After more than a year of occupation by US troops, and despite the June 28 “turnover of sovereignty” to the “Iraqi interim government,” Iraq is far from being the stable and democratic country the US had said it would be.
Iraq is more likely to turn into exactly what opponents of the March 2003 attack had warned: a battlefield in a war that could lead to the creation of an Islamic state like that governed by Saddam Hussein’s ayatollah arch-enemies in Iran, and an inspiration, breeding ground and recruitment center for more ferocious terrorist attacks on the United States and its global interests.
Before the US attack on Iraq, critics had warned that the forcible removal of the secular Saddam Hussein government could lead to civil war between the majority, but politically dispossessed Shiite Muslims, and the Sunnis who were in control of the government, and/or an attempt by the minority Kurds to carve out their own state.
Those critics, however, did not consider the possibility that the Shiites, whom they assumed would support not only the US attack but also the occupation, would turn on the United States instead. Committed to the making of an Islamic state in Iraq, the most influential Shiite clerics see the United States, which doesn’t want another Iran in the Middle East, as a hindrance to their seizing control of Iraq at the expense of the minority Sunnis—who are, however, not likely to give up without a fight.
Although the US war-machine swiftly captured Baghdad and much of Iraq in 2003, the occupation has proven to be far more problematic than the invasion. Like all colonial troops, and following the tradition it established in the Philippines and Vietnam, the US military was hampered not so much by its lack of numbers enough to secure the entire country, as by the inexperience, racism and brutality of its troops in dealing with the Iraqis.
But the flashpoint of current US troubles is the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where a tenuous cease-fire took effect last Friday –and promptly broke down the next day– after ten day’s fighting between US troops and the fighters of the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Although US terms for an end to the fighting have been tough, that the cease-fire itself was even considered indicated the kind of bind the US is in.
The US military believes it can decisively win the battle against al-Sadr and his fighters. Given its firepower and air support, it most probably can. But it would be at the expense of the larger political goal of stabilizing Iraq, and beyond that, of the US’ own security from terrorism worldwide.
This explains why US military commanders agreed to a cease-fire called by the Interim Government, albeit begrudgingly. Given their recent victories, which include their having captured much of Najaf before the weekend, US troops could have laid siege to the Imam Ali mosque, where al-Sadr and his key followers are reported to be entrenched, and brought a quick end to their resistance.
The catch is that some 120 million Shiite Muslims all over the world regard the mosque as their holiest shrine. An attack on it, its damage or destruction, and/or the killing of al-Sadr will provoke even greater outrage not only among Shiites but among Muslims in general.
The battle for Najaf has already outraged millions of Muslims, who regard the attack by US troops as an assault not only on Shiite Muslims but also on Islam.
Among the results of a US victory against the Mahdi Army could be fresh recruits for the terrorist networks worldwide, and a setback for the larger US goal of assuring the safety of US cities, interests, and nationals both at home and abroad.
Along the way, the battle has unmasked the Interim Iraqi Government for what it is: a creature of the United States. Although the US and the Iyad Allawi government have made it a point to include Iraqi troops in the assault on al-Sadr’s Najaf forces, it is US helicopters that are in the air, and mostly US Marines that are on the ground doing the fighting. What little credibility among Iraqis the Allawi government has as an independent Iraq government is likely to be among the casualties of the battle between US troops and the Mahdi Army.
The US predicament is rooted in the fundamentals of its current policies of unilateral, pre-emptive wars for regime change as a plank of its over-all strategic goal of global, full spectrum (land, sea, air and space) dominance. The mission of waging wars anywhere US interests are threatened, or may be threatened, is one of several missions the Bush government has assigned the US military. While defense analysts say that the US has enough ground troops –and certainly more than the firepower, which includes nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons—to wage quick wars, prolonged occupation is much more problematic, as the Iraqi quagmire is demonstrating.
Charles Knight of the (US) Project on Defense Alternatives points out that the US government’s “radical new doctrine” of pre-emptive war—meaning attacking countries the US thinks could be a threat to it before they themselves attack—and of dismantling the governments of the target countries fails to even consider “the heavy burdens of protracted occupation and state building on a massive scale after these preventive wars.” Translation: how to secure for the US the countries it has attacked, and how to rebuild not only infrastructure but entire states as well?
Knight argues that the Bush administration has not prepared for the responsibilities preemptive war would entail in the aftermath, given the “dismal math” of US troop strength. Knight argues that to successfully cope with Iraqi resistance, the strength of US occupation forces, now at 130,000, will have to be raised to as much as 300,000. And yet the Bush administration did not plan for “a large-scale, long serving occupation force, nor did it instruct (the US) military to train the troops for occupation duty.” The latter task, says Knight, is “very different from battlefield combat,” as it indeed is, consisting primarily of “winning hearts and minds,” as the civic action cliché puts it.
As a result not only of this lack of preparation, but even more fundamentally that of the pre-emptive war policy, the US is achieving exactly the opposite of its cherished tactical goals: it is losing the battle for hearts a minds that has long been a fundamental principle of counter-insurgency. The consequences could be not only an Iraq in which both US presence and its client regime would be untenable, but also a world far more hostile than it already is to the US, its perceived allies, and their interests.
The bad news for everyone is that, instead of reevaluating its policies and learning from their consequences, the Bush clique is far from relenting in its single-minded strategic purpose of global dominance through pre-emptive war and regime change. In keeping with the “new” strategy it has devised to cope with the “war on terror”, the US will be withdrawing troops from Asia and Europe in preparation for deploying them to those other countries it regards as possible threats.
Up to 100,000 US troops will be withdrawn mostly from Germany and South Korea to enable the US to deal with the terrorist threat—which is likely to increase, thanks to its own policies.
“We have decided,” said US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, “that it’s time to shift our posture in Europe and Asia and around the world, and move from static defense, which does not make much sense today, to a more deployable and usable set of alternatives.” US defense policy has for over 50 years been defensive in name only. It will be even more starkly offensive, requiring, in the brave new world of the 21st century, the rapid deployment of forces to any part of the globe. Beyond that, the redeployment of US troops back to bases in the US homeland, will also mean budgetary savings that could be channeled into building up US forces from their current strength of 1.4 to 1.6 million at least.
Despite Iraq, US occupation problems, and what’s more, its attack on Iraq’s counter-productive consequences, the US will apparently persist on its chosen course. As the US historian Gabriel Kolko has warned, that course will mean that the 21st will be another century of war, as the 20th was.