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Less bad news from Iraq

December 13th, 2007

Over the last few months, the volume of bad news from Iraq has diminished. For example, the number of US troops killed in November (about one per day) was the lowest in a couple of years. While it’s much harder to measure Iraqi casualties the number seems to be declining, at least in Baghdad. What does this mean for the policy choices facing the US and its allies?

The short answer is ‘Not much’

The long answer has a number of parts.

First, while there is less bad news as regards death and destruction, there’s no corresponding increase in good news, in the sense of progress towards a sustainable solution. Admittedly, it’s good for the US that the Sunni insurgents have decided to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, and to do so with US backing. But that very backing increases their capacity to sustain conflict with the Shia majority in the long run. And the one area where things seemed to have been resolved, Iraqi Kurdistan, is now on the edge of an international conflict with Turkey.

Second, the decline in bloodshed doesn’t say much about past policy decisions. The big question of whether it was a good idea to go to war was settled long ago. The hundreds of thousands of dead can’t be brought back to life and the trillions of dollars spent or committed are gone forever. No conceivable future outcome can make this war anything other than a disaster.

As regards the decisions of the past year, and particularly the US escalation (aka the ‘surge’) the picture is a bit more mixed. While the Pentagon is claiming success for the surge, the UK (followed in this by Poland and now Australia) is claiming similar success for a policy that amounts to ‘declare victory and get out’. And even if the recent decline in deaths can be attributed to the surge, the year as a whole has been the bloodiest of the war, partly because of the expansion of the conflict in the middle of the year.

Most importantly, as regards future options, little has changed in relative terms. There are no good options, but all of the options look a little less likely to end in disaster than they did a few months ago. Whether US troops are withdrawn rapidly or slowly, the worst-case disaster scenarios, such as all-out civil war, or a helicopter evacuation of the Green Zone, now seem to have receded a bit. But with another year passed, and not much achieved, the time for withdrawal must have come that much closer.

In the end, the only lessons are old ones. War is unpredictable, and all wars come to an end sooner or later. But it is usually beyond the wit of those who start wars to predict when they will end or who will remain standing.

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  1. Ikonoclast
    December 13th, 2007 at 16:57 | #1

    Assuming the US has spent 1 trillion on the IRAQ war so far then there are some interesting questions to ponder.

    1. How many people died?

    2. How far would 1 trillion have gone on weaning the US off fossil fuels and getting them onto renewable alternatives?

    3. What’s the estimated total value of oil left in IRAQ at today’s dollars? Would it be worth even if the US got all Iraq’s oil?

    4. Has anyone ever wondered whether some oil coming out of Iraq is now contaminated with U238 (depleted uranium) from the US firing it about everywhere? Don’t forget when it hits a target at high speed some of it vaoporizes and oxidises. There’s UO2 dust blowing all over parts of southern Iraq according to some accounts.

  2. Chris Lloyd
    December 13th, 2007 at 18:42 | #2

    I heard Rudd today saying that the US alliance did not imply automatic compliance with US policy on all issues. He mentioned in particular the issues of Iraq and climate change. These are about the biggest international issues on the agenda. It’s like saying I have a good relationship with my wife. We just don’t agree on sex frequency and the division of household chores!

    You are right that there are no good options in Iraq remaining. I just look forward to the time when we exit and leave the US to wear egg on their face and clean up the mess they made – acknowledging that we will look a little hypocritical since our previous PM unilaterally involved us in the whole debacle.

  3. December 13th, 2007 at 19:03 | #3

    maybe the us isn’t leaving any time soon. it seems likely they will allow the iraqis to fight their internal wars, while remaining in large numbers in a few large bases. this will provide protection to their oil treaties, and make sure no one else takes advantage of iraqi weakness. say 50,000+…

    the al-maliki government needs the yanks, and will provide the ‘mutual defense’ treaty that legitimizes hegemony. the kurds will provide a base forever, and oil, for cover from the arabs and turks.

    in fact, although it has been vastly bloodier and more expensive than they planned, bush/cheney may yet achieve the middle eastern base they wanted. the democrats will hold their nose and carry out the plan, as good little imperialists(less-right wing) should.

    ozzians needn’t feel the slightest bit hypocritical, the ‘roos were 100% against this war, the sheep, 80%, even the hairless monkeys were 60% against. hard to find anyone who was in favor now,outside the national party. and they’re just a very few.

  4. melanie
    December 13th, 2007 at 19:11 | #4

    From here it will be extraordinarily difficult for the US to reverse the shift of ME balance of power that it has created in favour of Iran and Syria.

