Thursday, December 22, 2005

Iraq: Game Over

Robert Dreyfuss is the author of  Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam  (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone.He can be reached at his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com.

The last hope for peace in Iraq was stomped to death this week. The victory of the Shiite religious coalition in the December 15 election hands power for the next four years to a fanatical band of fundamentalist Shiite parties backed by Iran, above all to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Quietly backed by His Malevolence, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, sustained by a 20,000-strong paramilitary force called the Badr Brigade, and with both overt and covert support from Iran's intelligence service and its Revolutionary Guard corps, SCIRI will create a theocratic bastion state in its southern Iraqi fiefdom and use its power in Baghdad to rule what's left of the Iraqi state by force.

The consequences of SCIRI's victory are manifold. But there is no silver lining, no chance for peace talks among Iraq's factions, no chance for international mediation. There is no centrist force that can bridge the factional or sectarian divides. Next stop: civil war.

There isn't any point in looking for silver linings in the catastrophic Iraqi vote. The likely next prime minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, is a smooth-talking SCIRI thug. His boss, Abdel Aziz Hakim of SCIRI, is the former commander of the Badr Brigade and a militant cleric who has issued bloodthirsty calls for a no-holds-barred military solution to the insurgency. The scores of secret torture prisons by the SCIRI-led Iraqi ministry of the interior will proliferate, and SCIRI-led death squads will start going down their lists of targets. The divisive, sectarian constitution that was rammed down Iraq's throat in October by the Shiite religious bloc will be preserved intact under the new, "permanent government" of Iraq led by SCIRI.

The Kurds, ensconced in northern Iraq, will retreat further into their enclave, content to proceed step-by-step toward what they hope will be a breakaway rump state. Earlier this year, after the January 31 transitional elections, the Kurds made their deal with the Shiite devil, winning in exchange two vital (for them) points: that Iraq will have a virtually nonexistent central government will power reserved for the provincial regions, and that revenues from future Iraqi oil fields will go to those regions, not to the state. All the Kurds want now is to take over Kirkuk, which they will do with force, violence, and ethnic cleansing aimed at Arab residents of the Kirkuk area.

The Sunnis are already charging vote fraud, threatening to boycott or withdraw from the new assembly, and openly predicting that Iraq will now slide into civil war. There is virtually no combination of political alliances now that can guarantee Sunnis a fair share of power in the new Iraq. Every Sunni leader, from the most militant Baath Party activist to the most conservative Sunni clergyman, knows that a regime led by Hakim's SCIRI bloc will mean war. As a result, proponents of cooperating with the new government will become fence-sitters, and fence-sitters will join the resistance. The insurgency will continue, and possibly strengthen.

The more perceptive among U.S. intelligence officials and Iraq experts know how to read the situation, and they mostly believe it is hopeless. "I hate to say, 'Game over,'" says Wayne White, who led the State Department's intelligence effort on Iraq until last spring. "But we've lost it." There is no mechanism for the Sunnis now to restore a modicum of balance in Iraq, and the Shiite religious parties have no incentive to make significant concessions either to the Sunnis or to the resistance, White says.

Most worrying is the fact that centrist elements in Iraq¬óranging from the CIA's favorite candidate, Iyad Allawi, to the Pentagon's chosen vehicle, Ahmed Chalabi¬ógot blown away. Therefore, as I had hoped earlier (and wrote, in this space, two weeks ago, in a piece called "Iraq's Last Small Hope," and again, last week, in "Iraq's Tipping Point"), any chance that someone like Allawi could emerge as a power broker who could bridge the divide between religious Shiites and the Sunni-led resistance is gone. The planned-for Arab League peace conference, scheduled for late February or early March, likely won't happen. Violence will intensify.

For Bush, the results present an almost excruciatingly difficult problem. The White House will begin to look ridiculous as it touts Iraq's scandal-plagued, fraud-ridden election as the birth of democracy, especially as a brutal Shiite theocracy begins to take shape. The continuing resistance will make it impossible for the president to cite progress in the war. When President Bush starts to order a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, as he must, he will not have the convenience of a peaceful, stable Iraq to point to. And the rise of Iran's power in Iraq presents another Rubik's Cube conundrum for the president. Some eager neocons, of course, will start to argue that the United States has no choice but to take the failed war in Iraq into Iran, to batter those who torment the U.S. occupation in Iraq. For others in the Bush administration, who at least live on planet earth, the problem of Iranian power in Iraq vastly complicates their ability to put a positive spin on the Bush administration's Iraq project.

The election disaster means that it is all the more important now for the United States to open direct, public talks with the Iraqi resistance, even if it means defying the Shiite religious-led regime. It is the United States whose 160,000 troops prop up the Shiites in power. Washington can no longer afford to give SCIRI and its junior partner, Al Dawa, veto power over its ability to negotiate a ceasefire with the opposition in order to pull out U.S. forces.

But it also means that every day that the U.S. forces remain in Iraq, the United States creates another day for the Shiite religious forces to strengthen their hand, to build their militia, and to make plans for cleansing Sunnis from majority Shiite areas. (It is, of course, with the help of the U.S. army that the Shiite militias are being incorporated into the new Iraqi army, unit by unit.) By getting out of Iraq as soon as possible, Jack Murtha-style, the United States can at the very least ensure that the Shiites do not grow all-powerful, and it might prevent a further radicalization of the Sunni-led resistance. When there are no good options, then prudence suggests that it's time to choose the least bad one.

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