Does the Bush Plan Risk Regional War?
As Congress continued the debate this week about how to respond to the President’s Iraq plan, the Iraqis are having their own reactions to the prospect that several more US combat brigades, plus thousands of additional Iraqi/Kurdish forces are coming to Baghdad. Among dozens of stories I focus on a handful that highlight the reactions of the major players: the Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; the Mahdi Army loyal to the Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr; and the Sunnis, including those who support the insurgents fighting against the Shiite government and the US occupation. From this, we can begin to piece possible scenarios for how the Bush plan might actually play out.
Reactions of the al-Maliki Government. Earlier reports had indicated that Prime Minister al-Maliki did not support additional US forces in Baghdad. Al-Mailiki did not request more US troops and instead wanted the Iraq government to assume control over security operations in Baghdad and elsewhere. In his December exchanges with President Bush, he declared that the Iraqis could assume full responsibility for security by the fall of 2007, a claim US officials dismissed as overly optimistic. Nevertheless, Mr. al-Maliki has insisted on this goal, while possibly shifting the end date to later in the year.
Monday's NYT report by John Burns, Sabrina Tavernise and Marc Santora focuses on the continuing “wrangling" between US and Iraqi military officials over how the US forces would work with the Iraqis, and particularly how the joint command structure would work. The American commanders are clearly troubled:
“We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem,” said an American military official in Baghdad involved in talks over the plan. “We are being played like a pawn.”
An earlier report suggested that a US brigade (about 3500 troops) would work along side an Iraqi Division (several brigades). But it is at the smaller unit level that we find a description of how US officials think the pacification of local neighborhoods would work.
Monday’s NYT article explains that a US Army platoon (30-40 troops) would work side by side with Iraq security forces in individual police stations or 30 or so “joint security sites” throughout Baghdad, staying with the Iraqi forces at these fortified stations to provide neighborhood protection against anyone who might threaten security. Additional US forces would patrol across the neighborhoods and provide backup in the event of attacks on individual US/Iraqi local security posts.
That places American soldiers directly in neighborhoods where, until now, they have appeared only transiently on patrols and raids. Under the new plan, they will work closely with the Iraqi Army and police in an attempt to establish a trust that has been elusive.
”Elusive?” If you’re an “insurgent” you wait until the roving troops go somewhere else, then you make quick attacks on the local station, just as insurgents have been doing in guerilla wars for decades. The guerillas don’t stay and fight, waiting for the roving troops to return; instead, they vanish back into the neighborhoods. They thereby encourage the US/Iraqi forces to start breaking down doors, bombing suspected hideouts, and shooting or imprisoning everyone who looks suspicious in the same neighborhood. Our guys do all this in the name of “establishing trust” and “winning hearts and minds.” It's hard to see how that can work, but easy to see how it might fail — and make conditions worse.
American politicians love to blame and berate Mr. al-Maliki as not strong or effective enough to do what needs to be done, but he seems to understand this dynamic better than the Bush Administration. He knows that inviting more US troops into his capital city means that more Iraqis will be killed, so the question is, which ones? Being a smart man, and a Shiite beholden to the powerful Shiite militias, he’s done three things.
First, he’s insisted on naming the overall commander of the security forces in Badgdad. The commander will be an Iraqi General personally loyal to al-Maliki, and someone the US Commanders do not know and do not trust. Together Mr. al-Maliki and his hand-picked general will decide when and where to implement the new security strategy. The Americans got to help pick his two deputies, but the combined US/Iraq command structure appears to be an unproven experiment:
Still, the new command structure seemed rife with potential for conflict. An American military official said that the arrangements appeared unwieldy, and at odds with military doctrine calling for a clear chain of command. “There’s no military definition for ‘partnered,’ ” he said.
Second, Mr. al-Maliki has apparently convinced the US to begin the security operations in Sunni neighborhoods in which the “insurgents” are likely to be Sunnis.
In embattled West Baghdad, the plan is to place the new security centers squarely where the sectarian fighting has been fiercest. One of the first centers expected to begin operating is in Ghazaliya, a Sunni enclave that has repeatedly come under assault from Shiite militias.
The Americans assume that this will provide the Government’s protection to Sunni neighborhoods against raids by Shiite militia. But why wouldn’t the joint US/Shiite police forces become targets of Sunni insurgents in Sunni neighborhoods?
The plan gives a central role to the National Police, viewed as widely infiltrated by Shiite militias and, despite an intensive American retraining program, still suspected of a strongly Shiite sectarian bias.
All this means the “enemy” for the foreseeable future is just the Sunnis. The Americans, who insist that they want equal opportunity for both Sunnis and Shiites, especially al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, to be the enemy, have apparently accepted the strategy of taking on the Sunnis first. A McClatchy report suggests that US forces won’t go after the Mahdi Army unless they’re provoked into doing so.
Third, al-Maliki appears to be arresting some of the Mahdi Army militia. According to today’s report in the NYT, Iraqi officials are claiming that several hundred militia have been quietly arrested, including some senior officers. US officials are both encouraged and wary, waiting to see if those arrested will be quietly released after the pressure on al-Maliki lets up. This gives at least the appearance of cracking down on Shiite militia, but without bloody Shia-on-Shia battles and no significant dent in an army that may number as many as 60,000 armed men.
What is al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army doing? The McClatchy report (via Juan Cole) tells us the al-Sadr militia people are not stupid. Realizing that the US is itching to take them down at the slightest provocation, the Mahdi Army is “lowering its profile,” removing their black ski masks and blending back in with the population, like being traffic cops. They’re also hiding their weapons and biding their time until the latest Bush plan has been replaced with the next Bush plan.
What do the Sunnis think? Many of these people are worried. Juan Cole and the NYT report that the botched execution of Saddam and the even worse beheading execution of his relative and co-defendant have also become a rallying point for former Baathists and Sunni sympathizers. Sunni groups think they are the intended targets of a joint US/Shia offensive against their resistance fighters, and that the primary beneficiaries of this joint plan will be Iran and Iran's Shiite friends in Iraq. So instead of hiding their weapons, fighters from Sunni neighborhoods are mobilizing for the coming battle.
Sunni leaders in exile are also reminding all of their Sunni backers in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt that they better support them because the US and the Iranian backed Shiites are about to make war to extend the influence of radical Iran into the rest of the Middle East. As analysts have been warning all along, the stage seems set for an intensified Sunni vs Shiite war in Iraq that may draw in neighboring countries, with US troops dispersed in between and under an untested command structure. MSNBC has also reported that while the Saudis publically support the Administration’s “goals” of stability in Iraq, they privately told Secretary Rice they may intervene militarily in Iraq if conditions continue to deteriorate. Since this leak was provided by an American official, it seems likely it was intended to put further pressure on al-Maliki to crack down on Shiite militias.
The Baker-Hamilton/ISG report recommended the US deal with Iraq’s neighbors by engaging them through negotiations, with the apparent desire not just of mitigating Iraq’s internal security problems but with the explicit goal of reducing tensions that might lead to an uncontrolled sectarian war in the wider Middle East. President Bush rejected virtually all elements of that plan, and with it, it’s goal of reducing the chances for regional war. Whatever he thinks he’s doing, it seems the Bush strategy could easily have the opposite effect from what his father’s advisers proposed and believed was in the strategic interests of the United States.