    I tend to assume that what they were looking for back when they began planning this in 2001 was an alternative base to the increasingly unsustainable Saudi one. At best they’ll still be able to get it in one of the 3 ethnically cleansed Iraqi cantons. But it won’t exactly be the “democratic” wedge in the middle of the region that they were aiming for.

    If they actually leave (which is unlikely), Israel becomes more vulnerable than it has ever been. In that case, expect nuclear warfare.

  5. observa
    December 13th, 2007 at 20:09 | #5

    Iraq acted as flypaper or should I say maggot paper
    and as such made the ‘good war’ in the graveyard of empires look much better than it would have to date. These maggots did their utmost to defeat the beacon of light project in Iraq and would have succeeded, if not for the fact they finally revulsed even the most hardened insurgents against infidel invasion. They will no doubt turn their attention to Afghanistan now that Iraqis are driving them out and then we’ll see how much stomach the usual nervous nellies have for some serious heavy lifting in their good war for all the right reasons.

    We also need to remember that Operation Iraqi Freedom brought about a change of heart from Ghaddafi, as well as the coincident cessation of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran like Syria has done its best to spoil the emergence of any reasonable and civil society in Iraq, but despite their best efforts, Iraqis themselves have pulled back from the brink of what their neighbours actively pursued. There is a glimmer of light in Iraq now and its growing brighter, shining quietly across its borders to places like Iran, with the old Mullahs presiding over a restive, youthful population and 19% annual inflation of late, not to mention the shortages and sacrifices the regime has imposed with its guns instead of butter approach. If Iraq glows ever more brightly, it will shine in many dark places and increasingly illuminate the twisted evil that dwells there. Noone anticipated the fall of the Berlin wall, just as noone could possibly foretell the fall of the Iranian Mullahs, but the possibility may be growing faster than we all dare hope.

  6. Persse
    December 13th, 2007 at 22:12 | #6

    It is as though the fate of the American troops is all that really matters, and the Iraqis are invisible non-persons.
    Attacks on the Americans drop, and that is hailed as so encouraging.
    Meanwhile, 300,000 Iraqi children are growing up illiterate in Syrian and Jordanian camps. Much as the Taliban did. And didn’t that go well.
    The north is on the cusp of civil war over oil resources. For that matter the Shiite south is as well.
    The nations security chief wants the Americans out, as does the majority of the Iraqi people.
    The bases idea is madness. However matters eventuate, the Iraqis will fight to retain political control over their own oil resources, which will be likely better news for the Chinese and Iranians than for the Americans. And without being able to get their hands on the oil what is else is there Iraq for them?

  7. Katz
    December 13th, 2007 at 22:22 | #7

    Ever heard of post hoc ergo propter hoc Obby?

    Ghaddafi was swinging in the breeze ever since his major backers, the Soviets, dropped off the map. Ghaddafi saw an opportunity to come in out of the cold, and took it. Since the fall of the Soviets, what had Ghaddafi done to justify his reputation as a scourge of the West?

    What evidence do you have that Iran was more intent on making a nuke before 2003 than they were after 2003? In reality, nothing has changed in Iran. What has changed is that the CIA has ben part of a palace coup against Cheney and the Neocons. Hence the pre-emptive NIE exculpating Iran post 2003.

    The reality in Iraq is that there has been a splintering of the Shiite forces.

    The US is forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Maliki government, even though they are the most pro-Iranian faction.

    Meanwhile, the Americans’ natural ally in non-Kurdish Iraq, the nationalist Shiites led by al Sadr, refuse to play the role of pro-American accommodationists.

    Maliki has told the Americans that their UN mandate will end in 2008. At that point they can be asked to leave. The American clock is ticking. The outcome for Iraq will be settled in Teheran, not in Washington DC, and it will involve some sort of accommodation between the pro-Iranian Shiites and the nativist Shiites.

    Already the other powers of the Gulf (all Arab and mostly Sunni) have recognised the fact that Iran has won, and have invited Iran to join the Gulf Co-operation Council, a body that rejected Iran vehemently until their recent stunning successes.

  8. observa
    December 13th, 2007 at 22:39 | #8

    “Already the other powers of the Gulf (all Arab and mostly Sunni) have recognised the fact that Iran has won..”
    Don’t be so sure about Iraqi and Iranian Shiites cuddling up together Katz

  9. Katz
    December 13th, 2007 at 23:04 | #9

    An extract from Obby’s article:

    The U.S. suspects Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran says its program has only peaceful aims.

    Can’t you find anything more current Obby?

    Here is an apoplectic article from the Jerusalem Post on Irans’s recent triumph re the Gulf Co-operation council.


  10. observa
    December 13th, 2007 at 23:56 | #10

    There was a time when you’d discount apopleptic articles by Israelis Katz, not that I’d ever discount their general mistrust of Islam.

