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.
President Bush strutted confidently
last year in advance of the December Iraqi elections, brashly predicting that U.S. victory is just around the corner. Then, in the spring, after the bombing of the Golden Dome in Samarra, the president shifted to a kind of gritted-teeth forced optimism as the shaky government of Prime Minister Maliki took shape amid intensifying sectarian violence. Now, as Iraqi deaths mount at the rate of 3,000 per month, Bush has all but abandoned talk of victory and is reduced to issuing scary pronouncements about what failure in Iraq would mean. But most of what the president warns is wrong.
Bush’s argument that Iraq would fall into the clutches of al-Qaida, in particular, is utterly stupid: first, because al-Qaida is only a tiny part of the Sunni-led Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation; and second, because the Shiites and the Kurds, who make up perhaps three-quarters of Iraq’s population, would never allow what Dick Cheney calls “al-Qaida types” to seize control of Iraq.
The president’s dire warnings on Iraq come far too late to matter. He might, or he might not, be able to scare voters. But he isn’t scaring the establishment.
What’s happening in Washington now is that the establishment political class—and that includes the military, moderate Republican and Democratic members of Congress, the jabbering pundits and op-ed writers, and the bulk of the thinktank denizens—are coming to grips with the stark fact that the war in Iraq is over. And that the United States has lost. It’s beginning to sink in, but it won’t be confronted directly by the political class until after the November elections. After that, all hell is going to break loose. If the Democrats win back Congress, it will happen faster—but even if the Republicans hang on, the gusting winds on Iraq now buffeting the White House will gather strength to become a full-fledged, Category 5 hurricane.
There was an inkling of that impending doom in the 66-page report released by the Defense Department last week, called “Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq.”
"The security situation is at its most complex state since the initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom"—meaning since the invasion of March, 2003—according to the Pentagon report. The United States is facing both the continuing Sunni insurgency, which it described as “potent and viable,” and a proliferation of sectarian militias and ethnic killings. In a stunning indictment of its ability to provide security and economic stability, the Defense Department added: “Local illegal armed groups are seen as the primary providers of security and basic social services.” These groups, it said, have become “entrenched” in both east (Shiite) and west (Sunni) Baghdad. And it concluded: “Conditions that could lead to civil war exist in Iraq.”
The notion of entrenched militias dividing Baghdad into east and west, of course, immediately raises the specter of Beirut during its 1975-1990 civil war, and such fears are increasingly shared by Iraqis, says the Pentagon. It notes that not only in Baghdad but in the mid-Euphrates region south of Baghdad and in the area around Basra, Iraq’s port city in the south, there are sharply rising fears of all-out civil war among Iraqis.
Casualties in Iraq, the Pentagon says dryly, have increased 51 per cent since the last report was issued in May 2006. Attacks against U.S. forces have doubled since 2004, to a staggering 800 attacks per week, causing 17-20 casualties (killed and wounded) among U.S. and other coalition forces per day—that is, 20 Americans, Brits and others killed or wounded every single day.
For all its blunt talk, the Pentagon report still drastically understates the situation on the ground. Anthony Cordesman, a conservative military analyst and Persian Gulf expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, issued a scathing 15-page indictment of the Defense Department’s own bleak report this week, saying that the Pentagon “does not identify the need to shift U.S. strategy to deal with the growing risk of civil conflict.” He adds that by ignoring the vast political problems that plague the government of Prime Minister Maliki, the Pentagon is “lying by omission.” And he calls the section on Iraq’s nonexistent economy, with estimates of unemployment as high as 60 per cent, “over-optimistic rubbish.”
In spite of the massive, ongoing effort to secure Baghdad—the second such big push since last spring—the carnage continues without letup, from massive attacks that kill scores to violent outbursts that leave a dozen here and a dozen there dead to the endless one-by-one killings that leave bodies scattered all over Baghdad every morning. According to the Pentagon’s report, although the violence is centered in Baghdad, it is spreading, with the pace of attacks up significantly in Kirkuk, Mosul and Diyala.
A brief tour of Iraq’s three main communities makes the point even clearer.
The Sunnis, who have been the heart of the resistance to the U.S. occupation since at least the fall of 2003, are virtually unified now. A critical piece of news, overlooked but for a brief mention in the Washington Post, is that fully 300 Iraqi tribal leaders—mostly Sunni, but including some Shiites—met in a town south of Kirkuk, to issue a demand that Saddam Hussein be freed. One of the leaders, whose tribe numbers 1.5 million, said: “If the demand is not satisfied, we will lead a general, sweeping, and popular uprising.” Such a threat would mean, in effect, that the Iraqi insurgency would be adopted officially by the entire tribal leadership of western and central Iraq. This is not al-Qaida. This is Iraq.
The Shiites, meanwhile, are entering the early stages of a fratricidal splintering. Although they have long been divided, current trends would indicate that the Shiite bloc in Iraq is about to collapse. Until now, the Shiites have been the tent pole holding up the entire U.S. enterprise in Iraq—so, if they splinter, it signals the end of the U.S. occupation. It’s a kaleidoscope: The Mahdi Army of Muqtada Sadr is restless, seemingly ready to launch another uprising, as it did in 2004—and Sadr’s army itself is seriously beset by divisions, with armed, rogue elements throughout. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) is pressing hard for partition of Iraq—which it calls “federation”—and one of its leaders (who happens to be the Iraqi education minister) laid out a scenario for full-scale civil war. “Federation will cut off all parts of the country that are incubating terrorists,” he said. “We will put soldiers along the frontiers.”
Deepening the divisions among the Shiites even further, a new warlord is emerging, Mahmoud Hassani, who has built private armies in Najaf, Karbala, Basra and Baghdad, and who is violently opposed to SCIRI and to Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Hassani, who also opposes the United States and who hates Iran, is emerging as a nationalist Shiite leader who could upset the whole Shiite apple cart.
And the pesky Kurds are openly threatening secession. Massoud Barzani, who is the real power in Kurdistan, said defiantly this week: “If we want to separate, we will do it without hesitation of fears.” Should the Kurds launch their widely expected operation to seize Kirkuk and Iraq’s northern oil fields, it will trigger a major escalation of civil war in Iraq.
Bush isn’t acknowledging these realities. The Pentagon is only hinting at them—though the generals know what’s going on. But inside the political class, an awareness of realities in Iraq is dawning. Last week, James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton, two consummate political insiders who happen to lead a hush-hush task force on Iraq called the Iraq Study Group, were in Baghdad, where (according to my sources) they got a heavy dose of reality. The Baker task force—which I wrote about in The Washington Monthly—includes top-level luminaries, including Robert M. Gates, Vernon Jordan and William Perry. Returning from Baghdad, Baker’s elite group, which also includes dozens of Iraq experts, met this week to consider a draft plan to exit Iraq, Jack Murtha-style, or alternatively, to stick around for another 12 months and then end up getting out anyway. Increasingly, after the elections, that will be the stark choice forced on the White House—by Washington’s political elite, by the precipitous drop in public support for the war and by the growing antiwar movement that has set up shop at Camp Democracy on the Mall.