Sunday, January 14, 2007


Taking sides in a civil war

In a post on Thursday I put forth a view of the tactical purpose of Bush's "surge" in troop strength and complained that the media pundits who have weighed in on Bush's announcement were ignoring the import of the speech. Since then I've discovered two voices in the media who understand full well the implications—Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under President Carter, and Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

I put it this way—

It appears that they [the Bush administration] hope to bring the Sunni experience in Fallujah to the Shia of Sadr City! Cheney's still running this show and there's no horror he's not willing to visit upon a civilian population.

We are about to witness Americans fighting a guerilla war within the confines of a major capital city of what used to be a relatively advanced country! Has such a war ever been fought?

The Battle of Baghdad

Zbigniew Brzezinski responded to my question after a fashion, recalling the French Battle of Algiers. Speaking on the PBS NewsHour he said

If we now begin to take on some of the Shiite militias -- for example, al-Sadr's militia has about 60,000 armed men -- I think we're going to be more busy than we are.

We're increasing our presence by 21,000 troops, and we're about to launch the battle of Baghdad. In some ways, it evokes memories of the Battle of Algiers. There's a great movie on the subject. But once we have cleared some streets and gone on to the next streets to clear, they'll be back, because there's five million of them or so living in Baghdad.

The point of Bush's message not lost on Sadr

The press is full of coy statements such as this

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates also warned that all Baghdad districts would be now targeted under the new American strategy with Iraqi approval, including the Sadr City slum area, Sadr’s stronghold in Baghdad.

Sadr quickly signaled his understanding of the implications of Bush's speech—

A senior ally of radical Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr warned on Friday that thousands of the planned 21,500 extra US troops en route for the war-torn nation would “go home in coffins”.

The American people have to prevent their sons from coming to Iraq or they may return in coffins,” threatened Sheikh Abdel Razzaq al-Nadawi, a senior official in Sadr’s movement, slamming the planned US troop increase.

The glowering cleric Sadr is one of the fiercest opponents of the US presence in Iraq and his Mahdi Army has been branded by the Pentagon as the most dangerous faction in Iraq’s bloody sectarian war.

Taking sides in a civil war

The pundit class continue to speak as if there is some question whether a civil war is in progress. For instance, Walter Russell of the Council of Foreign Relations, interviewed along with Brzezinski, said

... what has happened, then, is that, among the Shia, divisions have grown up with sort of hardliners, angered and irritated immensely by the conscious program of al-Qaida and other Sunnis to provoke a civil war, into something that either is or is very like a civil war.

And as the polarization in Iraq increases, the American goal of trying to broker a compromise among Iraq's different groups is getting tougher.

This is, of course, as the administration would prefer it—that the reality of the civil war not intrude into the discussion of U.S. plans.

To acknowledge there is a civil war is to acknowledge that the U.S. is either supporting one side or another or to raise the question of what we're doing there in the midst of it. In February I noted that "Taking sides just doesn't seem to be the way to go, though you can never count on the Bush administration not to make a bad decision."

Now the administration is doing just that. It is about to lead an attack on the Shia that will inevitably benefit the Sunnis. And after the Shia suffered under the Sunni minority for so long, it must be bitter indeed to think that the U.S. is about to take over the role of Saddam Hussein in suppressing their political aspirations.

Naturally a great deal of effort is being made, and will be made, to appear even-handed. Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, who depends upon Muqtada al-Sadr for much of his support, is emphasizing the efforts to be taken against the Sunnis—

Officials insist that the joint US-Iraqi Baghdad crackdown will aim at both sides. But although some raids have been launched against Hojatoleslam al-Sadr’s al-Mahdi militia, the Government appears to have little appetite for a full-on confrontation.

One al-Maliki aide told The Times that the Baghdad offensive would first concentrate on outlying Sunni insurgent strongholds that “choke” the capital — such as Abu Ghraib, Latifiya and Salman Pak — rather than taking on al-Mahdi Army.

