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Analysis Last Updated: Jan 17th, 2007 - 00:50:00

Bush escalates war against Sunnis -- al-Sadr wins again!
By Nicolas J S Davies
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jan 17, 2007, 00:46

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Like its predecessors, the new American campaign in Baghdad is billed as an effort to "restore security," targeting both Sunni resistance and Shiite militias. In reality, even George Bush is not reckless enough to open a second urban combat front against the Mehdi Army in Sadr City. Instead, the U.S. escalation plan perpetuates the failed policy of taking on the Sunnis first and leaving the Shiite opposition for later. This can only continue to strengthen Muqtada al-Sadr and Shiite opposition to the U.S. occupation.

In April 2005, the United States launched its campaign to "secure" Baghdad, using Iraqi Interior Ministry forces comprised mainly of Badr Brigades militiamen to launch a campaign of terror against predominantly Sunni neighborhoods on the West bank of the Tigris. These forces had been trained under the supervision of Iran-Contra figure James Steele, who was sent to Iraq as counselor for Iraqi Security Forces to U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, and they soon left a trail of thousands of tortured corpses from Baghdad to the Iranian border.

This brutal policy failed spectacularly to destroy Sunni resistance in Baghdad. In some ways though, the sectarian hatred and mistrust that it spread throughout the city served its purpose, as Shiites within and without the U.S.-trained "security" forces found reason to join the terror campaign against the Sunni population. But the goal of destroying the resistance was not met -- indeed, the Sunni resistance in western Baghdad only became stronger and better organized.

As Americans were reading in horror that the Baghdad morgue was overwhelmed with tortured, disfigured corpses, and the U.N. Human Rights Monitor issued a scathing report in September 2005, American officials joined the chorus of disgust at these atrocities, but claimed that this was all the work of "insurgents" who were obtaining police uniforms on the black market.

Eventually, though, these denials were unsustainable. Steven Casteel, the senior advisor to the interior minister, who had been instrumental in launching this policy and then protecting it by obfuscation, was quietly brought back to the United States. The new line in American rhetoric was to deplore the "sectarian violence" it had unleashed, and, increasingly, to identify the death squads with Muqtada al-Sadr�s Mehdi Army rather than the U.S.-trained Badr commandos working for the Interior Ministry, who were always the principal American weapon in this campaign.

Faced with the failure of this policy and ever stronger Sunni resistance, American policymakers might have been expected to try something different. Instead, in early 2006, U.S. forces began to provide greater direct ground and air support for the Shiite forces attacking Sunni enclaves in Baghdad. American support for this campaign has increased progressively with each newly announced operation: Together Forward; Together Forward II; do they dare call the new one Together Forward III?

The public relations exercises linked to these operations have repeatedly promised Americans at home that U.S. forces are targeting both Sunni "insurgents" and Shiite militias. The implication is that, whatever the details of the original "Salvador Option," as Newsweek called it, local Iraqis are now responsible for the "sectarian violence" gripping the capital, and U.S. forces are intervening to restore law and order to protect people of all sects.

American soldiers in Baghdad know perfectly well that they are fighting Sunnis, alongside Shiite forces with strong ties to militias, but the Western media have consistently failed to challenge the new American narrative. The Iraq Study Group acknowledged a 43 percent increase in violence in Baghdad in the course of the first two Operation Together Forwards, but attributed this to an inadequate effort to restore law and order, rather than a deliberate American escalation of the dirty war.

Like the previous fictional narrative of "insurgents disguised as police commandos," the new narrative of even-handed law enforcement has worn so thin that it has become transparent. Yet once again the American response has only been to escalate its public relations efforts along with the violence. American officials now sound so determined to take on the Shiite militias that Iraqi Shiite officials have had to come out and publicly reassure their supporters that the Americans don�t really mean it!

Finally, Monday, a U.S. military spokesman acknowledged what all Sunni Iraqis in Baghdad know only too well. Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl told a McClatchy reporter, "We�re not necessarily going after the militias if the militias don�t come after us. Our mission is not to take down the militias; that�s a function of the government."

