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Bush in Iraq, Slouching Toward Genocide

By Robert Parry
December 1, 2005

Despite pretty words about democracy and freedom, George W. Bush’s “victory” plan in Iraq is starting to look increasingly like an invitation to genocide, the systematic destruction of the Sunni minority for resisting its U.S.-induced transformation from the nation’s ruling elite into second-class citizenship.

The Sunnis, an Islamic sect that makes up about 35 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people, are being confronted with a stark choice, either accept subordination to the less-educated Shiite majority or face the devastation of Sunni neighborhoods, the imprisonment of many Sunni males and the deaths of large numbers of the Sunni population.

In referring to this possibility, many in Washington object to the word “genocide” – which is defined in international law as the destruction of “in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” – but already there are troubling signs that Iraq’s incipient civil war could slide into something close to that.

Retaliating against Sunni bombings and other attacks on Shiite targets over the past two years, Iraq’s Shiite-controlled security forces have begun rounding up, torturing and executing Sunni men.

“Hundreds of accounts of killings and abductions have emerged in recent weeks, most of them brought forward by Sunni civilians, who claim that their relatives have been taken away by Iraqi men in uniform without warrant or explanation,” New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins reported from Baghdad.

“Some Sunni males have been found dead in ditches and fields, with bullet holes in their temples, acid burns on their skin, and holes in their bodies apparently made by electric drills,” Filkins wrote. “Many have simply vanished.” [NYT, Nov. 29, 2005]

In November, a secret bunker – where Sunni captives were mistreated and apparently tortured – was discovered in an Interior Ministry building in Baghdad. The Shiite-dominated government has denied responsibility for the abuses and the murders.

But human rights groups and other investigators have blamed many of the Sunni killings on the Badr Brigade, an Iranian-backed Shiite militia associated with a leading element of the Iraqi government, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Council has close ties to the fundamentalist Shiite government of Iran.

‘Death Squads’

U.S. officials also acknowledge that hard-line Shiite militiamen, who have penetrated the government’s security forces, are operating “death squads” to terrorize Sunnis.

The killings and disappearances are reminiscent of the bloodshed in Central America in the 1980s when right-wing regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador unleashed security forces to round up, torture and kill suspected leftists.

That violence, however, was primarily defined by political ideology, rather than race, religion or ethnicity. An exception was the slaughtering of a Mayan Indian tribe in the Guatemalan highlands as part of a military scorched-earth campaign that later was investigated by a truth commission and denounced as “genocide.” [For details about Ronald Reagan's tolerance of these atrocities, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

In Iraq, the religious component of the nation’s incipient civil war is already apparent, although Bush often has presented the Iraqi conflict to the American people as a war largely between foreign Islamic “terrorists” and freedom-loving Iraqis.

Bush finally dropped that distorted analysis in his Nov. 30 speech about his plan for “victory” in Iraq. He divided the “enemy in Iraq” into three groups – the Sunni “rejectionists,” who resent having lost their privileged status; the Sunni “Saddamists,” who retain loyalty to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein; and the foreign “terrorists,” who have entered Iraq to fight the American invaders and generally spread chaos.

U.S. military analysts estimate that more than 90 percent of the forces battling American troops come from the first two Sunni categories, with the foreign jihadists representing only from 5 to 10 percent of the armed opposition. Though Bush didn’t give percentages, he did list the groups in declining order by size, with the “terrorists” the smallest.

Yet what is problematic about Bush’s analysis in terms of the genocide issue is that he identifies the vast majority of the “enemy” as Sunnis. That means both Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government and U.S. forces in Iraq are already targeting a religious minority for defeat, establishing one of the first conditions for the definition of genocide.

‘Complete Victory’

The next element in the equation will be how far the war against the Sunnis goes – or put differently, how stubbornly the Sunnis resist.

For his part, Bush reiterated that he will only be satisfied with “complete victory,” which suggests he is resolved to break the back of the Sunni resistance at whatever cost.

The Bush administration also wants to keep a tight hold on information that might put the U.S. war effort in a negative light. That means the American people can expect to be shielded from many of the worst secrets in Iraq, much as the White House has continued to fight release of video showing abuses at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run prisons in Iraq.

