Monday, September 10, 2007

The Road to Partition


Published: September 11, 2007

Zealots don’t laugh when elevators break. Shatha al-Musawi did laugh. She smiled at the camera crew that was following her to her Baghdad office, and she sighed, “We’ll have to take the stairs.”

Thoughts of Musawi ran through my head as I watched David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker testify yesterday. Musawi was the subject of a profile by Damien Cave that ran on the front page of The Times a few weeks ago, and a Web cast on The Times’s Web site by Damien Cave and Diana Oliva Cave.

Musawi is a moderate Shiite member of the Iraqi Parliament who earned a university degree after her children grew up. She speaks thoughtfully and gently, but there is a wall in her mind separating Sunnis from Shiites, a wall that was erected during Saddam’s persecution and that has been fortified by the violence since. For her, the conflict with the Sunnis is not over oil; it’s a matter of honor. She wants them to accept historical guilt and grant Shiites moral supremacy.

As she said in the Web cast: “If they come and apologize to victims, if they admitted their faults and asked for forgiveness, maybe we can forget about it. But now with this continuous killing and continuous crimes against us, how could we? How could we?”

This is how many Palestinians and Israelis talk. When conflicts become struggles for moral capitulation, they take forever to end.

Musawi’s words are just one more piece of evidence that Iraq will not be put together the way it was. It’s one more piece of evidence that America’s best course is not to reunify Iraq, but simply to inhibit the violence as Iraqis feel their own way to partition.

What we’re really trying to build, in other words, is a road to partition. We’re trying to build a pathway to separation that involves the sort of low-intensity civil war that Iraq is enduring right now. We’re trying to prevent a pathway that is even worse — a high-intensity genocide.

As I was watching yesterday’s hearings, I was thinking of the sensible yet sectarian Musawi. How many American lives is it worth to save those like her? Is it realistic to think U.S. troops can help Iraqis move on that less barbaric path?

If you look around, you see this is the wrong time to give up hope, for circumstances in Iraq are better than they were in the spring.

First, there’s clearer evidence than ever that U.S. forces can inhibit violence. Despite all the debates over the data, violence over all is on the decline. In neighborhoods where 30 and 40 bodies used to show up a night, now only one or two do. After rising in 2006, violent civilian deaths of all kinds are down 45 percent since December.

Second, the worst of the ethnic cleansing may be over. For years, Shiites and Sunnis have been purging each other from towns and neighborhoods. That ugly process may be nearing its completion, and stabilization may be possible. As Damien Cave and Stephen Farrell wrote in The Times last Sunday, “Iraq’s mixed neighborhoods are sliding toward extinction.”

Third, the tribal revolt against extremism is real and growing. Few anticipated it. Few predicted that it would spread from Anbar to Diyala to Salahaddin and beyond. But it has, and U.S. troops are essential to its success.

Fourth, U.S. commanders finally have a realistic definition of their mission. We’re not trying to determine the future shape of Iraq, Petraeus said yesterday. We’re just trying to ensure that Iraqi sects compete for power in less violent ways.

Fifth, American diplomats are no longer waiting for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Yesterday Crocker made some dubious assertions about Iraqi elites discovering the virtues of power-sharing. But the concrete parts of Crocker’s efforts do not require those virtues. They involve bulking up municipal governments and disbursing money from Baghdad.

What we have then, is a confluence of events, a series of processes that weren’t happening four months ago. Obviously, these processes are tenuous. But, given the consequences, it would be foolish to give up now. It would be foolish to weaken U.S. support for the sane sectarians just when they are striving to create a segregated yet inhabitable Iraq.

Shatha al-Musawi is one of those Iraqis unwilling to reconcile. In that way, she’s part of the problem. But she doesn’t want to die in some cataclysmic civil war. There may come a time when the U.S. can do nothing for her. But with all that is happening, that time is not now.


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