During his embattled summer vacation in Crawford,
Texas, George Bush managed to launch a
new promotional ditty for his war in Iraq: "As Iraqis stand up, we will
stand down." Since then there has been much commentary from the administration,
from military officials, and from the media on the question of how successfully
the Iraqi military is actually "standing up." (Not especially successfully is
the usual answer.) There has, however, been scarcely any serious discussion
about what that new Iraqi army, heavily infiltrated by Shi'ite and Kurdish militiamen
from the ruling parties in the Iraqi government, is actually going to stand
up for. And yet this is an important question.
Only recently, for instance, American forces uncovered some striking evidence
of what our new Iraq has increasingly come to look like. In a bunker
in Baghdad, they discovered a detention and torture center run by the Interior
Ministry, itself headed by Bayan Jabr, a senior member of the Supreme Council
for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. SCIRI is the main Shi'ite religious party
in the government and has a 20,000-man strong militia, the Badr Organization.
While the bunker's discovery caused an uproar here (and in Iraq), it is but
the tip of the iceberg. In some sense, it is not even a new story.
For well over a year now, Human Rights Watch has been cataloguing Interior
Ministry abuses and warning about a human rights catastrophe unraveling in "our"
Iraq. Last July, Peter
Beaumont of the British Observer revealed that the Shi'ite religious/political
powers-that-be had set up not one detention-and-torture center but a whole "ghost
network" of them – in some cases, he gave locations – in Baghdad and other Iraqi
cities, partly financed by British
and American funds originally intended for the rebuilding of the police
force. In these centers, torture methods "resurrected from the time of Saddam"
were being used; and the centers, in turn, were connected to paramilitary commando
units (and police units) – basically kidnapping and death squads – being run
by the Interior Ministry as well as by the Shi'ite religious parties. Such units
are increasingly engaged in a war of revenge with Sunni insurgents and in an
ever growing campaign of assassinations,
and disappearances in Sunni neighborhoods which months ago reached "epidemic
levels." Human rights organizations in the country have hundreds of cases
of disappearances on their lists – as well as assassinations, torture of every
sort, and an endless raft of human rights violations.
When asked about these practices by the
Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer, Abdul Aziz Hakim, head of SCIRI,
responded with complaints that the Bush administration wasn't letting his men
act aggressively enough. The United States, he insisted, "is tying Iraq's hands
in the fight against insurgents" – oddly enough the very (tortured) image Vice
President Dick Cheney recently used in opposing Senator John McCain's anti-torture
amendment in the Senate. (The amendment, he said, "would
bind the president's hands in wartime.")
This week, just as Saddam Hussein went back into court, a new voice was added
to the discussion about the "collapse of human rights in Iraq" – that of Iyad
Allawi, the former Iraqi prime minister in the American-sponsored interim
government. Running for office again in the upcoming elections, he accused the
Iraqi government – essentially the Shi'ite religious parties – of sponsoring
"human rights abuses in Iraq [that] are now as bad as they were under Saddam
Hussein and are even in danger of eclipsing his record." He told the Observer's
Beaumont that "the brutality of elements in the new security forces rivals that
of Saddam's secret police," and added, "We are even witnessing sharia courts
based on Islamic law that are trying people and executing them." The former
American favorite "now has so little faith in the rule of law that he had instructed
his own bodyguards to fire on any police car that attempted to approach his
headquarters without prior notice, following the implication of police units
in many of the abuses."
All this, by the way, from a man who was the head of an exile organization,
the Iraqi National Accord, which, according to a little-noted June 2004 front-page
article in the
New York Times, planted car bombs and other explosives in Baghdad
in the 1990s in an attempt to destabilize Saddam's regime – and did so under
the "direction" of the CIA.
Robert Dreyfuss has a particularly vivid way of catching the strange dilemma
George Bush's war has left us in today. American forces in Iraq, he writes below,
are now "the Praetorian Guard" for a radical right-wing Iraqi theocratic government
in Baghdad, one deeply indebted to that full member of the "axis of evil," Iran.
Dreyfuss is the author of a remarkable new book, The
Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.
It's a striking history of how, for the last half century, successive American
administrations have bedded down with right-wing Islamic movements. James
Norton, former Middle East editor for the Christian Science Monitor,
recently called the book
"a chronicle of mistakes made, opportunities lost, and lessons most vividly
not learned. It's also the story of the historical error that has come to define
U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world: the Machiavellian use of political
Islam as a sword and shield against communism and Arab nationalism. … Devil's
Game records the long and sordid history of right-wing and hardline elements
in the U.S. government finding common cause with fundamentalist groups in the
Middle East. … By feeding the monster of militant Islamism to fulfill short-term
goals, Dreyfuss argues, the United States helped unleash the most challenging
foreign policy crisis of the new millennium."
