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 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.He can be reached through his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com
One week into the fourth year of the war in Iraq, the United States is now fighting two robust insurgencies, not one. The first insurgency, of course, is the Sunni-led one, a resistance movement made up of former and current Iraqi Baathists, many loyal to Saddam Hussein, former Iraqi military officers and fighters from the old Republican Guard and a coalition of tribal and Sunni religious leaders bitterly opposed to the U.S. occupation. That force shows no sign of weakening. And indeed, it is steadily killing American soldiers and Marines, along with scores of Iraqi army and police recruits weekly.
But now a Shiite insurgency has emerged—nearly full-blown and with Iranian support—to confront the occupation. Because it can draw on the majority of Iraq’s population, and because it can count on lethal assistance from Tehran, it is a far more deadly threat to U.S. forces than the first insurgency. It’s safe to say that most Americans, who’ve been paying attention to the first insurgency, have failed to notice the emergence of the second.
Needless to say, the two insurgencies are also battling each other, in what can only be called Iraq’s civil war. There’s little chance that they will unite against their common foe, the United States. But that doesn’t make the situation any less deadly for U.S. forces in Iraq. What is means is that the United States is now fighting virtually the entire Iraqi Arab population. Only the non-Arab Kurds seem loyal to the United States now, and the notoriously fickle Kurds, famed for shifting their allegiances on a dime, can’t be counted on as permanent friends, either.
Last week, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the neoconservative warrior who is America’s proconsul in Baghdad, officially declared war on the second insurgency. In a definitive interview in The Washington Post, Khalilzad threw down the gauntlet against Iran and its Shiite allies, accusing the Iranian military and secret service of sponsoring the militias, paramilitary forces and death squads who are wreaking havoc in Baghdad and across southern Iraq. “Our judgment is that training and supplying, direct or indirect, takes place, and that there is also provision of financial resources to people, to militias, and that there is presence of people associated with [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guard and with [Iran’s] MOIS,” said Khalilzad. (The MOIS is Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security.) He went on to declare, accurately, that more Iraqis are being killed by the second insurgency than by the first. “More Iraqis in Baghdad are dying—if you look at the recent period of two, three weeks—from the [Shiite] militia attacks than from the terrorist car bombings.”
Khalilzad’s declaration capped a period of several months during which the United States has turned to confront the second insurgency. It represents a major shift by Washington, and it began late last year when U.S. forces raided the infamous torture prison in which hundreds of Sunnis detainees were being held illegally, tortured with electric drills and murdered. Since then, gradually, while continuing to battle the first insurgency, U.S. forces have engaged the Shiites, too. From time to time, U.S. forces have seized death squads in action, uncovered more Shiite-run torture prisons and skirmished with forces allied to Moqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, one of the Iranian-allied Shiite militias. Further, Khalilzad definitively broke with Iraq’s interior minister, Bayan Jabr, an official with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose own militia, called the Badr Brigade, is a 20,000-strong force created and armed by Iran.
Then, on Sunday, just days after Khalilzad’s declaration of war against Insurgency II, U.S. forces led an attack against a fortified Shiite compound in Baghdad. That raid, it should be noted, was apparently carried out with the able assistance of Iraqi army units made up of Kurds, who enthusiastically massacred Mahdi Army forces inside what may or may not have been a mosque.
The result, so far at least, is nothing short of a full-blown crisis, in which the entire Shiite spectrum—from Sadr’s Mahdi Army to SCIRI to Prime Minister Jaafari’s Al Dawa party, which has its own small militia—sees itself in open conflict with the United States. Virtually the entire Shiite coalition is condemning the United States, attacking Khalilzad for allegedly favoring the Sunnis and threatening to end its cooperation with the United States. Unsaid, of course, is the possibility that many of the Shiite militias might start to attack U.S. and British forces in Iraq, something they have mostly refrained from doing thus far. Making matters worse, President Bush and Ambassador Khalilzad imperiously told the Shiites this week that their choice for Iraq’s permanent prime minister, Ibrahim Al Jaafari, was unacceptable. It was a stunning diktat that belies the American insistence that Iraq is a democracy. Rather unconvincingly, Khalilzad told the Post: “I have been reduced—and I am not complaining—to an observer, which is a good thing.” Some observer.
So the United States is now engaged in a two-front war in Iraq. One obvious danger is that as tensions between the United States and Iran-linked Shiites in Iraq grow, the simmering conflict between the United States and Iran could come to a boil. The United States is already pushing hard for a showdown with Tehran over its alleged program to develop nuclear weapons. And there are clear signs of a U.S. effort to force regime change in Iran (see “Déjà Vu All Over Iran”), with the creation of a State Department Office of Iranian Affairs, U.S. efforts to recruit Iranian exiles, $85 million to support anti-regime groups and propaganda and more. Does Khalilzad realize that by confronting the Iraqi Shiites, he could precipitate a larger conflict with Iran? Is that his intention?
Most likely, there is no grand plan at this stage for the Bush administration’s Iran-Iraq policy. Not only are Bush administration officials divided among themselves, it is likely that no one in the administration has any idea what to do about either Iraq or Iran. Both crises are beyond the White House’s ability to solve, and it is safe to assume that they are scrambling madly, desperately trying for a magic formula that can stabilize Iraq and neutralize Iran simultaneously. The maddeningly shifting alliances inside Iraq among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds—and the internal factions of each—make finding that winning combination almost as hard as picking the right lottery numbers. What Bush, Karl Rove and rest of the Bush team know is that if something isn’t done, fast, the GOP is toast in the 2006 elections.
For Bush and company, it may be all politics. But for the Iraqis, it is a steady diet of carnage. Scores of bodies turn up every day throughout Baghdad, many tied, bound and gagged and showing signs of having been tortured to death. Mass graves—that supposed relic of the Saddam years—are turning up again, and this time the bodies are fresh. Post-Saddam Iraq has become a nightmare, a Mad Max world in which warlords rule. It is not, as the president wants us to believe, a model for democracy in the Middle East. And the French, the Russians, the Chinese, the Arab League, the United Nations, the State Department, the CIA and the U.S. anti-war movement can all say: I told you so.