Thomas Friedman: Iraq at the 11th Hour

Friedman has been saying for months – years, really – that it’s still not too late to salvage things in Iraq, but to do so we have to move fast before things spiral out of control. Now, yet again, he sees Iraq at a critical juncture, but we still might be able to fix things. Sorry, but if anyone at this point doesn’t admit that Iraq is totally FUBAR they’re fooling themselves.

Iraq at the 11th Hour
Published: March 31, 2006

The fate of the entire U.S. enterprise in Iraq now hangs in the balance, as the war has entered a dangerous new phase. It is the phase of barbaric identity-card violence between Sunnis and Shiites. In the late 1970’s, I covered a similar moment in Lebanon, and the one thing I learned was this: Once this kind of venom gets unleashed — with members of each community literally beheading each other on the basis of their religious identities — it poisons everything. You enter a realm that is beyond politics, a realm where fear and revenge dominate everyone’s thinking — and that is where Iraq is heading.

Jeffrey Gettleman reported last Sunday in this paper about Mohannad al-Azawi, a quiet Sunni pet shop owner in Baghdad who was abducted from his store and found murdered the next morning. His skin was covered with purple welts, and his face and legs had drill holes in them. His brother Hassan, the story noted, “carries the autopsy photos with him, along with a pistol. ‘I cannot live without vengeance,’ he said.”

Once embedded, this cycle of fear and revenge is almost impossible to break. People conclude that the only thing that can protect them is a militia from their own sect, not the police or the army. Then these militias, which come to life to protect the neighborhood, take on a life of their own. They develop protection rackets, feel the thrill of power and, as that happens, start to do all they can to prevent the government from restoring its authority. Finally, as the BBC noted in a recent report from Baghdad, some Iraqi politicians are now concluding that “they can gain more power and influence from building on sectarian loyalties than from appeals for national unity.” When politicians decide they can get ahead by appealing more to fear than to hope, national reconciliation goes up in smoke.

A Baghdad blogger, the Mesopotamian, quoted by, gave a vivid description of his neighborhood: “The confusion and conflict between the Americans, the army and the Ministry of Interior is producing a situation where the citizens don’t know anymore whether the security personnel in the street are friends, enemies, terrorists or simply criminals and thieves. Everybody is wearing the same uniforms. Whole sections of the city have virtually fallen to gangs and terrorists, and this is especially true for the ‘Sunni’-dominated neighborhoods. People and businesses are being robbed and the employees kidnapped en masse in broad daylight and with complete ease as though security forces are nonexistent, although we see them everywhere.

“I don’t know anymore what can be done to rescue the situation. At least, those who are supposed to be in positions of responsibility should stop lying and painting a false picture. … I regret sounding so pessimistic, but the alarm must be sounded. … What is happening is Baghdad is something really awful.”

Donald Rumsfeld’s criminally negligent decision not to deploy enough troops in Iraq to begin with created this security vacuum. But the insecurity was compounded by the unique enemy that emerged to take advantage of that vacuum — Sunni Islamo-nihilists. These are a disparate collection of groups with one common agenda: America and its Iraqi allies must fail; they must not be allowed to build Iraq into a Western-style, democratizing society. When you are up against an enemy whose only goal is that you must fail, and which does not care about how much death and destruction it inflicts on its own people, let alone on others, it is extremely difficult to establish order.

The Iraqi Shiite community showed remarkable restraint in the face of the murderous provocations by these Islamo-nihilist gangs during the past three years. But that restraint is over. It’s now clear that some Shiite militias are ready to match the Sunni nihilists, killing for killing. So the slide into a medieval barbarism has begun.

Do not believe any of the Bush team’s happy talk. It doesn’t matter if Iraq is quiet in the south and quiet in the north. If Baghdad, the heart of the country, is being ripped apart, then there is no Iraq — because there is no center.

There is only one hope for halting this slide and that is the formation — immediately — of a national unity government in Iraq, with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds sharing power, and the deployment on the streets — immediately — of massive numbers of troops and police, both Iraqi and American, to prevent more of these tribal killings. If a national unity government is not formed soon, and if these identity-card murderers gain more momentum, any hope for building a decent Iraq will vanish.

It is five minutes to midnight.

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