It is a must read. In the meantime, consider his latest take on the Bush administration
and the Islamic right. Tom
Political Islam vs. Democracy
The Bush Administration's Deadly Waltz With Shi'ite Theocrats in Iraq and
Muslim Brotherhood Fanatics in Syria, Egypt, and Elsewhere
by Robert Dreyfuss
Nearly three years into the war in Iraq, the Bush
administration tells us that it wasn't about weapons of mass destruction or
Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda, but about America's holy mission to spread democracy
to the benighted regions of the Middle East. However, postwar Iraq is anything
but a democracy. In fact, if Iraq manages to avoid all-out civil war, it is
likely to end up with a government that is fiercely undemocratic – a Shi'ite
theocratic dictatorship that rules by terror, torture, and armed might.
What President Bush has wrought in Iraq is just the latest in a
long string of U.S. efforts to make common cause with the Islamic Right. But
like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, the Mickey Mouse character whose naïve
and inexperienced use of magic blows up in his face, American efforts to play
with the forces of political Islam have proved to be dangerous, volatile,
and often uncontrollable.
The problem goes far beyond the Shi'ites in Iraq. In the Sunni parts of that
country, the power of Islamism is growing, too – and by this I do not mean the
forces associated with al-Qaeda but the radical-right Muslim Brotherhood, represented
there by the Iraqi Islamic Party, and other manifestations of the Salafi- and
Wahhabi-style religious Right. In Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, the radical religious
Right is also gaining strength. Meanwhile; sometimes deliberately, sometimes
by sheer ignorance and incompetence, the Bush administration is encouraging
the spread of political Islam. Were we to "stay the course," not only Iraq but
much of the rest of the Middle East could fall to the Islamic Right.
Does this mean that al-Qaeda-style fanatics will take power? No. Whether in
the form of Iraq's Shi'ite theocrats or the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Syria
and Egypt, the Islamic Right cannot be compared to al-Qaeda. Yet, just as the
U.S. Christian Right has its clinic bombers, just as the Israeli Jewish Right
spawned the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin and settler-extremists who kill dozens
at Muslim holy sites, the Islamic Right provides ideological support and theological
justification for more extreme (and, yes, terrorist) offspring. Even the Muslim
Brotherhood, an organization with a long history of violence, which once maintained
a covert "secret apparatus" and a paramilitary arm, has not convincingly renounced
its past, nor demonstrated that it sees democracy as anything more than a tool
it can use to seize power.
Shi'ite "Islamofascists" Rule Iraq
The case of Iraq could not be clearer. In 2002, as Vice President Dick Cheney
pushed the White House and the Pentagon inexorably toward war, it was increasingly
obvious to experienced Iraq hands that post-Saddam Iraq would be ruled by its
restive Shi'ite majority. It was no less obvious that the dominant force within
that Shi'ite majority would be the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution
in Iraq, or SCIRI, and a parallel force associated with al-Dawa (The Islamic
Call), a 45-year-old Shi'ite underground terrorist party. From the mid-1990s
on, and especially after 2001, the United States provided overt and covert assistance
to these organizations as part of the effort to force regime change in Iraq.
Like Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, with which both worked closely
and which had offices in Teheran, SCIRI and Dawa were based in Iran. SCIRI,
in fact, was founded in 1982 by Ayatollah Khomeini and its paramilitary arm,
the Badr Brigade, was trained and armed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Certainly,
to the Bush administration, SCIRI and Dawa were known quantities.
David Phillips, the former adviser to the State Department's war-planning effort
and author of Losing
Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco, has assured me that,
in the run-up to the war, many of his colleagues were well aware that SCIRI-type
Islamists, not Chalabi, would inherit post-Saddam Iraq. Other insiders, too,
have told me of foreign-policy professionals and Iraq specialists in the U.S.
intelligence community who warned (to no avail) that SCIRI would be a major
force in Iraq after any invasion. The point is, whether they bothered to pay
attention or not, the Bush-Cheney team was informed, well in advance, that by
toppling Saddam there was a strong possibility they would be installing a Shi'ite
Today, the unpleasant reality is that 150,000 U.S. troops, who are
dying at a rate of about 100 a month, are the Praetorian Guard for that radical-right
theocracy. It is a regime that sponsors Shi'ite-led death squads carrying out
assassinations from Basra (where freelance reporter Steven Vincent, himself
murdered by such a unit, wrote that "hundreds" of former Ba'athists, secular
leaders, and Sunnis were being killed every month) to Baghdad. Scores of bodies
of Sunnis regularly turn up shot to death, execution-style.