According to U.S. military experts I’ve interviewed, a great deal of emphasis in the future will be on “perception management,” the concept of shaping how both Iraqis and the American people perceive the events in Iraq.

This media manipulation, combined with secretive “death squads,” adds even more to the recipe necessary for war-time atrocities that might cross over into genocide.

Other warning flags were raised in a New Yorker article by veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, whose sources cited both Bush’s messianic commitment to stay the course in Iraq and to a shift toward a reliance on aerial bombardment of “enemy” targets, as U.S. troop levels begin to decline.

“A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower,” Hersh wrote. “Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units.

“The danger, military experts have told me, is that, while the number of American casualties would decrease as ground troops are withdrawn, the overall level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what.”

One of the risks is that the power to target U.S. air attacks would be put in the hands of Iraq’s Shiite-controlled government, which could then rain down American death and destruction from the air on Sunnis and other rivals.

An example of this kind of horror occurred in the early days of the war in March 2003 when the U.S. military relied on a false report from a supposed informant that Saddam Hussein was eating at a Baghdad restaurant. The restaurant was bombed, killing 14 civilians, including seven children, though Hussein was not there.

The Sunnis also got a taste of U.S. destruction from the air during the assault on Fallujah in April 2004. With U.S. warplanes shattering the city with 500-pound bombs, hundreds of Iraqis – many of them civilians – died. There were so many dead that the city's soccer field was turned into a mass grave.

God’s ‘Man’

Hersh’s sources said, too, that Bush’s fundamentalist Christianity has added another complication to the U.S. pursuit of a realistic strategy in Iraq.

“Bush’s closest advisers have long been aware of the religious nature of his policy commitments,” Hersh wrote. “In recent interviews, one former senior official, who served in Bush’s first term, spoke extensively about the connection between the President’s religious faith and his view of the war in Iraq.

“After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the former official said, he was told that Bush felt that ‘God put me here’ to deal with the war on terror. The President’s belief was fortified by the Republican sweep in the 2002 congressional elections; Bush saw the victory as a purposeful message from God that ‘he’s the man,’ the former official said. Publicly, Bush depicted his reelection (in 2004) as a referendum on the war; privately he spoke of it as another manifestation of divine purpose.” [New Yorker, Dec. 5, 2005]

Caught up in his divine mission, Bush has repeatedly rejected cautionary advice about Iraq, dating back to pre-invasion warnings from the likes of Gen. Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under President George H.W. Bush. Even now, military advisers say Bush gets angry when they bring him negative news about Iraq.

This mix of Bush’s religious zeal and his refusal to accept reality adds another layer of danger as the United States slouches toward potential genocide in Iraq.

But some in Washington say it’s outrageous even to suggest the possibility of the U.S. government engaging in a crime against humanity as severe as genocide. Despite the historical fact that much of the American continent was settled after genocide against Native Americans, the notion of such a present-day crime is considered unthinkable.

The Bush administration, however, already has crossed other bright lines of international law, including the invasion of a non-threatening foreign nation and complicity in torture, such as subjecting captives to simulated drowning in a process called “water-boarding.”

So, how unthinkable is it really that the Bush administration might venture across another boundary of civilized behavior?

What if Iraq’s Sunnis dig in their heels because they suspect that their historic Shiite rivals plan to deny the Sunni population a significant share of Iraq’s oil reserves, which are located mostly in Shiite and Kurdish territories?

With little choice besides living in poverty in Iraq’s central desert, the Sunnis might decide that their best option is to continue fighting until the Shiites make far bigger concessions, such as giving a strong central government control of the oil riches.

If that’s the choice the Sunnis make – and if Bush sees his commitment to a “complete victory” as part of God’s plan – might the Shiites then exploit U.S. air power to inflict a final crushing blow against their ancient enemies?

Perhaps cooler heads will prevail and excessive bloodshed will be averted. But if too many more lines get crossed, the rest of the world may extend the list of crimes already blamed on the Bush administration – to include genocide.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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