Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss 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.He can be reached through his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com.
While Bush reinforces his Zarqawi myth and Dems call lamely for more armor, the battle lines for civil war in Iraq are being drawn.
The Iraq that exists in President Bush’s imagination and the real Iraq, the one in which 160,000 U.S. troops occupy a nation sliding into civil war, have never seemed further apart. Bush’s Iraq is a fantastical one in which American forces are battling the enemy that struck us on 9/11. Yet on the ground, in the real Iraq, more than six weeks have passed since Iraq’s election, and battle lines for civil war are being drawn up. There are multiple parties to that civil war: militant Iraqi fundamentalist Shiites tied to Iran, well-armed Kurdish warlords planning to grab Kirkuk and its oil, powerful Sunni tribal and religious forces bitterly opposed to the Shiite-Kurdish bloc and a Baathist-military resistance movement that has strong support among the Sunnis.
None of those forces, however, want anything to do with Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. By all accounts, Zarqawi’s forces in Iraq are fast becoming nearly invisible on the canvas of Iraq’s battle map. And certainly neither bin Laden nor Zarqawi have a prayer of seizing control of Iraq whether U.S. forces stay in Iraq or not.
Let us first take a look at the enemy that President Bush says we are fighting, and then at the real Iraq.
Sounding like the Willy Loman of the snake oil industry, President Bush looked both tired and defensive as he made yet one more sales pitch for his failed Iraq policy. In his State of the Union address this week, the president insisted that the U.S. foe in Iraq is the bin Laden-Zarqawi axis, and that the danger still involves those mythical weapons of mass destruction. “Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder—and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously. They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East, and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder,” proclaimed Bush. “Their aim is to seize power in Iraq, and use it as a safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world.”
Is the enemy in Iraq Shiite militias, Kurdish warlords or Arab nationalist armed insurgents? No, according to Bush. It is radical Islam and its attendant evildoers. “By allowing radical Islam to work its will—by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself—we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals, or even in our own courage,” warned Bush. “But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil.”
He added, “The road of victory is the road that will take our troops home.” But Bush failed to explain how you can win a victory against an imaginary opponent.
Meanwhile, back on planet earth, in the real Iraq, things are going from bad to worse. Last week, I reported here that the Arab League reconciliation effort on Iraq had collapsed in the wake of the Dec. 15 election. That effort was backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the U.N., Russia and the European Union. But ultimately, it was put in the deep freeze because the Shiite fundamentalist parties in Iraq—the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Al Dawa and Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army—utterly refused to compromise with mainstream Sunnis and ruled out talks with the Sunni-led resistance. Yet, as Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius, said, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.”
Worse news followed: According to Al Zaman , an Arabic-language Iraq paper monitored by Juan Cole in his blog, Informed Comment, secret talks that had been underway between the U.S. military and the insurgents broke down and were ended. Why? Because the resistance leaders wanted a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Among their other demands, none of which are particularly radical, the insurgents wanted the reconstitution of the Iraqi army, U.N. supervision of elections and the dissolution of the militias of the Shiite religious parties.
Meanwhile, precisely parallel demands were made by the official Sunni parties and their secular, non-sectarian allies, who together won 80 seats in the new assembly—and they backed their demands by threatening open revolt, in the form of outright civil disobedience. (Civil disobedience, in wartime Iraq, carries a more violent meaning than that associated with Martin Luther King and Gandhi.) The leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Muslim Brotherhood-linked Sunni religious party that is part of the National Accord Front (and which, in turn, is part of the 80-seat bloc that also includes a secular Sunni nationalist party and Iyad Allawi’s moderate group), issued a set of demands that included: the disbanding of militias; an end to the pattern of death squad activity, random arrests and kidnappings; the strengthening of the army and its deployment to protect security in Baghdad; the dismissal of the radical-right Shiite interior minister; and the publication of the still-secret report of the investigation into torture prisons run by the ministry of the interior. The Iraqi Islamic Party's message: Accept these demands, or else.
The fact that the Iraqi Islamic Party is resorting to threats that amount to insurrection is a sign of how polarized Iraq is since the election. Only a few weeks ago, the IIP was toying with the idea of joining a government in Baghdad led by the Shiite-Kurdish alliance. That increasingly seems out of the question, because even the moderate Muslim Brotherhood IIP cannot risk breaking with overwhelming Sunni opinion that the Shiites are cats' paws for Iran and that they intend to create a breakaway state in south Iraq. Indeed, recent polling in Iraq has shown that the vast majority of Sunnis (and even most Shiites) want the U.S. out of Iraq, and fully half support armed attacks on U.S. forces.
None of this polarization was reflected in Bush’s State of the Union fantasy. Nowhere did he indicate that Iraq is beset by anything other than evildoers tied to Al Qaeda. And he didn’t mention that a few days before he spoke, Iran’s Islamic Republican News Agency reported cheerfully that Abdel Aziz Hakim—who has emerged as the chief power broker in post-election Iraq—had issued nonnegotiable demands that the new Iraq government intensify its war against the resistance, redouble its de-Baathification efforts, and enforce the “implementation of the constitution especially to create a state in the south and center of Iraq.” Hakim, of course, is the leader of SCIRI and its 20,000-strong Badr Brigade, which was founded, armed and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. His hardline stance, and his insistence that Adel Abdul Mahdi, his chief henchman, be Iraq’s next prime minister, seem calculated to provoke what would amount to a final Sunni break with the government in Baghdad. And his insistence on a south-central state, parallel to the emerging state of Kurdistan in the north, signals the rise of a new Shiite religious power in the Middle East that frightens not only Sunnis in Iraq but the rest of the Arab world.
It’s bad enough that none of this penetrated the State of the Union speech. But what’s worse is that the Democrats are letting Bush get away with it. One sentence from The New York Times a day after Bush spoke says it all. Referring to Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, who spoke in advance of Bush’s speech, the Times noted: "The Congressional leaders steered clear of the Iraq war in their remarks before the speech." Meanwhile, the Dems sent the overearnest Tim Kaine, the governor of Virginia, out to give the official response to Bush. He, too, virtually ignored Iraq, except for offhand comments about American troops not having enough body armor.