Lost in the maze of Iraq war
By Najmuddin A. Shaikh
THE number of American soldiers who have been killed in Iraq is now approaching 3,000, with October being on course to becoming the bloodiest month for the Americans since the clashed in Fallujah and Najaf two years ago. The number of Iraqi deaths has been estimated as more than 600,000 in an article in the British medical journal, the Lancet.
This figure has been hotly disputed by American officials and the Iraqi government, but there is no doubt, given the grisly reports appearing on a daily basis, that the Iraqi death toll is far higher than the 30,000 that President Bush had offered as an off the cuff estimate some two months ago.
The Iraqi government has now ordered its ministry of health to stop releasing the figure of monthly deaths as recorded by the mortuaries to the United Nations and has stated that all mortality figures will now be released only by the prime minister’s office. This figure for September, and that too only for Baghdad, was 2,667.
The new security offensive launched by the combined Iraqi and American forces to bring peace to Baghdad has failed. An American commander has conceded that the number of attacks in Baghdad was 22 per cent higher in October than last month suggesting that the death toll in October for Iraqis in Baghdad, too, will go well beyond 3,000. This plan is now said to be under review. It has become clear that this carnage is caused for the most part by sectarian attacks that have, in most cases, only a tenuous link with the Ba’athist or foreigner-led insurgency. It is now acknowledged that sectarian violence and the spread of militias have replaced the insurgency as the biggest challenge to US efforts to bring security to Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.
The oft-repeated promise by Prime Minister Maliki to cleanse the Iraqi security forces of militia elements and to bring the militias — the principal perpetrators of sectarian strife — under control remains unfulfilled. Maliki’s problem is that while he recognises that armed militias cannot be allowed to compete with the regular security forces and that those elements of the militia that have infiltrated the security forces need to be weeded out, he cannot take decisive or even semi-decisive actions in this direction without jeopardising the fragile coalition he heads.
He has dismissed the Shia officials in the interior ministry, who headed the special commando force and the public order brigade, and has promised to place both forces under the command of a non-partisan competent official. But so fraught is the situation that the new appointee’s name has not been made public since he has insisted that arrangements for providing security for his family should be made before he takes over.
A stark illustration of Maliki’s limited authority and his political weakness was provided by a recent incident. An official of Moqtada Al-Sadr’s party was arrested by the Americans who said the raid in which they arrested the cleric, Sheikh Mazin al-Saidy, was carried out on the basis of intelligence that suggested that he had led a Mahdi army unit involved in death-squad killings and assassinations. Sheikh Mazin was released at the specific request of Prime Minister Maliki, one of whose spokesman said that his release had been ordered because he was innocent. Another spokesman said that there was “room for political engagement with Moqtada” and that anything that would disrupt such political engagement would not be “very constructive”.
For the Americans, who have now openly acknowledged that the sectarian strife and carnage, rather than the insurgency, poses the greatest security challenge, this has been particularly galling. Moqtada has been a thorn in their side since the very beginning. It was at his behest that the first killing of religious leaders took place shortly after the American invasion and it was then that the seeds were laid for the open battles that the Americans had to fight against Moqtada’s Mahdi army in Najaf.
Currently, American reports, clearly based on official briefings, maintain that 92 per cent of the mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone housing the Americans and the Iraqi government were launched from Sadr City — the Baghdad suburb of impoverished and frustrated Shias that is under the control of Moqtada Al-Sadr and indeed his principal bastion of support.
On the other hand, Moqtada controls a large and crucial bloc of seats in parliament and it was with his support that Maliki won the right to be prime minister. It is on his continued support that his fragile government depends. After the Sheikh Mazin incident, Maliki flew to Najaf to seek the assistance not only of Ayatollah Sistani but also of Moqtada to bring down the level of violence. So far, the plea for assistance appears to have elicited little response.
There has been a proliferation of militias. A senior American military official estimated there were 23 militias operating in Baghdad alone. There is also in the south a struggle for power between rival Shia groups. The traditional struggle for leadership between the late Ayatollah Sadr — the father of Moqtada Al-Sadr — and Ayatollah Hakim — the father of the present leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) — has surfaced most recently in Amara, a few weeks after a similar but less publicised clash in Diwaniya. The intra-Shia conflict is threatening to grow and may well spread from the Shia strongholds in the south to Baghdad and its immediate environs.
