Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Understanding the Iraq Conflict

While reading the news on Iraq, I find that the information provided can often times be misleading, contradictory, and uninformative. For this piece, I intend to briefly explain the various factions in Iraq that are vying for power.

On the most basic level there are the Sunnis, who make up 40% of the population, and the Shiites, who make up 60% of the population. Before the current war in Iraq, there was an estimated 30 million Iraqis. The current estimate is around 28 million.

Of this population, 5 million people have been displaced because of this conflict, and one million have died. It is estimated that 2.5 million Iraqi's are internally displaced, while the more well-off professional class of Iraqis, also numbering 2.5 million, have taken refuge abroad, mostly in other Arab states. The largest exodus was to Syria, which currently hosts 1.5 million Iraqis.

Now within the Sunni population, there are multiple groups. The first distinction can be made ethnically, where 20% is Kurdish and the other 20% is Arab. The Kurds generally identify more with their ethnicity than with their religion, hence why they typically have not identified with the Sunni Arab minority. The two major Kurdish political parties are the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). These two parties, both of whom are ideologically democratic socialists, have been in an alliance since 2003. These two main parties--who once militarily fought each other in the 1990s--made up the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan in the January 2005 elections. They won the overwhelming majority of the vote. The current President of Iraq is Jalal Talabani, the leader of the PUK, and Massoud Barazani, the leader of the KDP, is the President of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Within the Sunni Arab community, there are at least four segments that exist. One group is the members of the old regime--the Ba'athists who have largely been ostracized from the government and society. Many former Ba'athists have at various point fought against the occupation forces. Another group is the 80,000 strong tribal alliance movement centered in Anbar provice called the Sahwa, or Awakening, Council movement. This movement is made up of tribes that once fought the occupation forces and now have decided to collaborate with the Americans in a strategic alliance. They recognize that they cannot fight the Shiites and Americans at the same time and hence have traded their violent ways for a tenuous peace in which they are receiving money which sometimes goes to procuring armaments for a future battle. Another group that doesn't really wield much power right now is the Iraqi expatriates community that has returned to Iraq. The two most notable figures are Ayad Allawi, who was the interim Prime Minister until after the 2005 elections, and the infamous Ahmed Chalabi. These expatriates are secular nationalists who largely agree with following the Washington Consensus as a basis for the future of Iraq. The fourth group is the insurgents in Iraq, loosely called "Al-Qaeda" in Iraq, that is the grouping of both radical Islamists--who are ideologically similar to Al-Qaeda though operationally independent--and any other insurgents. The "Al-Qaeda" in Iraq are largely drawn from outside of Iraq and have lost significant operational capability due to the American alliance with the Awakening Councils. The regular Sunni insurgents still make sporadic attacks, but these attacks too have declined in size and scope.

Then there are the varying Shiite groups in Iraq, particularly three major groups. One group are the followers of the current Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party. They are allied to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)which is sometimes referred to as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), both were formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). This is headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite cleric with ties to Iran. The PM is in control of the rag-tag Iraqi Army, and al-Hakim is in control of the paramilitary Badr Corps. The other major Shiite group is that of the populist Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric who once was at odds with Iran but has increasingly formed ties with them. Al-Sadr's Shiite group helped to get the Maliki government elected in 2005, but withdrew their support in 2007, largely because of al-Sadr's vehement opposition to the American occupation. Al-Sadr controls the paramilitary group known as the Mahdi Army. Al-Sadr is increasingly gaining political clout, at the expense of the ruling Dawa-ISCI alliance, which forebodes trouble for the future. Al-Sadr is a staunch nationalist vehemently opposed to the American occupation, though tactically he has avoided conflict with them for the last couple of months due to a unilateral cease-fire. The Dawa-ISCI Alliance, meanwhile, strongly backs the American occupation because America provides them with militarily, financially, and politically support.

Overall, these are the various groups within Iraq vying for power. Then there are the Americans. There are 161,000 private contractors [53% (~85,300) Iraqi, 17% (~27,400) American, 30% (~45,500) Other] in Iraq, alongside the current 166,000 (incl. ~10,500 non-U.S.) troops. Thats a an incredible 327,000 coalition forces, including a minimum of around 200,000 Americans. The Americans, of course, are employing a traditional 'divide-and-conquer' strategy, all the while establishing permanent bases outside of the cities so that they can maintain order from a distance via their Iraqi proxies.