Iraq and Genocide

This interesting comment was made by one of our regular correspondents who asked for my opinion on this subject.


"Given the many reports describing the discovery of groups of Sunni men found dead with execution-style wounds and torture wounds — and also the stories about Sunni men being taken away by Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry police and other government forces, never to be seen again — it strikes me that the U.S. effort to train and equip Iraqi police and military personnel may turn out to be, or is already turning out to be, an organized campaign to prepare a genocide, albeit unintentionally. It’s becoming increasingly easy to picture an Iraqi version of the Interhamwe cleaning up the sectarian composition of the country, or to picture a dozen Srebrenicas. (The other scenario that comes to mind is something like the 1965 purge of Indonesian communists, after some version of the Untung coup.)

It seems like it would be especially easy for Iraq to move toward genocide in light of the fact that they’ve already headed that way before. There are plenty of people still walking around the country, I’m sure, who have already gassed Kurds or Iranian troops, and are comfortable with violence of that scale and variety. Of course, they no longer have the gas — but the Hutus showed this sort of thing could be carried off with machetes, and there’s no shortage of weapons in Iraq. I would think the trigger could be something like the Sunnis abandoning the political process and trying to recover power by force of arms, with the Shiites deciding to solve the problem once and for all. Not that easy to kill every Sunni Arab in Iraq, but it also wouldn’t be that hard to cull men of military age, burn homes, and render individual mixed-population towns Sunni-free.

Do you view any of these scenarios as being really possible?"  CB


Iraq has a consistent history of inter-communal struggle among the ethno-religious nations that inhabit the place, but these political and sometimes armed conflicts have been aimed at subduing the competing communities rather than annihilating them. Saddam Hussein’s attacks on the Kurds and Shia were efforts to bring them into compliance with his vision of a unitary state under dynastic rule by his clan.  He sought in some parts of the country to re-settle large numbers of people in order to make the role of the Sunni Arabs dominant in all parts of the country and all sectors of the economy, but "ethnic cleansing" on the Balkan model does not seem to have been the practice.  Some may disagree on that point.  It would be good to hear their views.

In spite of this history, the present and future situation may be different.  The long period of sanctions followed by yet another defeat in war, followed by occupation by foreign armies have unsettled the country to such an extent that restraints on behaviors which were customary in the past may no longer inhibit murder as they once did.

The recent series of group murders with torture point to a degeneration of whatever sense of collective identity the Iraqis have had up until now.  If a process of retaliation for such murders sets in, it will almost inevitably lead to large scale fighting in areas with mixed populations.  It is easy to imagine that his kind of thing would lead to flight by minority populations into areas where their "own people" live.  This process would accelerate the disintegration of the state of Iraq.

Baghdad?  If this trend continues, the situation in the metropolis will get steadily worse, because there, the populations can not be segregated.

Pat Lang

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6 Responses to Iraq and Genocide

  1. searp says:

    An additional element is the rise of the takfiris. This may change the historical pattern.

  2. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Received this from an American friend of Greek ancestry.
    “I once believed absolutely that genocide in Iraq was not possible. I thought that the Iraqis would continue the fine Ottoman Turkish tradition of occasional massacres to cow and intimidate subject or minority populations. For example, when they massacred my ancestral home Island of Chios in 1822, the Ottomans intended the massacre to intimidate the nearby islands of Samos and Psara which were much more difficult military objectives. Furthermore, Admiral kara Ali (the OIC massacres on Chios) had specific instructions not to kill anyone in the rich mastic-producing villages in the southern part of the Island.
    Now I am not so certain. Your points are well considered. Furthermore, I believe that my rosier (?) views were conditioned by the fact that virtually all my Iraqi friends are Upper-Class Baghdad Shia, i.e., Ottomans. They are becoming as irrelevant as Saddam.”

  3. Geoff says:

    This conflict is starting to sound more like el Salvador and less like Vietnam

  4. bh says:

    John Negroponte was US Ambassador to Iraq from June 2004 to April 2005. The rise of death squad-type killing in Iraq really seemed to take off in this time period. Was this just a coincidence?

  5. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Nah. These folks don’t need help in that department.
    Reminds me of the gal I knew once, who was a Berkely graduate. She insisted to me that the CIA had taught SAVAK to torture people.
    She got very upset with my amusement at the idea. pl

  6. bh says:

    I agree with you. He probably took the Ambassador job so he could learn new techniques.
    I just heard a news report this morning that the Madhi Army is now the only police force in Sadr City. A “civil war” or a “death squad” looks very different from different perspectives. Chaos and rampant crime at the local level cements the power of local militias as they become the only guarantors of order for Iraqis.
    Which is exactly why preventing chaos at the local level should have been the US military’s highest priority from the very beginning. It wasn’t, so here we are.
    As you wrote about the Abu Ghraib torture, there are always people in any army who will torture or kill indiscrimately. The point is to suppress or keep them under control, not to turn them loose to operate at will.

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