Gareth Porter / TomPaine.com – 2006-10-19 10:04:55
(October 17, 2006) — George W. Bush continues to use the rhetorical device of linking the occupation of Iraq with the war on terrorism, warning in his most recent press conference that “the terrorists would take control of Iraq” if the US withdrew its forces.
But for many politicians and pundits the argument that has kept them supporting the occupation is that withdrawing too soon would make sectarian violence even worse. This argument for continued occupation is not based on the real political-military situation in Iraq, and it is important to understand why.
When US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad gave a speech in Washington his main argument against a “precipitous” withdrawal was that it “could unleash a sectarian civil war, which inevitably would draw neighboring states into a regional conflagration…” That was also the main theme of Sen. Joe Lieberman in arguing against Democratic amendments calling for a timetable for withdrawal in June.
It is not that the civil war won’t get worse in Iraq; it now seems very likely that it will. But the United States is not militarily capable of preventing the worse war yet to come, and trying to do so would only start a new war between the United States and the Shiites who want the US to leave. Since we cannot prevent sectarian violence, the only question is whether we leave before the inevitable confrontation with Shiites — a battle US troops would certainly lose.
First, the military reality. With the buildup of the Shiite sectarian militias — and particularly the Mahdi army of Moqtada al-Sadr — the US occupation force no longer represents the predominant military power in Iraq.
A study issued in August by Chatham House, the influential British strategic think tank, said the Mahdi army, which was believed to have fewer than 10,000 men under arms when the United States tried to destroy it August 2004, may now be “several hundred thousand strong.” In addition, the Badr Organization, which is affiliated with the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen.
Sadr is confident that, once the Shiite government has gotten everything it can out of the United States to strengthen Shiite forces, they can defeat the Sunnis by military force. As Moqtada al-Sadr’s spokesman Mustafa Yaqoubi told The Washington Post last month, the “other forces” would not “have the capability to match us.”
Yaqoubi also made it clear that Sadr’s Mahdi army intends to force the United States out of Iraq. “If we leave the decision to [the Americans], they will not leave,” he said, “To get the occupiers to leave, [the Americans] need some sacrifice.”
The dominant power of the Shiite militia means that it is impossible for the United States to remain longer than the Shiites believe it to be useful. As former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Pat Lang has observed, US troops depend on supply lines that run for hundreds of miles through territory controlled by the Mahdi army. Once Sadr gives the word, supplies can be squeezed enough to render military operations very difficult.
As early as last December, Col. Joseph DiSalvo, commander of a brigade of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, who was responsible for eastern Baghad, told Knight-Ridder’s Tom Lasseter it would be all but impossible for coalition forces to defeat the Shiite militias. “We cannot negate the militias,” he said. “You’d have to have more manpower than is feasible.”
US forces are incapable of stemming the violence that has blossomed this summer. This June, the Bush administration made much of Operation Forward — its move to bring more US troops into Baghdad and provide security from the forces of sectarian violence. But during the first three months of the new strategy, from June through August, the number of civilians killed each month by sectarian death squads increased to 3,249 — one-third more than during the previous three months.
What’s more, the US forces were unwilling to confront the most lethal elements of the violence in Baghdad, thus exposing their inability to provide any meaningful security to civilians. Operation Forward Together actually steered clear of the Mahdi army and the Badr Organization.
US officers told Peter Beaumont of The Guardian that the United States had supported a decision by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government not to confront the militias, “because of fears of a full-scale battle with the militia in Sadr City.” It is important to note that al-Sadr’s political bloc in the Iraqi Parliament were instrumental in providing the votes that brought al-Maliki to power.
Despite rhetoric to the contrary, preventing sectarian violence has never been the priority of the Bush administration in Iraq. At the very time the Shiite militias were building up their power in 2004 and 2005, according to Iraq’s interim interior minister Falah al- Naquib, he warned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other US officials about the threat they would pose, but “They didn’t take us seriously.”
The reason for the Bush administration’s inattention to the sectarian violence is simple: Focusing on that issue conflicted with the main interest of the Pentagon in building up overwhelmingly Shiite security force to fight the Sunni insurgency. In 2005 and even in 2006, the US command used some of the most notorious Shiite sectarian paramilitary forces, who were known to be guilty of widespread torture of Sunnis, like the Wolf Brigade, to maintain control of Sunni cities like Ramadi.
The Bush administration has no strategy for Iraq except to keep strengthening official Shiite-controlled paramilitary forces of the Iraqi government. The assumption is that Shiite security forces will constrain the larger rogue elements and Shiite militias. But of course, from February through July of this year, in the crucial period of transition to much larger civil war, Iraqi security forces stood aside while Shiites and Sunnis carried out massacres of each other.
Some of the Shiite sectarian forces carrying out revenge killings of Sunnis are headquartered right in the Iraqi Ministry of Interior — the very ministry with which the Bush administration continues to collaborate closely against Sunni insurgents and foreign terrorists.
The senior US adviser to the national police admitted that last month that there are “still some militias operating within the national police.” And a senior US military commander said at least five or six battalions of paramilitary police were believed to have commanders who had shown themselves to be either “criminal or sectarian or both.”
The ministry official responsible for the torture center in Baghdad that was revealed by US officials last November is Mahmoud Waeli, who is also known to be the top intelligence official of the Badr Corps.
Yet Waeli continues to operate out of the ministry’s headquarters, according to a senior US military official who spoke on background to the Los Angeles Times last summer. The same official said Pentagon and State Department officials were “disengaged” on the issue of the ministry’s links with militias.
No, the withdrawal of US forces will not result in an outbreak of sectarian violence leading to civil war. That’s already happening. Now, the only recourse for the United States is to pursue the course that the Bush administration has thus far resisted: dropping its threatening demeanor toward Iran and working with it and Iraq’s Arab neighbors to craft a settlement that would constrain the Shiite militia and prompt the kind of political and economic concessions to Sunni minority that could bring a Lebanon-style peace between the two communities. But to get the Sunnis on board, such a settlement would require that Bush agree to a timetable for withdrawal.
The argument that US occupation is the only thing standing between Iraq and complete civil war and chaos argument is symptomatic of a broad refusal to face unpalatable realities that has distorted the national discourse on Iraq. In order to make the national decision to end the occupation, the pundits and politicians will have to face those realities squarely and start making them part of that discourse. Meanwhile, our troops are doing no good to anyone as sitting targets for both sides.
Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam was published in June 2005.
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