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November 27, 2005

Taking the gloves off in Iraq

I can't think of another issue in which I am likely to agree with the head of Iraq's Shiite SCIRI party, Abdul Aziz Hakim, but he is right about wrong-headed US policies inhibiting the fight against terrorism in Iraq. As has been previously noted, US troops are forbidden to hand over captured Iraqis to that country's police or security forces, one supposes because of concern that Iraqi forces would violate the Miranda rights of the prisoners.

In Saddam's time, an act of political violence would be punished by massive collective punishment. For example, in 1982, Saddam allegedly ordered 143 men from the Shiite village of Dujail murdered after a botched assassination attempt on Saddam in that town. In Iraq's tribal culture, where allegiance to the clan is everything, such collective punishment is a powerful tool.

In other counter-insurgency struggles, prisoners have been tortured to reveal the names of their co-conspirators, and this information was then used to successfully roll-up terrorist networks. For example, the French used this tactic to good effect in the early 1950s when they suppressed the first Algerian revolt against colonial rule. (Watch the superb film Battle of Algiers for an in-depth look at the history of this conflict.)

Of course, torture and collective punishment are unsavory tactics, and hardly in keeping with the type of moderate, democratic Iraq we hope will emerge from the rubble. But how realistic is it to expect the Iraqi government to apply peacetime concepts of due process and civil rights during a bloody insurrection? In our own country, how long would public opinion support protecting civil rights if suicide bombers were blowing up children waiting outside a hospital to receive toys or destroying churches filled with worshipers?

More than 140 years ago, during our civil war, Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus for the duration of the conflict. (For an interesting discussion of this issue, read the late USSC Chief Justice William Rehnquist's 1998 book All the Laws but One : Civil Liberties in Wartime.) Military tribunals were used to prosecute US citizens for acts of sedition or disloyalty (far less serious offenses than deadly attacks against civilian non-combatants), though some of these convictions were overturned after the war.

In Iraq, our well-intentioned efforts to prevent torture and brutality by the government's security forces may be opening the door to the growth of religious militia groups who operate completely outside the law and government control. It is understandable that Iraqis will take steps to protect themselves if their government is unable to do it for them. But the rise of religious militias and private death squads is very dangerous and a step towards a disastrous civil war with unforeseeable consequences. (Consider how Iraq's Sunni neighbors might react to a wholesale slaughter of that country's Sunni minority, or how Iran might react if the Iraq's Sunnis somehow managed to prevail against their Shiite countrymen?)

Economists have a saying, perfection is the enemy of the good. By this they mean that failing to take action because of an inability to determine the perfectly correct policy solution is often worse than choosing randomly among a number of better alternatives. In Iraq, loosening the restraints on the Iraqi police and military during a bloody domestic insurgency may prove to be a more humane (and humanistic) alternative than the utopian pursuit of perfection.

November 27, 2005 at 07:17 AM | Permalink


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