Suicide Bombers Are Unstoppable

I mention in my September 25, 2005, column that a civil war is brewing in Iraq between Sunni Arabs on one side and Shiites and Kurds on the other. We have not come to grips with a key element in this war: the Sunnis are employing a devastating weapon—suicide bombers. Their wanton killing of innocent civilians is creating chaos.

Iraqis are falling ever further into sectarian divisions. Families are confining themselves to their houses. People are reluctant to go to parks or out for walks. Middle class children are being kidnapped and released only after their parents pay huge ransoms. Marriages between Shiites and Sunnis are becoming rare. All Iraqi society is being fractured.

The suicide bombers have eliminated security. There’s none for the civilian population, and Americans and other foreigners move about only in body armor and armed convoys. Even so Americans are being killed by roadside bombs and ambushes.

We associate suicide bombers with Islamic fundamentalists, such as the nineteen Muslim men who launched the 9/11 attacks on us. We had not anticipated that the Sunni insurgents would use suicide strikes against women and children as their key weapon.

Nobody in Washington (or in the government in Baghdad) has any idea what to do about the bombings. A senior official in the Bush administration told the New York Times in late September 2005 that the insurgency is likely to continue for years and would start to decline only “when Iraq’s political and economic system begins to consolidate.” This is tantamount to saying the administration and the Pentagon are clueless.

Absence of an answer was confirmed by General John P. Abizaid, head of the Central Command in Iraq. Abizaid said in September 2005 that “a vote for the constitution [set for October 15, 2005] doesn’t mean we’re headed for peace and prosperity. Iraq is going to be a pretty difficult security environment for a while.”

We’ve focused on Islamic fundamentalist terrorists because they want to drive the West out of the Middle East, and are killing Americans. The Sunni Arabs have a different agenda. Until we toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, they had dominated Iraq ever since the Turks surrendered it in 1918. The Sunnis want to get back their power. They can’t do it through the ballot box because they’re a small minority. They’ve chosen bullets and, now especially, suicide bombers.

The al Qaeda terrorists are cooperating with the Sunnis, but they’re doing so to advance their own agenda, not to return the Sunnis to power. The terrorists want the Middle East to collapse in hopes that from the shambles they can pull a single religious state dominated by mullahs. This aim has always been unrealistic. It’s even more so today. Most Muslims now know more about the oppressive theocratic dictatorship that al Qaeda wants to impose, and few want anything to do with it.

The dream of a happy, democratic Iraq has almost evaporated in the partisan political turmoil that is consuming Iraq. If the Sunnis continue their suicide bombings, it will vanish completely.

The Sunnis have hit upon a tactic that is nearly foolproof. It’s almost impossible to stop bombers targeting ordinary people on the streets. They’re indistinguishable from everyone else, and reveal themselves only when they detonate the explosives strapped to their bodies.

Suicide bombers strike at their enemy’s weakness—the inability of any society to protect everyone everywhere and at all times. They can continue to bring death to the streets so long as the Sunni leaders are determined to resist and so long as they can recruit gullible and stupid young people willing to give up their lives for such an unworthy cause.

There’s no likelihood of a resolution. The Iraqis are wildly divided on how their country should be governed. All have learned their approach to power from a murderous dictator, Saddam Hussein. Few have had any lessons in compromise. The Iraqis are following a pattern that has ruled the Middle East for centuries—one side wrests power by main force or treachery, and suppresses the slightest opposition with killings, torture, exile, and prisons.

The Shiites and Kurds are experimenting with a new approach, democracy. But the Sunni insurgency shows that they will have to exercise extreme tolerance and forgiveness for democracy to have even a small chance of working. We all hope that it does, and that future disputes will be settled at the ballot box and not with suicide bombers targeting women and children. But it’s the longest of long shots.

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