Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nir Rosen’s New Take On Iraq – “An Ugly Peace”

In the November/December 2009 issue of the Boston Review, Nir Rosen has a piece called “An Ugly Peace.” In it, Rosen writes about the new status quo in Iraq that was created by the end of the sectarian war and the U.S. Surge, something that he was reluctant to talk about in previous articles. He writes that while Iraq still has plenty of problems such as sectarianism, there are no real challenges to the power of the Iraqi government, and a state of relative stability is beginning to emerge in the country.

Rosen tries to explain how Iraq has come to this new situation. The major reason to him was that the Shiites won the sectarian war. The Mahdi Army, with the implicit and sometimes explicit support of the Iraqi government and security forces were successful in driving large numbers of Sunnis out of central and southern Iraq. Sunni insurgents were also fighting with Al Qaeda in Iraq. By the time the U.S. began the Surge in 2007, many Sunnis were willing to switch sides and work with the Americans for money in the Sons of Iraq (SOI) program to expel the Islamists. U.S. erected blast walls also formalized the new segregation of Iraqi neighborhoods. The success of the Shiites, also led them to turn on each other. The Mahdi Army for example, devolved into several factions, some of which were no better than gangs that preyed on their own communities. In early 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took advantage of this situation by striking against the Sadrists in Basra and Baghdad, resting control of the streets from them. This helped transform him from a sectarian into a nationalist leader at the front of a newly invigorated Iraqi state.

All of this is generally agreed upon by Iraq observers. What’s new is that Rosen is finally writing about it. This has been a slow transformation. In 2008 for example, he wrote about the Sons of Iraq (SOI) program in an article entitled “The Myth of the Surge” in Rolling Stone that emphasized that the Sons of Iraq were insurgents with blood on their hands, and only a stop-gap measure that was actually increasing violence, and putting off the next battle between Sunnis and Shiites. By April 2009 in “The big sleep” for The National, however, he noted that the Sunnis had actually lost the war, and were done for as a military force. He revealed that back in 2006 Sunni insurgent leaders in Jordan and Syria had told him that they were done for now that the sectarian war had started because they could not beat the numerically superior Shiite militias and Shiite controlled government. Maliki’s arrest of an SOI leader in Fadhil that led to two days of fighting, but no further repercussions also showed that the insurgents were not unified enough to resist the power of the government. In fact, the entire SOI program meant that the former insurgents were publicly known, and denied them the anonymity that would allow them to melt back into the public and return to the insurgency.

Another major change in tone could be seen in Rosen’s opinion of the Mahdi Army. In “Songs for the Mahdi Army” for Mother Jones in December 2008 he wrote about how the Sadrists were a state within a state with their militia and social services. They were a force that could not be ignored, and that they were here to stay, even after the government’s crackdown. By the time of “The Ugly Peace” Rosen was talking about their shortcomings. Whereas before he said that the Mahdi Army attacked Sunnis who were Baathists and militants, now he wrote that the Sadrists were responsible for ethnic cleansing of entire Sunni communities. Sadr had also lost control of parts of his movement, some of which had devolved into gangs. This was a far change from previous reports that gave the impression that Sadrists were everywhere in Shiite communities, the security forces, and the government, and all were loyal followers.

Rosen also seems to have come to the conclusion that Iraq is entering a stage of some type of stability. Back in April 2009 he wrote in “The gathering storm” that while there was no more random violence in Baghdad, that shops were open and customers were out on the streets, that Iraq was rebuilding, and that some displaced and refugees were returning he felt a sense of foreboding of things falling apart once the U.S. withdrew. In “An Ugly Peace” he appears to be arguing that the Iraqis can handle security, and that the Iraqi government is strong enough to stand on its own.

The major problem he sees remaining in Iraq is latent sectarianism. That no longer takes the form of fighting out on the streets, but rather in an emerging Shiite culture in the security forces, and government offices. He found that in almost every Iraqi institution and ministry he went to there were posters of Shiite religious figures hanging from the walls, and Shiite music could be heard. He also mentions the continuing refugee and displaced crisis, corruption and Maliki’s move towards authoritarianism as other issues.

This is what Rosen means by his title. There is an ugly peace in Iraq with the Sadrists having lost their standing, the sectarian war is over, but sectarianism remains, and the Sunnis are thoroughly defeated and divided. The Iraqi state and Prime Minister Maliki are asserting their authority, and face no real challengers. These are all major changes in Rosen’s writing who before emphasized that renewed fighting and conflict were always just around the corner. The major problem is that he knew about many of these changes years ago, but didn’t really write about them until now. Having Sunni insurgent leaders saying that they knew they were going to eventually lose back in 2006 was not reported until 2009. The same is true for the Sadrists. Rosen must have known about their fracturing and loss of standing, but chose not to mention it until the end of this year. The real question is what took him so long to change his tune? Was it that he was so caught up in the moment that he didn’t realize the larger transformations occurring, or did his opposition to the U.S. invasion make him emphasize the resistance and chaos in Iraq to make the Americans look bad?


Rosen, Nir, “An Ugly Peace,” Boston Review, November/December 2009
- “The big sleep,” The National, 4/24/09
- “The gathering storm,” The National, 4/10/09
- “The Myth of the Surge,” Rolling Stone, 3/6/08
- “Songs for the Mahdi Army,” Mother Jones, 12/2/08


Anonymous said...


Thanks so much. As you may know, along with the other guys at Iraqi Bloggers Central, I've been following Nir's career almost from the beginning. For IBC I wrote a few entries that focused on Nir's reporting from Iraq.

The Education of Nir Rosen.

Nir Rosen's "Fistful of Dollars."

The Defenestration of Comrade Nir Rosen.

And here's RhusLancia on a discussion between Nir Rosen and Donald Kagan:

Kagan versus Rosen on the 'Surge.'

In your concluding paragraph you ask some excellent questions. My view is that, due to his friendships with Sunnis in Iraq and his radical background that condemns the US as an imperialist power that must be overthrown, Nir was hoping for the defeat of the American forces by any means possible. First it looked like the Sunnis working with AQI might be able to do it; then the Sadrists; and finally a civil war in which everyone would lose. But I don't think Nir really cared how or by whom the American forces would be defeated. A great day for Nir would be to witness an ignominious American retreat.

I've exchanged e-mails with Nir and I can assure you that it is not pleasant for him to admit even as much as he has in his last piece of writing. Like many other reporters and commentators, he had pushed all his chips on chaos and American defeat. It didn't happen, and he's still trying to adjust to a reality that had changed, as you say, a couple years ago now.

Nir was an activist and radical first (in the way that college guys wear Che T-shirts) and then he decided to take his agenda on the road and become a "reporter." That basic fact colors all his writing.


amagi said...

Hmm... I wonder when Thomas Ricks will get the memo...

Joel Wing said...


When I was writing the piece I actually remembered that you had some posts on Nir and took a look at them.

Anonymous said...


When I was writing the piece I actually remembered that you had some posts on Nir and took a look at them.

Hey, that's great.

In this article, for the first time that I'm aware of, Nir has admitted the contribution of the Surge to the turn of Iraq away from civil war. Being Nir, however, he also tries to downplay its importance.

It's a poorly edited piece of writing, lacking focus. He goes off in several directions and then appends his usual negative concluding paragraph (the thesis of that paragraph contradicted several times by his own reporting!).


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