    However you’re failing to see the obvious that Ahmadinejad like his Syrian counterparts has failed to stop the light on the hill flickering ever stronger, despite their best efforts
    and what’s more if it bursts into flame and Iraqis have no need for large scale US support much longer, he has double trouble on his hands and hence the sudden switch to a more conciliatory tone. Without an obvious enemy like Saddam or the US for this dictator to focus public opinion on, that only leaves Iranians with problems like 19% inflation to concentrate their minds. We’ll see.

  11. Katz
    December 14th, 2007 at 06:04 | #11

    What conciliatory tone?

    Ahmadinejad is being feted by his erstwhile enemies in the region. He’s been bragging openly. He doesn’t need to send arms etc., to Iraq anymore, not that he did much of that in any case. He’s got what he wants. The US will be asked to leave in Dec 2008. All the Iraqi factions except the Kurds are against “enduring bases”. The American clock is ticking. Ahmadinejad has beaten the Americans.

    Ahmadinejad has firm support from both Russia and China. Oil interests of both countries are now heavily involved in exploiting Iranian oil and piping it north away from the Persian Gulf (which name Bush wanted altered to the Arabian Gulf — faith-based geopolitics at its most risible!). It is quite possible that the same consortia will be involved in exploiting Iraqi oil once the Americans leave. This would be a disaster for American interests.

    [Ahmadinejad still has problems with the Sadrists, but they are minor in comparison to the problems faced by Iran when the US rolled into Iraq in April 2003. (Remember “Mission Accomplished”?)]

    Your so-called “light” in Iraq is the triumph of theocracy, or atleast the triumphs of theocracies. There are no secularist politicians in Iraq.

    The highest court in Iraq is a court that metes out Sharia Law.

    The Bush Clique cannot get what it fervently wants in Iraq. It wants an oil law that:

    1. Favours Houston-based minors.

    2. Removes the pricing of Iraqi oil from political interference.

    What is this light you keep claiming to perceive? Is it a light at the end of a tunnel?

    I’d avoid those tunnel lights, Obby. They’ve proven to be very misleading in the past.

  12. Katz
    December 14th, 2007 at 07:07 | #12

    And here’s another stake through the heart of the Bush Clique. It started last week:


    Iran’s Oil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari has been quoted as saying the Islamic Republic has now ‘completely halted’ the sale of its crude oil in US dollars, reported the AFP citing the local ISNA. Nozari described the dollar as ‘unreliable’ in the wake of its deprecation but the minister did not specify in which currency Iran was now being paid for its oil. Japan has been paying for its oil in yen.

    One could imagine Russia or China dumping the $US as their medium of exchange for buying Iranian oil.

    But Japan???

  13. observa
    December 14th, 2007 at 13:06 | #13

    Since when was Iran not allowed to sell its oil for Yen, Roubles, beads or sea shells if it damn well wants to?(well sanctions permitting of course) I’d much prefer it trades its oil for Japanese exports than North Korean ones.

    I also have my doubts Blair or Bush thought Iraq would turn into a model of Westminster democracy or an American one, although one can always hope. A reasonably decent civil democracy that doesn’t have military designs on its neighbours, nor harbours terrorists will do nicely, thank you very much. That isn’t what AQ, Syria or Iran wanted but it appears they’ll be disappointed, albeit I don’t anticipate it will be without some hiccups. It remains to be seen how such an Iraq will impact on Syrians and Iranians in the longer term. I’ll keep my fingers crossed it’s like Europe and the USSR and the sooner the better.

  14. Katz
    December 14th, 2007 at 15:44 | #14

    You appear not to understand, Obby.

    While the world oil trade is denominated in $US, US oil importers are spared the risk of adverse movements in the exchange rate of the $US when they buy the nation’s single most important import. Inevitably, this adds costs to an already stretched US economy.

    Saddam tried to set up an ol market denominated in Euros just before he was toppled in 2003.

    This story isn’t about Iran. It’s about Japan. Iran has always been keen to accept other forms of payments besides $US. The catch is that US administrations have pressured importers from other countries to deal only in $US.

    Now Japanese importers have said “No”. That’s a significant indication of the waning power of the Bush administration.

    I note you choose not to talk about the growing influence of Russia and China in the Middle East.

    A reasonably decent civil democracy that doesn’t have military designs on its neighbours, nor harbours terrorists will do nicely, thank you very much.

    So the now dead Iraqi oil law, which the US has been pushing for so hard, was irrelevant to Bush’s plans.

    And the US built the largest embassy in the world in the capital of a country of a mere 20m because they want to rent out the additional space to Iraqi knitting circles.