The Iraqi parliament is not helping matters. It has approved in the face of strong Sunni opposition a proposal allowing the Shia majority provinces in the south to form an autonomous region akin to Iraqi Kurdistan. The only concession to Sunni sensibilities was that the measure would be implemented after 18 months. No effort appears to have been made to address the central Sunni concern that with the formation of these autonomous regions, the Sunnis in resource-poor central Iraq will have no access to the oil revenues generated in the north and south of the country.
There has been no call for disarming and disbanding the militias. There has been no follow-up on the amnesty for the insurgents. In other words, there appears to be no willingness to address the hard question that need to be resolved if Iraq’s descent into sectarian chaos is to be halted and reversed.
In America, Bush’s Iraq policies are under increasing attack and may prove to be the single most decisive factor in the November midterm elections. Nobody is prepared to accept the further loss of American lives in what is seen to be a lost cause. Increasingly, Bush finds himself isolated not only from most independent Americans but also from traditional Republicans. Support for him and for his Iraq policy has fallen to an all-time low. Calls for a change of policy which implicitly if not explicitly provides for a withdrawal of American forces are now coming from the likes of Senator Warner — a strong Bush supporter and one of the most influential leaders of the Republican Party.
It is likely no matter what Bush does now that the Democrats will win control of the House and may well win the majority in the Senate also. For the moment, however, the president seems to be unwilling to consider any drastic change. In his Saturday radio address to the nation, he reiterated that while he was prepared for a change of tactics his goal in Iraq remained “clear and unchanging” and that the goal was “victory”. That, however, is unlikely to come.
It is perhaps indicative that the Republican co-head of the Iraq Study Group, formed at the urging of prominent Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, Mr James Baker, famous for leading the legal battle that ensured Bush’s electoral victory in Florida in the 2000 presidential elections, has revealed that he agreed to join the Group only after President Bush urged him to do so. Baker’s official involvement with Iraq has been limited to the tour he undertook, again at Bush’s urging, to get international assistance pledges for the reconstruction of Iraq. But his recently published book makes clear that he had serious reservations about the Iraq policy even though much of the criticism was directed at the Rumsfeld-led department of defence rather than the White House.
This would seem to indicate that President Bush, in asking him to join the panel, was looking for a bipartisan recommendation that would make a change of policy less damaging politically. Even if this is not so and Bush remains determined to “stay the course” his political weakness will not allow him to do so.
Baker and his Democratic counterpart, Lee Hamilton, have said that they will make their recommendations only after the elections, possibly immediately after the Thanksgiving holidays, and have refused to reveal any details publicly of what their conclusions are. But speculation is rife. The ideas that will apparently be included in the Group’s recommendations are said to range from (a) a phased withdrawal with more resources being devoted to the training of Iraqi security forces and a small rapid reaction force being retained in the country or in a neighbouring country to respond to calls for assistance from the Iraqi government; (b) a partition of the country into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia regions; (c) dialogue with Iran and Syria to secure their assistance in bringing the sectarian strife and insurgency in Iraq to an end and making the concessions necessary to ensure their cooperation; (d) holding an international conference bringing together Iraq’s neighbours and other influential member of the international community to use their influence with various factions in Iraq to bring about reconciliation and an agreed solution to the problems of federalism.
There will be many other variations but the end objective is clear. America’s politicians are now looking upon Iraq as an insoluble problem and want to find a way to “cut their losses” and “run” from the ill-considered adventure. But they want to do so in a manner that can be presented to the world as at least halfway “honourable”. When they do, a devastated Iraq with little by way of visionary leadership and a very fractured domestic polity will be left on its own to cope with an impossible situation. A replay of the miseries that were visited upon Afghanistan by an indifferent world community and meddling neighbours in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal in 1988 and the emergence of a Taliban like force is not difficult to visualise.
I hope I am wrong but developments seem to be pointing in that direction. The Muslim world in general and Pakistan in particular should start preparing to cope with the devastating impact it will have on us all.
The writer is a former foreign secretary. http://www.dawn.com/2006/10/25/op.htm