"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
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
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
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.
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)