The latest revelation is that SCIRI's Badr Brigade, now a 20,000-strong militia,
operated a secret torture prison in Baghdad holding hundreds of Sunni detainees.
There, prisoners had their skin flayed off, electric shocks applied to their
genitals, or power drills driven into their bones. SCIRI and al-Dawa are the
senior partners in an Iraqi government which has imposed a unilateralist constitution
on the country that elevates the power of the Shi'ite-dominated provinces and
enshrines their vision of Islam in the body politic. Two weeks ago, during his
visit to Washington, D.C., I asked Adel Abdul Mahdi, a top SCIRI official and
Iraq's deputy president, about the charges of death squads and brutality. "All
of the terrorists are on the other side," he sniffed. "What you refer to is
a reaction to that."
Perhaps the ultimate irony of Bush's war on terrorism is this: While the president
asserts that the war in Iraq is the central front in the struggle against what
he describes as "Islamofascism," real "Islamofascists" are already in power
in Baghdad – and they are, shamefully, America's allies.
Of course, among the Iraqi opposition, too, the Islamic Right is growing. The
forces of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq have gained some limited support
from Iraqis, and Zarqawi is using the war in Iraq to rally support from jihadists
throughout the region. More broadly, the U.S. occupation is pushing ever larger
numbers of Sunni Arabs toward support for Islamists. In Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood
is represented by the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). Although it draws much of its
strength from radicalized Sunnis who hate the occupation, the IIP has shown
itself to be the part of the Sunni opposition most willing to cooperate with
the U.S.-allied Shi'ite theocrats. It has, from time to time, taken part in
the various interim governments that the United States has set up in postwar
Iraq; and, in October, the IIP endorsed the ersatz Iraqi constitution, setting
itself apart from the vast majority of Iraq's Sunnis. (For that, its headquarters
in Baghdad was attacked by the resistance, and many of its offices around the
country were blown up or assaulted.) Still, the growth of the IIP and other
similar manifestations of the Islamic Right among Iraq's Sunnis has encouraged
some Shi'ite theocrats to envision a Sunni-Shi'ite Islamist partnership in the
country. However unlikely that may be, given the passions that have already
been inflamed, the growth of the radical Right among Sunnis cannot possibly
be a good thing for Iraq, for the region, or for U.S. interests.
Syria: The Muslim Brotherhood Waits
Now, consider the broader issue of Bush's supposed push for regional
democracy. That effort, it should be noted, is being coordinated under the
know-nothing supervision of none other than Elizabeth Cheney, the vice president's
daughter. She is currently the principal deputy assistant secretary of state
for Near East affairs and is charged with the task of democracy-building in
the "Greater Middle East."
Undeterred by the failure of the U.S. experiment in installing democracy
in Iraq, next on the chopping block – that is, next to receive the benefits
of U.S.-imposed democracy – is Syria. That small, oil-poor, militarily weak
state is, at the moment, feeling the full force of Bush administration pressure.
Its army and security forces have been driven out of Lebanon, at the risk
of sparking civil war in that country again. It has been targeted by the Syrian
Accountability Act (reminiscent of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act) and hit with
related U.S. economic sanctions. It has been accused, by John Bolton and other
neoconservatives, of maintaining a weapons-of-mass-destruction program far
beyond the very limited chemical arms it probably possesses. It is accused,
by many U.S. officials, including our ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad,
of sponsoring the resistance fighters in Iraq – though there is nearly zero
evidence that it is doing so. Liz Cheney and other top U.S. officials are
already meeting with Chalabi-like Syrian exile leaders to plot "regime change."
As in Iraq, where Islamic fundamentalist Shi'ites stepped in to fill
the vacuum, so in Syria the most likely power waiting in the wings to replace
the government of President Bashar Assad is not some group of Syrian secular
democrats and nationalists but Syria's Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is an underground secret society
with a long history of terrorism and the use of assassination. With financial
and organizational help from Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi establishment, the Brotherhood
has spread to every corner of the Muslim world. Although it now officially eschews
violence, in recent years it has given succor to, and even spawned, far more
radical versions of itself. One of its chief theoreticians, Sayyid Qutb, created
the theological justification for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda. Even today, the
Brotherhood and al-Qaeda are at least fellow travelers. It is far from clear
how to draw the line between the Muslim Brotherhood and other forces of "conservative"
political Islam and those associated with radical-right, violence-prone Islamists.