  15. December 14th, 2007 at 16:44 | #15

    It was a dumb pointless war. With over 700 military bases in 130 countries the USA should now consider trying the foreign policy platform that won GWB the 2000 election. Empires go broke and lots of people get hurt if they persist like this.

  16. observa
    December 14th, 2007 at 21:24 | #16

    Katz, I’m well aware of guns or butter tradeoffs in such matters and as such am extremely grateful to Americans for their sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan in that regard. That’s because I, like Blair, believe that the ME broadly speaking is the greatest threat to world paece after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The fact that the Bush Administration might have liked some fringe benefits for their sacrifice, doesn’t faze me as much as it clearly does you. However like the Syrians and Iranians they may be disappointed in that too.

    As for the US printing too much money and those chickens coming home to roost, I don’t think they’re alone in that predicament. Perhaps if OPEC demand gold for oil in the near future, it may have some very positive long term disciplinary effects for us all. Whatever? That has nothing to do with my wanting to see positive outcomes for Iraqis now and I want as many countries of goodwill to assist that outcome as possible. I believe that means staying the course as long as Iraqis want us to, as distinct from Rudd’s stance, although I notice he’s not done a Lithium with troops home by Xmas. I applaud that for now.

    As to whether the removal of Saddam was worth it, that will likely take 10 years plus to judge, although sooner is possible. Has this war stretched America? Undoubtedly and it may as a result take Terje’s advice on all those bases in the near future. I’ll leave Americans to make that judgement, with the aid of their hosts, as they see fit. Furthermore, I don’t have a problem with Russia or China becoming more important players in world affairs, given the directions they have taken more recently. I don’t have a problem with Japan doing so either. I can let bygones be bygones. That’s the kinda guy I am.

  17. observa
    December 14th, 2007 at 23:12 | #17

    The light on the hill glows brighter http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,22928071-1702,00.html

  18. Katz
    December 15th, 2007 at 05:54 | #18

    Oh dear, Obby. Can’t you do better than that?

    Look at the dates of Khatami’s last stint as president of Iran. That was the time when, according to Chimpo, Iran was most determined to develop a nuclear weapon!

    And your previous post isn’t an analysis. It’s a prayer.

    Put an amen on the end of it and you may receive a plenary indulgence for reciting it.

  19. observa
    December 15th, 2007 at 09:33 | #19

    Katz, you need to focus a bit more on the good war and the rather obvious shortcomings of the Coalition of the Unwilling, the usual heavy lifters exempted of course.
    But nary a peep do we hear from the usual suspects about that. It’s all about US shortcomings for these conspicuous indignaters.

  20. Katz
    December 15th, 2007 at 10:32 | #20

    From Obby’s article:

    Mr Gates said that in five years time he expects there to be a smaller international military presence in Afghanistan but with the Afghan national army leading combat operations and Afghan police in more effective control at the local level.

    In five years, Mr Gates will have been out of office for four years.

    I’ll take notice of what he predicts when he he states clearly what he expects the position to be the day he steps out of his Pentagon office for the last time in January 2009.

    Surely that is a task five times easier than his prognostications for the end of the year 2012! Good God, the London Olympics will have come and gone by then!

  21. John Greenfield
    December 15th, 2007 at 16:04 | #21

    Not that I know the answer, I wonder how me might answer a counter-factual about the invasion of Iraq. What if we hadn’t?

  22. jquiggin
    December 15th, 2007 at 17:11 | #22

    A few suggestions

    1. Several thousand Americans and several hundred thousand Iraqis who are now dead would still be alive

    2. The Taliban would have been defeated in Afghanistan and (quite possibly) bin Laden killed or captured.

    3. Saddam would have fallen sooner or later, and replaced by a government more sustainable than the one that is tenuously in place now

    4. The US government would have some credibility on issues like Weapons of Mass Destruction, even if it still made mistakes (see Iran).

    5. The Republican party would have some chance of retaining the presidency in 2008.

    Of these, #1 is virtually certain and vitally important. The others are more conjectural.

  23. Katz
    December 15th, 2007 at 17:12 | #23

    When you say we JG, I presume you don’t mean just Australia, because our presence in Iraq has made very little difference on a military or a political level. It has cost a lot of money, which we can nevertheless afford and it will make very little difference to our future fate in the world.

    If the US had not invaded?

    A Republican might have won the 2008 presidential election.

    Iraqis would still be miserable and oppressed, but more of them would be alive today and still living in Iraq. It seems that getting out of Iraq was always easy, which raises the question why relatively few of them did that before Bush’s folly.

    In 2003 the US might have given more clandestine aid to the Shiite resistance. Bush Senior refused to do that in 1991, fearing that they were Iranian surrogates. Fast-forward to 2007. Bush is funding and arming these very same people as the government of Iraq. And guess what? The ARE Iranian surrogates!

