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    Middle East
     Jan 30, 2007
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The surge: Don't hold your breath
By Mahan Abedin

The announcement of a new US strategy in Iraq came as a surprise to many Iraq observers, not least because it willfully ignored many of the recommendations by the much-anticipated Baker-Hamilton report from the so-called Iraq Study Group.

It remains to be seen whether "surging" 17,500 troops into Baghdad can have any positive impact on the instability in the Iraqi capital, but judging by previous campaigns and the sheer complexity of the current security situation, no one is holding his


Leaving aside its military and counterinsurgency components, the new strategy also rests on depicting Iran as the primary source of instability in Iraq. This has started in earnest with a new and more muscular approach toward the structures and personalities that drive Iranian influence in Iraq.

But the new, more aggressive attitude toward Iran in Iraq is unlikely to be anything but half-hearted. Iran's influence is too deep and widespread to be effectively challenged in a short time frame. Moreover, challenging Iran in Iraq would bring the United States into direct conflict with many of the structures and personalities that dominate post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

A flawed strategy
In theory the new US strategy for Baghdad sounds smart and workable. An even more aggressive drive against insurgent and militia strongholds and holding areas once they have been cleared is a sound military policy. But it requires deep and long commitment, which is probably lacking, especially in light of the looming election cycle in the United States.

In the first instance, US casualties in the Baghdad area are likely to soar as experienced and determined Sunni insurgents in western and southern neighborhoods put up stiff resistance. Moreover, the Arab Sunni guerrilla movement will likely dramatically increase car bombings - its favored method of creating fear and instability across the Iraqi capital.

In fact there are already signs of this, with a devastating attack on Mustansiriya University and a double car-bombing at the Haraj market. The attacks on the market (which claimed close to 100 lives) prompted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to issue his customary threats against the Baghdad-based insurgents, vowing that the capital would no longer be a safe haven for them.

But such threats have been repeatedly made before - only for the Sunni guerrilla movement to grow stronger. Two years ago the insurgents relied primarily on support and logistical networks in the eastern fringes of al-Anbar province to carry out bombings and assassinations in the capital. But the growing popularity of the Sunni guerrilla movement - coupled with the emergence of serious sectarian conflict - enabled the Sunni insurgents to develop impressive bases in Baghdad.

Currently the Sunni insurgents are firmly entrenched in a string of western and southern Baghdad neighborhoods, enabling them to grow on an unprecedented scale by absorbing local residents. The residents widely welcome the presence of the guerrillas as vital protection against Shi'ite paramilitaries (often operating as Iraqi security forces) which control most of the areas in eastern and northern Baghdad. In Baghdad's Sunni communities the insurgents are now widely seen as the last line of defense against the insidious encroachment of the Shi'ite militias.

America the 'guarantor'?
While the US military in Iraq likes to present itself as the only effective barrier to widespread sectarian conflict in Baghdad and beyond, there are strong suspicions that they have been less then concerned about the worsening sectarian strife in Baghdad.

The ever-escalating Shi'ite-Sunni conflict has consumed much of the energies of the Sunni guerrilla movement in the capital and thus lowered American casualties. In many insurgent circles in Baghdad and beyond, the primary jihad is now against the Shi'ites, not against the US-led multinational coalition in Iraq.

In any case, US casualty rates in Baghdad are likely to start rising again as the Americans push deep into Arab Sunni neighborhoods and attempt to stay there for prolonged periods. It is not surprising that Ayman al-Zawahiri has issued a new message urging al-Qaeda loyalists in Baghdad to exploit the opportunity and inflict punishing casualties on US forces.

The US is also sending 4,000 extra marines to Anbar province, the heartland of the Sunni guerrilla movement. The province has been a battleground between US marines and Iraqi guerrillas for the past three years. Various US offensives (all dubbed "new strategies" at the time) have failed to weaken the hold of local Sunni insurgents and a significant number of foreign Arab fighters absorbed by al-Qaeda in Iraq and other jihadi-Salafi groups.

The Americans and the Iraqi government have tried repeatedly to turn local tribal elders against the combined rebel force in Anbar, particularly against the jihadi-Salafis. While these efforts have had ambiguous results, the addition of 4,000 marines can only boost US counterinsurgency efforts in this vitally strategic region, which serves as a gateway to Jordan and Syria. While the Americans cannot hope to deal a decisive blow to Anbar's insurgents, any success there (however modest) would have an appreciable impact on the morale of US forces in Iraq.

Targeting the 'Shi'ite militias'
The new US strategy also involves cracking down decisively on the Shi'ite militias at the same time.

To analyze whether this is possible, we first have to answer the question as to what constitutes a Shi'ite militia. The term is used

Continued 1 2

Surging toward Iran (Jan 26, '07)

Why the 'big push' sounds horribly familiar (Jan 24, '07)

The great games over Iraq (Jan 20, '07)


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