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    Middle East
     Aug 19, 2006
'Misunderestimating' Bush's Iraq
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - This summer former US ambassador Peter Galbraith released a groundbreaking book called The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. One of the most interesting facts presented by Galbraith was that two months before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W Bush was unaware that there were two branches of Islam (Sunni and Shi'ite). Bush once also famously said, "They are misunderestimating me."

Now, with the war in Lebanon having overshadowed events in Iraq, perhaps it is the US that is "misunderestimating" the situation

there, where July was the bloodiest month in terms of deaths since the invasion of March 2003.

Iraq and its people have probably been the greatest losers in the Israeli war with Hezbollah. For a month, the world's attention was completely fixated on Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah. The rising sectarian violence in Iraq, until a ceasefire came into effect in Lebanon this Monday, was ignored.

Before the Lebanon war started, it seemed that Iraq was already on the verge of civil war, due to the brutality of death squads and the visible helplessness of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

A month later, Iraq is at civil war. Just look at the figures. In July, the number of Iraqis killed in sectarian violence - and what else can one call it? - was a staggering 3,438 - two times the number of Lebanese civilians killed during the 30 days of daily air raids by Israel, and more than 100 deaths a day.

This is a 9% increase over the death toll for June. And this is not Iraqis being killed by Americans. It is Iraqis killing one another. Last month, an average of 110 Iraqis were dying per day in Iraq. Despite all the denials both of US officials and of members of the Maliki cabinet, this is war, and it is a war that was started by the Bush administration.

These numbers mean many things. First, it is clear evidence that the Baghdad Security Plan of the Iraqi prime minister (started on June 14) has completely failed. It was a plan much trumpeted by Bush and Maliki because it called for the creation of more Iraq-run checkpoints to search for arms, explosives and gunmen.

Second, the staggering Iraqi death toll means that the Sunni insurgency has not been broken - or even weakened - by the death of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

And third, the transfer of full responsibility for security to the Iraqi government seems as far away as it has ever been since the invasion of 2003.

The Americans have already started "Operation Together Forward" to reclaim parts of the Iraqi capital from warring militias. Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has called for the creation of "people's committees" to provide local security. In effect, he is saying that the Shi'ites should protect Shi'ite districts, the Sunnis should protect their own neighborhoods, and mixed areas should be patrolled by joint Sunni-Shi'ite militias.

He has every reason to lose faith in both Iraqi security and the US military. A glimpse at some events over the past few days provides tragic confirmation of the widespread chaos across the country and the war that has engulfed it.

On Wednesday, a car bomb went off in Baghdad, killing 10 people and injuring more than 40. Earlier in the day, clashes had erupted in the towns of Basra and Mosul. In Basra, armed groups engaged in combat with police and the British army after they attacked the office of the governor and the city council. In Mosul, rebels were killed by Iraqi police.

On Tuesday, violence erupted in Karbala between the Iraqi army and supporters of radical cleric Mahmud al-Hasani, leading to the death of 12 Iraqis. The attack was blamed on the "nationalist attitude" of Hasani, an ally of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is vehemently opposed to the US presence in Iraq. After storming Hasani's office, police arrested 250 of his supporters.

That same day, a suicide bomber killed nine people in Mosul outside the offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is headed by President Jalal Talabani. Five members of the paramilitary peshmerga were killed and 36 people were wounded.

Earlier this month, Iraq police clashed with members of the Mehdi Army led by Muqtada. Maliki, who is trying to build bridges between warring factions, denied the attack, but it was confirmed by the Ministry of Defense, making the prime minister look silly.

It also enraged Muqtada and probably explains why so much violence took place in the following week, all believed to be Muqtada's doing. The clash, which took place in Sadr City, lasted for two hours and resulted in the death of two Iraqis and the wounding of 18. A second clash took place when officials stormed the Ministry of Health and arrested seven of Minister Ali al-Shamri's bodyguards. The health minister is a Sadrist.

For two years now the Americans have been denying that Iraq is on the verge of civil war. Last week, however, two US generals spoke to Congress about the situation in Iraq. And they spoke about civil war.

General John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, said, "I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."

General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress, "We do have the possibility of that devolving into civil war." Both acknowledged that one year ago, they did not expect things to turn so violent in Iraq.

Also last week, after the briefing of the two generals, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked whether the US would maintain its troops in Iraq if civil war broke out. He declined to answer, saying he didn't want to give the impression that he, too, was implying that a civil war was on the horizon. But he added that the question must be handled by the Iraqis themselves.

Currently, there are 133,000 US troops in Iraq, and this war has cost billions of dollars and 2,500 American lives. The fate of these troops, if civil war were indeed to be acknowledged by everybody, is still uncertain.

Bush has already said he does not expect US troops to leave Iraq during his presidency, which ends in January 2009. On the civil-war theme, a story leaked in Newsweek, quoting "a senior Bush aide", said the White House was seriously studying what it would do in Iraq if it were to accept that civil war had broken out.

This was also confirmed in a cable sent from William Patey, the outgoing British ambassador to Iraq, to Prime Minister Tony Blair. It sounded as pessimistic as the words of Generals Abizaid and Pace. He said, "The prospect for a low-intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy." He added: "Even the lowered expectation of President Bush for Iraq - a government that can sustain itself, defend itself, and govern itself and is an ally in the war on terror - must remain in doubt."

Amid all these problems, there is the danger of the "Hezbollah model" being adopted in Iraq. Muqtada, who has been a nightmare for the Americans since they invaded, has all the credentials to create such an organization in Iraq, modeling himself after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Muqtada is young. He is well connected in the religious establishment, he hails from a prominent Shi'ite family and he has a large following among Iraqis. Like Nasrallah, he is opposed to both the US and Israel. Like Nasrallah, he is an Arab nationalist at heart who does not want to see Iraq divided. The only difference is that Muqtada wants to establish a theocracy in Iraq.

He lacks Nasrallah's charisma, however, and the flow of money and arms from Iran. If he pulls the right strings, though, and makes wise alliances, he could receive strong support from the mullahs of Tehran - something that the Americans wish to avoid at any cost.

If it happens, and Muqtada decides to end all restraint, he could immediately bring down the Maliki cabinet. Or he could withdraw his ministers from the government and replace them with non-entities, and transform the cabinet into a political dwarf unable to make any real decisions. In this event, what would govern the state of affairs under Muqtada would be the power of the sword on the Iraqi street.

One of the things cemented in the minds of the Americans after the war in Lebanon - because of the stunning strength of Hezbollah - is that they do not want an Iraqi Hezbollah. Muqtada already has ministers in the Maliki cabinet and deputies in parliament. He has strong veto power by virtue of his constituency and popularity among Shi'ites.

The Americans want to control his rapidly rising popularity. They see the bitter reality that now they have to deal with Lebanon's Hezbollah. They truly wish that it was not there, but have not been able to defeat it or destroy it, neither with United Nations resolutions, nor through domestic Lebanese dialogue, nor through the military might of the Israeli army.

And with Iraq in such civil strife, it could in all likelihood become a battleground for the entire Persian and Arab neighborhood. The Saudis would support the Sunnis. Iran - and Lebanon's Hezbollah - would support the Shi'ites.

The United States would be trapped in the middle. It would be unable to side with any one party against the other. Supporting the Sunnis would mean supporting former Ba'athists. Supporting the Shi'ites would mean allying with Iran. And the Kurds, with whom the US gets on, are not very strong anyway and do not represent large numbers in Iraq.

The United States stands in a helpless situation. If only Bush had had a better idea of Sunnis and Shi'ites before he invaded.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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Iraq's downward spiral toward partition
(Aug 11, '06)


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