Robert Dreyfuss is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in politics and national security issues. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005), a contributing editor at The Nation and a writer for Mother Jones, The American Prospect and Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website, www.robertdreyfuss.com.
In Iraq today , there are the death squads that slink by night, barging into homes in the dark with lists in their hands and shooting whole families of (usually) Sunni leaders and innocents, and there are the brazen death squads who roam in broad daylight, who terrorize whole neighborhoods in an ethnic cleansing frenzy. Some of them wear police uniforms, some of them wear army fatigues, and some of them are black-clad Mahdi Army thugs. The killing goes on: by official Iraqi count, 2,000 in December and more than 16,000 for all of 2006, according to latest reports—though the actual total for last year is more likely 100,000 or more.
And then there is the official death squad that hanged Saddam Hussein. They hanged him unceremoniously, black-hooded killers chanting Shiite religious slogans even as they placed the noose around his neck, shouting “Muqtada! Muqtada! Muqtada!” It was a sordid, even sleazy affair, replete with boorish spectators shouting the names of supposed Shiite clergy-martyrs. It followed a haphazard, kangaroo-court trial, in which judges who couldn’t stomach the travesty were fired and Saddam’s defense lawyers murdered serially by death squads, in which witnesses were paraded to denounce the accused without any rebuttal or cross-examination, resembling the Red Queen’s “Off with her head!” trial of Alice, with the bulbous fictional monarch shouting: “Sentence first, and verdict later!” And then, at the final moment, in Baghdad , the dictator stood proud and erect, making his killers look small and evil-minded. At once, the dictator—who’d sent thousands to the gallows and to the firing squad—became victim and martyr, and the righteous sufferers were transformed into bloodthirsty revenge-seekers.
Adding insult to injury, the Iraqi authorities ordered the hurry-up execution at the start of a major Muslim holiday (at least, according to the Sunni religious calendar), on a holiday whose theme is forgiveness. In so doing, the Shiite-dominated regime made it clear that its own religious calendar, not the Sunni version, is all that matters in the New Iraq.
The Wall Street Journal , in a profile of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Tuesday, quoted one of his aides saying that part of Maliki’s motivation in speeding Saddam to the gallows was that he feared a “secret deal sparing Mr. Hussein’s life in exchange for a halt to attacks on U.S. troops.” Although some reports, and some of my sources, say that precisely that deal was considered by more sensible administration officials—and why not? why not give Saddam a life sentence as part of a ceasefire agreement with the resistance?—it was never a serious option. Indeed, since the very start of the insurgency in late 2003, the United States has repeatedly rejected the idea of peace talks with the main force of the resistance, including Baath party officials, former army and intelligence officers, the clergy tied to the Association of Muslim Scholars and resistance groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigade and the Islamic Army of Iraq. Now, and so utterly predictably, virtually the entire Sunni population of Iraq is likely to line up foursquare behind the insurgents, making it immeasurably more difficult to ease sectarian and communal warfare.
Now, any chance that Saddam could be used as a bargaining chip to help ease a deal with the insurgents is gone, forever.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration and the U.S. occupation authorities are flailing around, just days before the announcement by President Bush of the latest, 2007 version of his “Strategy for Victory.” The sheer bungling of their efforts recalls the comment of Anthony Cordesman, the conservative military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was “like sending in a bull to liberate a china shop.”
Last week, the army and Marines invaded the compound of a top Iraqi leader, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the man behind some of Iraq ’s most feared death squads, to arrest several Iranian diplomats. The still-unexplained incident resulted in the Iraqi government taking control of the seized “diplomats”—who may, indeed, have been terrorist-inclined spies from Iran ’s Revolutionary Guard corps—and packing them off to Iran , safely. Incredibly, the assault, involving a raid on the home of the commander of Iraq ’s Badr Brigade, the 20,000-strong SCIRI militia, came only weeks after the turban-wearing Hakim met Bush in the Oval Office.
Then, like a matching bookend, on Monday U.S. troops raided and demolished the offices of Saleh al-Mutlaq, whose Iraqi National Dialogue Front is a leading Sunni political party with 11 seats in parliament. Several of Mutlaq’s aides and bodyguards were killed, amid nonsensical assertions from U.S. commanders that the offices were “an al-Qaida safe house.”
So, in about a week, the United States managed to conduct ham-handed raids on the offices of two of the biggest Iraqi political parties. In four years, it is hard to imagine anything more stupid and clumsy. Certainly, there is no plan or strategy behind any of this. By the same token, the United States meekly stood by and allowed a Shiite-led band of thugs to conduct the atrocious hanging of Saddam—knowing that it was a shameful process that could only inflame the sectarian divide even more. (And it has. Not only that, but Saddam’s grave in his village near Tikrit, deep in the heart of the insurgents’ base in the so-called “Sunni triangle,” is guaranteed to become a shrine and an inspiration to all those Sunnis who are determined the expel the United States from Iraq .)
Amid such bungling, it’s impossible to believe that any “surge” in U.S. forces—or any other stay-the-course stratagem—will make any difference in the end. With its sheer might and with Bush’s bull-headed determination, the United States can indeed kill many more Iraqis, perhaps even hundreds of thousands more on top of the 655,000 dead already. But in the end, either the United States will withdraw from Iraq without the victory Bush seeks—indeed, in defeat—or it will be expelled by Iraqis themselves. By now, no Iraqi government will have any credibility if it does not align itself with Iraqi public opinion, which overwhelmingly (Sunni and Shiite, alike) demands the withdrawal of U.S. troops.