After all the study groups and reports, an electoral repudiation, months of deliberation and hundreds of thousands dead, the Bush administration Iraq policy debate boils down to this: choosing between genocide against Sunni Arabs – a strategy known as the “80 percent solution” – or fomenting a second civil war, this one a Shia-on- Shia death match. Or perhaps both. The new White House strategy begins with the “surge” option. To try to fend off defeat, the Bush administration has decided to send up to 30,000 more troops into the meat grinder. This would be complemented by a move to isolate Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces, a pillar of Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki’s government.
National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley outlined the plan in a secret memo published by the New York Times in November. Hadley explained that the Bush administration wants to reshuffle Maliki’s coalition so he no longer needs the support of 30 Assembly members loyal to Sadr. Afraid this might cause Iraqi security forces to fracture and lead “to major Shia disturbances in southern Iraq,” Hadley recommends that the United States “provide Maliki with additional forces of some kind,” the rationale for the surge.
Hadley wrote this memo on Nov. 8, and now the plan is being put into play. One unnamed western diplomat in Baghdad told Reuters, “The Americans want a war with the Mahdi Army. They want to get rid of the militia and it seems they will succeed in getting one.”
Joining in the campaign against the Sadrists would be a Shia party that has an alliance of convenience with the Bush administration, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and its militia, the Badr Brigade. This is where the prospect of a second civil war becomes very real. The Bush strategy is to foment an intra-Shia conflict to try to regain the upper hand. As both the Badr Brigade and Mahdi Army are commingled with various Iraqi police forces, the security forces would splinter, leading to Shia-on-Shia warfare throughout southern Iraq.
Because SCIRI has been scheming to form a Shia “super-region” in southern Iraq, the combination of political and military infighting among the Shia could deliver a deathblow to Iraq, causing it to split into three warring ethnic regions and sparking a regional conflagration as neighboring states move in to stake their claims.
Only a few observers have picked up on this possibility and the terrifying consequences. Reuel Marc Gerecht, an ex-CIA officer and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, warned in a Dec. 21 New York Times op-ed:
“Any violent struggle between the Mahdi Army and Supreme Council could provoke anarchy throughout the entire Arab Shiite zone, including Iraq’s holy cities and the oil-rich south. As bad as things seem now, such Shiite strife could impoverish all of Arab Iraq, dropping the non- Kurdish regions to an Afghan-like subsistence level. In such a situation, we would likely see the hyperradicalization of the Shiites, who have already become more militant owing to the tenacity and barbarism of the Sunni insurgency.”
This fighting has already started. U.S. forces have stepped up their attacks on the Mahdi Army since the summer. During the same period, major clashes between Badr and Mahdi militias have taken place in at least three cities in southern Iraq. U.S. forces have joined Badr units in these battles against the Sadrists. Formalizing these intertwined conflicts as White House policy would ensure that the skirmishes become all-out war.
THE 80 PERCENT SOLUTION
The “80 percent solution,” refers to the percentage of Iraqis who are either Shia Arabs or Kurds. According to The Washington Post, the policy would entail the United States abandoning “reconciliation efforts with Sunni insurgents and instead give priority to Shiites and Kurds.” This would result in U.S. troops “fighting the symptoms of Sunni insurgency without any prospect of getting at the causes behind it – notably the marginalization of the once-powerful minority.”
In other words, the United States would back the sectarian war against Sunni Arabs, a prescription for genocide. In scores of Iraq cities and towns with active insurgent groups, the war involves the use of Kurdish and Shia-based security forces against Sunni Arabs. Between U.S. troops trying to crush a broadbased Sunni resistance and Kurdish and Shia forces engaged in massive ethnic cleansing and widespread death squad activity, the Sunni Arabs as an ethno-religious community in Iraq would be wiped out.
The only thing giving the White House pause is fear that other Sunnimajority states, particularly Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would weigh in on the side of their Iraqi brethren.
The other option is to step up a military campaign against Sadrs forces with an attempt to isolate him politically. The White House is already trying to cobble together its satraps in Iraq – the Kurds, SCIRI and a Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party – to create a majority that will back the the United States in crushing Sadr.
SCIRI is a key U.S. ally in Iraq, having served on the U.S.-selected Iraq Governing Council and supporting the occupation for the most part (and relying on it for protection). The head of SCIRI is Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a former commander of its Badr Brigade militia.
The Los Angeles Times detailed the plan, which involves a “major combat offensive against Muqtada Sadr, … a possible renewed offensive in the Sunni stronghold of Al Anbar province, a large Iraqi jobs program and a proposal for a long-term increase in the size of the [U.S.] military.” First, however, “U.S. Embassy officials would have to help usher into power a new coalition in Baghdad that was willing to confront the militias.”
This was why Bush held high-profile meetings in Washington with two Iraqi politicians in early December. As The Washington Post reported, Bush met with Hakim on Dec. 4 to hedge his administration’s “gamble on the weak Maliki government. Bush also met days later with Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party.”
