WASHINGTON - Two major revelations this
past week show how far the administration of US
President George W Bush has already shifted its
policy toward realignment with Sunni forces to
balance the influence of pro-Iranian Shi'ites in
US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay
Khalilzad revealed in an interview with Washington
Post columnist David Ignatius that he has put the
future of military assistance to a
the table in the high-stakes US effort to force
Shi'ite party leaders to give up control over key
Ignatius that, unless the "security ministries" in
the new Iraqi government were allocated to
candidates who were "not regarded as sectarian",
the United States would be forced to re-evaluate
its assistance to the government.
saying, if you choose the wrong candidates, that
will affect US aid," Khalilzad said.
had previously demanded that the Interior Ministry
be given to a non-sectarian candidate, but he had
not backed up those demands with the threat of
withdrawal of assistance. He has also explicitly
added the Defense Ministry to that demand for the
Implied in Khalilzad's
position is the threat to stop funding units that
are identified as sectarian Shi'ite in their
orientation. That could affect the bulk of the
Iraqi army as well as the elite Shi'ite police
commando units, which are highly regarded by the
US military command.
to make the US threat public was followed by the
revelation by Newsweek in its February 6 issue
that talks between the US and "high level" Sunni
insurgent leaders have already begun at a US
military base in Anbar province and in Jordan as
well as Syria. Khalilzad told Newsweek: "Now we
have won over the Sunni political leadership. The
next step is to win over the insurgents."
As this sweeping definition of the US
political objective indicates, these talks are no
longer aimed at splitting off groups that are less
committed to the aim of US withdrawal, as the
Pentagon has favored since last summer. Instead,
the Bush administration now appears to be prepared
to make some kind of deal with all the major
US military spokesman
Rick Lynch said, "The local insurgents have become
part of the solution."
The larger context
of these discussions is a common interest in
counterbalancing Iranian influence in Iraq. US
officials are remaining silent on this aspect of
the policy. According to Newsweek, however, a
"senior Western diplomat" explains the talks by
saying, "There is more concern [on both sides]
about the domination by Iran of Iraq."
concern about the pro-Iranian leanings of the
militant Shi'ite parties that will dominate the
next government has grown as the Bush
administration presses a campaign to take Iran's
nuclear program to the United Nations Security
Council, with the military option "on the table".
A Western diplomat told Associated Press that the
United States needed to find "some other allies
who will not turn against them if things heat up
Even the possibility of a
separate peace between the United States and the
Sunni insurgency, which is inherent in these
negotiations, signals to the Shi'ites that the US
is no longer wedded to the option of supporting
Shi'ite military and police.
political party leaders also see US policy as
supporting the Sunnis in order to limit the power
of the Shi'ites. The Iraqi Islamic Party's Naseer
al-Any told the Christian Science Monitor: "We are
convinced that we are in a powerful position now.
There is a change in the way the Americans deal
with us ..."
The US position and that of
Sunni politicians toward the new government are
now fully aligned. On Saturday, Sunni political
groups and secular political parties announced a
new political bloc to demand that the Interior
Ministry not be in the hands of "people related to
administration has been trying to find ways to
counterbalance the influence of the pro-Iranian
Shi'ite faction since mid-2004, especially by
keeping control of paramilitary forces and secret
police out of the hands of the militant Shi'ites.
But until recently, those efforts have been
constrained by the political imperative to prevail
in the war against the Sunnis.
leaders have been convinced since last year's
parliamentary election campaigns that Washington
has been conspiring with their enemies to undo the
political power the Shi'ites had gained in 2005.
Redha Taki, an official at party
headquarters of the Supreme Council for Islamic
Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which heads the ruling
Shi'ite coalition, told the Christian Science
Monitor's Charles Levinson that the United States
is only part of a much bigger coalition of
interests opposing Shi'ite political power in
Iraq, which includes Britain, the Iraqi Sunnis and
the Arab League.
The common denominator
uniting all those actors, of course, is antagonism
toward the Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran,
with which the militant Shi'ite parties in Iraq
Shi'ite leaders believe the
shift in US policy is intended actually to
reinstall a Ba'athist government in Baghdad. Taki
hinted strongly to the Monitor that SCIRI is
planning to use force if necessary to defend the
present government. "We are threatening that maybe
in the future we will use other means," he said,
"because we have true fear.
"I am prepared
to go down into the streets and take up arms and
fight to prevent the Ba'athist dictators and
terrorists from coming back to power."
That statement captures the feeling among
many Shi'ite leaders and militia of being under
siege, which could lead them to plan for extreme
actions to deal with an anticipated bid by their
enemies to take away their power.
is now waiting to see how far the Bush
administration will carry its political
realignment. These new moves suggest that the
administration may have redefined its interests in
Iraq to downgrade the importance of the fight
against insurgency there in light of the larger
conflict with Iran.
The logic of such a
redefinition of interests would dictate a
ceasefire with the Sunni insurgents. That would
not only free the latter to fight al-Qaeda, but
would alter the balance of power between militant
Shi'ites and Sunnis in Iraq.
far would conflict with White House assurances
only a few weeks ago of US "victory" in the Iraq
war. But word at the State Department last week
was that Khalilzad, the mastermind of the new
policy, has the president's ear. And the new
policy may be just what Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld and other hardliners on Iran have been
Although it may be a way out
of a war that cannot be won, the US shift in
political alignment away from the Shi'ites and
toward the Sunnis brings with it a different set
of costs and risks.
It is bound to bring
to the surface the anti-US sentiments that the
Shi'ite political leadership and militants have
kept more or less under wraps since the US
invasion for pragmatic political
And as the Shi'ites gird for a
showdown with their enemies, they will be seeking
the assistance of their Iranian patrons. The worst
crises for US policy in Iraq are still to come.
Gareth Porter is a historian and
national-security policy analyst. His latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and
the Road to War in Vietnam, was published last