View Full Version : Gaming out Iraq

9 april 2004, 09:20

The United States is experiencing its greatest military crisis in
Iraq since the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. On the one hand,
the Sunni guerrillas that the United States appeared to have
defeated after the Ramadan offensive of October and November 2003
have not been destroyed. Although their role in triggering the
March 31 attack against U.S. civilian contractors in Al Fallujah
is an open question, they have benefited politically from the
U.S. cordon around the city and have taken shots at distracted
U.S. forces in the area, such as the U.S. Marines in Ar Ramadi.
On the other hand, a Shiite militia led by young cleric Moqtada
al-Sadr has launched an offensive in Baghdad and in a number of
cities in Iraq’s south. U.S. intelligence expected none of this;
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, had scheduled a
trip to Washington that he had to cancel hurriedly.

The offensives appear to challenge two fundamental strategic
assumptions that were made by U.S. planners. The first was that,
due to penetrations by U.S. intelligence, the Sunni insurgency
was deteriorating and would not restart. The second, much more
important assumption was that the United States had a strategic
understanding with the Shiite leadership that it would contain
anti-American military action south of Baghdad, and that -- and
this is critical -- they would under no circumstances collaborate
with the Sunnis.

It now appears that these basic premises are being rendered

Obviously, the Sunni guerrillas are still around, at least in the
Al Fallujah-Ar Ramadi corridor. U.S. efforts in that area of the
Sunni Triangle are aimed at finding those responsible for the
deaths and subsequent public mutilation of four U.S. civilian
contractors March 31. Current U.S. operations might be in
offensive mode -- suggesting that the Baathist guerrillas have
yet to fully regroup -- but as the siege of Al Fallujah drags on,
the potential grows for the insurgency to acquire sympathetic
recruits. Equally obviously, some of the Shia have taken up arms
against the United States, spreading the war to the region south
of Iraq. Finally, there are some reports of Sunni-Shiite
collaboration in the Baghdad area.

We might add that the outbreak west of Baghdad and the uprising
in the south could have been coincidental, but if so, it was one
amazing coincidence. Not liking coincidences ourselves -- and
fully understanding the contingent events that led to al-Sadr’s
decision to strike -- we have to wonder about the degree to which
the events of the past week or so were planned.

If current trends accelerate, the United States faces a serious
military challenge that could lead to disaster. The United States
does not have the forces necessary to put down a broad-based
Shiite rising and crush the Sunni rebellion as well. Even the
current geography of the rising is beyond the capabilities of
existing deployments or any practicable number of additional
forces that might be made available. The United States is already
withdrawing from some cities. The logical outcome of all of this
would be an enclave strategy, in which the United States
concentrates its forces -- in a series of fortified locations --
perhaps excluding Iraqi nationals -- and leaves the rest of the
country to the guerrillas. That, of course, would raise the
question of why the United States should bother to remain in
Iraq, since those forces would not be able to exert effective
force either inside the country or beyond its borders.

That would force a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The consequences of
such a withdrawal would be catastrophic for the U.S. grand
strategy in the war against militant Islamists. One of the
purposes of the war was to disprove al Qaeda’s assertion that the
United States was actually militarily weak and that it could not
engage in close combat in the Islamist world, certainly not in
the face of a mass uprising. An American withdrawal would prove
al Qaeda’s claims and would energize Islamists not only with
hatred of the United States, but also -- and worse -- with
contempt for American power. It would create the worst of all
possible worlds for the United States.

It follows that the United States is going to do everything it
can to abort this process.

It also might well be that the process -- as we have laid it out
-- is faulty. The uprising in the Al Fallujah-Ar Ramadi corridor
might have peaked already. The al-Sadr rising perhaps does not
represent a reversal of Shiite strategic orientation, but is
primarily a self-contained, internal event about al-Sadr’s
relationship with other Shiite clergy. The reports of
collaboration between Shia and Sunnis could be false or represent
a small set of cases.

