Bush Sends GIs to his Private Fantasyland
To listen to Bush’s speech on Wednesday, you would imagine that al-Qaeda has occupied large swathes of Iraq with the help of Syria and Iran and is brandishing missiles at the US mainland. That the president of the United States can come out after nearly four years of such lies and try to put this fantasy over on the American people is shameful.
The answer to “al-Qaeda’s” occupation of neighborhoods in Baghdad and the cities of al-Anbar is then, Bush says, to send in more US troops to “clear and hold” these neighborhoods.
But is that really the big problem in Iraq? Bush is thinking in terms of a conventional war, where armies fight to hold territory. But if a nimble guerrilla group can come out at night and set off a bomb at the base of a large tenement building in a Shiite neighborhood, they can keep the sectarian civil war going. They work by provoking reprisals. They like to hold territory if they can. But as we saw with Fallujah and Tal Afar, if they cannot they just scatter and blow things up elsewhere.
And the main problem is not “al-Qaeda,” which is small and probably not that important, and anyway is not really Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. They are just Salafi jihadis who appropriated the name. When their leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed, it didn’t cause the insurgency to miss a beat. Conclusion: “al-Qaeda” is not central to the struggle. Izzat Ibrahim Duri and the Baath Party are probably the center of gravity of the resistance.
Bush admitted that the Sunni guerrilla destruction of the Askariyah (Golden Dome) shrine at Samarra set off an orgy of sectarian reprisals. But he does not seem to have actually absorbed the lesson here. The guerrillas did not have to hold territory in order to carry out that bombing. They just had to be able to sneak into a poorly guarded old building that Bush did not even know about and blow it up. The symbolic and psychic damage that they did to the Shiites was profound. Blowing up hundreds of worshippers on Ashura had not had nearly this impact, since the damaged shrine was dedicated to the hidden Twelfth Imam or Mahdi, the Shiite promised one. Many religious Shiites in Iraq are now millenarians, desperately waiting for the Promised One to reveal himself and restore the world to justice. The guerrillas hit the symbol of that hope.
There are other such targets. The Shrine of Imam Kadhim at Kadhimiya, the shrine of Ali in Najaf, and the shrine of Husayn in Karbala, and the person of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani himself, also the person of Hujjat al-Islam Muqtada al-Sadr. (The arrogance and ignorance of the US chattering classes is such that they openly talk about “taking out” al-Sadr, as though that would calm the Iraqi Shiites down. Saddam thought like that when he offed Muqtada’s father; didn’t work.) The US and British military nevertheless seem set to attack the Mahdi Army. Investments in guarding those sites (the most exposed of which is Kahdimiya) would be worth far more than temporarily intimidating angry Sunnis who have picked up a gun in the Dura neighborhood of Baghdad.
Bush could not help taking swipes at Iran and Syria. But the geography of his deployments gives the lie to his singling them out as mischief makers. Why send 4,000 extra troops to al-Anbar province? Why ignore Diyala Province near Iran, which is in flames, or Babel Province southwest of Baghdad? Diyala borders Iran, so isn’t that the threat? But wait. Where is al-Anbar? Between Jordan and Baghdad. In other words, al-Anbar opens out into the vast Sunni Arab hinterland that supports the guerrilla movement with money and volunteers, coming in from Jordan. If Syria was the big problem, you would put the extra 4,000 troops up north along the border. If Iran was the big problem, you’d occupy Diyala. But little Jordan is an ally of the US, and Bush would not want to insult it by admitting that it is a major infiltration root for jihadis heading to Iraq.
The clear and hold strategy is not going to work in al-Anbar. Almost everyone there hates the Americans and wants them out. To clear and hold you need a sympathetic or potentially sympathetic civilian population that is being held hostage by militants, and which you can turn by offering them protection from the militants. I don’t believe there are very many Iraqi Sunnis who can any longer be turned in that way. The opinion polling suggests that they overwhelmingly support violence against the US.
This strategy may have some successes here and there. It won’t win the day, and I’d be surprised if it did not collapse by the end of the summer.
If part of the strategy is to assault the Mahdi Army frontally, that will cause enormous trouble in the Shiite south. I would suggest that PM Nuri al-Maliki’s warning to the Mahdi Militia to disarm or face the US military is in fact code. He is telling the Sadrists to lie low while the US mops up the Sunni Arab guerrillas. Sadr’s militia became relatively quiescent for a whole year after the Marines defeated it at Najaf in August, 2004. But since it is rooted in an enormous social movement, the militia is fairly easy to reconstitute after it goes into hiding.
The Arab allies of the US put pressure on Bush not to just withdraw from Iraq, fearing regional chaos.
James Ridgeway at Mother Jones compares Bush’s speech to Kissinger’s indirection during the 1972 negotiations with the N. Vietnamese. Making people think you are making progress when you are not has been a finely honed skill of this administration, far beyond anything Nixon could have dreamed of. But the dream machine is running up against Lincoln’s dictum that you can’t fool all the people all the time.