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
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
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
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
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.