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(DV) Sanders: Pandora's Box







Pandora's Box
by Ken Sanders
September 24, 2005

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You have to hand it to the Bush administration. No matter how bad things might be in Iraq, and no matter how dim the prospects are for Iraq's future, Bush & Co. still manage to look the public straight in the eye, smirk, and insist that the decision to invade Iraq was a good one. Call them determined, even stubborn. Call them dishonest, perhaps delusional. Regardless, the fact is that by invading Iraq, the Bush administration opened a Pandora's Box with global consequences.

Bush and his apologists have frequently promised that the invasion of Iraq will spread democracy and stability throughout the entire Middle East. That naive declaration could not be farther from the truth. Not only is Iraq itself in the clutches of a civil war, the U.S.-led invasion threatens to destabilize the whole of the Middle East, if not the world. It may have irrevocably done so already.

By most definitions and standards, Iraq is already in the throes of civil war. Whether defined as an internal conflict resulting in at least 1,000 combat-related fatalities, five percent of which are sustained by government and rebel forces; or as organized violence designed to change the governance of a country; or as a systematic and coordinated sectarian-based conflict; the requirements of civil war have long since been satisfied in Iraq.

While our television screens are saturated by images of chaos and death in Iraq, the stories beneath the images are even more disturbing. Purely sectarian attacks, largely between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite populations, have been rising dramatically for months. According to Iraqi government statistics, such "targeted" attacks have doubled over the past 12 months. Police in Iraq are finding scores of bodies littering the streets, bodies of people who were blindfolded or handcuffed, shot or beheaded. The Baghdad morgue is constantly overwhelmed by bodies showing tell-tale signs of torture and gradual, drawn-out, agonizing death.

In Baghdad, Sunni neighborhoods live in fear of Shiite death squads like the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Iraq's leading Shiite governing coalition. Such death squads operate openly, in full uniform, and with the deliberate ignorance, if not outright sanction, of the Iraqi government. On a single day in August, the bodies of 36 Sunni Arabs were found blindfolded, handcuffed, tortured and executed in a dry riverbed in the Shiite-dominated Wasit province.

At the other end, Shiites face each day burdened by the terror and trauma of being the targets of constant suicide bombings. The army and police recruits killed by suicide bombs are predominantly Shia. In Ramadi, a Sunni stronghold, Shiites are fleeing their homes, driven out by murder and intimidation. On August 17, 43 Shiites were killed by bombings at a bus stop and then at the hospital where the casualties were to be treated.

There are less-violent examples of the deepening rifts between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites since the U.S.-led invasion. By some estimations, nearly half of the weddings performed in Baghdad before the invasion were of mixed Sunni/Shiite couples. Since the invasion and its resulting instability and strife, such mixed weddings are all but extinct. This new-found reluctance of Sunnis and Shiites to marry each other is just another indication of the increasing isolation and animosity between the two populations.

The recently finalized Iraqi constitution does little to bridge Iraq's growing sectarian divides. The culmination of sectarian feuds passing for political debates, Iraq's constitution only ratifies the sectarian divisions of the nation. In the north are the Kurds who long ago abandoned their Iraqi identity, refusing to even fly the Iraqi flag. In the south is a burgeoning Shiite Islamic state, patterned after and influenced by Iran. Both groups have divvied up Iraq's oil reserves amongst themselves. Left in the nation's oil-free center are the Sunni Arabs, dismissed as obstructionist by the Kurds and Shiites. So unconcerned are the Kurds and Shiites with a unified Iraq that they both maintain their own large and heavily-armed militias.

Of course, the constitution still has to be ratified. If it is ratified, it will likely be by a Shiite/Kurdish minority, effectively maintaining the status quo that motivates, in part, the Sunni-led insurgency. If, on the other hand, the constitution is defeated, there's little reason not to believe that the three major factions in Iraq won't resort to forcibly taking what they want. Either way, in the words of one Iraqi civilian, "God help us."

The discord in Iraq is not limited to fighting between Shiites and Sunnis. In Basra, for instance, rival Shiite militia groups constantly fight each other. The notorious Badr Brigade, backed by SCIRI, have repeatedly clashed with dissident cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi militia. The Badr Brigade frequently works in conjunction with Basra police and are suspected of recently kidnapping and killing two journalists. Suspecting that the Basra police have been infiltrated by both the Badr and Mehdi militias, the British military sent in two undercover operatives to make arrests. The British operatives were themselves arrested by the Basra police. When the British went to liberate their men, they found themselves exchanging fire with the Basra police, their heretofore allies, and smashing through the prison walls with armored vehicles.

Iraqis aren't merely growing increasingly alienated from each other, as well as progressively opposed to coalition forces. Iraq's estrangement from the rest of the Middle East and the Arab world is widening, as well. Seen more and more as a proxy of the Iranian government, the Shiite/Kurd dominated Iraq finds itself at odds with the Sunni-dominated Middle East. For instance, since the U.S.-led invasion, not a single Middle East nation has sent an ambassador to Baghdad. And, despite promises to do so, the Arab League (of which Iraq was a founder) has yet to open a Baghdad office. 

There are, clearly, many reasons other than sectarianism for Iraq's estrangement from the Middle East and Arab nations, security being the foremost. However, Iraqi diplomacy, or lack thereof, is also to blame. From chiding Qatar for sending aid to Katrina victims but not to Iraq, to arguing with Kuwait over border issues, to blaming Syria for the insurgency, Iraq's fledgling government seems to have taken diplomacy lessons from the Bush administration. In fact, with the exception of Iran, Iraq has butted heads recently with nearly every Middle East nation.

Iraq's constitution hasn't won it any friends in the Arab world, either. For instance, Iraq drew strong condemnation from the Arab world when a draft of its constitution read that just "its Arab people are part of the Arab nation." Only after the outcry from the Arab League and numerous Arab nations, did Iraq change its constitution's offending language. (The argument by Bush's apologists that the Iraqi constitution's alleged enshrinement of democratic principles threatens neighboring countries is unconvincing. Syria and Egypt both have constitutions that "guarantee" political and individual freedoms. In practice, however, such guarantees have proven meaningless. Why, then, should they feel threatened?)

Iraq's varied relationships with Middle Eastern nations will be immeasurably significant should Iraq descend further into civil war. For example, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Jordan would most likely come to the support of Iraq's Sunnis. (There are already signs that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has impacted Saudi Arabia's Sunni population. According to a recent study, the invasion of Iraq has radicalized previously non-militant Saudis, sickened by the occupation of an Arab nation by non-Arabs.) Iran would only increase its already staunch support for Iraq's Shiites. Turkey would also likely be drawn in, hoping to prevent any Kurdish success in Iraq from spilling across its border. Moreover, Iraq's violent Sunni-Shiite discord could easily spark similar strife in Middle East countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

In such a worst-case scenario, Iraq's instability would spread and infect an already unstable region. If the Gulf region were to further destabilize, so too would the global economy as oil prices would skyrocket, plunging the U.S. and so many others into recession.

Put another way, Bush's illegal, ill-conceived, short-sighted, and naive venture in Iraq could reasonably result in total chaos in not just Iraq and the Middle East, but the world over.

A Pandora's Box, if there ever was one.

Ken Sanders is a writer based in Tucson, Arizona. Visit his weblog at:

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