Shi'ite time bomb has a short fuse
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
"If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other end fastens itself
around your own." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
In a recent conversation, US author and linguist Noam Chomsky repeatedly
faulted the Iraq Study Group's (ISG's) report for ignoring the sovereign rights
of Iraqi people, the majority of whom favor the end of military occupation of
"One notable feature of the report is its lack of concern for the will of the
Iraqi people. The authors surely are aware of the polls that reveal that
two-thirds of the population of Baghdad want US troops to be withdrawn
immediately, that 70% of all Iraqis want a firm
timetable for withdrawal, most of them within a year or less, that 80% believe
that the US presence increases violence, and that almost the same percentage
believe that the US intends to keep permanent military bases." 
Chomsky's criticisms are particularly relevant in light of US President George
W Bush's much-anticipated policy speech on Iraq on Wednesday, which was notable
for the sheer absence of any major policy shift, other than an incremental
troop increase, as well as the minutest reference to Iraq's sovereignty.
It is worth remembering that the bipartisan ISG rejected troop increases
"because we do not believe that the needed levels are available for a
substantial deployment". This aside, the panel's claim that "no country in the
region will benefit in the long term from a chaotic Iraq" deserves a pause,
because Israel is the sole exception, benefiting from such chaos that diverts
attention from its own policies toward the Palestinians.
Military reductionism is a poor substitute for the multi-layered
recommendations of the ISG focusing on a diplomatic offensive. War and military
solutions cannot be the extension of diplomacy by other means. A political
solution with regional dimensions is needed, which is precisely what is missing
in Bush's outlook.
Of course, Bush's omissions are understandable within the context of a US
interventionist policy that, nearly four years later, is incapable of coming to
terms with the unwanted consequences of the post-Saddam Hussein political
process, ie, that the Iraqi government is firmly opposed to the idea of a US
troop "surge" and their "embeddedness" with the Iraqi army.
According to John Burns of the New York Times, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
actually wants US forces out of Baghdad and moved to the city's "periphery".
And it is not just the embattled prime minister either, recalling how Iraqi
President Jalal Talabani lambasted the ISG report and its plethora of
recommendations, such as troop embeddedness and various "benchmarks" for the
Iraqi government, including a constitutional revision and re-Ba'athification,
as a violation of Iraq's sovereignty.
Saving face, though, In Baghdad, according to Iraqi government spokesman Ali
al-Dabbagh, "President Bush informed the Iraq government in a phone call of the
new strategy before announcing it." He added that Iraq would "demand adjusting
anything unsuitable in the new US strategy". The Iraqis can demand, but
shouldn't count on much satisfaction from a superpower more used to imposing
Unfortunately, news of the objections of Iraqi government leaders does not seem
to have reached the White House, nor the fact that per a CNN poll, some 61% of
Americans are not in favor of a troop surge. Instead, Bush unveiled a "new
strategy" that is helplessly bereft of imagination and relies one-dimensionally
on coercive counterinsurgency tactics to salvage the sinking ship of the
US-British gambit in Iraq.
The new plan is, in Bush's words, to compensate for past "mistakes", one being
that "there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have". What about
the restrictions placed by the Iraqi government? Will Bush respect the wishes
of Iraq's elected leaders or, instead, contemplate adding the feather of a
military coup, harking back to the overthrow of the government in South
Vietnam, to his hat?
Indeed, the comparisons with Ngo Dinh Diem's fate in South Vietnam and Iraq are
becoming more pronounced. Just as Diem was pressured with conditions on
economic aid before his overthrow, Washington is now imposing "benchmarks" on
the Iraqi government, such as how to divide up the oil revenue. These demands,
irrespective of their merits, have the undesirable consequence of perpetuating
the image of Baghdad's regime as a client state pure and simple, hardly
conducive to the government's legitimacy requirements, and quest for internal
peace and stability.
But don't expect any of the policy hawks behind Bush's make-believe "new
strategy" to bother themselves with such details, given their imperial mindset
on preventing the impression of an astounding failure. Yet few even in
Washington seriously believe that such prescriptions falling seriously short of
a "comprehensive new approach" as called for by the ISG and others have even a
moderate chance of success. This save for the Israelis and their influence
peddlers, who are quietly happy that Bush disregarded the panel's "linkage
approach" that would have put the Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians on the
United States' policy agenda.