The strategy moved forward in mid-December when, according to the L.A. Times, a “group of politicians made up of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds said … that it was seeking to form an alliance that could shift Iraq’s balance of power.” Locked out were representatives of Sadr, “a sign that the group may want to politically isolate the powerful Shiite preacher.”
It’s no coincidence then that the Mahdi Army, which is active in Baghdad and in Shia areas to the south, is now enemy number one. Conveniently, U.S. estimates of the Mahdi Army’s strength have grown from less than 10,000 in 2005 to some 60,000 fighters today.
Badr operates death squads under the banner of the special police commandos. Beginning in 2004, U.S. forces organized, trained and equipped the police commandos, drawing from Hussein-era security forces, to create a neo-Baathist militia and death squad that would hunt Sunni insurgents. Under the Iraq government that took power in April 2005, Bayan Jabr, a former high-ranking commander in the Badr Brigade, took control of the commandos as head of the Interior Ministry. Jabr ousted Sunni personnel in the commandos, putting in place up to 3,000 Badr militiamen, and they quickly began a reign of terror against Sunnis in general.
In this light, fighting between Badr and Mahdi is not just about clashes between opposing militias, but also about a U.S. strategy to back one side in the sectarian war. Since August 2006, the two militias have clashed in five cities in southern Iraq. The days-long street fighting drew in their allied security forces. In the city of Diwaniyah, battles took place three separate times in a six-week period starting in late August. All three involved U.S. forces backing Badr-controlled security forces – including police commandos in at least two instances – against Mahdi fighters.
Then in September, fierce battles between Badr and Mahdi fighters erupted in the city of Amara, near the border with Iran, killing or wounding almost 200 people. Some 2,300 Iraqi troops who were rushed to the city “were being helped by police commandos,” according to the New York Times. At the same time, the two militias clashed in two other southern towns. Then in Samawa, in late December, more open warfare occurred between Mahdi forces and local police aligned with SCIRI.
The proliferation of these militiaon- militia battles shows how the loyalties of the Iraqi security units lie with political, religious and ethnic sects, not the Iraqi state. By throwing its force behind Badr against the Mahdi Army, the United States is stoking the sectarian warfare for its own ends.
The final aspect, a U.S. military campaign against the Mahdi Army, is also under way. Since the apparent abduction of a U.S. Army soldier in late October in Baghdad, U.S. forces and Iraqi units have conducted 57 operations, mostly in Mahdicontrolled neighborhoods, while searching for the soldier. “Nasir Saidi, a Sadr legislator, accused U.S. and Iraqi troops of using the search for the missing U.S. soldier as a pretext to strike his movement,” wrote the L.A. Times on Dec. 8.
The raids are said to have the blessing of Prime Minister Maliki. Tensions between him and the Sadr loyalists sharpened after Maliki met with Bush in Jordan Nov. 30. Following the meeting, Sadr warned, “Yesterday’s friends are today’s enemies, and yesterday’s enemies are today’s friends,” according to the AP. Sadrs bloc of Assembly members and five cabinet ministers withdrew from the government in protest.
The U.S. raids against the Mahdi Army likely played a role in Sadrs boycott. Speaking of the operations, high-ranking U.S. military commander said, “We have carte blanche at this point” from the Iraqi government.
“Such a confrontation,” Reuel Marc Gerecht argues in the Times, “beyond wrecking Iraq politically, would probably allow the worst elements in the Supreme Council – those who envision a religious dictatorship along the lines of Iran – to become more powerful within the party.”
Gerecht also predicts that a “genocidal Shiite-versus-Sunni conflict in Iraq – a real possibility – would be much more likely after an intra-Shiite war.”
The pieces are all falling into place. The Bush administration is trying to deliver the final blow to the increasingly fragile Iraqi government. While it seems crazy that the White House would seek such a course, it should be remembered that it has escalated the war at every critical juncture, from the mass arrests and torture that fueled the initial insurgency in 2003 to the twin assaults on Fallujah and Mahdi forces in 2004 to the use of death squads starting in 2005 to the surge coming down the pike.
In a desperate bid to regain the upper hand, the White House is gambling that it can win a two-front war against both the Sunni and Shia resistance before Iraq implodes in a Middle Eastern World War. Given its track record, the odds for success don’t look good.
THE SURGE TO FAILURE
The Bush administration settled on a surge of extra troops not to prevent defeat on the military battlefield of Iraq – the war has long been lost – but defeat on the political battlefield at home. One White House official admitted to NBC News that the “surge option is more of a political decision than a military one because the American people have run out of patience and President Bush is running out of time to achieve some kind of success in Iraq.”
This is why Bush kicked the Iraq Study Group to the curb, with its recommendation for strategic retreat. But the report did make the status quo untenable. The White House can no longer “stay the course.” Therefore, as the Los Angeles Times explains, “America must either increase the force – gambling that the military can impose a measure of security on Iraq – or else begin to withdraw its forces.”