Certainly, many experienced U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers disagree
about where one stops and the other starts.
Because Syria – with a mostly Sunni population (though, as in Iraq, highly
complex with a rich mix of minorities) – is a closed society, it is impossible
to say just how powerful the Muslim Brotherhood is there. But with an exile
leadership in London and other cities in Western Europe, with a network of supporters
among the Sunni Arab petit bourgeoisie, and with power centers in a string of
cities from Damascus to Homs, Hama, and Aleppo, it is widely considered a major
player in future Syrian politics. Recently, the Brotherhood joined with secular
intellectuals and others in an ad hoc, anti-Assad coalition, but the rest of
the coalition has few forces on the ground. Only it has "troops." In that, this
coalition is reminiscent of the one that formed in 1978 to overthrow the shah
of Iran. After the shah's fall, Ayatollah Khomeini's gang picked off its erstwhile
allies one by one – the communists, the National Front (the remnant of the nationalist
forces associated with Prime Minister Mossadegh in the 1950s), the intellectuals,
and finally the moderate Islamists such as President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr –
to establish the authoritarian theocracy that is the Islamic Republic of Iran.
It cannot be that the Bush administration is unaware of the power
of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Rather, they evidently simply don't care.
Their enmity for the Assad government is so all-powerful that, as in Iraq,
they evidently are willing to risk an Islamist regime. How can it be that
Mr. War on Terrorism blithely condones one Islamic extremist regime in Baghdad
and courts another in Damascus?
History shows that there is precedent. In the 1970s and early 1980s,
two U.S. allies – Israel and Jordan – actively supported the Syrian Muslim
Brotherhood in a bloody civil war against the government of President Hafez
Assad, Bashar's father. The Israeli- and Jordanian-sponsored terrorists killed
hundreds of Syrians, exploded car bombs, and assassinated Soviet diplomats
and military personnel in Syrian cities. All of this was known to the United
States at the time – and viewed benignly. The Syrian civil war came to a
brutal end when Rifaat Assad, the president's brother, led elite units of
the military into Hama, where the Muslim Brotherhood had seized power and
where hundreds of Syrian government officials had been dragged from their
offices and murdered. Rifaat Assad carried out a massive repression in which
many thousands died. Yet the forces of the Brotherhood recovered, and today
the Bush administration seems content to squeeze the brittle Assad government
until it collapses, even if it means that the Muslim Brotherhood takes power.
Middle Eastern Dominoes?
Aficionados of the Cold War domino theory often suggested that communism,
allowed to topple a single state, would then be able topple country after
country; that if communism was victorious in South Vietnam, then Indonesia,
Thailand, the Philippines and other distant lands would follow. That may have
been silly, but in the Middle East a domino theory might actually have some
application. At the very least, it is important to understand that the Muslim
Brotherhood is a supranational force, not simply a country-by-country phenomenon.
From Algeria to Pakistan, its leaders know each other, talk to each other,
and work together. In addition, the virulent force of religious fanaticism,
fed by anger, bitterness, and despair, knows no national boundaries.
Egypt, the anchor of the Arab world and by far its most populous country, is
threatened with a Muslim Brotherhood-style regime. Virtually all observers of
Egyptian politics agree that the Muslim Brotherhood is the chief opposition
party in Egypt. Mere prudence suggests that the United States should not press
Egypt too hard for democracy and free elections, given how difficult it is to
transition from an authoritarian state to a democratic one. Moreover, it is
arguably none of America's business what sort of government Egypt has. The very
idea that democracy is the antidote for terrorism has been proven false, most
authoritatively by F. Gregory Gause in his essay, "Can
Democracy Stop Terrorism?" in the September/October issue of Foreign
Yet the Bush administration is pushing hard for its brand of democracy. Two
weeks ago, at a regional forum in the Gulf, Egyptian officials bluntly rebuffed
the imperial U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who seemed stunned that
the government in Cairo did not want meddlers from the National Endowment for
Democracy, USAID, and other agencies pouring money into Egyptian opposition
groups. President Mubarak, a longtime American ally, was considered indispensable
by a succession of administrations during the Cold War. A fierce anti-communist
who kept the peace with Israel and helped the United States in its anti-Soviet
war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and again in the 1991 Gulf War, is now regularly
denounced as a dictator by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Richard Perle.
