Where Things Stand in Iraq
Here’s a quick read on what’s going on in Iraq:
State of the Sunni Insurgency:
There is something to Thomas Friedman’s analogy of a “Tet Offensive” regarding the spiked level of violence unfolding all over Iraq (see Thomas L. Friedman, “Barney and Baghdad,” New York Times, October 18, 2006). However, he falls short of calling it a coordinated attack. I believe he is mistaken.
The insurgency, in all its jihadist, Ba’athist and Sunni strands, has a “brain” or rather a “brain trust.” This “brain” resides in Amman, which has become a sort of Davos-like resort where the insurgent “elite” can brainstorm and ponder their future strategies. This is where they figure out their finances and decide whether to ratchet-up the scope of the insurgency.
Here is latest stuff I’ve been hearing from this “brain”:
-“We can’t maintain the momentum over an extended period of time.” The insurgency can only sustain itself in Iraq by projecting a sense of victory. It needs to do that because the losses that it is sustaining in terms of expertise, personnel and treasure are becoming harder and harder to replenish. The Americans and the Iraqi state are getting better at shoving back, and this is acutely showcased by improvements in intelligence gathering, as well as the increasing boldness of the Iraqi police and army in standing-up to the aggressors. The insurgency had previously maintained the rhythm of consecutive victories by carrying the fight from the rural periphery right up to the gates of Baghdad’s Green Zone. The next step would have been to storm the last bastion of the Americans and Iraqi state. But in the last 12 weeks (since the start of the “Battle of Baghdad” operations) the insurgents were pushed back and away. This has created a sense of frustration among the rank and file. The comments made yesterday by Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell about the relative slow-down in Operation Forward Together are very surprising to me. Many parts of Baghdad where the Sunni insurgency had gone unchallenged over the last few months had significantly quieted down and reverted back to government control. Contrary to Caldwell’s assessment, things are going moderately well.
-“We need to make one last push before bringing the Americans to the negotiating table.” Hence the “Tet Offensive”-Lite now featuring in most major Sunni towns. Instead of storming the Green Zone gates, the insurgents plan to knock politely and ask for admittance. There isn’t a unified command giving marching orders. Rather, there is a generally accepted timetable by all the forces carrying arms in synchronizing their assaults. The “brain” is very much aware of the November elections coming up in the United States, as well as the report to be subsequently submitted by the congressionally-mandated Baker-Hamilton Commission on alternative policy options for Iraq. However, the “brain”’s intention for this particular offensive was to hold down territory in Ramadi, Baghdad, Mosul and some chunks of Diyala Province. Under such conditions, the Americans would surely cry “Uncle!”—the insurgents reasoned. But the latter were badly beaten back in Mosul, and failed to make a serious bid to control territory anywhere else.
-“Once we are ready to negotiate, we will have to break our alliance with the Saddamist-Ba’athists and with Al-Qaeda.” The Saddamist-Ba’athists would like to erase all that has happened since April 9, 2003 by re-instating the ancien regime, as is. Al-Qaeda harbors plans for launching the state of the caliphate from Iraq. Both these agendas are seen as unrealistic by the bulk of the “insurgent brain,” who would rather achieve a disproportionate measure of Sunni authority over Iraq’s other components and themselves replacing the Shi'as and the Kurds as America’s long-term allies. They include ideological Ba’athists, deeply sectarian Sunnis, and “moderate” Islamists. To do this, they need to purge the hardcore radicals from their midst. The Saddamists have sensed this impending outcome and so has Al-Qaeda. The Saddamists are reaffirming their “presence” through publicity stunts such as the recent demonstrations in Haweija calling for Saddam to be reinstated, while Al-Qaeda has hastily declared “The Islamic State of Iraq.” In the past few days, there have been press reports claiming that this “brain” is currently holding talks with the Americans in Amman, under the auspices of Jordan’s CIA-trained mukhaberat, the Jordanian Intelligence Directorate. I don’t think these negotiations will go very far: the American public will not stomach a peace treaty with those who have American blood on their hands.
State of the Shi'a Troublemakers:
The Washington Post has finally written up what’s been said for a while: Muqtada Al-Sadr is losing control over the Mahdi Army (see Sudarsan Raghavan, “Militias Splintering Into Radicalized Cells…” The Washington Post, October 19, 2006). This is not occurring in a vacuum: Iran has expanded its investment in and subsequent control over the Mahdi Army since August 2004—the last time the Sadrists clashed in a major way with American forces. At the time, Muqtada needed allies, and he turned to Iran to supply him with arms, intelligence and guerrilla expertise. Prior to that, most Sadrists would have loathed Iran, and not a small number of them would have held the Iranians responsible for assassinating Muqtada’s father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq Al-Sadr, in early 1999. Muqtada is now terrified that the Iranians would rub him out too, and is trying to keep quiet. He has been vocal, though, in denouncing the “renegades” within the Mahdi Army, most of who are also moonlighting in organized crime on the side.
