Bush's splurge is already bringing premature claims
of success, even though the first troops are just arriving in Iraq. A column
in today's Washington Times by Ollie North quotes an American officer
in Iraq as saying, "Do they [members of Congress opposed to the war] even know
that in the last two weeks we have set AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] and the Mahdi
Army both back on their heels?" Well, maybe, but if they are back on their heels,
it is only to sit and see how their enemy's latest operation evolves. That is
smart guerilla tactics, and does not mean they have suffered a setback.
In Anbar province, al-Qaeda may have overplayed its hand. A number of reports
suggest some of the local sheiks have turned against al-Qaeda, and we are providing
the sheiks with discreet assistance in going after them. That is smart on our
part. But Bush administration propaganda to the contrary, al-Qaeda does not
represent the bulk of the Sunni resistance. The nationalists will continue to
fight us because we are there, and the Ba'athists will continue to fight us
so long as we represent a despised Shi'ite regime in Baghdad. We can and should
try to negotiate settlements with both nationalists and Ba'athists, but political
considerations in Washington and in Baghdad have largely tied the hands of our
The Mahdi Army and other Shi'ite groupings have a different perspective. Once
we understand what it is, we can see that it makes sense for them to avoid a
confrontation with the U.S. military if they can. From the Shi'ite perspective,
American forces are in Iraq to fight the Sunnis for them. Our troops are, in
effect, the Shi'ites' unpaid Hessians.
Thus far, we have been willing to play the Shi'ites' game. Their challenge
now is to make sure we continue to do so as Bush's "big push" in Baghdad unfolds.
Originally, they wanted U.S. forces to control access to Baghdad, cutting the
Sunnis' lines of communication and reinforcement, while the Shi'ite militias
carried on their successful campaign of ethnic cleansing. With Bush insisting
American forces work in Baghdad, the Shi'ites came up with an alternate plan,
one we have seemingly accepted: the Americans will drive out the Sunni insurgents,
leaving Sunni neighborhoods defenseless. As the American troops move on, they
will be replaced by Iraqi soldiers and police, mostly Shi'ite militiamen, who
will ethnically cleanse the area of Sunnis, just as in plan A. Again, the Americans
will have fulfilled their allotted function, fighting the Sunnis on behalf of
the Shi'ites. Aren't Hessians great?
The potential spoiler is the possibility that the Americans will also go after
some Shi'ite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army. If we do so by entering
Sadr City in strength, the Mahdi Army can simply let us come – and go. We cannot
tell who is a militiaman and who is not. They can let us mill around for a while,
achieving nothing, then watch us leave. Big deal.
An action that might force them to respond would be an intensification of our
ongoing drive to capture or kill Mahdi Army leaders. But they still would not
have to respond in Baghdad. The classic guerilla response in such a case is
to retreat from the area where the enemy is attacking and hit him somewhere
else. An obvious place would be in Iraq's Shi'ite south, with our supply convoys
coming up from Kuwait the target. Another response would be to match our escalation
of raids with an escalation of mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone.
As we go after their leaders, they return the favor by going after ours. There
are some indications this may be occurring.
No doubt, our forces will attempt to be evenhanded between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
But this merely shows that we do not understand the real game. The real game,
and a successful one to date, is to let the Americans take the brunt of the
fight with armed Sunni organizations, whether nationalist or Ba'athist or al-Qaeda
or whomever, while the Shi'ite militias get the softer job of terrorizing Sunni
civilians and forcing them out. That is likely to be the story of Operation
Baghdad, regardless of our intentions.
Should the day ever come when we cease to play that game, our utility to the
Shi'ites, and thus to the Shi'ite-controlled Iraqi government, will be over.
Like Hessians in earlier wars, we will then be sent home. All it takes is a
fatwa from Ayatollah Sistani, telling us to go. If we don't understand
this, everyone else in Iraq certainly does, including Moqtada al-Sadr.