Not surprisingly this has made the Sunnis hopping mad and vowing to kill any American that comes near them—

“Twenty thousand soldiers will never be able to achieve what 140,000 have failed to achieve so far, and the fate of the new soldiers will not be any better than for those who were here before them,” said Abu Moath, an insurgent with the Islamic and Nationalist Front for the Liberation of Iraq. “They came here to kill innocent Iraqis so they should be all killed the same way.”

But notice that this talk of confronting the Sunnis comes from Maliki. I suggested Wednesday that it is obvious that Maliki has been coerced into consenting to an American confrontation with Muqtada and the Shia. Friday's report, in which he is still urging against such a confrontation, bears that out—

“He [Maliki] argues that the way to deal with the Mahdi Army is to bring down the level of terrorist attacks so ordinary Shia don’t feel the need for the Mahdi. Right now they think the Mahdi is bad, but without them they would be killed by al-Qaeda and the others [the Sunni].”

After four to eight weeks — once ordinary Shias see a reduction in insurgent killings — the Government would be in a stronger position to persuade the militia to disband.

But Muqtada clearly sees no reason to believe that Maliki's opinion will prevail with the Americans—

In the giant Shia slum of Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, his al-Mahdi Army is ordering every man aged 15-45 to register for combat. One al-Mahdi fighter told The Times’s Iraqi staff that they had been put under orders not to seek confrontation. “We expect this new American plan to try to take on our leadership, not to go after every fighter, weapon and vehicle. We will keep our leadership in safe areas.”

And how is the civil war progressing?

The Bush administration's decision to take the battle to Sadr City no doubt springs from a number of motives not the least of which includes, as Brzezinski said in another context, "a kind of fanatical commitment which I think is detached from reality."

But since I have suggested that the U.S. is indeed taking sides in the civil war, it becomes relevant to ask what has happened that could so energize the Americans. Certainly the following item gives a clue to the military urgency. Reporter John Burns in Baghdad reports of the Sunnis—

A very ominous sign on the eve of President Bush's announcement of his new war strategy that the Sunni insurgents were able to drive right into the heart of Baghdad and to cause such commotion there that the United States yesterday had to deploy F-18 fighter jets overhead a mere 1,000 yards from the Green Zone.

... Haifa Street is an arrow that points right at the heart of the Green Zone.

To have an insurgent stronghold so close to the seat of American military and, if you will, political power here, not to mention the Iraqi government, was a serious thing. So to discover two years on that they're back having to do it all over again is a pretty serious and disheartening thing for the American military and for the American enterprise here.

That's obviously not good, but as Burns indicates, this is old news. The U.S. has faced and prevailed against the Sunnis here before.

But it is the Shia position that has changed—

But in recent weeks, what we've seen is a major push by Shiites, coming out of Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad, to create a kind of corridor, a kind of cordon sanitaire, if you will, across northern Baghdad, by moving into and driving out Sunnis.

Its significance, without complicating matters too much, to say that a Shiite control of the northern corridor across Baghdad would have fundamental implications if this was to go to civil war, because, of course, that would separate the center of Baghdad and Sunni communities in southwest and western Baghdad from the Sunni heartland to the north.

And what we see is the Shiites making a push, the Sunnis pushing back.

Let me repeat what Burns is saying—that the recent Shiite moves have "fundamental implications" for the civil war.

To put it more plainly—Muqtada's forces are closer than ever to prevailing in the civil war. By almost any measure you choose, that is a disaster from the perspective of Washington.

And what about Iran?

Many commentators are focusing on the implications of Bush's speech for Iran. Does it signal a plan to attack? The short answer is "No." I believe it is more a signal to Iran not to interfere in the bloodbath with the Shia that the administration intends to launch. But that is for another post.

Related posts
Quote of the Day (12/29/04)
The denial of impotence (2/24/06)
While waiting for the civil war ... (3/6/06)
Right-Wing Epiphany of the Day (5/11/06)
The media discover themselves discovering a civil war (11/28/06)
The Bush plan for Iraq: What you should expect (1/11/07)


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