Even after the British drew up Iraq's borders after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Sunnis, Shias, Jews, Turks, Kurds and others drank chai tea, talked politics and hit up the bustling book markets of Baghdad, one of the most diverse cities in the Middle East. But over the past few years, Baghdad has been systematically cleansed of its diversity.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Ghaziliya, a neighborhood that was once a flashpoint for Sunni-on-Shia violence. Now America has staved off the sectarian violence, in part by dividing up the neighborhood with twenty miles of concrete blast barriers.
"Everyone in our neighborhood is Sunni, even the birds flying above us are Sunni," resident Mohammed Azzawi told the LA Times in November. "Now that it is pure Sunni, it is better for us."
The U.S. is currently taking a "bottom-up" approach to stoking reconciliation. Part of that involves recruiting "Local Concerned Citizens," security forces aligned with Americans that will increase the peace in local neighborhoods. Already, roughly 60,000 Iraqis have joined the force.
There are plenty of people to kill in Iraq: a kaleidoscope of terrorists, death squads, mafia-style criminal networks and Islamic militias. But intelligence is the key to counterinsurgency, and that is something many Americans—from those on the front lines, to commanders at the Pentagon, to administrators in the White House—don't have. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that hunting, imprisoning and killing more bad guys will not resolve deep-seated tensions that have haunted Iraqis for 35 years under Saddam Hussein.
So the United States' alliance with Sunni sheiks, including those in Ghaziliya, looks like it will only enable a civil war.
"Now the Americans are with the Sunnis and against the Shiites," Azzawi said.
What should the occupier do? Pulling out entirely, by all accounts, would lead to genocidal civil war. Training new security forces without being entirely scrupulous would enable genocidal civil war. Leaving only a handful of advisors or Special Forces there, to train security forces or to hunt Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia for the next decade, would not only starve the military of resources to stave off genocidal civil war, but prolong our violent and unwelcome occupation of Iraq.
One thing is certain: sooner or later, we will leave Iraq to the Iraqis. In October, U.S. military leaders considered declaring victory on Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, since many of those militants have been forced from Baghdad. Starting in late November, the United States began withdrawing a first batch of 5,000 troops from Diyala Province, which will bring the American troop count down to 157,000. The Iraq Study Group, which produced a dire assessment of the occupation's progress in December 2006, recommended that we withdraw our troops by March 2008.
Whatever we do, it appears that genocide is Iraq's destiny. So why not leave now, and resign ourselves to the fact that our nation is, in large part, responsible for Iraq's fate?
At the moment, that is a question I do not care to answer. Even philosophically, I do not want to be complicit in my own country's hideous crimes. But I cannot help but feel that, being an American, I already am a war criminal.
A version of this article ran in this week's issue of the New School Free Press.