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Newsday November 17, 2005

Slaughter of Sunni foes is inevitable

By James P. Pinkerton

When will the anti-American violence in Iraq end?

It will end when we unleash the Shia Arab Muslims and the Kurds to finish the job, all the way to the bloody extreme. We're not ready for such unleashing just yet, but we're getting close.

In the meantime, the U.S. is pursuing nearly the opposite strategy: We are protecting the Sunni Arab Muslims, who represent no more than 20 percent of the population, from the Shia and the Kurds, who represent the other 80 percent.

The latest illustration is the American discovery of some 175 or so tortured and abused prisoners in a Shia-run detention center in Baghdad. The U.S. officer in charge, Gen. Karl Horst, acted exactly according to the Geneva Convention rules. Seeing men in need of treatment, he recalled, "I brought medics in." Seeing further that the men had been abused, he added, "I brought in a legal team."

At a time when the U.S. stands accused of all manner of war crimes, Horst upheld the honor of the U.S. military - and created fuller employment for international investigators and litigators.

However, in acting ethically, Horst didn't help the U.S. strategically. After all, the detainees whom Horst rescued were undoubtedly guilty - guilty of being Sunni. And in the current context, just about every Sunni is associated, to one degree or another, with the insurgency.

For centuries, the Sunni minority has oppressed the Shia and Kurd majority, oftentimes by extreme brutality. That's why the Sunni Saddam Hussein was never overthrown by rebels from within Iraq; he was perfectly capable of committing mass murder to hold on to power. And most Sunnis were Hussein's collaborators; in the violent context of the Middle East, for them it was kill or be killed.

Could one prove, in an American court of law, that all 5 million Sunni Arabs sided with the monster Hussein? Of course not. But Iraq isn't America; the burden of proof is different there. And to Iraqis, justice consists of revenge. So as Sunni car-bombers blow up crowds of Shia in marketplaces, Shia death squads wreak their bloody retaliation. Yesterday, a Sunni leader accused the Shia-controlled central government of kidnapping and killing 46 Sunni men.

But while the intensity of hatred in Iraq is oceanic, the killing is a comparative drizzle. Why? Because the U.S. military is preventing an out-and-out civil war. In the words of Edward Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., "Ironically, Americans troops are now interposed between the insurgents and our allies in Iraq, in effect protecting our enemies from our friends."

That is, the U.S. military has chosen to interpose itself between the Sunnis, on the one side, and the Shia and the Kurds on the other. So it's GIs operating in the Sunni Triangle, getting picked off with increasing frequency: November 2005 is shaping up as the fifth-deadliest month for Americans in Iraq in the 33 months of fighting, according to globalsecurity.org. Yes, increasingly well-equipped Shia and Kurds are also involved in those anti-Sunni military operations, but Americans of the Gen. Horst-like ethical persuasion are preventing those anti-Sunni Iraqis from massacring the Sunnis as they come across them.

Yet, in the history of warfare, it's massacring that works. Gary Brecher, who writes the online column "War Nerd," observes, "The only effective counterinsurgency techniques are torture, reprisal and, ultimately, genocide." Some might say that Brecher is overstating the situation - although the Israelis, of course, after 40 years of failing to pacify Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza, would no doubt agree that half-measures don't do the trick.

As the politics of Iraq continue to shift in Washington, it's likely that one day the Americans will quit Iraq, and the Shia and the Kurds will be unleashed on their foes. Slaughter is not the solution Americans were led to expect in 2003, but it's the solution that's coming, finally.

Copyright 2005, Newsday Inc.