It’s anybody’s guess what happens next in Iraq. After thirty months of experimentation with the pet theories of the neo-con political fantasy labs, even diehard supporters of the invasion can’t escape the reality that the outcomes thus far are light years away from the rosy predictions of a ‘cakewalk.’ At every juncture, the administration and neo-con think tanks have bamboozled the public with best case scenarios of how events might unfold. The fact that the policy makers in Washington have been so ‘wildly off the mark’ has not deterred Bush from issuing new rationales for his imperial misadventures along with optimistic forecasts of how the conflict might yet evolve.
Despite the monotonous public pronouncements of ‘progress’ in Iraq, even George Bush must have his doubts. As the draft of the Iraqi Charter was being finalized, the president phoned Abdul Aziz Hakim, the Shia cleric who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The purpose of the call was to convince Hakim to lighten up a bit and accommodate some Sunni demands for a few changes to the draft. By all accounts, the SCIRI chief refused to give the president an inch.
A little background on SCIRI is in order. The group was founded in Iran two decades ago with the blessings of Ayatollah Khomeini. Until recently, it continued to receive logistical and financial support from the clerical regime in Tehran. As an organization, SCIRI was never just another Iraqi dissident group. For one thing, it has its own well-armed militia, the Badr Brigade. During the years in exile, the mullahs in Tehran were kind enough to provide the military wing of SCIRI with enough arms and training to field infantry, armored, artillery, anti aircraft and commando units.
SCIRI is the kind of political party that has its own intelligence services and its own death squads. After the first Gulf war, it was the secret cells of the Badr brigades that led the popular Shia uprising of March 1991. The uprising failed when Bush senior stepped aside and allowed Saddam to crush the rebellion. The ex-president walked away from the anti-Saddam rebels precisely because of his familiarity with SCIRI’s theocratic ideology and their intimate relations with Iran.
Since the invasion of Iraq, SCIRI brigade members and their theocratic allies in the DAWA party have taken the liberty of enforcing Islamic law in areas under their control – especially in the British controlled sector. Bayan Baqer Soulagh, a member of SCIRI is now the Iraqi interior minister. He landed his strategically sensitive position when his party came out ahead in last January’s elections. Under his management, the leadership cadres in the Iraqi police force are now being recruited directly from Shia militias. Officers and soldiers who moonlight as SCIRI and DAWA party members have also infiltrated the ranks of the new Iraqi army.
It is entirely fair to assume that George Bush was well briefed on the background of Hakim and SCIRI before he placed his phone call. In fact, any background brief must have included allegations that SCIRI’s Badr brigades have repeatedly been accused of unleashing death squads against their political rivals.
Hakim is no ordinary Iraqi cleric. He is the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhsin Al Hakim who was the spiritual leader of the Shia community until 1970. For quarter of a century, the Grand Ayatollah was considered the highest authority among the worldwide Shia community -” including the ones in Iran. Over the years of struggle and resistance against Saddam Hussein’s regime -” many members of the Hakim clan were assassinated, imprisoned and exiled. For Hakim, the struggle in Iraq over the specifics of the constitution is not just a matter of ideology -” it is a very personal affair.
When George Bush put down the phone after his pep talk with SCIRI leader, he must have finally realized the extent of America’s diminishing influence over political outcomes in Iraq. There is a good chance that the president shared his frustrations with Senator John Warner. The exasperated Virginia Republican had this response: "Our nation has given so much to the Iraqi people, and what are they giving us in return?"
After years of genocidal sanctions, the wholesale destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, the “Shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad, the carnage in Fallujah and the humiliation in Abu Ghraib – the Senator from Virginia is aghast at why folks like Hakim are not in a generous mood. Perhaps John Warner has forgotten that Saddam was once considered a strategic ally of Washington and that we supported the Iraqi dictator when he launched his war of aggression against Iran. Does it come as news to Senator Warner that the Badr Brigades fought shoulder to shoulder with the Iranian army during that monstrous eight-year conflict that resulted in the death of nearly a million Iraqis, Iranians and Kurds?
