Robert Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. His book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, will be published by Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books in the fall.
On August 14, The Washington Post reported that Iraqi Sunni insurgents joined in battle not against U.S. occupation forces but against the radical-fundamentalist battalions of Abu Musab Zarqawi and his “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” It was a highly significant story that was totally overlooked by the rest of the media. Yet this account provides new support for the idea that the mainstream Sunni resistance in Iraq is a potential partner with which the United States can negotiate in getting out of Iraq.
Getting out of Iraq is becoming more important as the constitutional crisis escalates and the country descends into civil war. According to the Post story:
Iraqi Sunni Muslims in Ramadi fought with grenade launchers and automatic weapons Saturday to defend their Shiite neighbors against a bid to drive them from the western city. … The leaders of four of Iraq's Sunni tribes had rallied their fighters in response to warnings posted in mosques by followers of Zarqawi. … Masked men distributed leaflets that declared the city's tribes would fight "Zarqawi's attempt to turn Ramadi into a second Fallujah," referring to the nearby city that U.S. forces wrested from insurgent control in November. Statements posted on walls declared in the name of the Iraqi-led Mohammed's Army group that "Zarqawi has lost his direction" and strayed "from the line of true resistance against the occupation."
Who, you might ask, is Mohammed’s Army? In Arabic, it is Jaish Mohammed. According to Aiham Al Sammarae, who has stepped forward to advocate negotiations between the Iraqi insurgency and the U.S. and Iraqi governments, Mohammed’s Army is a leading insurgent group led by Iraqi Baathists who were ousted after the fall of Saddam. Sammarae, a former minister of electricity during the 2003-2004 interim government, has founded the National Assembly for the Unity and Reconstruction of Iraq as a vehicle for seeking a negotiated peace in Iraq that could tie a U.S. withdrawal to a ceasefire by the resistance.
The fighting in Ramadi is the latest sign that secular, nationalist, Baathist, military and tribal insurgent groups in Iraq are unhappy with Zarqawi’s fanaticism. (Ironically, as the Iraqi resistance increasingly distances itself from Sunni Islamist extremism, the new regime in Iraq—and especially its Shiite component—appears more and more to be a prisoner of Iran and its theocratic ayatollahs.)
Even the U.S. military appears to want a deal with the Baathists and the former Saddam-era military, though the Army and the Marines are fiercely opposed by the hard-line coalition of Pentagon civilians, White House apparatchiks and neoconservatives who pushed for the war in Iraq in 2003.
Three weeks ago, I attended an American Enterprise Institute event on Iraq at which Michael Rubin, an AEI official who served in the Pentagon during and after the war, strongly opposed the idea of reconciliation with the pro-Baath forces and the former Iraqi military. Also on the panel, but keeping his powder dry, was Lieutenant General John F. Sattler, the commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq and former director of operations for the Central Command, a battle-hardened veteran who led the attack on Fallujah last November.
Afterwards, in a hallway, I asked General Sattler about Rubin’s comments defending the decision to dissolve the Iraqi armed forces in 2003 and to forcibly de-Baathify Iraq. “Dissolving the military seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said sarcastically. “But everybody knows we need some of these military leaders now, and you’ve taken them out of the equation.” By the same token, Sattler added, “Not all Baathists have blood on their hands. But if you back them into a corner, and treat them like they have a big “B” painted on them, and tell them that they are never gonna work again, then they are gonna say, ‘I am going to fight you.’ Well, if I were them I’d fight, too.”
So far, however, there is little indication that the military’s commonsense willingness to reintegrate Baathists and ex-military Iraqis into the political process will convince U.S. political leaders that it’s the right way to go. Even more unlikely is the idea that the United States might pursue negotiations with the nationalists among the resistance, as Sammarae has suggested. But the growing unpopularity of the war in Iraq in the U.S. heartland, and the burgeoning anti-war movement that has taken new life from Cindy Sheehan and her fellow grieving relatives of U.S. casualties in Iraq, has created a huge political crisis for Republicans facing the 2006 midterm elections.
The constitutional deadlock in Iraq is a bad omen no matter how you look at it. A failure to come up with a document by August 22, the new deadline, means Iraq’s civil war could intensify dramatically. On the other hand, it is increasingly clear that if a constitution does emerge, it will be a deal between the two main Kurdish parties (PUK and KDP) and the two leading Shiite fundamentalist parties (SCIRI and Al Dawa), to the exclusion of the Sunnis. That is a formula for an even more violent Sunni mainstream revolt against the U.S.-backed, Saigon-style quisling regime in Baghdad.
Stunning as it may seem, over the past few weeks I’ve surveyed leading think tanks in New York and Washington and talked to former State Department and CIA officials, and it appears that virtually no one is working on a real plan for an exit strategy. Still, such utter inaction can’t continue, either among the foreign policy elite or within the State Department itself. Pressure to get out is growing—and not just from the left.
In a surprising opinion piece called “Iraq Exit,” Donald Devine of the American Conservative Union, an ultra-conservative outfit, wrote: “The only solution is for the U.S. to exit before the whole thing comes apart. … That has been the continuing logic of positioning American troops to more isolated outposts and leaving the police work to the Iraqis, flexibly withdrawing U.S. soldiers after the next election one way or another turns power to the Iraqis to work out their own destinies.”