    If Bush hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003, it would have been impossible for Bush to invade Iran. Now it’s impossible for Bus hto invade Iran.

  24. gerard
    December 16th, 2007 at 13:41 | #24

    Given the complexity of the situation, I fully expect my un-expert analysis to be full of enormous holes, nevertheless, mainly for the purposes of gathering my own thoughts together, I have put together a brief (as possible) summary of what I see going on. First consider how it got so bad in the first place. Considering the staying power of Arab nationalism plus the fact that America had been Iraq’s long-term enemy, there was never much doubt that an American military occupation would be met with fierce resistance, and Bremer’s dissolution of the Baathist State and military, along with the looting of hundreds of thousands of tons of ordnance, virtually guaranteed the early successes of the insurgency, a leaderless movement of many factions which drew particular support from Sunni population. America’s brutal counter-insurgency efforts, most horrifically illustrated in the razing of Falluja (ironically with the chemical weapon white phosphorous), only added fuel to the fire, which grew to the point that the Coalition Provisional Authority was barely able to exercise any power in the majority Sunni areas. The police and security forces were infiltrated with insurgents and totally dysfunctional. Reconstruction of basic services was non-existent, while billions were pilfered from reconstruction funds. The country was allowed to collapse, “freedom is messy� as Rumsfeld said. Meanwhile the majority Shiite population which had been oppressed under Saddam and might have been expected to welcome the American intervention launched a massive campaign of non-violence civil disobedience under the leadership of al-Sistani, directed against America’s Iraqi Interim Governing Council (the appointed body which adopted Bremer’s extreme neoliberal economic plan for turning over Iraq assets to international investors). Much of the Shiite population also supported the insurgency, and one faction of the Shiite population, the Mehdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, took up arms against the Americans in Najaf before Sistani brokered an uneasy peace. Now it was because of Sistani’s movement, and not because of America’s master plan for democracy (which didn’t exist), that the Iranian backed Shiite Islamic parties al Dawa and SCIRI (the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, now known as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council) came to dominate the Iraqi National Assembly (along with the Kurdish parties) after the “Purple Finger� elections of 2005 (boycotted by Sunni parties). At the referendum later that year the new national constitution (which allows provinces to form semi-independent regions controlling their resources independently of the central government) received overwhelming support in oil-rich Shia areas and overwhelming rejection in Sunni areas, anticipating the looming sectarian conflict. Prior to the legislative election that followed, Al-Sadr joined Sistani’s United Iraq Alliance and forced the Americans to accept his militia merging with Iraqi Security Forces, while the pro-American Iraqi National Congress dropped out of the coalition. America had come to Iraq hoping to set up a friendly neoliberal client state – instead they had established a revolutionary Shiite Islamic government, hostile to a large minority of Iraq’s population, dominated by parties established by Axis of Evil Iran!

    Needless to say, the prospect of Iranian style anti-American theocracy in control of such colossal energy reserves was anathema to the Americans, and an alarming threat to America’s Sunni allies, including the human rights superstars Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. These countries began backing the Sunni insurgents against the Shiite dominated national government, which was staffing the security forces with sectarian Shiite milita, notably the Iranian fostered Badr Brigades (SIIC’s Iranian-trained armed wing). The Americans had long since lost control of most of the country, and when the extremely sacred al Askari mosque was blown up in early 2006, the whole place fell to pieces. Although leading religious authorities urged restraint and blamed the bombing on outside provocateurs intent on dividing Iraq, the sectarian tinderbox had been lit. Shiite death squads cleansed Baghdad of its Sunni neighborhoods, while torturing and murdering their political and religious opponents, not to mention “unchaste� women and anyone who violated their medieval version of sharia law (for women’s rights the fall of Saddam has been an unmitigated disaster). Sunni militia backed by foreign forces terrorized Shiite neighborhoods in turn, and they too targeted anyone they perceived as un-Islamic. Indiscriminate bombings and massacres in the capital and across the country were daily occurances, violence doubled with 3000 killed each month, according to the ISG report. Millions fled, or were cleansed, huge populations of refugees arrived in Syria and Jordan. As attacks doubled, private military contractors and government backed militias took over much of the “peacekeeping� work of the US military. Several provinces and army divisions were handed back to the Shiite government, and the British, essentially, surrendered the South to the Shiite Islamic Virtue Party. Meanwhile Anbar province in the West was “lost�, now totally under the control of the Sunni insurgency. The Green Zone was the only part of Iraq under control of the Americans, and even that was being regularly bombed (even during a visit by the UN Secretary General). Basically the country was now totally controlled by a mélange of various ethnic, tribal and religious militias. In desperation, the “Iraq Study Group� was called in, featuring the House of Saud’s favorite lawyer James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton of 9/11 Whitewash Commission fame. They recommended bringing in neighboring countries to help end the fighting, establishing a real army for the country, redeploying American troops within several years, and de-nationalizing the oil industry. Since that time, and with the idiot Rumsfeld out of the way, the Americans have developed a new strategy to make these things happen. The ‘Surge’, an increase of something on 20,000 troops on top of the 170,000 already present (not counting the 180,000 private contractors), almost entirely directed at securing Baghdad is a part of this strategy. It is the part receiving the most media attention, but much of this is propaganda obscuring the main part of the new strategy.

