Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
I don't remember if it was my second or third hospital visit of the day. But the scene will remain etched in my memory. Before me was an Iraqi political activist, roughly my age, lying in what passed for an intensive care ward (less than half the beds have sheets, doctors have to rely on adult-sized IV tubes for children, and hardly any patients receive proper pain or antibiotic medications). He was in tremendous pain from several gunshot wounds, and yet he couldn't stop repeating to me that I shouldn't interpret his shooting as an act of sectarian violence. This is despite the fact that he was Shi'a and his shooter was Sunni, and that the morgue downstairs was overflowing with less fortunate victims of the same kind of violence.
In the spring of 2004, Iraq was descending into a spiral of violence from which it still hasn't emerged fully. Indeed, while the world's attention is turned to the "rebellion" in Egypt and the carnage in Syria, Iraq has suffered the worst eruption of violence in half a decade. Nearly 2,600 people have died in the last four months alone, including over three dozen killed in since last Thursday. Back then, however, few people then understood how bad it would get, although most everyone understood the risks. And so despite clear evidence to the contrary, even the victims were often desperate to avoid applying the sectarian label to the violence visited against them.
Despite the violence and the increasingly entrenched US position in the country, perspicacious Shi'a friends would argue that once the Americans leave, the Shi’a will be able to regain power. They got the ending right, but the timing, and the costs, were badly miscalculated....