The Iranian-backed Mahdi Army have succeeded where the insurgents had failed: yesterday, they held down territory in the southern town of ‘Amara. These guys are Iran’s shock-troops for any Iraqi eventuality. The sectarian bloodletting and criminal activity of these “Mahdists” (as opposed to “Sadrists”) is responsible for 80% of the chaos in Baghdad. This margin of chaos also enables the Sunni insurgents to maneuver around Operation Forward Together. The largest error made by the Americans in their bid to control Baghdad has been the reluctance to militarily engage the “Mahdists” and break them, while leaving Muqtada’s political hierarchy intact for the time being. This is an Iraqi political decision that needs to be taken by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who has to juggle the fact that Muqtada is power-broker within the Iraqi cabinet and that Iran has tremendous influence across the political spectrum. The Americans want to stamp out lawlessness, while the Iranians are better served by making Iraq seem to be too much of a burden, thus disabusing the Americans of entertaining plans for any further regional adventures. Maliki needs to come down in favor of one or the other, but he is terrified by whisperings of an American-led military coup allegedly in the works against his government (see David Ignatius, “Beyond the Coup Rumors,” The Washington Post, October 13, 2006). Maliki does not want to sacrifice the “Mahdists” who are potentially the only Shi'a fighting force that could plausibly resist a coup attempt and save his regime.
State of the Iraqi State:
Although one hears jingoistic and grossly exaggerated put-downs made against the Iraqi state to the order of “there is really no functioning government south of Kurdistan, only power vacuums that have been filled by factions, militias and strongmen” (see Fareed Zakaria, “Facing Our Failure in Iraq,” The Washington Post, October 9, 2006), the Iraqi state is in fact doing very well. If there is truly no government, then who is paying the salaries of over a million state employees? Who is drilling up, transporting and selling the oil? Who is managing the incredibly complex food ration card system that delivers nutritional basics to every single Iraqi citizen, and does so every month? Sure, there are problems: for example, not all the trash is being picked up, but in a situation where picking up trash could mean instant death at the hands of insurgents, it is a great wonder that any municipal workers would ever show up to work in the first place. Sure, many university professors have fled Iraq after being threatened by the insurgents, but classes are still being given and enrollment levels have not diminished.
But the most incredible but underreported story coming out of Iraq are the anti-corruption measures being taken to investigate and prosecute current and former high government officials. Look at what happened to former Minister of Electricity Ayham Al-Samara’i, who will probably spend the rest of his days in prison for misappropriating tens of millions of dollars. Al-Samara’i thought, along with many other observers, that he was too much of an untouchable “holy cow” and would never be called out on how he had mismanaged his portfolio. He was very mistaken. Ditto for the likes of Misha’an Al-Juburi, who just got his parliamentary immunity rescinded to face charges of graft and terrorism. This is all being done “in-house” by the Iraqi state, with no prompting from the Americans. In fact, this is being done despite American efforts to protect allies such as Al-Samara’i, who is a well-connected Chicago Republican and an American citizen to boot. Next up: many prominent Islamists currently in office are also under investigation by the state’s anti-corruption body, according to the latest accounts leaked to the press.
This Sunday, don’t miss a 60 Minutes report on the massive corruption that had taken place under Hazem Al-Sha’alan at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. The report is glibly called “The Mother of All Heists.” Al-Sha’alan and the rest of the indicted staffers around him were put in place by none other than the CPA’s Paul Bremer. What is incredible is that this sort of thing happens all the time in the Middle East, but in Iraq it is being exposed and prosecuted.
State of the Iraqi Cabinet:
One should distinguish the Iraqi state from the Iraqi cabinet. The Iraqi state is doing fine on its own. The Iraqi cabinet, conversely, is performing miserably. Maliki’s office is badly managed, and some ministerial portfolios are seriously incompetent. Even Muqtada has complained about his own bungling ministers. Maliki is more or less paralyzed and disconnected. He is seemingly too worried about his long-term prospects rather than the tasks at hand. And with U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad leaking discouraging reports to the New York Times from time to time, Maliki’s anxieties are not subsiding. Khalilzad is trying to absolve himself of the mistake made in picking Maliki in the first place, a mistake entirely his own.
State of the American Resolve:
One can judge the state of America’s resolve by how seriously the recent Lancet report, which claimed that 601,000 Iraqis had died violent and unnecessary deaths since April 2003, was taken is respectable circles. This bullshit report alleges that 500 Iraqis died every day for each of the last 1,200 days. That is patently untrue. There are some groups out there who would like it very much if indeed 500 Iraqis would die each day, for the simple fact that it may make the Bush administration look bad.
Washington is gripped by a hurried need to declare Iraq a “failure.” This is happening due to an artificial time-table that has nothing to do with Iraq—the November elections. If pressed to the wall to give a verdict on Iraq, I’d say that Iraq is succeeding.
The Baker-Hamilton Commission is leaning towards declaring the “Sudden Infant Death” of a democratic Iraq. Funny how that basically conforms to what the Saudis wanted all along. Sorry folks, our baby—our democracy—is alive and kicking, and is kicking harder. It is growing stronger every day and all the attempts to choke it off are failing. Even if removed from the American incubator, I have no doubt that a democratic Iraq will survive and prosper.
On the other hand, the prognosis for those Saudi geriatrics and their “realist” septuagenarian Texan buddies—yeah, that doesn’t look so good.
Most Interesting Rumor:
This is what the Iraqi political class is saying within the Green Zone: the Iranians intend to assassinate Maliki, soon.
Come back tomorrow for the juicy details.