    The main part is essentially giving up, for now at least, on the idea of a unified nation-state under control of a single government. They are keeping the Shiites on side by giving them federal control over their oil-rich regions (and the so-called “national� government), keeping the Kurds on side by promising them regional autonomy and a referendum on Kirkuk’s future (much to Turkey’s displeasure), and paying some Sunni groups to fight the others. In other words, they couldn’t beat the Sunni insurgency, so now they are negotiating (which they could have done four years ago, when the militias were less powerful, had they not wished to establish a permanent presence). The Americans agree to accept this group’s control of a specific local region, pay them off, arm them and get them to fight the ones that won’t be paid off (who shall be lumped together with al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). Now Sunni insurgents who months ago were fighting the Americans are fighting with them. A key part of this is the so-called “Sunni awakening� in Anbar province, where the central government has had no presence for a long time. The wealthy Sunni tribal leader Abu Risha forged an alliance with the Americans, hoping to become Anbar’s new local Saddam Hussein. He was assassinated days after appearing together with Bush, the day before Bush was about to praise him in a televised address. The address had to be hastily re-written. Obviously there are still Sunni forces that are not willing to submit to pro-American leaders, and they are not all foreign fighters. But many have calculated that they have more to lose (from the Shiites) if they fight the national government/Americans than they do if they accept their presence (for now) and keep control of their local areas. In their respective regions, Sunni, Shia and Kurdish forces are assuming police and governmental duties. Much of Iraq remains disputed between opposing militia and horrifically violent, but in some areas, including the capital where the ‘Surge’ is directed, the violence is gradually receding, as agreements between the Americans and the various militias are negotiated. One reason why violence has decreased in Baghdad during this year is that much of the sectarian cleansing that accounted for the post al-Askari spiral of violence has been accomplished. Baghdad was a mixed city; it is now effectively separated into sectarian regions. The Americans have erected walls between Sunni and Shiite districts and negotiated agreements with Sunni and Shiite militia to keep within these boundaries. The present peace depends on the agreements between these militia forces holding. A fraction of the millions of refugees have been returning, but they are mostly Shia, and this is as much due to visa restrictions in neighboring countries as anything else. The real question is, can this “balance of terror� between the militias that has now emerged in Iraq lead to long-term peace, let along a unified national government? And do the Americans even want a unified national government – given that it may well reject their oil law and kick them out? The situation is extremely complex and hard to follow; personally I have not been following it closely enough to have any sort of understanding. But it seems to me that the following several things happened – after the Americans arrived, Sistani and Co. (product of Iran) saw an opportunity to create an Islamic state. The Sunnis were only prepared to get on board a power-sharing agreement in the new state if the Americans agreed to leave, but the American presence was non-negotiable. Sistani, on the other hand, had enough patience to accept an American presence for the time being. Had the Americans negotiated a withdrawal and brought the Sunnis on board at that point, a national non-sectarian government could have eventuated, but America would have had to leave. What did happen was that the Sunnis were frozen out, and as a result the new government was Shiite dominated and strongly Iranian influenced. The Americans and neighboring Arab states could now see an Iran-flavored monster in the making, and so they began to militarily back elements of the Sunni insurgency to counterbalance the Iranian influence on the one hand and politically back non-Sadrist (pro-oil-privatization) elements of the Shiite coalition on the other hand. The country is now sufficiently divided that the Americans don’t face any force strong enough to kicked out in the immediate future. Divide and rule worked, in spite of the fact that Sunnis and Shia in Iraq had co-existed peacefully for most of their hundreds of years together, that the non-sectarian Iraqi nationalist identity was actually quite strong, and that many Iraqis, including leading clerics, still blame foreign agents and not each other for some of the worst attacks. Now the civil war has reached a point of equilibrium, but the situation remains highly unstable and the future is totally unpredictable.