Lt. Col. Bleichwehl neglected to mention that the "government" has appointed a Shiite general from Amara to lead this campaign. Amara was one of Muqtada al-Sadr�s first bases of support following the U.S. and British invasion. Britain suffered its worst casualties of the war there, and eventually declared victory and handed the whole province over to local officials allied with al-Sadr. The news that a general from Amara is going to lead the anti-militia campaign in Baghdad is all the reassurance the militias need that they have nothing to worry about, and was probably al-Sadr�s price for approving the new plan.

So, if they�re not going after the Shiite militias, what are the new U.S. forces going to do in Baghdad, and what will be the result?

There are three main forces vying for power in Iraq, the nationalist Sunni resistance, nationalist Shiite forces grouped around Muqtada al-Sadr, and American government and commercial interests with weak, usually self-serving, support from a small group of privileged former exiles in the Green Zone. The Kurds have no interest in challenging the other Iraqi groups in Baghdad, but will assist the Americans at a price, and the pro-Iranian SCIRI Party is also cooperating militarily with the Americans, while waiting for an opportunity to pick up the pieces of a broken Iraq at some point in the future with Iranian assistance.

The American strategy is and has always been to wage war almost exclusively against the Sunnis, knowing that this means leaving Sadr and the Shiite nationalists for later. When Bush uses the expression that "progress has been slow," which sounds like an odd characterization of this crisis, this is what he is referring to. In fact, progress has been so slow that, while the Americans and the Sunnis battled away in Anbar and the American-backed death squads fought the Sunni resistance in Baghdad, Muqtada al-Sadr has had plenty of time to consolidate his position as the de facto leader of Shiites all over the country.

So, the new American-Shiite assault on the Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad will just be an escalation of a campaign that has been under way since April 2005. In assessing its chances for success on these terms, it is worth noting that the total number of resistance and militia attacks per day in Iraq has more than tripled since this campaign was launched in 2005, with most of the increase taking place in Baghdad, and there is no reason to believe that this new escalation will suddenly have the opposite effect. The only way to succeed on these terms would be to achieve some sort of total victory over the Sunnis, which no serious analysts consider possible. This operation can therefore only be viewed as a desperate gamble for an unachievable victory, employing even greater violence than we have seen to date.

The response of Muqtada al-Sadr and his allies to the announcement of this escalation has been interesting. He has wisely ordered Mehdi militiamen in Sadr City to take off their traditional black uniforms, hide their weapons and do nothing to provide a pretext for a U.S. attack on Sadr City. As they have done up until now, his followers will keep a low profile and consolidate their position, while their two main competitors for power in Iraq, the Sunnis and the Americans continue to kill each other. Mehdi militiamen within the U.S.-backed Iraqi Army and Interior Ministry will of course continue to participate in the bloodletting alongside their American "allies."

In effect, both the Americans and the Shiite nationalists are doing a deal with the devil -- each other. Neither of them wants the other to end up as the victor in Iraq, but both are content to tolerate and use the other as long as they are both fighting the Sunnis. If the Americans declared war on al-Sadr, they would have to fight almost the whole population, Shiite and Sunni. And if al-Sadr unleashed his forces against the Americans, he could probably end the occupation, but only at the expense of a cataclysmic escalation of the war in which hundreds of thousands of his people would be killed.

But this mutual deal with the devil is a safer and much more productive policy for Sadr than for the Americans, as it appears to offer him a path to eventual victory. He has done much to earn the overwhelming support of the Shiite population by steering a careful path between armed resistance and collaboration for almost four years, and he has no reason to change course. The Americans, on the other hand, have worked themselves into a corner from which they can�t defeat the Sunnis, but their options are increasingly constrained by the political reality of Sadr�s power. This mutual deal with the devil has worked entirely in his favor, and there is nothing in the present plans that will change that.

For a real plan to actually end the war in Iraq, check out Congressmember Dennis Kucinich�s plan. It may not be realistic in every detail, but it is at least a plan that correctly identifies the responsibilities of the United States as the aggressor in this conflict and the necessary steps the U.S. government must take to give peace a chance: to withdraw its forces; restore Iraqi sovereignty; agree to pay reparations; and allow the international community to assist the people of Iraq in a legitimate process of reconciliation and reconstruction.

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