The war in Iraq is not what it seems. In fact, there is no "war" in Iraq—there are many wars, some centuries old, playing out on this ancient land. But this is not what Americans are often led to believe. The perception portrayed by the White House and Iraqi government in Baghdad—and commonly reflected in the news media—is that the violence in Iraq is a fundamental struggle between two opposing teams: Freedom Lovers and Freedom Haters.
In this Manichaean and simplistic view of the fighting here, the tale of the tape is:
- The Freedom Lovers: The 12 million Iraqis who plunged their fingers into purple ink on Election Day in December 2005, choosing freedom, democracy and to shut forever the door on Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Their team captains are the Iraqi government, the White House, the U.S.-trained Iraq security services, and the roughly 150,000 American troops in Iraq.
- The Freedom Haters: Iraqi radicals, foreign jihadists, former Ba’ath Party members, and criminals supported by al-Qaeda, Syria and Iran, who have formed an alliance of convenience to reject the democratization of Iraq, each for its own motivation. The team’s captains are al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni militant groups, Iranian and Syrian agents and, but not always, radical Shi’ite cleric Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
While there are certainly elements of truth to this narrative, the reality in this fractured country is much more complex.
The Other Wars
During a break in a diplomatic meeting in Baghdad in March, I was sitting in a smoke-filled waiting room of the foreign ministry watching Iraqiya, the state-sponsored television station. It was the final day of the Shi’ite festival of Ashura, and several hundred thousand, perhaps as many as two million, Shi’ite pilgrims were gathered in the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad. The television images showed the Shi’ite devotees flagellating their backs with zangeel (bundles of chains) and cutting their heads with swords to mourn the seventh century martyr Hussein and punish themselves for not having done more to save his life during a battle in Karbala in one of Islam’s early civil wars.
The pictures showed a man dressed as Hussein in ancient Islamic battle dress, with a sword, flowing headdress, and a colorful cape, reenacting the battle by single-handedly fighting off a crowd of attackers until he was overwhelmed and heroically slain. Hussein’s martyrdom, many Shi’ites claim at the hands of early Sunnis, is one of the central themes of Shi’ite Islam in Iraq and establishes a basic premise that Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, and his Shi’ite descendants are the true heirs to Islam but were defeated by Sunni "usurpers."
But the footage on Iraqi state TV during Ashura didn’t stop there. Interwoven with the images of Hussein’s struggle and the mourning rituals was currentnews footage of the aftermath of car bombings in Baghdad, the Shi’ite al-Askari mosque in Samara destroyed by al-Qaeda militants in February 2006, and wounded Iraqi women and children. The message was clear: the attacks on markets, Shi’ite mosques, restaurants and university campuses, mostly carried out by Sunni radicals, are a continuation of Hussein’s battle centuries ago.
As pilgrims marched by our Baghdad bureau on their way to Karbala, I could hear them chant: "Kul yom Ashura! Kul ard Karbala!" or "Every day is Ashura! All land is Karbala!" Simply put, they were saying, everyday and everywhere in Iraq, Shi’ites are reliving Hussein’s battles in Karbala. There was no talk of democracy or the Ba’ath Party, Saddam Hussein or the U.S. troop "surge," or other subjects that dominate the Iraq debate in the United States. Instead, it is apparent that many of Iraq’s Shi’ites believe they are fighting a different war from the one many in the United States see their troops engaged in here, and for different reasons.
Many Sunni groups in Iraq are also fighting a war that seems to have little in common with the official U.S. and Iraqi characterization of the conflict. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and its allies recently formed an umbrella group they call Dowlit al-Islam, or the Islamic State in Iraq. After the group claimed responsibility for bombing the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad’s Green Zone in April, the group issued an Internet statement explaining its motivation. The group said the suicide bomber who attacked parliament’s cafeteria and killed one lawmaker was motivated to kill "the traitors and collaborators" who had sold out to a "Zionist-Persian" conspiracy to control Iraq. From what they wrote, they seem to believe they are fighting Israel, Iran and their agents, not the U.S. mission to bring democracy to Iraq.
These visions of war are just two of the competing power struggles that U.S. troops in Iraq are trying to quell; the reality is there are many wars within the war. Others include:
- Moktada al-Sadr: The radical Shi’ite leader and commander of the Mahdi Army who wants to equal or surpass the influence of his father, one of Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite leaders. Based primarily on his family’s reputation, Sadr has tapped into the frustrations of Iraq’s poor, uneducated and unemployed Shi’ite community, increasingly fed up with the continued presence of U.S. troops.
- The Kurds: Iraqi Kurds want independence and control of the oil rich city of Kirkuk. Thankful that U.S. troops rid them of Saddam’s oppression, they now want to capitalize on their new freedom by establishing what they have been denied for centuries, an autonomous, prosperous oil-rich state. For Kurds, the fighting in Iraq is not about democracy, but self-determination.
- Abdul Aziz al-Hakim: He is the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq [now the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council] who wants to control southern Iraq and carve out a ministate allied with Iran. His party would rule this emirate, containing both the rich oil fields in Basra and access to the Persian Gulf. Al-Hakim’s Iranian-backed militia, the Badr Brigade, renamed the Badr Organization in an attempt to make it seem more mainstream, has gained control of many of the local councils and police stations across southern Iraq.
- Ayad Allawi: The former prime minister and ex-Ba’ath Party member and western intelligence "asset," he wants to return to power, overthrow Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, unite Sunnis and Shi’ites under his secular rule, and bring back divisions of the Iraqi army dissolved by then U.S. administrator Paul Bremer.
- Nuri al-Maliki: Prime Minister Maliki’s goals are unclear. At times he sounds as though he is reading talking points from the White House, but he has been reluctant to stop Shi’ite militia groups and has overseen a Shi’ite-led government often accused of pursuing a sectarian agenda.
U.S. politicians and military commanders often complain that the Iraqi government "won’t step up and do its job." The impression they give is that Iraqi officials are sitting around smoking hooka pipes and refusing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, while U.S. troops are fighting and dying to "get the job done." Perhaps the question should be, "Which job?" American soldiers often ask me when the Iraqis will "step up and fight for their own country." They are already fighting for their country. Iraqi officials, religious leaders, militia groups, Syria, Iran and al-Qaeda are struggling and dying to get a "job done" in Iraq, though it does not appear to be the job the White House would like them to be doing.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned during his April visit to Iraq that America’s "patience is running out." If he’s waiting for Iraqis and the wider Middle East to start fighting the war of Freedom Lovers against Freedom Haters, Americans might need to have considerably more patience in the years ahead.
Richard Engel is the senior Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief for NBC News.