    The most critical factor in the decline of violence has not been the troop increase. It has been the “six month� ceasefire declared last August by Muqtada al-Sadr. His Mehdi army is the largest militia in Iraq, although less well equipped than the SIIC Badr Brigades. The ceasefire is holding now but can’t be depended on. There is fragmentation within the Shiite bloc, especially regarding the American presence and the 2007 Iraq Oil Law approved by al-Maliki’s cabinet earlier this year. This law would de-nationalize and federalize the oil industry, giving provincial government power to grant contracts to foreign corporations. Getting this law in place was the key objective of America’s new strategy. If and only if the oil-rich regions can be turned over to elements supportive of this, the US forces can ‘redeploy’. Al-Sadr has an uneasy relationship with other Shiite militia and is resolutely opposed to a permanent American presence in the country, and to the 2007 Oil law. He views SIIC as too close to both the Iranians and the Americans, although right now he is defering to Sistani’s religious authority. His is not the only part of the Shiite bloc that is splintering off. In Basra, where most of the oil is, where the British have just retreated tails between legs, there is a political conflict brewing over control over the oil fields. Earlier this year, Maliki tried to crack down on the Islamic Virtue Party, which controls the Southern oil fields and which withdrew from the ruling coalition in 2006, and reinstated Saddam’s old labor laws to crack down on the Oil Workers Union, which opposes privatization. Al-Sadr is now coming out against the oil law, so a three way conflict between the Sadrists, the Islamic Virtue party and SIIC is brewing in the South, and the Americans can’t do much but hope that SIIC comes out on top. Even SIIC however is losing patience with the Americans and the lawless mercenaries in their employ, and may not support an extension of their UN mandate. Meanwhile the Kurds are supportive of the new oil law, conditional on being granted further autonomy, which in turn represents an existential threat to NATO ally Turkey, already intervening in the border regions. The trickiest issue maybe the status of oil-rich Kirkuk, which has already seen its fair share of ethnic cleansing and violence (de-Arabization), as thousands of Kurds kicked out by Saddam returned. The referendum on whether Kirkuk will belong to Iraqi Kurdistan was planned for November but has been pushed back to next year, under pressure from the national government and Turkey (which totally opposes it). This referendum is likely to be a major flashpoint over the coming year. As for the Sunnis, getting them involved in the national government still seems like mission impossible, and it is likely that America will just try and find some tribal warlords like Abu Risha to keep the peace in the relatively oil-poor areas written off the central government. Iraqi nationalism and fervent opposition to any foreign presence is still a force within both Sunni and Shia populations. There has been progress but anyone who thinks Iraq is sailing toward ‘peace’ thanks to the ‘Surge’ has their head up their ginger. And obviously, if Iran is attacked then all bets are off (probably why the CIA moved to undermine the bloodthirsty psychopath Cheney with the intelligence estimates last week).

    In spite of everything, gradual victory is being claimed, and if (a fairly big if) America can get main oil producing regions under the control of forces supportive of the new Oil Law, then that will be the main objective achieved. However, backing these forces up is likely to be a permanent task, and the “phased withdrawal� of US forces remains an extremely vague prospect, whether or not a Democrat wins in 08. Obviously, the criteria for success in Iraq have changed over time. We all remember when Bush, dressed like the tin-pot militarist that he is, stuffed a sock down his crotch and paraded on board the Abraham Lincoln under a Mission Accomplished banner. Of course, at the time, the war had barely begun, and there were still thousands of soldiers yet to be killed and suffer every horrible type of injury you can imagine. The real objective – a permanent presence in the world’s energy heartlands, was to be much more challenging than simply toppling Saddam’s emaciated regime of 2003. Within a year of the invasion of Iraq, the CIA had as much as admitted that the Coalition of the Willing’s casus belli was nothing more than a steaming pile of brazen lies served with contempt to an anti-war public. The millions of us who had enough brains (and you didn’t need that many) to refuse to eat the WMD sh!t salad were ridiculed at the time by the armchair carpet-bombers of the Right, who would later promptly switch rationales when it became obvious to everyone (with some mentally challenged exceptions) that the “threat� from Saddam had been a fabrication the whole time. Now the invasion was an idealistic “humanitarian� intervention, to establish a “democracy� in the heart of the Middle East that would set an example to the rest of the region! Since then, this discourse has been embarrassingly discarded along with any memory of Colin Powell’s “convincing� presentation at the UN. There is no longer any pretence of establishing a democratic state in Iraq, or even a real State for that matter. There is essentially no Iraq today, democratic or otherwise; there is just an Iraq shaped hole in the map, a patchwork of sectarian, ethnic and tribal feudatories, governed in most places by militant Islamists. At an incomprehensible cost of hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of lives and a trillion dollars it is a wonder that there are still some lunatics out there, deluded enough to applaud this catastrophic bloodbath as any type of success. Yet there they are, absurdly pointing at the threat of militant Islam, now of course immeasurably worsened, as a reason why the Iraq War was justifiable. In fact the war has been a success, but only in terms of the objectives of America’s military-industrial establishment, and especially those companies with GOP connections. They have made off with uncounted billions of public money, and moreover have ensured decades worth of future business out of the permanent violence that this war has created.