It should disturb every American that Bush continues to justify the invasion of Iraq by insinuating a connection to the 9/11 atrocities. For obvious reasons, the president no longer dwells on weapons of mass destruction. Yet, even now, Bush persists in peddling the unlikely notion that the real purpose of this mission was to spread democracy in Iraq and the ‘Greater Middle East’. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that it was Iranian born Ayatollah Sistani who overruled Bremer by insisting on direct elections. Sistani, the highest ranked Ayatollah in Iraq, actually threatened the American Viceroy with a Shia insurrection unless the United States went along with a ‘one man one vote’ election that assured an absolute majority for Shia confessional parties. If Sistani had been forced to issue a Fatwa to make his point, the Badr brigades would have been the first to join the uprising -” along with their fellow travelers in the DAWA party headed by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the current Prime Minister.
The initiative in Iraq is now in the hands of the Shia clerics -” especially in Iraq’s southern provinces. Tony Blair knows better than to engage his army in a nasty encounter with Hakim’s militias. That explains why British troops have stood aside and allowed SCIRI and DAWA militiamen to set up a defacto Islamic city-state in Basra.
On the surface, the current situation in Iraq doesn’t appear that complicated. The Kurdish north wants independence or something very close to it. A majority of the Shia Arabs want an Islamic theocracy or something very close to it. If SCIRI and DAWA can’t impose their political will on a ‘united’ Iraq -” they might very well take their marbles and create an independent state in the oil-rich southern provinces -” a Shia theocracy that will find natural allies in Tehran. The only forces rooting for a sovereign and united Iraq are Sunnis, Turkomen and secular Iraqi nationalists -” a group that includes a sizable constituency from the Shia community.
Which brings us to mid-October vote on the constitution, a document that was written to assure rejection by the Sunni Arabs. Technically, if Iraqis vote down the document, new elections will be held and another interim government will be voted in with a new mandate to start writing a constitution from scratch. In any case, that’s the theory. In reality, if -” or rather when – the referendum on the constitution fails, the Kurds might walk away and declare independence -” saying they gave federalism their best shot. It is worth noting that one of the American advisers who counseled the Kurds on the constitution is Ex-ambassador Peter Galbraith. He was recently quoted in Al-Ahram as saying "It’s not a problem if a country breaks up, only if it breaks up violently. Iraq wasn’t created by God. It was created by Winston Churchill after World War I."
How likely is it that the United States military will intervene to prevent the birth of an independent Kurdistan? As things now stand, the 14 year-old Kurdish autonomous zone already has a viable government apparatus in place. In last January’s elections, Kurds voted overwhelmingly for secession in a non-binding referendum. The Kurdish Peshmerga militias have a firm control over the north of the country. Reliable estimates of their strength indicate that their forces are better trained, better armed, more disciplined and more motivated than the combined forces of the official Iraqi army and police. It doesn’t hurt that they have the full support of the Kurdish population and that entire units of the new Iraqi army are for all practical matters ‘Kurdish Brigades.’
In the south, the SCIRI’s Badr brigades and DAWA party militias roam freely with little interference from the ‘international’ coalition. The mission of the coalition in the British controlled zone has been reduced to ‘force protection’ until such time that George Bush gets around to issuing them exit visas. Officers loyal to SCIRI now command a substantial percentage of the American trained army brigades. If a secessionist movement gathers momentum in the south, it will be vastly stronger than the Sunni insurgency and will have ready access to logistical assistance from Iran. In which event, the first to bail from the resulting chaos will be the remnants of the tattered coalition forces. Who doubts that SCIRI’s leaders are monitoring the calendar for the scheduled departure of Polish and Italian troops? Again, what is the prospect that George Bush will call in the marines to confront a secessionist Shia uprising in Basra and the surrounding oil rich southern provinces?
Meanwhile, American soldiers are stuck in the middle fighting a war of attrition against the largely Sunni insurgents who militantly oppose partition. Unlike the Shia and Kurdish parties -” organized Sunni militias have long been disbanded. If George Bush decided to withdraw tomorrow morning, would the Sunni community and their unionist allies be able to conduct a two front battle against an Iranian backed Shia theocratic Republic in the south and the Kurdistan Peshmerga army in the north?