Because of Egypt's history as an ally, no Bush administration official (and
not even many neocons) dare say that they want "regime change" in Cairo, but
that is precisely what they do want, and many of them may be willing to risk
the creation of a Muslim Brotherhood-style regime to get it. Reuel Marc Gerecht,
a leading neoconservative strategist and former CIA officer who is now a fellow
at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote the following in his book The
Islamic Paradox, comparing Ayatollah Khomeini favorably to Mubarak:
"Khomeini submitted the idea of an Islamic republic to an up-or-down popular
vote in 1979, and regular elections with some element of competition are morally
essential to the regime's conception of its own legitimacy, something not at
all the case with President Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship in Egypt. … Anti-Americanism
is the common denominator of the Arab states with 'pro-American' dictators.
By comparison, Iran is a profoundly pro-American country."
True, Mubarak rigs Egyptian elections, but in recent parliamentary
elections, the Muslim Brotherhood still showed tremendous strength. With a
third round of elections still to go, it is on track to win up to a quarter
of the seats in the new national assembly. Gerecht isn't worried: "It is certainly
possible," he writes, "that fundamentalists, if they gained power in Egypt,
would try to end representative government. … But the United States would
still be better off with this alternative than with a secular dictatorship."
In the 1950s, British intelligence and the CIA worked with the Muslim
Brothers against Gamal Abdel Nasser, the founder of modern Arab nationalism.
Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna,
who set up the organization's global nerve center in Geneva, Switzerland,
was a CIA agent. Twice, in 1954 and in 1965, the Brotherhood tried to assassinate
Nasser. From this period to the present, the Brotherhood has received financial
support from the ultra-right Saudi establishment.
A Formula for Endless War in the Middle East
Iraq, Syria, and Egypt are not the only places threatened by fundamentalism.
In recent Palestinian elections, Hamas – the official branch of the Muslim
Brotherhood there – has shown remarkable strength, threatening to undo the
Palestinian Authority's accomplishments and wreck any chance of a Palestinian-Israeli
accord. Ironically, a great deal of Hamas' present power exists only because
of the support offered its founders by the Israeli military authorities in
decades past. From the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967
well into the 1980s, Israel supported the growth of Hamas-style Islamism as
a counterweight to the nationalists in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' founder, was backed by Israel during those years, as
his followers clashed with PLO supporters in Gaza and the West Bank. Too late,
Israel recognized that it had created a monster and began to wage war on Hamas,
including assassinating Yassin.
From Israel and Palestine to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and beyond – in
Algeria, Sudan, the Gulf states, Pakistan, and even Saudi Arabia – the region
is beset by Islamist movements. The right way to combat this upsurge is not
through military action or a Bush administration-style Global War on Terrorism.
That, as many observers have pointed out, is likely to further fuel the growth
of such movements, not subdue them.
Only if the temperature is lowered throughout the region might the momentum
of the Islamic Right be slowed and, someday, reversed. Unfortunately, the invasions
of Afghanistan and Iraq have raised that temperature to the boiling point. So
has the long-term American military buildup in the Persian Gulf and Central
Asia. So have the proclamations from President Bush & Co. about a nonsensical
"World War IV" against "Islamofascism." So has the Israeli policy of expanding
settlements and building a giant barrier that virtually annexes huge swaths
of the West Bank for Greater Israel. All of these policies cause Islamist sympathies
to grow – and out of them bubble recruits not only for organizations like the
Muslim Brotherhood, but for al-Qaeda-style terrorist groups.
The Bush administration has put into operation an utterly paradoxical
and self-defeating strategy. First, its policies inflame the region, feeding
the growth of political Islam and its extremist as well as terrorist offshoots.
Then, as in Iraq – and as seems to be the case in Syria and Egypt – it seeks
"regime change" in countries where it knows that the chief opposition and
likely inheritor of power will be the Muslim Brotherhood or its ilk. This
is a formula for endless war in the region.
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's
Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. He covers
national security for Rolling Stone and writes frequently for The
American Prospect, Mother Jones, and the Nation. He is also
a regular contributor to TomPaine.com, the Huffington Post, and other sites,
and writes the blog, "The Dreyfuss
Report," at his Web
Copyright 2005 Robert Dreyfuss