The upper hand in Iraqi politics

The United States is currently staking out a position with Iraq's Shias as their protector from the Sunni Arabs, and with the Sunni Arabs as their protector from the Shias.

The upper hand in Iraqi politics

Although Shia from southern Iraq have played a significant role in U.S. plans, Shia Islamist political parties were not the first choice of U.S. policymakers to lead an Iraqi puppet government. 

In 1998, 40 Americans who shaped what soon became U.S. policy signed a letter to President Clinton asking the U.S. government to "recognize a provisional government of Iraq based on the principles and leaders of the Iraqi National Congress" (Ahmad Chalabi).  The signatories included Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Carlucci, Perle, Armitage, Feith, Abrams, Bolton and Khalilzad.

By June 2004, Chalabi had become an embarrassment to his American supporters, who may in any case have preferred to place him in a less visible role than that of Prime Minister.  So Iyad Allawi, a CIA agent who led another exile group called the Iraqi National Accord, was installed as Interim Prime Minister, over the objections of UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi who was nominally in charge of the selection process.  As Brahimi put it, "Bremer is the dictator of Iraq.  He has the money.  He has the signature. ... I will not say who was my first choice, and who was not my first choice ... I will remind you that the Americans are governing this country." 

The U.S. viewed Allawi as a strongman who could impose order and Iraqis soon knew him as "Saddam without the mustache".  His tenure coincided with that of U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte.  Together they oversaw some of the most sinister developments of the occupation, including the meticulously planned and executed massacre in Fallujah and the formation and training of the Interior Ministry Special Police Commandos.  The Allawi/Negroponte administration set in motion an orgy of extrajudicial killing and torture that continues to this day.

The failure of the U.S. occupation to conjure any illusion of legitimacy among the people of Iraq has tainted exiles like Chalabi and Allawi who were flown in with the invasion forces.  When an election was finally held in January 2005, Allawi's Iraqi National List lost spectacularly.  Officially, it received 14% of the votes, but many Iraqis believed it would have been in single digits without extensive election fraud.  For the next election in December 2005, Allawi incorporated a kaleidoscope of Sunni, Communist, Socialist, Syrian and Turkmen parties into his list but did even worse, receiving only 8% of the votes.

This has left the U.S. with little choice but to more directly exploit the political aspirations of the Shia Islamist parties. 

The Dawa Party, now headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was the original Iraqi Islamist party founded by Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr to oppose atheism and secularism in Iraq; SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), headed by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, was an offshoot of Dawa founded in exile in Iran on the Iranian theocratic model, and is now the largest Islamist party in Iraq; al-Sadr's nephew, Muqtada al-Sadr has formed another offshoot of Dawa and also commands a huge following.

The Fadhila (Virtue) Party is smaller than its three former partners in the United Iraqi Alliance, but it poses a particular problem for the occupation authorities and the aspirations of Western oil companies because it has effective control of local government in Basra province along with most of the functioning components of Iraq's oil industry.  Fadhila had hoped to secure the post of Oil Minister in the new government.  It withdrew from the government when it did not get it, complaining about the dominant role of U.S. officials in the process.  Fadhila is now threatening to cut oil production to half a million barrels per day for domestic consumption and to suspend all oil exports.  The central government has responded with a threat of its own to attack Fadhila in Basra, probably using forces loyal to SCIRI's Badr Brigades militia.  This could be ugly, even by the horrific standards of the U.S. occupation, and the political consequences could also be explosive.

All the Shia Islamist groups have close ties with Iran, so the U.S. dares not give any of them free rein.  Instead U.S. officials play them off against the Kurds, the Sunnis and each other to maintain a balance of power in which the U.S. retains the upper hand.  Whenever the U.S. has tried to marginalize any group or individual - the Sunnis, al-Sadr, Chalabi, Fadhila or former members of the Baath Party and the Iraqi Army - it has ended up having to rehabilitate them either to prevent them becoming a significant additional anti-American force or to balance other groups that might otherwise become too powerful to control.  The U.S. is currently staking out a position with the Shias as their protector from the Sunnis, and with the Sunnis as their protector from the Shias – an honest broker in a conflict of its own making!

According to a comprehensive poll by the Program for International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland (1/31/06), large majorities of Iraqis support the Arab League's call for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal (87%); blame the U.S. for Iraq's continuing decomposition; and believe that security (67%); public services (67%); and political cooperation between factions (73%) will improve and violence will decrease (64%) if U.S. forces leave.  This last number rises to 72% if Iraqi Kurds are excluded from the sample.  However, 80% of Iraqis believe that the U.S. plans to maintain a permanent military presence in their country, and 76% believe that the U.S. would refuse to leave if requested to do so by an Iraqi government.  88% of Sunnis, 41% of Shias and 16% of Kurds support armed resistance to the U.S. occupation – this support has increased steadily among all groups since the invasion.

