Monday, February 26, 2007

Assumed Bloodbath in Iraq

Leaving Iraq: Apocalypse Not

By Robert Dreyfuss, Washington Monthly. Posted February 19, 2007.

Much of Washington assumes that withdrawing from Iraq will lead to a
bigger bloodbath.

We need to question that assumption.

The Bush administration famously based its argument for invading Iraq on
best-case assumptions: that we would be greeted as liberators; that a
capable democratic government would quickly emerge; that our military
presence would be modest and temporary; and that Iraqi oil revenues would
pay for everything. All these assumptions, of course, turned out to be

Now, many of the same people who pushed for the invasion are arguing for
escalating our military involvement based on a worst-case assumption: that
if America leaves quickly, the Apocalypse will follow. "How would
[advocates of withdrawal] respond to the eruption of full-blown civil war
in Iraq and the massive ethnic cleansing it would produce?" write Robert
Kagan and William Kristol in the Weekly Standard. "How would they respond
to the intervention of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, Syria, and
Turkey? And most important, what would they propose to do if, as a result
of our withdrawal and the collapse of Iraq, al Qaeda and other terrorist
groups managed to establish a safe haven from which to launch attacks
against the United States and its allies?"

Similar rhetoric has been a staple of President Bush's recent speeches. If
the United States "fails" in Iraq -- his euphemism for withdrawal -- the
president said in January, "[r]adical Islamic extremists would grow in
strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to
topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil
revenues to fund their ambitions ... Our enemies would have a safe haven
from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people."

This kind of thinking is also accepted by a wide range of liberal hawks
and conservative realists who, whether or not they originally supported
the invasion, now argue that the United States must stay. It was evident
in the Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, which,
participants say, was alarmed by expert advice that withdrawal would
produce potentially catastrophic consequences. Even many antiwar liberals
believe that a quick pullout would cause a bloodbath. Some favor
withdrawal anyway, to cut our own losses. Others demur out of geostrategic
concerns, a feeling of moral obligation to the Iraqis, or the simple fear
that Democrats will be blamed for the ensuing chaos.

But if it was foolish to accept the best-case assumptions that led us to
invade Iraq, it's also foolish not to question the worst-case assumptions
that undergird arguments for staying. Is it possible that a quick
withdrawal of U.S. forces will lead to a dramatic worsening of the
situation? Of course it is, just as it's possible that maintaining or
escalating troops there could fuel the unrest. But it's also worth
considering the possibility that the worst may not happen: What if the
doomsayers are wrong?

The al-Qaeda myth

To understand why it's a mistake to assume the worst, let's begin with the
most persistent, Bush-fostered fear about post-occupation Iraq: that
al-Qaeda or other Islamic extremists will seize control once America
departs; or that al-Qaeda will establish a safe haven in a rump, lawless
Sunnistan and use that territory as a base, much as it used
Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

The idea that al-Qaeda might take over Iraq is nonsensical. Numerous
estimates show that the group called Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its
foreign fighters comprise only 5 to 10 percent of the Sunni insurgents'
forces. Most Sunni insurgents are simply what Wayne White -- who led the
State Department's intelligence effort on Iraq until 2005 -- calls POIs,
or "pissed-off Iraqis," who are fighting because "they don't like the
occupation." But the foreign terrorist threat is frequently advanced by
the Bush administration, often with an even more alarming variant -- that
al-Qaeda will use Iraq as a headquarters for the establishment of a global
caliphate. In December 2005, Rear Admiral William D. Sullivan, vice
director for strategic plans and policy within the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
delivered a briefing in which he warned that al-Qaeda hoped to "revive the
caliphate," with its capital in Baghdad. President Bush himself has warned
darkly that after controlling Iraq, Islamic militants will "establish a
radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia."

The reality is far different. Even if AQI came to dominate the Sunni
resistance, it would be utterly incapable of seizing Baghdad against the
combined muscle of the Kurds and the Shiites, who make up four fifths of
the country. (The Shiites, in particular, would see the battle against the
Sunni extremist AQI -- which regards the Shiites as a heretical,
non-Muslim sect -- as a life-or-death struggle.)

