Who’s really winning the war in Iraq?
Violence is waning, but can Washington claim victory, or does it belong to Tehran?
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
“Eat Crow, Iraq War Skeptics,” is how the always succinct headline writers at the New York Post put it on Monday. After five years of dashed hopes and numerous “turning points” that turned out to be nothing but pauses in the violence that has claimed more than 4,400 U.S. lives, a sudden wave of good news out of Iraq is rewriting the narrative about the war, giving the Bush administration a flicker of hope in its waning days, and shaking up the presidential campaign contest between Democratic candidate Barack Obama, who wants to pull out, and Republican John McCain, who wants to stay the course. The crowing is about to get louder.
At first glance, it has been a dramatic turn of events. The month of May saw the lowest monthly U.S. casualties across Iraq—19 dead— since the invasion more than five years ago. (To put that number in perspective, in the same month last year, 126 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq.) The decline followed several military operations in which U.S.
and Iraqi forces worked together to go after both Sunni groups in the north of the country and Shia groups in the south.
On May 10, some 800 U.S. and Iraqi troops launched an operation in Mosul, a northern Iraqi city of almost two million people dominated by Sunnis (Saddam Hussein’s branch of Islam) where al-Qaeda in Iraq had an urban stronghold. Working together, with U.S. forces in tank columns supporting Iraqi troops raiding house-to-house, they captured some 1,200 suspected militants, and cut what had been a steady stream of daily violent attacks down to a handful. Within two weeks, violence in the city had dropped by 85 per cent, though sporadic bombings have continued. On May 24, the normally circumspect U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, told reporters, “You are not going to hear me say that al-Qaeda is defeated, but they’ve never been closer to defeat than they are now.” CIA director Michael Hayden on May 30 pronounced on Fox News that al-Qaeda in Iraq “is near strategic defeat.”
The good news isn’t just coming out of Mosul. Military offensives in late March shut down most militia violence in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum neighbourhood, and in the port city of Basra, Iraq’s gateway to the Persian Gulf. And Iraqi forces, whose ability to act independently will be key to any eventual U.S. withdrawal, had led the operations in Basra and Mosul and acted largely on their own in Sadr City. “That’s a level of capability that simply wasn’t possible even six months ago,” emphasized Crocker. “The government, the prime minister, are showing a clear determination to take on extrem-
ist armed elements that challenge the authority of the government and they’ve made it clear that they will do that no matter who these elements are,” he said.
Back in Washington, the editorial board of the Washington Post, which supported the war, pronounced an “Iraqi Upturn” on June 1 and declared that “the U.S.-backed government and army may be winning the war.” They argued Iraq is nearing a “tipping pointone that sees the Iraqi government and army restoring order in almost all of the country, dispersing both rival militias and Iraniantrained special groups that have used them as cover to wage war against Americans.” The
newspaper called for an “overdue rethinking by the ‘this-war-is-lost’ caucus in Washington, including Senator Barack Obama.”
The administration of George W. Bush is crediting the troop “surge”—the buildup of nearly 40,000 U.S. troops beginning in early 2007 on top of the 132,000 already therefor the improvements. So is McCain, who was a leading advocate of the escalation. By contrast, Obama had predicted the surge would fail and that no number of troops could bring about the political progress necessary to achieve stability in Iraq. He introduced legislation in January 2007 that called for withdrawing all U.S. combat troops in 2008.
Since the good news started to come out of Iraq, McCain has been goading Obama, who has not been to Iraq since the surge began, to travel there with him to see the success for himself. “Look at what happened in the last two years since Senator Obama visited and declared the war lost,” said McCain, who has been to Iraq eight times, most recently in March. “He really has no experience or knowledge or judgment about the issue of Iraq and he has wanted to surrender for a long time. For him to talk about dates for withdrawal, whi.ch basically is surrender
in Iraq after we’re succeeding so well is, I think, really inexcusable.”
The Republican script for the general election is being written, and it centres on an argument of McCain’s superior military judgment. “What would have happened if Obama’s bill had passed?” writes a leading advocate of the surge, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, in this week’s Weekly Standard. “There is no way to know for sure, but it seems likely that, facing less resistance, al-Qaeda in Iraq would have continued to gain strength, the fragile Iraqi Security Forces would have collapsed, as would the fragile
Iraqi government, militias would have flourished—and the United States would have departed under fire, accepting a humiliating defeat in the war against al-Qaeda that would have reverberated globally.”
But if the war is in fact being won, it’s not entirely clear who is winning.
