NYU's very own Nir Rosen - a prominent freelance journalist that has covered Iraq extensively since 2003 - has written a new piece on Iraq for Boston Review. In "An Ugly Peace," Rosen states that the new order in post-war Iraq is one of 'enshrined sectarianism' and that the horrific sectarian violence has only declined because of ethnic cleansing, which created a situation in which there were simply 'fewer Sunnis left to kill.'
Rosen's assertion that the violence that characterized Iraq's civil war has died down due to the fact that 'the Shia won' is not new. Yet the details from his personal accounts are nevertheless intriguing and shed new light on the relationship between the Mahdi Army (Muqtada al-Sadr's militia) and the Iraqi government/security forces. Rosen spent time in 2006 and 2007 in Washash, a mixed neighborhood in traditionally Sunni west Baghdad. The Mahdi Army established a base in Washash by 2006 and soon began to turn it into a Shia enclave by driving out Sunnis through assassinations and intimidation. The US army was more concerned with groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time, while the nascent Iraqi security forces wouldn't dare step foot into Washash. According to Rosen, the Sadrists had two close contacts in the Prime Minister's office - Major General Adnan al-Maksusi, an intelligence officer, and Dr. Basima al-Jadhri, an advisor to Maliki on Interior and Defense issues. Because of the Mahdi Army's contacts with the Prime Minister and the presence of Mahdi Army supporters in the Iraqi security forces, the Sadrists acted as if they had a carte blanche during 2006 and into 2007. They killed or forced out thousands of Sunni families from mixed or Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad. As more Sunnis fled and the area became more homogenous, violence subsided.
Yet, the situation began to change in mid-2007 and into 2008. The increase in the number of US troops in Iraq coincided with Muqtada al-Sadr freezing all Mahdi Army operations, yet many of his more brash adherents refused to obey his orders. Since there were increasingly less Sunnis to go after in Washash and its surrounding neighborhoods, these once-loved militia units started acting more and more like criminal gangs. According to Rosen, the Iraqi security forces along with US help used this to create a wedge between the Mahdi Army and the residents of these neighborhoods that had become tired of the Sadrists' extortionary ways. By 2008, the Iraqi security forces had arrested many of the rogue elements of the Mahdi Army in Washash and had restored Iraqi government control to the area.
The events in Washash in 2007 and 2008 can be seen as a microcosm of a larger development. As Iraqi security forces regained control of key Baghdad neighborhoods from Mahdi Army control, PM Maliki launched a massive campaign against Sadrist forces in Basra in March 2008 in order to reassert Baghdad's control in the south. Though the campaign faltered at first, it turned out to be mildly successful in weakening the hold of Shia militias over the south in general and Basra in particular.
Taking on Shia militias and asserting government control over the south created space for Maliki to flex his nationalist muscles and opened the possibility of creating cross-sectarian alliances. This is one of the reasons why the coalitions that have formed in preparation for the 2010 national elections are increasingly less sectarian than those from before. Still, it is premature to start talking about a post-sectarian future for Iraq. As Rosen emphasizes, the state now belongs to the Shia (as is immediately evident by the tv and music played in the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Oil). Nevertheless, Maliki's government faces an extremely fractured opposition, and the relative calm in the country has given it some sort of legitimacy - even among Sunnis. This is the 'ugly peace' of which Rosen writes. How long this ugly peace between Shia and Sunnis will hold is unknown. But as emphasized in previous posts, all eyes are currently fixed to the major ethnic cleavage in Iraq rather than to the major sectarian cleavage anyway.