Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A "New" Iraq Strategy

A banner from the Kurdistan Regional Government website.
Note the Kurdish (not Iraqi) flag blowing in the wind.

It appears that the White House is leaning toward the plan that U.S. Senator John McCain has been pitching for a dramatic increase in American troops in Iraq. Tens of thousands additional American soldiers are supposed to be deployed in Baghdad at another last-ditch effort to beat the insurgency. The new objective? To end the "cycle" of sectarian violence (New York Times). The idea seems to be that by making Baghdad safe from the Sunni insurgents, the Iraqi government will gain credibility to clamp down on the Shi'a militias, and perhaps public approval.

All this is more wishful thinking. The Shi'a are not going to be won over by the U.S. They will be happy to watch the Americans continue to fight on their behalf, but they know that the U.S. will not be in Iraq forever. Those politicians calling for another troop increase will be sending more American soldiers to their deaths for gains that will be reversed once America finally withdraws - if these gains materialize at all. In any case, it is doubtful that the Shi'i population will credit the U.S. or the Maliki government with such gains. At the end of the day, the residents of Sadr City will see the Mahdi Army as their savior. Like it or not, the militias' sectarian cleansing is also seen by most Shi'a as their ticket to safe neighborhoods. Any attempts by Americans to limit militia activity, on the other hand, is perceived as a deliberate effort to put Shi'a in harm's way.

Meanwhile, the Sunni insurgency, spearheaded mainly by former Baathists but abetted by al Qaeda, is continuing the fight against the Marines deployed in the western provinces, most notably, al-Anbar. Despite the pessimistic reports by such seasoned observers as Col. Peter Devlin (see our earlier post, "Failed Province: Marines Lose Hope in al-Anbar"), the young Marines serving in the province are more optimistic. An acquaintance of mine who is the executive officer (second in command) of a rifle company deployed in al-Anbar told me that the Marines were "laying the smack down" and that things were getting "incrementally better." The Americans in al-Anbar might be embarking on another offensive soon. But to me it seems that failing a deal with credible authorities on the ground, the effects of these operations are likely to prove ephemeral. And of course, the costs are incredibly high. The same officer said that in his company there had been 4 men killed in action and 42 wounded. A company is just under 200 rifle men. The battalion to which his company belongs had lost 16 men and counted 150 wounded. (A battalion is made up of five companies or around 2,000 men).

There is one population that still views the Americans positively - the Kurds. Although they are getting more and more annoyed about being taken for granted (as they were in the Iraq Study Group report), they are America's only reliable ally on the ground in Iraq. The Kurds are enjoying the benefits of relative prosperity and security mainly because there are no Sunni in their territory and because they were able to develop autonomous institutions during the sanctions and no-fly zone period. They have been doing their best to protect Kurdistan from the havoc that rules in most of Iraq. Thus, they routinely turn away Arabs - Shi'a or Sunni - at the border. Unlike other Iraqis, the Kurds know that they could use the help of the U.S. in protecting them from the hostile states surrounding Iraqi Kurdistan. But instead of reassuring the Kurds, Baker, Hamilton and company seem to have gone out of their way to antagonize them. For example, the Iraq Study Group Report refers repeatedly to the "contentious" issue of Kirkuk. Kirkuk, a city in the north of Iraq, is home to a mixed population of Kurds, Turkomans, and Arabs. For years, Kurdish inhabitants of Kirkuk suffered from Saddam's Arabization campaign there. It is, needless to say, a big oil center. In post-Sadddam Iraq, according to the Iraqi constitution, the population of Kirkuk is supposed to hold a referendum on whether the city should join the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The ISG Report warns that such a referendum would spark further violence, and then, in the next paragraph chastises Kurdish (as well as Shi'a) leaders for "not working toward a united Iraq" (ISG Report, pp. 18-19).

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