Not only that, instead of adopting the panel's key recommendations for a
vigorous US diplomatic initiative in the region by engaging Iran and Syria,
Bush, much to the chagrin of the panel's members, opted for the opposite path
of confrontation by accusing Tehran and Damascus of harboring "terrorists and
insurgents". He also said they were providing material support for attacks on
US troops, and promised that he would root out Iranian and Syrian support
networks and protect Iraq's borders.
These are, indeed, tall orders for a US military stretched thin and plagued
with low morale and troop exhaustion. Senator John Warner has warned that
Bush's plan would embroil the US in a bloody civil war, thus further
complicating the US mission in Iraq, which has led to a "US-Shi'ite alliance",
per the words of Washington pundit Edward Luttwak.
Yet a point missed by Luttwak and many other US analysts is the fragility of
this alliance and the distinct possibility that under undue pressure by a
combined force of Arab Sunnis, Israelis and US hawks, the alliance might
crumble and thus turn the majority Shi'ites in Iraq into insurgents.
Should that happen, it is a sure bet that a great deal more troops in Iraq
would be needed to quell the Shi'ite-dominated provinces rebelling against the
Americans. This nightmare scenario is probably the leading factor mitigating
against the Diem scenario in Iraq, which in turn brings us back to the demands
of the Iraqi government, due to take full responsibility for security matters
That plan is, however, unreachable, given the abysmal security situation, such
as the 11-hour full-scale military confrontation in central Baghdad this week.
This reflected a substantive strengthening of the insurgents, who can now add
to hit-and-run tactics disciplined attacks in "military formations".
Increasingly beholden to US protectorate firepower, the Iraqi government will
soon be caught between incompatible demands, of the radical Shi'ites led by
Muqtada al-Sadr calling for US withdrawal and the US push to disarm his Mehdi
Army and other militias.
But since the Iraqi army is heavily infiltrated by Muqtada loyalists, it is
highly doubtful that the Iraqi government can appease US military advice on the
militias and, what is more, one can no longer discount the possibility of a
confrontation between the US and the Iraqi army in the near future.
In his speech, Bush vowed to correct the past mistake of vacating
insurgent-infested neighborhoods after clearing them, claiming that the US
would now have the necessary troop levels to "hold" them. This may turn out a
hope against hope, and could translate into nothing more than than more dead on
According to Leon Paneta, a member of the ISG, "Not one general we spoke to
recommended the troop increase, and they all only saw temporary results from
such an increase." By replacing his recalcitrant generals who saw the ultimate
futility of bandaging a gaping wound through troop increases, Bush has
reshuffled the military and diplomatic deck by bringing on board commanders
favoring aggressive counterinsurgency tactics, such as forming a "giant
security cordon" around Baghdad.
While Bush is adamant that "this plan can work", he has at the same time
introduced a sober realism by calling for "patience, sacrifice and resolve" on
America's part, predicting that even if the plan is successful, bloodshed would
continue and American lives would still be lost.
The consequences of failure, he has warned, would be dire in terms of "radical
Islamists" posing even bigger threats to America's precious allies in the oil
region and to the US itself, and "Iran will be emboldened to pursue nuclear
weapons and to dominate the region".
Thus the gist of Bush's "new strategy" is to make transparent the veiled
purpose of long-term US power in Iraq, which is to deter Iranian power, protect
America's vital interests and act as a bulwark against Islamist radicals and
terrorists, without even an indirect allusion to an exit strategy. In
historical retrospective, all this will likely remind us of is yet another US
tragedy as previously seen in Vietnam, or the French in Algeria, tragedies
inherited from the legacy of Western colonialism.
Avoiding Iraq as the flashpoint
One net result of the White House's new strategy may indeed turn out to be the
transformation of Iraq into a flashpoint between Iran and the US, in light of
Thursday's news of a US raid on the Iranian Consulate in the city of Irbil,
decried by Tehran as an act of provocation.
This will further fracture the US-Shi'ite alliance in Iraq and increase the
prospect of a wider war that will not be in the interests of either Iran, the
US or any of its allies save Israel. Prudent crisis management is needed
whereby US and Iranian diplomats in Iraq meet face to face for constructive
dialogue on issues of mutual concern. Sadly, despite strong recommendations for
this course of action from the United States' European allies and even from
within the US Department of State, there is now little or no prospect of
anything but escalating crisis in the region.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume
XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping
Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.