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The Quagmire

by Robert Dreyfuss - 5 May 2005

As the Iraq war drags on, it's beginning to look a lot like Vietnam

The news from Iraq is bad and getting worse with each passing day. Iraqi insurgents are stepping up the pace of their attacks, unleashing eleven deadly bombings on April 29th alone. Many of the 150,000 Iraqi police and soldiers hastily trained by U.S. troops have deserted or joined the insurgents. The cost of the war now tops $192 billion, rising by $1 billion a week, and the corpses are piling up: Nearly 1,600 American soldiers and up to 100,000 Iraqi civilians are dead, as well as 177 allied troops and 229 private contractors. Other nations are abandoning the international coalition assembled to support the U.S., and the new Iraqi government, which announced its new cabinet to great fanfare on April 27th, remains sharply split along ethnic and religious lines.

But to hear President Bush tell it, the war in Iraq is going very, very well. In mid-April, appearing before 25,000 U.S. soldiers at sun-drenched Fort Hood, in Texas, Bush declared that America has succeeded in planting democracy in Iraq, creating a model that will soon spread throughout the Middle East. "That success is sending a message from Beirut to Tehran," the president boasted to chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" from the troops. "The establishment of a free Iraq is a watershed event in the global democratic revolution." Staying on message, aides to Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, later suggested that U.S. forces could be reduced from 142,000 to 105,000 within a year.

In private, however, senior military advisers and intelligence specialists on Iraq offer a starkly different picture. Two years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq is perched on the brink of civil war. Months after the election, the new Iraqi government remains hunkered down inside the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, surviving only because it is defended by thousands of U.S. troops. Iraqi officials hold meetings and press conferences in Alamo-like settings, often punctuated by the sounds of nearby explosions. Outside the Green Zone, party offices and government buildings are surrounded by tank traps, blast walls made from concrete slabs eighteen feet high, and private militias wielding machine guns and AK-47s. Even minor government officials travel from fort to fort in heavily armed convoys of Humvees.

"I talk to senior military people and combat commanders who tell me that the situation is much more precarious than admitted," says Col. Patrick Lang, former Middle East chief for the Defense Intelligence Agency. "Even inside the Green Zone you are not safe, because of indirect fire. And if you were to venture outside at night, they'd probably find your headless body the next morning."

Car bombs rock Baghdad and other cities virtually every day, and insurgents conduct hundreds of attacks each week on U.S. troops, Iraqi recruits and civilian police. Thousands of Iraqi police and soldiers have scattered or disappeared, and countless others either do no fighting or covertly support the insurgency. The out-of-control security situation means that few reconstruction projects can get off the ground. Transport is crippled, and Iraq's core infrastructure -- its roads and bridges, its power plants, its water-treatment facilities, and its all-important oil fields, pipelines and oil terminals -- remains heavily damaged from the war.

According to U.S. officials, the resistance attacks are being aided by an extensive network of informers. Insurgents, apparently making use of engineers and former insiders, have been able to hit oil installations and power plants expertly, foiling U.S. efforts to sustain Iraqi oil exports and to provide electricity and water to Iraqi cities. "They have tentacles that reach all through the new government and the new military," Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan, who commands U.S. air forces in the Persian Gulf, admitted recently.

The new government is not only powerless to stop the attacks by insurgents, it is dominated by the same clique of warlords and exiles who lobbied the Pentagon to go to war in the first place, many of whom have close ties to the warring camps that control vast parts of the country. "In the Arab world, Iraq is seen as a zone of chaos in a pre-civil-war situation, held together only by the U.S. occupation," says Chas Freeman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under Bush's father. A brief survey of the three major forces in Iraq -- Shiites in the south, Sunnis in the center and Kurds in the north -- makes clear the sharp divisions that threaten to blow the country apart:

The Shiites: The Bush administration's plan for reconstruction envisioned the Shiites -- the majority population long oppressed by Saddam Hussein -- as the chief power in a democratic Iraq. The United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite party backed by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, won a majority in the new national assembly. But a militant bloc of fundamentalist Shiites has been using its newfound strength -- and its street thugs -- to forcibly impose Islamic law throughout the southern half of Iraq. Militias loyal to rival Shiite factions are blowing up liquor stores and movie theaters, forcing women to wear ultraconservative Islamic dress and assassinating secular officials and other opponents.

