is it really that the Bush
administration might venture across another boundary of civilized
What if Iraq’s Sunnis dig in their heels because
they suspect that their historic Shiite rivals plan to deny the Sunni
population a significant share of Iraq’s oil reserves, which are located
mostly in Shiite and Kurdish territories?
With little choice besides living in poverty in
Iraq’s central desert, the Sunnis might decide that their best option is
to continue fighting until the Shiites make far bigger concessions, such
as giving a strong central government control of the oil riches.
If that’s the choice the Sunnis make – and if Bush
sees his commitment to a “complete victory” as part of God’s plan –
might the Shiites then exploit U.S. air power to inflict a final
crushing blow against their ancient enemies?
Perhaps cooler heads will prevail and excessive
bloodshed will be averted. But if too many more lines get crossed, the
rest of the world may extend the list of crimes already blamed on the
Bush administration – to include genocide.