  25. gerard
    December 16th, 2007 at 14:36 | #25

    By the way, perhaps the most remarkably accurate prediction of the disaster that has been the Iraq War was actually made by Dick Cheney himself! As he said, fifteen year ago, in an address to the Economic Club of Detroil

    At the end of the war in the Gulf, when we made the decision to stop, we did so because we had achieved our military objectives—that is, when we decided to halt military operations. Those objectives were twofold: to liberate Kuwait and, secondly, to strip Saddam Hussein of his offensive military capability, of his capacity to threaten his neighbors. And we had done that.

    There is no doubt in my mind, but what we could have gone on to Baghdad and taken Baghdad, occupied the whole country. We had the 101st Airborne up on the Euphrates River Valley about halfway between Kuwait and Baghdad. And I don’t think, from a military perspective, that it would have been an impossible task. Clearly, it wouldn’t, given the forces that we had there.

    But we made a very conscious decision not to proceed for several reasons, in part because as soon as you go to Baghdad to get Saddam Hussein, you have to recognize that you’re undertaking a fairly complex operation. It’s not the kind of situation where we could have pulled up in front of the presidential palace in Baghdad and said, “Come on, Saddam. You’re going to the slammer.� We would have had to run him to ground. A lot of places he could have gone to hide out or to resist. It would have required extensive military forces to achieve that.

    But let’s assume for the moment that we would have been able to do it, we got Saddam now and maybe we put him down there in Miami with Noriega. Then the question comes, putting a government in place of the one you’ve just gotten rid of. You can’t just sort of turn around and away; you’ve now accepted the responsibility for what happens in Iraq. What kind of government do you want us to create in place of the old Saddam Hussein government? You want a Sunni government or a Shia government, or maybe it ought to be a Kurdish government, or maybe one based on the Baath Party, or maybe some combination of all of those.

    How long is that government likely to survive without US military forces there to keep it propped up? If you get into the business of committing US forces on the ground in Iraq to occupy the place, my guess is I’d probably still have people there today, instead of having been able to bring them home.

    We would have been in a situation, once we went into Baghdad, where we would have engaged in the kind of street-by-street, house-to-house fighting in an urban setting that would have been dramatically different from what we were able to do in the Gulf, in Kuwait in the desert, where our precision-guided munitions and our long-range artillery and tanks were so devastating against those Iraqi forces. You would have been fighting in a built-up urban area, large civilian population, and much heavier prospects for casualties.

    You would have found, as well, I think, probably the disintegration of the Arab coalition that signed on to support us in our efforts to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait, but never signed on for the proposition that the United States would become some kind of quasi-permanent occupier of a major Middle Eastern nation.

    And the final point, with respect to casualties, everybody, of course, was tremendously impressed with the fact that we were able to prevail at such a low cost, given the predictions with respect to casualties in major modern warfare. But for the 146 Americans who were killed in action and for their families, it was not a cheap or a low-cost conflict. The bottom-line question for me was: How many additional American lives is Saddam Hussein worth? The answer: Not very damn many. I think the President got it right both times, both when he decided to use military force to defeat Saddam Hussein’s aggression, but also when he made what I think was a very wise decision to stop military operations when we did.

  26. gerard
    December 16th, 2007 at 15:04 | #26

    “Earlier this year, Maliki tried to crack down on the Islamic Virtue Party, which controls the Southern oil fields and which withdrew from the ruling coalition in 2006, and reinstated Saddam’s old labor laws to crack down on the Oil Workers Union, which opposes privatization.”

    Can I clarify this? It was the SIIC (al-Maliki) that used Saddam’s labour laws against the Iraqi Oil Workers Union, not the Islamic Virtue Party. The Islamic Virtue Party is dominant in Basra and draws support from the Shia poor in the South. It has connections with the Oil Workers Union and opposes the 2007 Oil Law. Its militia guard the refineries around Basra giving it control over much of Iraq’s oil. There is no functioning government in Basra. The governer al-Waili is been estimated to have embezzled billions in oil revenue, although he claims to be spending the money on reconstruction and services. al-Maliki has attempted to dismiss al-Waili, but he refuses to step down. In the middle of this standoff the British have wisely cut and run. It might come down to SIIC sending in the Badr brigades to take control of Basra, in which case SIIC will truly be in control of the country. But al-Sadr also has strong support across the south and may launch an opposition movement to SIIC and the Americans the time of his choosing.

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