Nor is it likely that AQI would ever be allowed to use the Sunni areas of
Iraq as a base from which to launch attacks on foreign targets. In
Afghanistan, al-Qaeda had a full-fledged partnership with the Taliban and
helped finance the state. In Iraq, the secular Baathists and former Iraqi
military officers who lead the main force of the resistance despise AQI,
and many of the Sunni tribes in western Iraq are closely tied to Saudi
Arabia's royal family, which is bitterly opposed to al-Qaeda. AQI has, at
best, a marriage of convenience with the rest of the Sunni-led resistance.
Over the past two years, al-Qaeda-linked forces in Iraq have often waged
pitched battles with the mainstream Iraqi resistance and Sunni tribal
forces. Were U.S. troops to leave Iraq today, the Baathists, the military,
and the tribal leaders would likely join forces to exterminate AQI in
short order.

It's also worth questioning whether the forces that call themselves Al
Qaeda in Iraq have any real ties to whatever remains of Osama bin Laden's
weakened, Pakistan-based leadership. Such ties, if they exist, have always
been murky at best, even under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
With al-Zarqawi's elimination in 2006 and his replacement by a collegial
group, these ties are even muddier. Although it's convenient for the Bush
administration to claim that al-Qaeda is a Comintern-like international
force, it is really a loose ideological movement, and its Iraq component
is fed largely by jihadists who flock to the country because they see the
war as a holy cause. Once the United States withdraws, Iraq will no longer
be a magnet for that jihad.

The Sunni-Shiite civil war

The doomsayers' second great fear is that the Sunni-Shiite sectarian civil
war could escalate further, reaching near-genocidal levels and sucking in
Iraq's neighbors. "The biggest danger as we draw down is that the Shiites
will run roughshod over the Sunnis," says Brian Katulis of the Center for
American Progress, whose exit strategy, "Strategic Redeployment 2.0," is a
blueprint for many Democrats on Capitol Hill. Similarly, Wayne White, who
advised the Baker-Hamilton ISG, says that because of Baghdad's importance,
both Sunni and Shiite forces would probably rush to fill a vacuum in the
capital if the United States withdraws.

In fact, it's hard to find an analysis of the Iraq crisis that doesn't
predict an expanded Sunni-Shiite war once the United States departs. But
let's look at the countervailing factors -- and there are many.

First, the United States is doing little, if anything, to restrain ethnic
cleansing, either in Baghdad neighborhoods or Sunni and Shiite enclaves
surrounding the capital. Indeed, under its current policy, the United
States is arming and training one side in a civil war by bolstering the
Shiite-controlled army and police.

In theory, Baghdad is roughly divided into Shiite east Baghdad on one side
of the Tigris River, and Sunni west Baghdad on the other side. But in
isolated neighborhoods such as Adhamiya, a Sunni part of east Baghdad, and
Kadhimiya, a Shiite enclave in west Baghdad, ugly ethnic cleansing is
proceeding apace. The same is true along a necklace of Sunni towns south
of the capital, in an area that is predominantly Shiite; in mixed
Sunni-Shiite towns such as Samarra, the largest city of predominantly
Sunni Salahuddin Province, north of Baghdad; and in Diyala Province,
northeast of Baghdad. In these areas, it is facile to assert that U.S.
troops are restraining the death squads and religiously inspired killers
on both sides. And it would be impossible for us to do so even with a much
greater increase in American troops than the president has called for.

Second, although battle lines are hardening and militias on both sides are
becoming self-sustaining, the civil war is limited by physical
constraints. Neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites have much in the way of
armor or heavy weapons -- tanks, major artillery, helicopters, and the
like. Without heavy weaponry, neither side can take the war deep into the
other's territory. "They're not good on offense," says Warren Marik, a
retired CIA officer who worked in Iraq in the 1990s. "They can't assault
positions." Shiites may have numbers on their side. But because the Sunnis
have most of Iraq's former army officers, and their resistance militia
boasts thousands of highly trained soldiers, they're unlikely to be
overrun by the Shiite majority. Equally, the minority Sunnis won't be able
to seize Shiite parts of Baghdad or major Shiite cities in the south.
Presuming neither side gets its hands on heavy weapons, once you take U.S.
forces out of the equation the Sunnis and Shiites would ultimately reach
an impasse.

