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April 12, 2008

Running Out the Iraq Clock

by Jim Lobe

"Tell me how this ends," Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of the 101st Airborne Division, asked a Washington Post reporter during the "liberation" of Iraq almost exactly five years ago.

That neither Petraeus, now commander of all US forces in Iraq, nor his civilian counterpart, Washington's ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, was able to offer even the slightest clue as to "how this ends" in Congressional testimony this week added yet one more layer of irony to a war which has systematically defied every prediction of its architects.

"We'll know when we get there and we don't know when we're going to get there," said Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, an early supporter of the war, after patiently listening to Petraeus and Crocker's repeated efforts to evade questions about how and when Washington could withdraw substantial numbers of its combat troops below the 140,000 level that is supposed to be reached in July. There are currently somewhat more than US 160,000 troops in Iraq.

"I think people want a sense of what the end is going to look like," said Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican hawk, whose comments reflected growing frustration within President George W. Bush's own party with the lack of any sense that the administration has any clear "exit strategy" for Iraq.

As Bush himself made clear Thursday when he pledged that Petraeus will,"have all the time he needs" to decide whether he could afford to further reduce US military presence in Iraq after July without jeopardizing what security gains have been achieved over the past year, an exit strategy that will almost certainly not materialize between now and Jan. 20 next year when the Bush administration comes to an end.

On the contrary, Bush's remarks suggested that Washington's vital interests in Iraq – at least in his mind – may somehow have actually expanded in recent weeks to include rolling back Iranian influence, in addition to ensuring that the country not become a base for al-Qaeda or other radical Sunni Islamist groups.

"Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this century: al-Qaeda and Iran," he declared.

"If we fail there, al-Qaeda would claim a propaganda victory of colossal proportions, and they could gain safe havens in Iraq from which to attack the United States, our friends and our allies," he said. "Iran would work to fill the vacuum in Iraq, and our failure would embolden its radical leaders and fuel their ambitions to dominate the region."

As the New York Times reported, Bush's focus on Iran was not entirely new, but the implications of a commitment to prevent Iran from influencing events in its neighbor – particularly given Tehran's historic support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Da'wa Party and the other Shi'a factions that make up his government – seemed remarkably ambitious at a time when even Republican lawmakers are beseeching the White House to offer some light at the end of the tunnel.

Of course, Petraeus' and Crocker's depiction of Iran's role was somewhat more nuanced. Petraeus, for example, conceded that Tehran's Revolutionary Guard played a decisive role in negotiating a ceasefire in last month's bloody conflict in Basra and Baghdad between Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and US- and British-backed Iraqi Army and police forces which are themselves dominated by other Shi'a factions, notably the Badr Brigades of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC).

But their testimony also bolstered the notion that, five years into the US occupation, Washington was finding new threats to its interests in Iraq, and hence new reasons to keep large numbers of its troops there.

Indeed, Petraeus asserted several times that Iran's support for so-called "special groups" – Shi'a militia units allegedly associated with the Mahdi Army but supplied and directed by the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force – had become Public Enemy Number One in Iraq, effectively displacing al-Qaeda.

"Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq," Petraeus declared, essentially laying the groundwork for continuing military action throughout southern Iraq, in addition to Baghdad, al-Anbar, and the northern provinces where al-Qaeda has been the primary target of the 30,000 US "surge" forces sent to Iraq a year ago.

And, as much as Petraeus and Crocker sought to distinguish between the special groups and the Sadr's Mahdi Army, it appears from last month's fighting, as well as continuing violence in Sadr City and elsewhere over the past week, that the government's security forces have not been inclined to make such distinctions, suggesting that US forces may well become increasingly involved in an intra-Shi'a conflict between the various Iranian-supported factions.

That conflict is likely to become much more intense – and violent – with the approach of regional elections in October, according to Iraq specialists here, making it even less likely that Washington will withdraw more troops before Bush leaves office.

"It's abundantly clear that President Bush is simply trying to 'run out the clock' and hand off the mess to the next president," observed Sen. Edward Kennedy.

As grim – and as widely accepted – as that conclusion appeared to be by the end of the week, some observers noted that the administration's focus on Iran and its "nefarious" role in Iraq raised anew the specter of a much larger "mess" that Bush might yet leave to his successor.

Speculation that Bush might yet attack Iran before the end of his term, which had been mostly silenced after the publication last December of the intelligence community's assessment that Iran had suspended a key part of a nuclear-weapons program in 2003, was raised anew this week by the Petraeus-Crocker testimony and Bush's equation of the threats posed by al-Qaeda and Iran.

In addition, Vice President Dick Cheney, the leader of the administration's Iran hawks, came out of his usual seclusion this week to describe President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an interview this week as "a very dangerous man... who believes... that the highest honor that can befall a man is that he should die a martyr in facilitating the return of the 12th imam."

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly threatened to "destroy Israel," he noted, adding that the deterrence strategy used by Washington against Moscow would not work with Tehran. "Mutual assured destruction with Ahmadinejad is an incentive," he said. "You have to be concerned about that."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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