George W. Bush's State of the Union address appears
to confirm other recent indications that the president is not merely sending
more troops to Iraq to do more of the same, but has adopted a new strategy of
fighting all three major Iraqi Arab political-military forces simultaneously.
Bush hinted strongly that he has decided to make Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi
Army a major military target of the increased US troop presence in Baghdad,
in addition to continuing to wage war against both al-Qaeda and its Sunni extremist
allies, on one hand, and the non-jihadist Sunni resistance, on the other.
Two weeks before the Jan. 23 State of the Union speech, Lt.-Gen. Raymond Odierno,
the number two US commander in Iraq, told reporters he wanted to use most
of the additional 20,000 troops to launch a new military push against both Sunni
and Shi’ite militias in Baghdad.
The new policy appears to have been prompted by both the need to demonstrate
to the US public that the administration is doing something different and
to use force against a presumed ally of Iran in the region. But it means that
the United States is now planning to fight what is in essence a three-front
war without any reliable Iraqi Arab ally. Only the Kurds can be counted on to
cooperate with the US military in such a war, because of their reliance on
US support for their aspirations for quasi-independence.
In the speech,
Bush suggested that what he called "Shia extremists backed by Iran" were now
an enemy equal in importance to al-Qaeda. He presented the "nightmare scenario"
of the Iraqi government being "overrun by extremists on all sides" if US troops
were to "step back before Baghdad is secure". That would be followed, Bush said,
by an "epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists
aided by al-Qaeda and supporters of the old regime..."
Bush referred indirectly to the administration's new readiness to take on the
Mahdi army when he insisted that Iraqi leaders now have to "lift needless restrictions
on Iraqi and Coalition forces, so these troops can achieve their mission of
bringing security to all of the people of Baghdad." That was a reference to
an agreement that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government reached with Sadr's
organization last year that prohibited US troops from going into Sadr City,
the Baghdad base of Sadr's political-military organization.
One veteran military expert on Iraq, retired
Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor, told Inter Press Service that Bush's new
policy is a "war against all" in Iraq and called it "a blunder of Hitlerian
Macgregor likened the policy of fighting all three Iraqi anti-occupation forces
at once to Adolf Hitler's insistence on continuing a two-front war against the
Soviet Union and the Western powers during World War II, which is widely regarded
as having ensured the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Macgregor is no stranger to military planning in Iraq. He led combat troops
in destroying a brigade of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard troops in the most
significant tank battle of Desert Storm in February 1991 and prepared a proposal
for a limited duration attack on Baghdad at the request of a personal representative
of then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in autumn 2001.
"It is ideology pushing violence to extremes," Macgregor says of the latest
turn in Bush's Iraq policy. "They are trying to reverse the damage they have
already done to themselves by having built up a Shi’ite state and army. But
it is too late and it is bound to be counterproductive."
US forces defeated the 2000-strong Mahdi Army in Najaf in August 2004. Since
then, however, Sadr has emerged as the most popular and powerful figure in Baghdad
and the Shi’ite South, muscling aside the previously dominant Badr
Organization. The Mahdi army is now believed to be many times larger than
it was in 2004, and it has significant support within the Iraqi security forces.
US officers in Baghdad were telling reporters last September that they opposed
doing battle with the Shi’ite militia. Col. Joseph DiSalvo, commander of the
US 3rd Infantry Division in eastern Baghdad, told Tom Lasseter of McClatchy
News Service in December that it would be all but impossible for the US military
to defeat the Mahdi Army. "You'd have to have more manpower than is feasible,"
The well-informed CNN Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware has just reiterated
that warning about taking on the Mahdi Army. On Wolf Blitzer's The Situation
Room Jan. 24, he said US troops can no longer crush the Mahdi Army. That army,
Ware observed, "is much more than just a force, it's a movement. And it has
mobilized the great disenfranchised, impoverished Shia population." The Sadrist
"genie is out of the bottle", he warned, and "it can't be put back in".
As a result of the agreement between Maliki's government and Sadr's organization,
the massive security operations in Baghdad last year essentially targeted Sunni
insurgents based in Sunni neighborhoods, passing over Sadr City and other areas
controlled by the Shi’ites. The Bush administration's policy on Shi’ite militias
was limited to pressing Iraqi officials – especially Prime Minister Maliki –
to act against his main source of political support. In effect the Bush administration
was tacitly aligning itself with a Shi’ite-dominated regime that was dependent
on pro-Iranian political-military groups against the Sunni resistance.
Bush strongly implied in his State of the Union message, however, that the
administration can no longer count on the Shi’ite Iraqi government and army
as allies in a new war against Shi’ite militias. Significantly, Bush did not
even mention the prime minister by name in the speech.
In the weeks before the speech, Maliki was reported to have resisted targeting
Shi’ite sectarian militias in Baghdad and to have opposed bringing US troops
into central Baghdad. He was said to have proposed last November that Shi’ite
forces take care of security within the city, while US troops patrol the perimeter.
A little over a week before the State of the Union address, New York Times
reporter John Burns quoted an unnamed US military official, who had been involved
in negotiations with the Iraqi government over security operations, as saying,
"We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part
of the problem. We are being played like a pawn."
Also missing from Bush's speech was the administration's past claim that the
Iraqi army stands above sectarian interests. That sectarian Shi’ite character
of key army units in the Baghdad area has been increasingly revealed in recent
An article by reporter Nancy Trejos in the Washington Post, Jan. 13,
described the scene as Shi’ite soldiers, who belong to the Iraqi army's 6th
Division which is responsible for security in central and south Baghdad, celebrated
the 86th anniversary of the creation of the army. They shouted "Moqtada! Moqtada!"
– the openly anti-US Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – in the same breath as
the five major historical figures of the Shi’ite faith. The Iraqi interpreter
for the US advisers to the unit remarked,
"Sounds like the Mahdi militia is in the tent."
The decision to simultaneously fight all three major anti-occupation forces
stems from the administration's failure to reach a settlement with major Sunni
armed resistance organizations, even though they have turned against al-Qaeda.
This effectively aligned the United States with one side in the Sunni-Shi’ite
sectarian conflict, and encouraged the Shi’ite leadership to view Sunnis as
the enemy. Instead of reversing that policy decision, Bush is now adding another
enemy to the list, despite the fact that the Mahdi army is also violently opposed