For Paul Bremer, life in Iraq right now is very much like being trapped in a game of Asteroids. The game opens with large asteroids tumbling languidly through space around the player’s gunship; shooting one breaks it into smaller chunks, and each time a bullet hits one of those chunks it breaks into even smaller meteorites — each of which can destroy the gunship.
To complicate matters, a foreign element in the form of a rival space gunship periodically charges across the screen firing at your own. That’s very much like the situation in Iraq as the U.S. hurtles toward the June 30th handover: Taking care of one big problem seems only to present you with more, tougher smaller problems, and every now and then some outside force comes through taking potshots.
Looking at the current U.S. exit strategy it’s easy to see why prospects for success may have been greater had the plan been tried a year ago than they are today. While there has been substantial, if mixed, progress in the physical reconstruction of Iraq, a year of occupation has done little to lay the political and institutional foundations for Iraqi democracy. The Iraqi Governing Council, the body handpicked by Bremer to represent Iraqis in a transition to democracy has failed to develop legitimacy, or even to function as an effective steward of a transition process. A year later, the U.S. — this time with help from the UN — is looking to reboot a more clearly scripted transition, with firm deadlines, by appointing a new caretaker body. And the liberal constitution brokered by U.S. officials has been rejected by the country’s most powerful spiritual authority.
Even more alarming, has been the deterioration in the security situation over the past year. A year after taking control of the country, U.S. supply lines into Baghdad are imperiled by insurgents, and the Coalition appears unable to guarantee the safety of those Iraqis who join its police forces or its Governing Council. The indigenous insurgent challenge has grown and multiplied: U.S. troops now fight on two fronts, facing both Sunni insurgents whose number include both former Baathist officers, nationalists and Islamists, as well as Shiite fighters loyal to the militant rabble rouser Moqtada Sadr — and, of course, a foreign terrorist element whose frequent high-profile suicide attacks, such as Monday’s killing of the head of the Governing Council, Izzedine Saleem, sow chaos and keep the occupation authority on the defensive. The prevailing paradox is that while the Coalition’s forces may be the only effective means of guaranteeing security in Iraq after June 30, their continued presence also undermines security as the various insurgent groups capitalize on the growing enmity toward the occupation forces. The sobering reality is that the U.S. appears to have fewer friends in the Iraqi population today than it had a year ago when Saddam was overthrown.
But Iraq is not Asteroids, of course, and each of the diverse “threat” elements has its own agenda beyond simply ending the U.S. presence. For many of the insurgent groups fighting the Americans right now may be seen as a means to expand their influence in a post-occupation Iraq. That may be why some Iraqi Governing Council members are furious over the deal made by the U.S. to restore calm to Fallujah by essentially handing control of the town to a military force intimately associated with the insurgents on the understanding that this force would prevent attacks on U.S. forces. Plainly, the new Fallujah force has no intention of disarming the insurgents, some of whom are now in its ranks, or of handing over foreign fighters.
The deal looks like a cease-fire. To have taken the town in a frontal assault would have caused a level of civilian casualties that would have undermined the overall U.S. mission in Iraq. U.S. commanders on the ground chose instead to cut a deal, in recognition, perhaps, that the goal of militarily eliminating the insurgency before the U.S. goes home may be a bridge too far. For their part the insurgents clearly sense that, far from being “bitter enders” as Donald Rumsfeld likes to call them, they may in fact have a future in a new Iraq. That’s precisely what the U.S. military wants them to recognize, believing that the insurgency is fueled in large part by Sunni alienation from the efforts of the Coalition.
A number of IGC members blamed the Saleem killing on the Coalition’s choices at Fallujah, charging that the U.S. had essentially accepted the creation of a sanctuary from which attacks could be prepared for anywhere in Iraq. In response, IGC members are calling for a greater role for their own party-political militia in providing security. That’s an option the U.S. has avoided embracing for fear of entrenching warlordism. But its reliance on Kurdish militia forces in the fight for Fallujah — and now on a crypto-Baathist one to keep the peace there — suggests there may be a piecemeal move to embrace existing, politically-aligned forces as an important component of Iraqi security.
The month-long standoff with Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi militia, however, has thus far defied all efforts at a mediated solution. Fierce clashes provoked by Sadrist fire this week drew the Americans ever closer to fighting outside the sacred shrines in Najaf and Karbala. Sadr appears to be riding on the U.S. campaign against him as a means to eclipse his rivals in the battle for Shiite support. His tactics appear to involve goading the U.S. into increasingly risky actions around the holy sites, and then publicly lambasting Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for failing to act on his warning to the U.S. against crossing the “red line” of entering the shrine cities.
U.S. officials say their strategy in Najaf and elsewhere has worked to turn powerful Shiites against Sadr. It’s certainly true that two of his key rivals, the SCIRI and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have called with increasingly insistence for Sadr’s men leave the shrine cities. But they’re also calling on the U.S. to do the same, and have shied away from armed confrontations with the Sadrists. The rebel cleric clearly believes he can make the U.S. strategy work to his advantage because military actions in Karbala and Najaf deepens the hostility of ordinary Shiites towards the Coalition, potentially undermining the standing of Sistani and those Shiites working in the Governing Council, while burnishing Moqtada’s own appeal. Sadr is clearly using his fight with the Americans as his campaign platform to eclipse rivals in the battle for Shiite support. Sistani and his aides know that Sadr may be strongest precisely when the U.S. is sending tanks into Najaf after him, and have long counseled that the best way to isolate and marginalize Moqtada Sadr is to ignore him. It may be a little late for that, now.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said in an interview this week that “things could get really bad in the coming weeks.” The anticipation of a spike in violence before June 30 is conventional wisdom among Coalition officials. But whether anything that happens on that day serves to tamp down violence in its wake remains to be seen.