These are the issues on which the conflict and the future of the
U.S. presence in Iraq turn. It is the hope of the guerrillas --
Sunni and Shiite -- to create a situation that compels a U.S.
withdrawal, either from the country or into fortified enclaves;
it is obviously the intention of the United States to prevent

The Sunni Threat

The Sunni part of the equation is the least threatening. If Sunni
guerrillas have managed to regroup, it is disturbing that U.S.
intelligence was unable to prevent the reorganization. But there
is a very real silver lining in this: One of the ways the
guerrillas might have been able to regroup without being detected
was by doing it on a relatively small scale, limiting their
organization to hundreds or even dozens of members.

Certainly, they have many more sympathizers than that, but a
careful distinction must be drawn -- and is not being drawn by
the media -- between sympathizers and guerrillas. Sympathizers
can riot -- they can even generate an intifada -- but that is not
the same as conducting guerrilla war. Guerrillas need a degree of
training, weapons and organization.

The paradox of guerrilla war is that the more successful a
guerrilla offensive, the more it opens the guerrillas to
counteraction by the enemy. In order to attack, they must
communicate, come out of hiding and converge on the target. At
that moment, they can be destroyed and -- more important --
captured. Throwing a large percentage of a guerrilla force into
an attack either breaks the enemy or turns into a guerrilla

The U.S. Marines west of Baghdad are not about to be broken.
Therefore, if our assumption about the relative size of the
guerrilla force and the high percentage that have been thrown
into this operation is correct, this force will not be able to
sustain the current level of operations much longer. If the
guerrilla force is large enough to sustain such operations, then
the U.S. intelligence failure is so huge as to be difficult to
comprehend. Protests and riots are problems and create a strain
on resources, but they do not fundamentally affect the ability of
the United States to remain engaged in Iraq.

The Shiite Threat

It is not the Sunni offensive that represents a threat, it is the
Shia. The question is simple: Does al-Sadr’s rising represent a
fundamental shift in the Shiite community as a whole, or is it
simply a small faction of the Shia that has risen? The U.S.
command in Iraq has argued that al-Sadr represents a marginal
movement, at odds with the dominant Shiite leadership, lashing
out in a desperate attempt to change the internal dynamics of the
Shiite community.

For this analysis to be correct, a single fact must be true: Ali
al-Sistani, the grand ayatollah of the Iraqi Shia, is not only
opposed to al-Sadr, but also remains committed to carrying out
his basic bargain with the United States. If that is true, then
all will be well for the Americans in the end. If it is wrong,
then the worst-case scenarios have to be taken seriously.

The majority Iraqi Shiite population suffered greatly under the
regime of Saddam Hussein, which was dominated by the Sunni
minority. After the fall of Hussein, the Shia’s primary interest
was in guaranteeing not only that a Sunni government would not
re-emerge, but also that the future of Iraq would be in the hands
of the Shia. This interest was shared by the Shia in Iran, who
also wanted to see a Shiite government emerge in order to secure
Iran’s frontier from its historical enemy, Iraq.

The first U.S. impulse after the fall of Baghdad was that
Americans would govern Iraq indefinitely, on their terms -- and
without compromising with Iranian sympathizers. That plan was
blown out of the water by the unexpected emergence of a Sunni
guerrilla force. The United States needed indigenous help. Even
more than help, it needed guarantees that the Shia would not rise
up and render the U.S. presence in Iraq untenable.

The United States and the Shiite elites -- Iranian and Iraqi --
reached an accommodation: The United States guaranteed the Shia a
democratic government, which meant that the majority Shia would
dominate -- and the Shia maintained the peace in the south. They
did not so much collaborate with the Americans as maintain a
peace that permitted the United States to deal with the Sunnis.
The end state of all of this was to be a Shiite government that
would permit some level of U.S. forces to remain indefinitely in

As the Sunni rising subsided, the United States felt a decreased
dependency on the Shia. The transitional Iraqi government that is
slated to take power June 30 would not be an elected government,
but rather a complex coalition of groups -- including Shia, Kurds
and Sunnis, as well as small ethnic groups -- that would be
constituted so as to give all the players a say in the future. In
other words, the Shia would not get a Shiite-dominated government
June 30.