Even if post-occupation efforts to create a new political compact among
Iraqis fail, the most likely outcome is, again, a bloody Sunni-Shiite
stalemate, accompanied by continued ethnic cleansing in mixed areas. But
that, of course, is no worse than the path Iraq is already on under U.S.

A third fear is that Iraq's neighbors will support their proxies in this
fight. Indeed, they probably will -- but within limits. Iran, which is
already assisting various Shiite parties (especially the Supreme Council
for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), would continue to do so. And Sunni
Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan would line up behind
Iraq's Sunnis. Even so, neither Shiite Iran nor the Sunni Arab countries
would likely risk a regional conflagration by providing their Iraqi
proxies with the heavy weapons that would enable them to wage offensive
operations in each other's heartland.

The only power that could qualitatively worsen Iraq's sectarian civil war
is the United States. Washington continues to arm and train the Shiites,
although so far it has resisted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's pleas to
provide Iraq's Shiite-led army and police with heavy weapons, armor, and
an air force. Only if that policy changed, and the United States began to
create a true Shiite army in Iraq, would the Sunni Arab states likely feel
compelled to build up Iraq's Sunni paramilitary militias into something
resembling a traditional army.

Thus, even if we assume that Iraq's parties cannot achieve some sort of
reconciliation as the United States withdraws, an American pullout is
hardly guaranteed to unleash unbridled chaos. On the contrary, each year
since 2003 that American troops have remained in Iraq, the violence has
escalated steadily.

A Kurdish power grab?

The third major concern about a post-occupation Iraq -- although it gets
less attention than it deserves -- is the possibility of a crisis
triggered by a Kurdish power grab in Kirkuk, the city at the heart of
Iraq's northern oil fields. Since 2003, the Kurds have been waging a
systematic, ugly round of ethnic cleansing, packing Kirkuk with Kurds,
kidnapping or driving out Arab residents (many of them settled there by
Saddam), and stacking the city council with Kurdish partisans.

Though Kurdish Iraq is mostly quiet and relatively prosperous under the
Kurdistan Regional Government that controls three northeastern provinces,
the Kurds may be tempted to expand their territory and secede from Iraq.
Under the occupation-imposed constitution, the Kurds have the right to
hold a referendum in Kirkuk later this year that would probably put that
oil-rich area under the control of the KRG; the Baker-Hamilton ISG called
the referendum "explosive" and recommended that it be postponed.
Alternatively, the Kurds might opt to take advantage of the Sunni-Shiite
civil war to seize Kirkuk by force. Either way, most Kurds know that a
Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk is an essential precondition for their ultimate
independence from Iraq.

It's hard to exaggerate the dangers inherent in a Kurdish grab for Kirkuk.
Such a move would inflame Iraq's Arab population (both Sunnis and
Shiites), impinge on other minorities (including Turkmen and Christians),
and provoke an outburst of ethnic cleansing in the city. Iraq's two-sided
civil war would become a three-sided affair.

But although this scenario sounds alarming, the reality is that, in the
event of an American withdrawal, the Kurds would find it exceedingly
difficult either to take Kirkuk or to declare independence. An independent
Kurdistan would be landlocked, surrounded by hostile nations, and would
possess a weak paramilitary army incapable of matching Iran, Arab Iraq, or
Turkey. If Kurdistan were to secede without gaining Kirkuk's oil, it would
not be an economically viable nation. Even with the oil, the Kurds would
have to depend on pipelines through Iraq and Turkey to export any
significant amount. Nor would Turkey, with its large Kurdish minority,
stand for a breakaway Kurdish state, and the Kurds know that the Turkish
armed forces would overwhelm them.