One militant force, the Mahdi Army, recently stormed a peaceful picnic in Basra, where they ripped the blouse of a woman wearing Western garb. "We will send a picture to your parents," a gunman told her, "so they can see how you were dancing naked with men." The Mahdi, which battled U.S. forces during two major uprisings last year, is fiercely loyal to the charismatic and fanatical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the scion of a leading fundamentalist Shiite family. Al-Sadr's militia, hammered in last year's clashes, is quickly rebuilding with new recruits armed with machine guns, rocket launchers and rocket-propelled grenades. It now controls a big chunk of Basra, Iraq's only port and second-largest city, along with Kut, Amarah, Nasariyah and the huge eastern district of Baghdad known as Sadr City. In April, al-Sadr organized a rally of 300,000 people to demand that U.S. troops leave Iraq.

The Mahdi Army's main rival for power among the Shiites is the Badr Brigade, which has an estimated 20,000 men under arms. Badr is run by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was founded by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and trained by his Revolutionary Guards. SCIRI's leaders still have close ties to Iran, even though many of its officials have been elected to the new Iraqi parliament. The hard-line group is powerful in Iraq's two holy cities, Najaf and Karbala, and controls another chunk of Basra.

Other Shiite forces include the Dawa Islamic Party, whose chieftain, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is Iraq's new prime minister. Dawa was an underground terrorist organization in Iraq from the 1960s through the 1980s, and militants linked to the group attacked the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in 1983. While the State Department says it has no evidence to connect al-Jaafari himself to any terrorist acts, those who study the group suspect that Dawa also gets support from Iran. "They've been spreading money to everyone," says Juan Cole, an expert on Shiism at the University of Michigan.

The Sunnis: In central Iraq, millions of formerly dominant Sunnis opted out of the elections for the new government, which they see as being almost entirely in the hands of southern Shiites and northern Kurds. There are now several dozen Sunni organizations fighting the U.S. occupation, broadly divided into two camps: mainstream, secular Arab nationalists who served as military officers and Baath Party leaders under Saddam, and Islamist fundamentalists, including extremists associated with Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Most of the attacks on American forces -- the roadside IEDs, mortar strikes and full-scale assaults -- have been conducted by the mainstream resistance, who are intent on driving out the U.S. They have brought down helicopters, destroyed at least eighty of the Abrams tanks that are the mainstay of the U.S. occupation, and mounted large-scale actions involving scores of fighters, such as the April attacks on the Abu Ghraib prison and at Al Qaim near the Syrian border. In one recent incident, car bombs exploded simultaneously in front of and behind a U.S. convoy, which then came under intense fire from automatic weapons wielded by snipers inside abandoned buildings along the route.

The Islamist extremists, including partisans tied to Al Qaeda, mix attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops with bloody suicide bombings against Shiites and other Iraqi civilians on pilgrimages and in mosques. According to intelligence sources, including U.S. military officers who travel frequently to Iraq, such attacks on civilians have fueled a split between the two camps. "There is a big gap between the mainstream resistance and the extremists," says a U.S. military officer, who added that the nationalists are debating how to create a political force to represent them, much as the Irish Republican Army had both military and political wings.

The Sunni insurgency is larger and more homegrown than the Bush administration acknowledges. American forces, after first insisting that the resistance was composed of no more than 5,000 foreign fighters with ties to Al Qaeda, now hold more than twice that many prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper -- and admit that as many as 20,000 well-funded fighters remain at large. "We're facing a well-developed, mature insurgency with the support of the local population," Maj. John Reed, stationed outside the city of Husaybah, said recently.

Even Fallujah, a city of 300,000 that was virtually obliterated in a U.S. blitz last fall, is quietly re-emerging as a center of resistance. Fallujah's mayor, in the circumspect language of one U.S. official, is "doing some things not positive in nature." Meanwhile, the city of Mosul has become the newest hotbed of the insurgency. Last fall, during an attack by insurgents there, thousands of Iraqi police melted away at the first sign of violence. "I went from 2,000 police to 50," a U.S. commander on the scene told reporters.

