The news from Iraq today of scattered clashes between US/Coalition forces and armed crowds and Shia paramilitaries is the worst news to come out of Iraq for months.
Measured purely in the terms of American casualties, today's death toll was not as bad as some of the bloodiest days of the occupation. Seven US soldiers were killed in what appears to have been a ferocious running battle in Sadr City, the vast Shia slum in northeast Baghdad. Two other soldiers, one American and another Salvadoran, were killed in similar clashes in Kufa. Other outbreaks of similar violence seem to have spanned the entire country.
The difference here is the type of violence and who's fighting.
Even if the US occupation had been welcomed by most Iraqis, there almost certainly still would have been major car-bombings and other terrorist acts. It's just not that hard, in that part of the world, to find people willing to strike violent blows against the US, even at the expense of their own lives. And as we've seen from Madrid, one doesn't need widespread or even any support in a country to mount such attacks.
Meanwhile, almost all the paramilitary violence -- the shootings and ambushes and roadside explosions -- have come from the Sunni minority concentrated in the center of the country.
Violence from the Sunni areas has never been difficult to understand. They lost out on privileges and status when Saddam was overthrown. And the future looked even more bleak, because the eventual handover of authority to a democratically elected government all but insured the domination of the Shia majority which the Sunnis had been lording it over for decades if not centuries.
In other words, time was never on the side of the Sunni rejectionists. From the start their interests were in destabilizing and delegitimizing the occupation.
Time, however, was very much on the side of the Shia. From a cynical viewpoint, why not let their American and Sunni enemies bloody each other into exhaustion in the central Iraq and sit back and wait on the day -- not too distant, certainly -- when they would inherit the new Iraqi state?
A central question has always been, when would the Shia come off the sidelines? A number of Sunni attacks have been aimed at triggering just that. (For a prescient analysis of this dynamic see part one of TPM's interview with Joe Wilson from last September.)
Now, they seem to have come off the sidelines with a vengeance, though the particular trigger here seems to be factional rivalry within the Shia community.
In any case, it really amounts to the same thing. Part of the myopia of the Iraq is hunky-dory crowd was not to recognize -- and in this case I'm talking really about political spinners in Washington, the policy types across the political spectrum understand this -- that the key ethno-factional groupings in the country have been hanging back and strengthening themselves to have it out with each other after we depart. As I noted earlier with the Shia, they were in no rush: why not let us kill a lot of their Sunni opponents while they prepare for the real battles -- either political or paramilitary -- after we leave?
It will be critical to see, in the coming days, whether this is one spasm of violence (organized by the young firebrand Muqtada Al-Sadr in response to being shut out of the political process by the Americans) which can be brought under control or whether this is the first day of a new phase of violence or even uprising.
The reality is that the US doesn't have anywhere enough soldiers in the country to control the place if there's this sort of widespread violence on an on-going basis. That could quickly lead to a vicious cycle which will put a virtual end to reconstruction and prevent the coming into being of any entity for us to hand the place off to. In Jefferson's ugly phrase, we may end up holding the wolf by the ears.
That's my brief take -- I'm drowning in several deadlines, so no more for now. For a more lengthy and far more knowledgable overview see Juan Cole's running coverage.