The White House wants Americans to believe that it can still achieve victory in Iraq, but escalation is a losing strategy, which is why the Pentagon opposed it fiercely. In turn, the Bush administration needed to defeat the resistance in the Pentagon and Iraqi government as a precursor to the surge. Knowing who holds all the big guns in Baghdad, Prime Minister Maliki rolled over the fastest, telling newly minted Defense Secretary Robert Gates “he would let U.S. generals decide whether there is a need for a ‘surge’ in U.S. troops.” So much for the sovereign government of Iraq, according to The Washington Post.
Not that the brass will decide. While Bush has said that the generals in Iraq “will make the decisions as to how many troops we have there,” he is still “the Decider.” Those generals who wouldn’t sign on to a military escalation have been ditched. Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East and a vocal opponent of the surge option, is being eased into retirement. So is Gen. George Casey, Jr., the top commander in Baghdad. He’s being pushed out of Iraq because Bush “sees a chance to bring in a new commander as he announces a new strategy.”
The media are ignoring the broader strategic issues for the most part and focusing on the modalities of the surge: how many more troops to deploy, what their specific mission is, how long a surge can be sustained. The New York Times posits that the extra grunts could try to “blunt the Sunni-led insurgency” while the L.A. Times discusses how the extra troops could “confront radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, perhaps by moving forces into Sadr City,” or step up training of Iraqi security forces to take over the fight.
Privately, military officials have derided the surge option. Commanders weren’t even considering such a move in November. The Washington Post explained at the time “that a boost of 20,000 infantry troops – five or six brigades – would do little to change the nature of the insurgency or the sectarian strife.”
The extra troops would all be combat troops. Even though there are 140,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq, only 50,000 are combat troops, amounting to 15 brigades. There is a tacit acknowledgement that the Pentagon thinks 50,000 more combat troops are required. But that possibility “is virtually off the table … mainly for logistics reasons,” according to The Washington Post. The fact that the numbers being discussed are far less than the military’s estimated need indicates that the surge is a political strategy, not a military one.
Even 50,000 more troops would be too few, however. The historical rule of thumb is a ratio of 50 civilians to 1 soldier in occupations. In the case of a counterinsurgency, leaving aside the civil war, “the United States and its allies in Iraq would need at least 500,000 and perhaps more than 1 million troops,” military experts told The Washington Post in November.
Adding 20,000 troops would be a drop the bucket in Baghdad, the locus of any surge. The troops would complement the current force of 15,000 U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. Going by the historical yardstick, if the United States really wanted to secure the capital, a city of 6.5 million, it would probably require 200,000 to 300,000 troops – more than all U.S. and foreign troops already in Iraq and any possible surge.
As for why the White House is grasping at the surge idea, the Joint Chiefs have told The Washington Post that they think it’s due to limited alternatives. They argue it will be counter-productive because “a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq.” As for Shia militias, they “may simply melt back into society during a U.S. surge and wait until the troops are withdrawn – then reemerge.”
Why pursue a doomed strategy? Because if the Bush administration were to cut its losses now, it would have to abandon the dream of remaking the Middle East through war. It would no longer have a large central base to pursue interventions against Iran or Syria. Thus, the next stage is escalation, which has been a constant of U.S. policy in Iraq. But it leaves the question, what will these extra troops do? Many plans have been put forth:
• Concentrate on fighting the Sunniled insurgency. Al Anbar province alone could swallow up all the extra troops with no evidence that they would have an effect. About 40 percent of U.S. combat deaths take place in Anbar, and more troops may just mean more targets. Even if pressured in Anbar, resistance groups could shift operations to Baghdad and at least four other provinces where they have a strong base and wait out the surge.
• Deploy the troops in Baghdad neighborhoods to stop the ethnic cleansing. American troops would take up new positions in 23 mixed Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods to better protect the population. The main problem is that by the time troops are deployed, the communal cleansing may be completed. At least ten mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad have already been turned exclusively Shia at gunpoint.
• Step up training of Iraqi troops. This strategy has wide appeal, not because it will work, but because many Americans crave an honorable retreat. They believe that somehow sectarian, corrupt, illtrained, poorly equipped Iraqi forces can defeat the insurgency and halt the civil war, after the most powerful military in the world has failed. Even if the Pentagon triples the advisors to 15,000, as the Iraq Study Group recommends, it won’t matter. Some trainers say that all the U.S. military is doing is training and arming Iraqis to fight a looming civil war. Even if trained, most Iraqi troops desert. By one account 75 percent of Iraqi soldiers don’t show up for duty. The root problem is that capable security forces depend upon a functional state, and Iraq’s has no writ beyond the Green Zone.
• Crush the Mahdi Army. This is the likeliest option. While the Bush administration will probably try all the above, one of its policy constants is its desire to eliminate Sadr and his militia. Last spring, the White House blocked Ibrahim al-Jaafari from serving a second time as prime minister. Bush said he doesn’t want, doesn’t support, and doesn’t accept him as prime minister because he felt Mr. Jaafari would do little to rein in Mr. Sadr.
Photo: Andrew Stern
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