By Jono Kinkade

A taste of history, a touch of politics and a twist of controversy were all part of a presentation given by Juan Cole during his Jan. 17 lecture, "Iraq’s Crisis as an American Crisis" at College 9/10.

President Bush’s calls for a troop "surge" and the supposed looming threat of Iran were at the forefront of the PowerPoint presentation given by Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and one of the nation’s foremost experts on the Middle East. Cole gave the historical background of the current violence, intertwined with the effects of the United States and Iran’s involvement in the Iraq war and the basics of the deep-seeded sectarian conflicts between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

While explaining details of Iraq’s decades-long political and religious clashes, Cole emphasized that the effects of U.S. occupation contribute to the continuing escalation of violent attacks and insurgent activity.

"Bush keeps saying that when Iraq stands up, we’ll stand down," Cole said during the presentation. "You might not want to hold your breath very long."

As heated debates in Congress address President Bush’s plan to send 21,500 troops to Iraq in coming months, Cole is among the critics who insist that the troop surge will not bring more stability but instead will likely create more targets for the insurgency and fuel anger over the U.S. occupation.

"This is a disaster waiting to happen and it isn’t going to settle things," Cole said. "Marines don’t speak Arabic, how do they know who the guerilla is?

"Many of those planning and executing the attacks are the equivalent of Harvard and West Point graduates," Cole said, noting that the insurgents are reverting to their only option to resist the U.S. occupation.

Most of the insurgents, according to Cole, are loyalists to the Ba’ath Party, which was formerly headed by Saddam Hussein. However, most of the violence is a result of continually growing tensions between Sunni and Shiite religious sects.

The clashes, which many are referring to as the beginnings of a civil war, worsened after the December 2005 provincial elections, which the Sunnis boycotted. With little contest, Shiites dominated the election and took seats in predominantly Sunni regions, including the al Anbar province, one of the most violent regions in Iraq. On Feb. 24 of last year, Sunni militias bombed the Askariyah Shrine, the holiest of the Shiite shrines in Iraq, which triggered the bloodiest fighting since the March 2003 occupation began. According to Cole, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to have Iraqi guards stand down because Marines would guard the building.

While Cole recognized that President Bush is facing a complicated quagmire that may not be easily solved by a simple withdrawal of troops, he did offer a few suggestions toward stability.

"I think we should have provincial elections again and that the Sunnis should run," Cole said. "Get Sunni electorship in provinces and negotiate some sort of settlement as [the military] withdraws."

Although Cole did offer critical views about the United States policy in Iraq, some UCSC students attending the event felt that the talk was too focused on the internal conflicts.

"I think that framing all of the violence in terms of Shiite and Sunni sectarianism runs the danger of reducing the situation into a ‘Fox News’-type of simple explanation for Americans," said Foaad Khosmood, a second-year computer science graduate student and anti-war activist.

"Even when they are fighting each other they are [blaming] each other for the U.S. occupation," he said.

Owen Goodwin, a fourth-year history major and a member of Students Against War, was also concerned that the U.S. military presence fueled the internal conflicts.

"For the United States, the big question is bringing the [troops] out because they are not going to bring democracy," Goodwin said after the presentation.

In the meantime, as the fighting in Iraq rages on, Juan Cole knows that "the longer we are there, the more brutal this is going to be."