It was for this reason that al-Sistani began to agitate for
direct elections. He knew that the Shia would win that election
and that this was the surest path to direct Shiite power.
Washington argued there was not enough time for direct elections
-- a claim that was probably true -- but which the Shia saw as
the United States backpedaling on fundamental agreements. The
jury-rigged system the Americans wanted in place for a year would
give the Sunnis a chance to recover -- not the sort of recovery
the Shia wanted to see. Moreover, the Shia observed the quiet
romance between the United States and some key Sunni tribal
leaders after the capture of Hussein, and their distrust of long-
term U.S. motives grew.

Al-Sistani made it clear that he did not trust the transitional
plan and that he did not believe it protected Shiite interests or
represented American promises. The United States treated al-
Sistani with courtesy and respect but made it clear that it was
not planning to change its position.

In the meantime, a sea change had taken place in Iranian
politics, with a conservative government driving the would-be
reformers out of power. The conservatives did not object to the
deal with the United States, but they wanted to be certain that
the United States did not for a moment believe that the Iranians
were acting out of weakness. The continual hammering by the
United States on the nuclear issue with Iran convinced the
Iranians that the Washington did not fully appreciate the
position it was in.

As Iranian Expediency Council chief and former President Ali
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani bluntly put it Feb. 24: "They continue
to send us threatening messages and continue to raise the four
questions," referring to Washington’s concerns about Iran’s
nuclear program, opposition to the Middle East peace process,
alleged support of militant groups and human rights. "But they
are stuck in the mud in Iraq, and they know that if Iran wanted
to, it could make their problems even worse."

Al-Sistani did not want the June 30 transition to go forward on
U.S. terms. The Iranians did not want the United States to think
it had Iran on the defensive. A confrontation with the United
States under these circumstances was precisely what was in both
al-Sistani and Iran’s interests. Both wanted to drive home to the
Americans that they held power in Iraq and that the United States
was there at the sufferance of the Shia. The United States had
forgotten its sense of desperation during the Sunni Ramadan
offensive, and the Shia needed to remind them -- but they needed
to do so without a rupture with Washington, which was, after all,
instrumental to their long-term plans.

Al-Sadr was the perfect instrument. He was dangerous, deniable
and manageable. U.S. officials have expressed surprise that al-
Sadr -- who they did not regard highly -- was able to create such
havoc. Obviously, al-Sistani could have dealt with al-Sadr if and
when he wished. But for the moment, al-Sistani didn’t wish. He
wanted to show the Americans the abyss they faced if they
continued on the path to June 30 without modifying the plan.

The Americans have said al-Sistani has not been helpful in this
crisis. He is not ready to be helpful and won’t be until a more
suitable understanding is reached with the United States. He will
act in due course because it is not in al-Sistani’s interests to
allow al-Sadr to become too strong. Quite the contrary: Al-
Sistani runs the risk that the situation will get so far out of
hand that he will not be able to control it either. But al-
Sistani is too strong for al-Sadr to undermine, and al-Sadr is,
in fact, al-Sistani’s pawn. Perhaps more precisely, al-Sadr is
al-Sistani’s ace in the hole. Having played him, al-Sistani will
be as interested in liquidating al-Sadr’s movement as the United
States is -- once Washington has modified its plans for a postwar

The worst-case scenario is not likely to happen. The Sunni
guerrillas are not a long-term threat. The Shia are a long-term
threat, but their interests are not in war with the United
States, but in achieving a Shiite-dominated Iraqi state as
quickly as possible -- without giving the United States an
opportunity to double-cross them. Al-Sistani demanded elections
and didn’t get them. What he really wants is a different
transition process that gives the Shia more power. After the past
week, he is likely to get it. And Washington will not soon forget
who controls Iraq.

This will pass. But the strategic reality of the U.S. forces in
Iraq is permanent. Those forces are there because of the
sufferance of the Iraqi Shia. The Shia know it, and they want the
Americans to know it. With Washington planning an offensive in
Pakistan, the last thing it needs is to pump more forces into
Iraq. In due course, al-Sistani will become helpful, but the
price will be even higher than before.