Stuck in Iraq

Where is the mounting violence in Iraq leading? And what does it mean for U.S. policy?


“In Baghdad and the South, long-oppressed
Shiites — 60 percent of Iraq’s population — have the most
to gain from democracy and reconstruction. But they are now
split. A minority of terrorists led by the firebrand Moktada
al-Sadr, under Iran’s influence, are challenging the
quietist Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. That ayatollah is keen to
protect his following by complaining about the liberation
and wrings his hands about Sadr, who has openly declared
alliance with Hamas and Hezbollah and war on the West.”

So wrote the conservative New York Times columnist William Safire in defense of Bush’s Iraq policy.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — until recently considered the main obstacle to “progress” in Iraq — is
now labelled “quietist.” Clearly, the U.S. has set its bar for radicalism quite a bit higher of late. As the June 30th
deadline for the transfer of sovereignty approaches, the
violence is getting worse. Over the last few
days more than a 100 Iraqis and 30 coalition troops have been killed in the worst violence since last May.

The Bush administration says that the surge in violence
was only to be expected — that the “terrorists,” fearing that the
U.S. is building a successful democracy in Iraq, want to thwart all progress.
Violence, the administration would have us believe, is a sign not of the insurgents’ strength but their weakness — they can’t win politically, so they kill in an effort to destabilize Iraq. But if the spike in violence is
an indication of the insurgents’ weakness, so is the U.S.’s
inability to maintain security in Iraq — this goes for
the U.S. troops and the Iraqi police force they have trained.
As Harold Meyerson points out in the
Washington Post:

“In Kufa, Najaf and Baghdad’s own Sadr
City, the government’s new cops handed over police cars and
police stations to the militia without any reported
resistance. In some instances, the cops actually joined
forces with Sadr’s militants.

Within Iraq, there are thousands of current
and potential gunmen willing to fight for their people and
their creeds — Kurdish automony, Sunni hegemony, Shiite
control, an Islamic republic. But the force charged with
defending a pluralistic, united Iraq just went AWOL under
fire.

Even Republicans who support Bush’s Iraq policy are
questioning whether the U.S. is in control. The Bush
administration’s talk of winning “hearts and minds” sounds hollow — especially
when congressmen on both sides of the aisle are drawing comparisons
to Vietnam. Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy went
so far as to call Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam,” and Sen. John McCain said, “We
have to tell the American people that we are in this for the
long haul. We cannot say, as we did in Vietnam, that the
light is at the end of the tunnel.”

The
U.S.’s goal is to sustain as few casualties as
possible before quitting a relatively stable Iraq, but U.S.
troops are badly overstretched. With the presidential race in full
swing, this is a convenient time for Bush to
remember that the U.S. is a member of the United Nations — an organization that
could supply troops and play a role in legitimizing Iraq’s
political transition. But having gone over the head of the
U.N. to invade Iraq, the U.S. has largely sidelined it during the occupation. Besides, even if the U.S. acceded to a central U.N. role in
Iraq, it is doubtful that the organization would have either
the will or the capacity to take up the offer.

The U.N. will have a hard time convincing its
members of the value of the mission. The French and Germans,
and others who opposed the war from the get-go, aren’t
likely to send troops to sort out the mess
created by the U.S. invasion. And the lesson they draw from Madrid is that committing forces to Iraq entails risks both there and at home. Moreover, given the
U.S.’s refusal to implement a fair, international bidding
process on contracts for Iraq’s reconstruction projects, it
is also in a bad position to lecture other countries about
the need to donate millions of dollars to rebuild Iraq.

What’s more, the U.N. carries out strictly peace-keeping missions — though its record even in these is mixed — and Iraq
hardly qualifies as that.

There are other reasons why the U.N. isn’t in the
best position to send troops to Iraq at this time. New York Times says:

“Unfortunately, not only is the role of the U.N. still
unsettled, the world organization is suffering from two
self-inflicted wounds. One is a kickback scandal of
multibillion-dollar proportions swirling around the U.N.-run
oil-for-food program that kept ordinary Iraqis from starving
during the long years of punishing economic sanctions. The
other is the recent finding by an independent investigative
panel that oversights in U.N. security management may have
worsened the death toll in last August’s terrorist bombing
of the Baghdad headquarters.”

That leaves the U.S. and its coalition — minus Spain,
Honduras, and whoever else decides to pull out by June 30th
— all by themselves to deal with the insurgents. The
recent violence weakens Bush’s claims for himself as a “war
president.” John Kerry’s criticisms of the Bush administration as
unilateral, secretive, and deceptive have been bolstered
by damaging testimony by Bush’s former counterterrorism
chief Richard Clarke to the 9/11 Commission. And it’s unlikely
that Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who
after much arm-twisting will testify before the
commission today, will be able to repair the damage done.
With mounting U.S. casualties and the possibility of more
mass deployments to Iraq, the Bush administration no longer
has public opinion on its side. The

Pew Center for the People and the Press reports:

“Public support for war in Iraq has been unaffected by the
murders and desecration of the corpses of American citizens
in Falluja. However, continued turmoil and violence in Iraq
may be taking a toll on President Bush’s approval ratings.
More Americans now disapprove of the way he is doing his job
than approve, though by only a slight margin (47% disapprove
vs. 43% approve). Just four-in-ten approve of the way Bush
is handling the situation in Iraq, his lowest rating ever
and down from 59% in January. Bush’s evaluations on other
issues – the economy, energy and even terrorism – have
fallen as well. And by a wide margin (57% to 32%) the public
does not think he has a clear plan for bringing the
situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion.”

Who is the man to design and carry out such a
“clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a
successful conclusion”? That, of course, is the question of the hour.
But Kerry has no answer, except to criticize the Bush approach. In a radio interview

Kerry said that:

“You don’t set an
arbitrary date for the transfer of power to a non entity.
You have to make the judgment of stability. I mean, this
date it, appears to me, may well have been set by the
American election, not by the stability of Iraq.”

The June 30th transfer of sovereignty will be a façade.
Iraq is without legitimate political institutions or
security structures. Whoever wins the U.S. election, don’t expect U.S. troops to quit “sovereign Iraq” in numbers any time soon.