According to Wayne White, who served until March as director of the State Department's Iraq intelligence team, Iraq cannot hold together unless a substantial bloc of Sunnis is brought into the government. But in Baghdad, the newly ascendant Shiite political parties plan to purge Iraq's security forces and fledgling intelligence service of their few remaining Sunnis. Such a move would gut the only forces in Iraq that are actually taking on the insurgency, and would alienate the remaining Sunni moderates, pushing them over into the resistance. Leading the purge, sources say, will be none other than Ahmed Chalabi, the darling of U.S. neoconservatives and Pentagon officials who helped engineer the American invasion.

The Kurds: A non-Arab population that inhabits the three northern provinces, the Kurds have long been America's closest friends in Iraq. But if the country descends into civil war, it will likely be because of the Kurds, whose territory is even further beyond the control of the Green Zone-based government than the Shiite south. Since the U.S. invasion, the Kurds have run a de facto state of their own, controlled by their militia under the command of two warlords, Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Talabani, who was named president of Iraq in April, makes no bones about his beliefs. "Historically and demographically speaking, Kurdistan was never part of Iraq," he says. In January, about ninety-seven percent of Kurds voted in favor of an independent Kurdistan.

"The central government has no authority whatsoever in Kurdistan," says Peter Galbraith, a former State Department official who is a longtime Kurdish sympathizer. "The government doesn't even have an office there. No Iraqi flag flies there. Signs say, WELCOME TO KURDISTAN OF IRAQ."

To make matters worse, the Kurds have set their sights on Kirkuk, a multiethnic city that sits atop Iraq's vast northern oil fields. Even though the city lies outside of Kurdistan, Talabani calls it "the Jerusalem of Kurdistan," and Barzani says, "We are ready to fight and to sacrifice our souls to preserve its identity." The Kurds are already engaging in some brutal expulsions of Arabs from the city. "They're doing their own ethnic cleansing, and it's dirty stuff," says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst on Iraq. A full-scale Kurdish takeover, however, would be resisted by Arabs and Turks in Kirkuk, pushing Iraq even faster toward civil war. And the Kurds would roil Iraq's neighbors Turkey, Iran and Syria, which fear their own Kurdish minorities. Many experts predict Turkey would invade northern Iraq to prevent the Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk.

If it comes to civil war, the disintegration of Iraq will be extremely bloody. "The breakup of Iraq would be nearly as bad as the breakup of India in 1947," says David Mack, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state with wide experience in the Arab world. "The Kurds can't count on us to come in and save their bacon. Do they think we are going to mount an air bridge on their behalf?" Israel might support the Kurds, but Iran would intervene heavily in support of the Shiites with men, arms and money, while Arab countries would back their fellow Sunnis. "You'd see Jordan, Saudi Arabia, even Egypt intervening with everything they've got -- tanks, heavy weapons, lots of money, even troops," says White, the former State Department official.

"If they see the Sunnis getting beaten up by the Shiites, there will be extensive Arab support," agrees a U.S. Army officer. "There will be no holds barred."

In fact, it may already be too late to prevent Iraq from exploding. Iraq's new government is stuck in a fatal Catch-22: To have any credibility among Iraqis it must break with the U.S. and oppose the occupation, but it couldn't last a week without the protection of American troops. The Bush administration is also stuck. Its failure to stabilize Iraq, and the continuing casualties there, have led to a steady slide in the president's popularity: Polls show that a majority of Americans no longer think that the war in Iraq was worth fighting in the first place. Yet withdrawing from Iraq would only lead to more chaos, and the rest of the world has exhibited little interest in cleaning up America's mess. Of the two dozen or so countries that sent troops to Iraq, fewer and fewer remain: Spain, Portugal, Hungary and New Zealand have already quit, and the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Italy have announced they are getting out. Even if the United Nations agreed to step in, there is little or no chance that the administration will internationalize control over Iraq. In the face of a full-scale civil war in Iraq, says a source close to the U.S. military, Bush intends to go it alone.

"Our policy is to make Iraq a colony," he says. "We won't let go."

- from  Rolling Stone

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revised 18 November 2005