George Bush’s new and improved rationale for prolonging this war of choice is that it prevents the oil from falling in the hands of the ‘bad guys’ -” meaning the Sunni Arab insurgents. This is the latest and lamest of his many improvised excuses for launching and prolonging this war of choice. Ninety per cent of Iraqi oil wells are in the south and most of the rest are in Kirkuk -” where the Kurds are aggressively asserting control over a region populated by a non-Kurdish majority of Arabs, Turkomen and Assyrians. Any partition of Iraq will leave the Sunni heartland to fend for itself in an oil poor landlocked rump state-” a carbon copy of Jordan.
It is highly improbable that Iraqi voters will approve the draft constitution in the referendum scheduled for mid-October. In the event of failure, the Shia and Kurdish politicians who drew up the provocative document will be the first to celebrate because a the failure of the referendum will give them a license to go about slicing up the country.
The only reason that the Kurds continue to play along with the charade of a ‘united federal Iraq’ is their desire to fully digest Kirkuk before they declare independence. The American bombardment of Tel Afar -” a Turkomen city -” is an ominous sign that the United States has already decided on a breakaway Kurdish state. It sends a message to the Turkomen and Arabs in Kirkuk that Washington has approved transferring their city to Kurdish rule. So far, the Turkomen have taken comfort in Turkish assurances that Istanbul will not abandon them if the Kurds get too ambitious. It hasn’t escaped anybody’s attention that the so-called ‘Iraqi’ armed units that have joined American ground forces in laying siege to Tel Afar are mostly ‘Kurdish Brigades.’
If the intent of this war was to divide Iraq -” then that task is almost a done deal. There is no turning back the Kurdish independence movement. The recent withdrawal of American forces from Najaf is a sure sign that the administration is also coming to terms with the emerging Shia theocracy in the south.
Only two obstacles remain to completing this dubious achievement -” deciding the fate of Baghdad and Kirkuk. Those two cities are the fault lines that will incite an all out civil war. In oil- rich Kirkuk, the Turkomen and Arabs will violently resist any attempt to usurp their city into the emerging Kurdish State. The problem with Baghdad is that it has a large Shia population and will likely be claimed by the secessionist southern theocrats. The capital is also home to 750,000 Kurds, which ironically makes it the largest Kurdish city in Iraq.
It’s hard to comprehend what Bush is trying to accomplish at this point -” since we still don’t know why he invaded Iraq in the first place. But there is unmistakable and vocal support for partition among the neo-con elite -” including Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Their public drooling over the prospect of a divided Iraq is a definite indication that slicing up the country is on the White House menu. In time, however, even the neo-cons might come to regret their role in setting up another oil rich theocracy in the region -” especially one on such intimate terms with the mullahs in Tehran.
In hindsight, one can make a case that partition was in fact an integral part of the original neo-con war plan. If it was -” than it makes sense that Bush garrisoned his military force in the Sunni majority provinces that were most likely to resist partition. Today, the only part of Iraq that can really be considered American-occupied is Baghdad and the areas to the north and west of the capital. Even in the early pre-insurgency days of the occupation, hardly any American units were allocated to the Kurdish regions or Shia south.
My best guess is that the original neo-con agenda envisioned a two-state partition -” a Kurdish state in the north and an Arab client state ruled by Ahmed Chalabi who was personally groomed by Paul Wolfowitz to be a ‘Saddam Lite’ replacement for the Iraqi dictator. The neo-con wizards didn’t count on indigenous forces like SCIRI, DAWA or the Iraqi insurgents and they underestimated the influence of Iran.
In many ways, the neo-con inspired American occupation of Iraq is turning out to be a dÃ©jÃ vu encounter with Ariel Sharon’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The original intent of that Likudnik debacle was to divide that war torn Lebanon into two client states -” one dominated by Tel Aviv’s Philangist allies under Bashir Gemayel and the other by the ‘grateful’ Shia in the south. The empirical results of that Likudnik escapade was to re-ignite the civil war in Lebanon and give birth to an Iranian inspired militant Shia resistance movement that forced the Israelis to unilaterally withdraw. As a bonus, Lebanon came under Syrian hegemony. In a very real sense, Iraq is a repeat performance for the Likudniks who dominate the neo-con think tanks in Washington. The only difference this time around is that Americans -” not Israelis -” will end up picking up the tab for the unintended consequences of the latest Likudnik project to redraw the map of the Middle East.
