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December 29, 2006

Bush Iraq Policy Murky on the Real Enemy

by Gareth Porter

This year saw the emergence of a sectarian civil war in Iraq and much more open Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in the Middle East. Sunni regimes in the region expressed acute anxiety both about the possibility of the Sunni-Shi'ite civil war in Iraq spreading to their own countries and about the growth of Iranian influence.

In that setting, the most striking thing about the George W. Bush administration's policy in 2006 has been its inability to identify the primary enemy in Iraq.

Is it al-Qaeda in Iraq? Bush often implies that they are the real enemy, suggesting that the U.S. must fight the enemy in Iraq so it doesn't have to fight them at home.

Is it the armed Sunni resistance groups, who were the original target of a U.S. counterinsurgency war that is now an all but officially admitted failure?

Or is it the Mahdi army of Moqtada al-Sadr, which has been implicated in large-scale killings of Sunnis in the Baghdad area and which is aligned with Iran in the conflict between Washington and Tehran?

And what about the Badr organization, which is known to be responsible for mass kidnapping, torture and what many now call ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from predominantly Shi'ite neighborhoods in Baghdad?

Is Iraq really about the global war on terror, the alleged threat from Iran, the danger emanating from sectarian war, or simply the administration's desire to claim success against the resistance to the occupation itself? The Bush administration has not been able to issue a clear policy statement on that question.

The original source of the administration's confusion over its primary enemy in Iraq was the decision to sell the counterinsurgency war in Iraq to the U.S. public in 2004-2005 as a struggle between a nascent democratic state and anti-democratic forces in the country.

That public line obscured the underlying reality of a sectarian struggle for power complicated by the desire of the militant Shi'ite parties for revenge against Sunnis for Saddam Hussein's abuses.

Unfortunately, the White House and the Pentagon seem to have internalized their own propaganda line. When unmistakable evidence of the Shi'ite militias' sectarian violence against Sunnis emerged in 2005, the administration was reluctant to admit that reality. Former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi lamented publicly in mid-2005 that U.S. officials "have no vision and no clear policy" on preventing a downward spiral of sectarian violence.

That deficit in U.S. policy was the consequence of the administration's focus on defeating the Sunni resistance – an effort that required an alliance with the very militant Shi'ite forces who were behind the paramilitary violence against Sunnis.

But it became increasingly clear in 2005 that the alliance with Shi'ites against the Sunni resistance was not succeeding, because the resistance was growing stronger rather than weaker. In the latter half of 2005, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad became convinced that the United States had to win over Sunnis through a political compromise rather than defeating them militarily.

Other influential figures in the administration, apparently including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, argued that the Sunni resistance, which they called "rejectionists," merely wanted to regain power. That view, explicitly expressed in the administration's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" of Nov. 30, 2005, suggested that there could be no accommodation with the armed Sunni groups.

But Khalilzad had Bush's ear, and by January 2006, he was engaged in direct negotiations with a coalition of armed organizations claiming to represent the bulk of the anti-coalition Sunni forces. U.S. Officials in Baghdad were going so far as to characterize the Sunni insurgents as legitimate nationalists who had sharp conflicts with al-Qaeda. Those negotiations, never acknowledged by the Bush administration but confirmed by detailed accounts by Sunni negotiators, were aimed at ending the resistance in return for recognition of essential Sunni political interests and integration of the Sunni resistance forces into a new Iraqi army.

An agreement with the Sunni leaders would have suggested that the real enemy was not the Sunni resistance but sectarian Shi'ites aligned with Iran. At a time when the Bush administration was seeking to put pressure on Iran over its nuclear program by suggesting that the "military option" was still on the table, the U.S. negotiations with the Sunni resistance were apparently spurred by a common concern with Iranian influence in Iraq, which was believed to be exercised through those Shi'ite groups that had been trained in Iran or had gotten Iranian financial support during the election campaign.

The Sunnis claimed they proposed to Khalilzad taking on the Shi'ite militias in Baghdad with U.S. support. Khalilzad's public pressures on the Shi'ites in late 2005 and early 2006 to curb the sectarian militias seemed to suggest just such a realignment.

The Sunni demand for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, however, apparently scuttled the deal, even though it was flexible and related to a timetable for building the new Iraqi army. Despite a three-month flirtation with a Sunni strategy, Bush decided in March 2006 not to pursue it.

But from then on, the administration's definition of the enemy was no longer so clear. Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey reached a remarkable agreement on a joint statement that bore all the earmarks of a compromise on that issue. In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times in April, they said "the principal threat to stability is shifting from an insurgency grounded on rejection of the new political order to sectarian violence grounded in mutual fears and recriminations."

That carefully-worded formula allowed the military to continue its counterinsurgency war against the Sunni resistance, while supporting Khalilzad's argument that the main problem for the United States in Iraq was not the Sunni resistance but al-Qaeda terrorists on one side and the extremist Shi'ites on the other. It came in the wake of the first major escalation of sectarian violence in the Baghdad area in late February and early March. The number of civilian victims of sectarian violence increased from 1,778 in January to 3,149 in June, according to the United Nations.

The general agreement that Iraq was already engulfed in a sectarian civil war put intense pressure on the administration to show that it was doing something about that problem. Over the summer, the U.S. military command in Iraq and its Iraqi counterpart mounted what was touted as a decisive new security plan for Baghdad and put 15,000 additional U.S. troops in the capital.

But the intensified security operations in Baghdad did not focus on sectarian militias. A U.S. command spokesman admitted that U.S. and Iraqi forces were continuing to round up suspected Sunni insurgents in Baghdad, even though they are not believed to be involved in terrorism against Shi'ite civilians. The United Nations reported last month that civilian deaths from sectarian violence reached 3,709 in October.

Even after the Iraq Study Group's recommendation for a major withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2007, Bush appears to be poised for a "surge" or even a "big push," sending as many as 40,000 additional troops to Iraq. But Bush has been unwilling to identify which of the several forces in Iraq would be the target of those additional U.S. forces.

The administration has also warmed up to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and the militant Shi'ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq in the hope of politically isolating the more openly anti-U.S. Moqtada al-Sadr. Al-Hakim and SCIRI, which are linked to the sectarian violence of the Badr brigade and are ideologically aligned with Iran, have been the strongest political force for sectarian war against Sunnis. They were the main target of Khalilzad's anti-sectarian rhetoric a year ago.

Since Bush has touted the occupation of Iraq as the frontline in the war on terror, he might be expected to focus like a laser on al-Qaeda as the primary enemy. After all, he routinely cited the threat of creating a "terrorist haven" in Iraq if the United States were to withdraw without "victory." But by continuing a war against the Sunni resistance forces and providing unconditional support for largely Shi'ite military and police forces, the administration has effectively taken the pressure off al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The major Sunni resistance organizations, which have already been in an undeclared war with al-Qaeda since before the 2005 constitutional referendum, would appear to be in the best position to defeat the al-Qaeda networks in Iraq if they could focus their efforts on that foe. But their main concern remains the war being waged by the U.S., Shi'ite and Kurdish forces against them.

Bush's de facto support for militant Iraqi Shi'ites against the anti-jihadist Sunni resistance has been a losing proposition from every perspective. It has increased regional tensions by appearing to strengthen Iraqi forces aligned with Iran, fueled sectarian war and eased the pressure on the one enemy on which most U.S. citizens might agree should be targeted – al-Qaeda in Iraq. Clarifying the murky logic driving that policy and its consequences may be a major preoccupation of U.S. Senate committees in 2007.


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  • Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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