Conversely, under the U.S. occupation -- or, perhaps, because of it -- the
Kurds apparently feel emboldened to press their advantage in Kirkuk,
despite the dire consequences. And if the United States were to adopt the
idea floated by some in Washington of building permanent bases in
Kurdistan, it would embolden the Kurds further. (The threat of a Turkish
invasion is the chief deterrent to any move by the Kurds against Kirkuk,
but as long as the United States maintains a presence in Kurdistan, the
Turks will be reluctant to check the Kurds, for fear of running into U.S.
troops.) Thus, by staying or by creating bases in Kurdistan, the United
States is more likely to foster a Kurdish-Arab civil war in Iraq.

Will the center hold?

Not only is the worst-case scenario far from a sure thing in the event of
an American withdrawal, but there is also a best-case scenario. Precisely
because the idea of all-out civil war and a regional blowup involving
Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey is so horrifying, all the political forces
inside and outside Iraq have many incentives not to go there.

Certainly, four years into the war, passions on all sides have been
inflamed, communal tensions bared, and the secular, urban Iraqi middle
class has either fled or been decimated. The mass terror perpetuated by
armed gangs of extremists now occupies center stage. The broken Iraqi
state has ceased to exist outside the Green Zone, the economy is
devastated, and unemployment is believed to be hovering around 50 percent.

Yet the neoconservatives and the Bush administration weren't entirely
wrong in 2003 when they expressed confidence in the underlying strength of
the Iraqi body politic. Though things have gone horrendously awry, there
are many factors that could provide the glue to put Humpty Dumpty back
together again.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom in Washington, Iraq is not a
make-believe state cobbled together after World War I, but a nation united
by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, just as the Nile unites Egypt.
Historically, the vast majority of Iraqis have not primarily identified
themselves according to their sect, as Sunnis or Shiites. Of course, as
the civil war escalates, more Iraqis are identifying by sect, and tensions
are worsening. But it is not too late to resurrect some of the comity that
once existed. The current war is not a conflict between all Sunnis and all
Shiites, but a violent clash of extremist paramilitary armies. Most Iraqis
do not support the extremists on either side. According to a poll
conducted in June 2006 by the International Republican Institute,
"seventy-eight per cent of Iraqis, including a majority of Shiites,
opposed the division of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines."

In addition, the country's vast oil reserves, conceivably the world's
largest, could help hold Iraq together. Iraqi politicians are currently
devising a law that would ratify the central government's control of all
of the country's oil wealth. Even the corruption that now cripples Iraq
tethers Iraqi political leaders to the central government and to the idea
of Iraq as a nation-state. "None of the big players really want civil
war," says an Iraqi military official closely affiliated with Ahmad
Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. "None of them want to give up the
regular flow of funds that they get now from corruption."

What most Iraqis do seem to want, according to numerous polls, is for
American forces to leave. Even within the current, skewed Iraqi political
system, a majority of Iraq's parliament supports a U.S. withdrawal. If we
add to the mix the powerful Sunni-led resistance, including former
Baathists, Sunni nationalists, and tribes, an overwhelming majority wants
to end the occupation.

This shared desire could be another crucial force in helping maintain the
integrity of Iraq. The catch-22 of Iraqi politics is that any Iraqi
government created or supported by the United States is instantly suspect
in Iraqi eyes. By the same token, a nationalist government that succeeds
in ushering U.S. forces out of Iraq would have overwhelming support from
most Iraqis on most sides of the conflict. With that support, such a
government might be able to make the difficult compromises -- like
amending the constitution to give minority protections to Sunnis -- that
the Maliki government has been unable or unwilling to make but that most
observers believe are crucial to any political settlement that might end
the fighting.

It is clear that there are many features of Iraq's current landscape that
lend themselves to the eventual creation of a stable, postwar nation --
although rebuilding the country will take generations. It is, at this
point, the best we can hope for. Like all best-case scenarios, it might or
might not happen. But the very same can be said of the worst-case scenario
-- a scenario that war hawks portray as a certainty and wave, like a
bloody shirt, to scare decision-makers and members of Congress into
supporting a failed strategy.

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posted by u2r2h at 2:20 PM


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