Whatever their original intent, it is now clear that the Bush administration is no longer in control of a very fluid situation and is being forced to make concessions to accommodate the realities on the ground as they develop. Partition will lead to war because there is no neat formula for carving up the country. On the other hand, in the absence of a negotiated partition, the Kurds and the Shia theocrats in the south might launch their own wars of independence to carve up Iraq to their satisfaction. While Bush and his neo-con Praetorian guards will gladly take credit for a sovereign Kurdistan -” the prospect of a Tehran allied Shia province should dampen the spirit of their festivities. It’s enough to note that the combined oil reserves of Iran and Iraq’s southern provinces rival Saudi Arabia’s.
By now, those who have been paying attention should have an easy time figuring out the agenda of the Kurds, Iran, Turkey, SCIRI, the Sunni Insurgents, the Turkomen and other regional players. We know each party’s maximum demands and their red lines. The only party that is difficult to pin down is George Bush and his neo-cons. What do they want and what do they hope to achieve at this stage of the game? Are they baffled by their limited options or have they developed a new game plan? Considering their abysmal track record -” does Team Bush have a strategy that would justify spilling more blood and wasting more treasure in the sands of the Gulf?
When it comes to reading Iraqi tea leaves, it never hurts to consider the agenda of the neo-cons lurking in the background. Because the neo-cons are so infatuated with the prospect of partition -” one has to assume that they have come up with another ‘cakewalk’ scheme.
No matter how much they foul up, the neo-con cabal still seems to know exactly how to pull the presidential strings. Bush is easy pickings for those who understand his mental make up. The man is a compulsive gambler who has a history of playing for high stakes with other people’s money. Like most gamblers, he is driven by two primitive impulses -” he wants to keep his winnings but continues playing to make up his losses. In the plus column -” Bush and his merry band of neo-cons can sell the American public on an independent Kurdish state. But Bush knows the consequences of walking away from the table and leaving Iran with a prize the size of southern Iraq. That would amount to losing the house in a crapshoot. So, he will let the Kurds go their independent way and ignite a civil war in the rest Iraq in a last ditch effort to prevent the southern provinces from falling into Iran’s sphere of influence. Once the fuse is lit and the carnage gets out of hand, Bush will throw up his hands and repeat after Senator Warner: "Our nation has given so much to the Iraqi people, and what are they giving us in return? We’re out of here." It’s an exit strategy that allows him one free roll of the dice against SCIRI and the mullahs in Tehran. Right about now, Bush is probably willing to settle for any outcome that will make his decision to go to war look half way rational.
At some point in a losing streak, most gamblers reach the conclusion that they are way beyond the point where they can make up their losses. Bush can’t bring back the dead or heal the injured. The war continues to drain $5 billion a month from the national treasury. Most experts agree that his adventures in the Gulf have increased the threat of terrorism. The absent WMDs, the scandal at Abu Ghraib and the mounting casualties have turned the majority of Americans against the war and taken a toll on American prestige and credibility. In addition to gross negligence and mismanagement, the epic loss of life and property from Hurricane Katrina can be partially blamed on the deployment of Louisiana National Guard units in Iraq and the expense of the war. When the rescue efforts in New Orleans fade to the background -” Hurricane Cindy Sheehan will return to hound the president for a little veracity about why he invaded Iraq and why he didn’t fund the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana.
Besides being a compulsive gambler, Bush is an impatient man -” a quality that some confuse with being ‘decisive’. If he’s keeping track of his mounting losses, Bush should be as impatient as most Americans to declare victory, leave the casino and put an end to this debacle. We can only hope that he will be as impatient to get out of this quagmire as he was to get in.
Unfortunately for all parties concerned, Bush remains in denial. He appears to be stalling for time and hoping for some kind of miracle in next October’s referendum. If Bush even has a plan, it is still being drawn up his neo-con willing enablers. Any exit scenario is hostage to the amount of influence the neo-con fantasists retain over the policy-making process.
George Bush needs to acknowledge that he has lost control of the situation in Iraq. If he has a lick of sense, he must immediately abandon the neo-con agenda to redraw the map of the Middle East. Their brand of voodoo political science has proven a recipe for disaster for both Americans and Iraqis. Once the neo-cons are tossed aside, he should go cold turkey on the roulette wheel, scout Iraq for the nearest exit and bring the troops home. Enough already with the neo-con voodoo experiments in Iraq.