Iraq is a bloodbath. Juan Cole describes the latest particularly bad day in Iraq, the worst of which appears to involve fighting between religiously united but politically divided Shi'ite factions. But, there are so many atrocities there that they all fade one into another. It is hard to tell if you are reading the latest bad news, or bad news from any news cycle in the last four years, because it all sounds the same. More bombs and random attacks, more dead, more wounded in some city big or small in Iraq.
Europe is littered with memorials to little devastating battles that never made the history books in World War II, World War I and countless wars far more ancient. Will Iraq be like that in a few decades or so, when the current civil war is long over? Or, will Iraqis try to let the sands of history wash it all away so that they can collectively recover from the trauma?
Short of an actively prosecuted genocide by an authoritarian leader (something Saddam was not likely to do in the near future when we invaded) it is hard to imagine any fate worse. More civilians are dying in political/military violence each year in Iraq than in the rest of the world combined.
Cole bemoans the fate of Iraqi refugee children in Syria who are growing up illiterate and uneducated. I'm inclined to think that they're the lucky ones in all of this mayhem. Pity instead the children who see bridal parties, community leaders, market goers, and school mates obliterated on a daily basis, who know about the unidentified dead bodies that show up naked in the streets each morning and the friends and neighbors and family members who go missing never to be seen again.
If this was happening after U.S. troops left, every Republican in the nation would be casting blame for these events down on the heads of the politicians who voted for American troops to leave. But, this is happening despite, or perhaps because, of the presence of about 200,000 foreign soldiers, almost all of them Americans.
Iraq seems like a soap bubble. It is ready to fully implode at the slightest provocation, but it can't seem to figure out which direction to collapse in yet, so it persists despite its inherent instability. The most likely outcome seems to be what Cole calls "soft partition" starting around the spring or summer of 2008. But, today's violence in a securely Shi'ite province casts doubt upon whether even the greater consensus existing within partitioned regions will be enough to form a basis for peaceful self-government. The new regions may end up looking like a Northern Ireland where the factions are equally divided and violent, but attend the same places of worship as members of the same religious sect.
Almost everyone who is affluent enough to leave and educated enough to have prospects elsewhere has left. Those insane enough to stay end up like the head of a Baghdad mental hospital did in the last day or two, assassinated. The human capital that made Baghdad one of the greatest centers of the Middle East's non-oil wealth is gone. Reasonable people acted reasonably and saw that there was no hope in their homeland. In the long run, this may be a real boon to Syria and Jordan, who have absorbed the refugees, despite the short term pain. But, this may resign Iraq to economic and cultural irrelevance forever.
I don't know if any meaningful semblance of democracy is even possible in a political community that has been stripped of its middle class, its moderates, and it technocrats. If all of the factions had united in a resistance against the American occupation, there might be hope for Iraq, as grim as that outcome might have been for the American troops. But, U.S. troops seem to have become mere bystanders, intervening inconstantly in complex internecine struggles. We caused the problem, but we don't seem to be enemy number one of the warring parties. The conflict seems to have moved beyond the point where people perceived as collaborating with the occupying force are the main target of the violence.