In the Middle of a Civil War

The golden dome of the Askariya Shiite shrine in Samarra, Iraq, was bombed Feb. 22 last year.
The golden dome of the Askariya Shiite shrine in Samarra, Iraq, was bombed Feb. 22 last year. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)

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By Gian P. Gentile
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

In late February 2006, al-Qaeda destroyed the Askariya Shiite shrine in Samarra. During the previous two months that my cavalry squadron had been operating in Iraq, my main focus was the technical training of the Iraqi national police and combined operations with them against Sunni insurgents in west Baghdad. Before Samarra, it did not seem important which areas of Baghdad were Shiite or Sunni or that the police battalions I operated alongside were almost completely Shiite. Before Samarra, I assumed that Iraqi citizens saw the national police as the security arm of the elected, and thus legitimate, government and that the officers had the people's support against insurgents.

It took about three weeks after the attack, in which time my combat patrols sprang from one Sunni mosque to another to protect them from Shiite militias that were at times supported by members of the national police, for me to realize what was really going on. For me, Samarra came to define the nature of the violence in Iraq: civil war.

Some say that Iraq cannot be in a civil war because the country's major institutions are not fighting each other with conventional military forces. But this is too formulaic and restrictive for what I saw and heard. On the streets of west Baghdad, almost every person I spoke to told me of a close relative or friend who was killed by Sunni insurgents or Shiite militia members.

In the summer of 2006, my squadron was assigned to Amiriyah, a Sunni district of Baghdad. I was the American commander in charge, and over five months I came to know well Sunni perspectives of Iraq. Many if not most Iraqi Sunnis think that the Iraqi government is not legitimate but sectarian and out to crush them. The Sunnis in Amiriyah believed that the government was using its institutional powers to deprive them of essential services such as electricity, trash pickup, banking facilities, health care and, most important, security. People I spoke with said that Iraqi security forces, especially the local and national police, were determined to kill them because they were Sunni. Their response to these ideas was not passive: Residents of Amiriyah, working with Sunni insurgents, would regularly target the Shiites in the area as payback for what they saw the government doing to them. The bodies that my squadron helped retrieve from the streets each day were almost always Shiite.

I decided that the best way to secure the neighborhood would be to hire local men, vetted by me and trusted imams in the district, and turn them into a police force. Not only did this prove to be exceedingly difficult, but government officials often told me that doing this was arming their enemy.

I ordered a concrete barrier to be built around Amiriyah and limited entry to one checkpoint controlled by the Iraqi army. The goal was to keep Sunni insurgents from bringing in weapons and to prevent attacks by Shiite militias. But while the barrier helped isolate the neighborhood from outside insurgents and militias, it could not stop, and actually facilitated, killings within Amiriyah. The security we helped provide for Sunnis gave them increased freedom to go out and kill Shiites or, more recently, to conduct fights against local al-Qaeda members. Amiriyah became one of the safest areas in Baghdad for Sunnis but lethal for the few remaining Shiites.

On many days I watched families moving in or out of Amiriyah. The families moving in were Sunni and often had been told to leave another area of Baghdad that was predominantly Shiite. If they were moving out, they were Shiites whom the Sunni locals or insurgents had threatened. Sometimes I saw homes burning, having been set aflame because the owner or occupants were Shiite.

The war that I faced was an insurgency within a civil war. I wish it had been the other way around. Had it been a civil war within an insurgency, the extremes could have been targeted and controlled and the large center of the people moved toward local compromise.

My primary objective as a commander was to protect all the people. I felt a measure of responsibility every time a Shiite body showed up on the streets. One day last October, my patrol came upon a scene I keep trying to forget. A man was lying on the street; his wife, who had blood running down her face, stood nearby crying as she clutched their baby. The child in her arms was dead, shot in the head, as the father had been. The man, who was a Sunni, and his child were killed by Sunni insurgents or local Sunnis -- sometimes it was hard to tell them apart -- because he had married a Shiite woman.

How can this not be civil war?

The writer, a lieutenant colonel in the 4th Infantry Division, operated in west Baghdad last year.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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