The only way for the U.S. to maintain its primary objectives in the context of such a lack of legitimacy is to keep shuffling the deck and offering incentives for different political factions to keep playing its game.  How long this is politically and diplomatically tenable remains to be seen.   

  • Consequences

Outside the Green Zone, U.S. forces have joined Special Police Commandos in assaults on neighborhoods in Baghdad and continue to attack towns in Anbar and Salahuddin provinces, but the persistent escalation of violence by U.S. forces seems to be by default rather than by design.  After 18 months of combat in Ramadi, U.S. Marines compare it to the Battle of Stalingrad, accepting their own role as that of the German invaders.  The scale of the battle is mercifully smaller, but the nature of the fighting is similar: two armies hunting each other through the other-worldly landscape of a ruined city, with snipers, booby traps and U.S. air forces as the deadliest weapons, and civilians as the principal victims.

I previously reported (The Dirty War in Iraq, Z Magazine, November 2005) that there is no meaningful distinction between Kurdish or Shia militias and most U.S.-trained Iraqi forces. 

Bayan Jabr of SCIRI, who was the Interior Minister in the transitional government, has strong ties to his party's Badr Brigades militia, which spent twenty years training in Iran for the role they are now playing in Iraq. 

Most Interior Ministry Special Police Commandos are members of the Badr Brigades, and they are the forces most frequently linked to torture and extrajudicial killings in and around Baghdad.

The formation of the Special Police Commandos is credited to the Interior Ministry's senior U.S. advisor, Steven Casteel, a former D.E.A. agent who previously worked with right-wing paramilitary forces in Colombia.  The Special Police Commandos received their initial training under the supervision of retired Colonel James Steele before being unleashed on the people of Baghdad a year ago.  Steele was the commander of the U.S. Military Advisor Group during the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. 

Jabr and Casteel have used the spurious distinction between Special Police Commandos and militias to evade any personal responsibility for the horrendous crimes carried out by these forces under their command.  The new Interior Minister, Jawad al-Bolani, is an associate of Muqtada al-Sadr and spoke against the U.S. occupation as a member of parliament.  There are plenty of Mehdi militiamen in the Special Police Commandos too, and his appointment may give them the upper hand within the Interior Ministry forces.

U.S. actions and statements designed to distance U.S. authorities from the actions of Shia militias are contradicted by reports from Iraqis in the Adhamiya and Dora districts of Baghdad. These reports describe joint operations in which a neighborhood is sealed off, electricity is cut off and cell phone networks are jammed.  Special Police Commandos attack the neighborhood, while U.S. forces observe on the ground and from helicopters.  The militiamen detain any young men they can capture. 

Relatives and neighbors know that they will not see many of these young men again unless they are later asked to identify their tortured bodies at the morgue, so these sweeps generate fierce resistance.  When centers of effective resistance are identified, U.S. forces follow up the attacks with heavier weapons and close-air-support.

Far from terrorizing the population into submission, the brutality of U.S. actions continues to alienate Iraqis, most of who do not see the extrajudicial killings in Haditha as an isolated incident. Escalation of air strikes and other violence only stiffens resistance and hastens the day that an Iraqi government will ask the U.S. to withdraw its forces.  One can only hope that a combination of political and diplomatic pressure could persuade the U.S. government to comply with such a request. 

Unfortunately, it seems more likely that it would try to preempt this by declaring the failure of the "democratic" process.  It could then revert to more direct rule and further escalation of the war.  After all, that is what the lily pads are for.

Two thousand five hundred American soldiers, hundreds of other foreigners and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have already died as a result of the U.S. war of aggression in Iraq.  When one considers the objectives of the war and weighs them against its cost in human lives and human suffering, one has to conclude, as did the judges at Nuremberg, "To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole".

The people of the United States have a responsibility to stop the war and the larger strategy that it is part of, and to hold American war criminals accountable for their crimes.  If we cannot fulfill these fundamental responsibilities as international citizens, we should not be surprised at the inevitable consequences – unwinnable wars, wasted and tragic sacrifice, terrorism, international isolation, crushing debt, helplessness in the face of economic and ecological crisis, and the failure of the political process, not in Iraq, but in the United States.

Last Mod: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16
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