There is little doubt that the additional troops and refreshed strategy of the surge has helped reduce violence. But a closer look at the military operations shows that the current relative calm has not sprung from decisive military victories. In Mosul, while some insurgent leaders surrendered after negotiations, others were allowed to flee. It is unclear whether they are simply regrouping to fight another day. There were accusations that they were tipped off by friendly elements in the ranks of the Iraqi forces.
In the Shia-dominated south, Bush has called the battle in Basra “decisive and historic.” But the recent peace there hinged on a remarkable detail that rarely goes mentioned in the declarations of victory: namely, the role of Tehran. In late March, Iraqi forces, under the personal direction of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, launched a hastily organized offensive against the Mahdi Army militia of fundamentalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra. The initial attack by more than 30,000 soldiers did not go well, and U.S. and British forces had to bolster the offen-
sive. Maliki first gave militiamen an ultimatum to put down their arms, and then after government forces couldn’t clear Mahdi Army fighters from their entrenched positions, he offered money to fighters willing to turn in their weapons. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces were also deserting. One Iraqi official in the defence ministry told the Washington Post that 30 per cent of the Iraqi troops involved in the fighting had abandoned their posts. Some security forces even joined the other side. After a week of fighting that left more than 600 dead, the violence was brought to an end by a ceasefire on March 30.
That agreement between Sadr and the Iraqi government was brokered in Iran. Iraqi lawmakers—including members of Maliki’s Dawa Party as well as those from his ruling coalition partner, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), whose Badr Organization militia was the Madhi Army’s rival in Basra and the south—travelled in secret to Qom, the holy city in Iran where Sadr has been living, ostensibly burnishing his religious credentials. Even more remarkably, the man who negotiated the ceasefire was Brig.-Gen. Qassem
Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, an arm of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that Washington has branded as aiding terrorist organizations.
Suleimani’s role as a peacemaker, which was first reported by McClatchy Newspapers, was notable since both the U.S. government and the UN Security Council have put him on watch lists for terrorism and proliferation of nuclear and missile technology—and he is believed to be Iran’s point man for arming and training the rival Shia militias in Iraq. The meeting in Qom resulted in a public statement by Sadr in which he said he would renounce anyone who carried arms against the Iraqi government and government forces, and called for “unity” in Iraq. The resolution—which forced the government to extend a deadline for Sadr’s militia to disarm—seemed to underscore the weakness of Prime Minister Maliki, who had declared he would not negotiate with the militias, and to underscore the influence of Iran.
It appears that rather than defeating the
Shia militias, U.S. troops have been drawn into a power struggle between them. One interpretation of the events in late March is that the most powerful party in the Iraqi government, the Iranian-backed SIIC, which does not enjoy the popular support among Iraqis that Sadr does, tried to provoke the Sadrists into a confrontation with American forces in the hope of weakening Sadr’s Mahdi Army. After the Iranian-negotiated ceasefire, Sadr’s call for his followers to stand down meant that those who did not would face the Iraqi and U.S. troops alone. It was a clever move that helped cull the ranks of his militia of fighters he could not control. The U.S. forces recognized the game, and they were careful to say they were not attacking Sadrists, but “special groups” that kept up the fight after the ceasefire.
“The Sadrists didn’t fight back. That accounts for the relative quiet we’ve seen and the ability for the government to put their troops in place,” says Joost Hiltermann, who leads a team of Middle East analysts for the International Crisis Group. “The moment those Sadrists change their posture, the Iraqi
troops will be driven out from those neighbourhoods, and American troops will be attacked, and there will be chaos.” But, adds Hiltermann, “I don’t expect that to happen unless they feel really provoked.”
Watching carefully to ensure that no one is provoked too much is the Iranian theocracy. While Washington accuses Tehran of arming and training insurgents who kill U.S. troops, the Iranian role is more complex. Tehran has been arming various rival Shia groups as they struggle for power, partly in the hope that should someone win they will owe a debt of friendship to Iran. But, Hiltermann says, “Iran has no interest in things in Iraq getting out of hand. It doesn’t have any true friends in Iraq, but to the extent they have friends, they are among the Shia Islamist parties that are ruling Iraq. To the extent they [the various Shia parties] are inimical to each other, Iran will seek to mediate so that neither side prevails.”
In many ways, Iran has already won the Iraq war. Tehran won in 2003 when the U.S.
removed its long-time enemy, Saddam Hussein. Iran won again in 2005 when elections were organized that brought Iranian-friendly Shia parties to power in Baghdad. And as the U.S. has been bogged down in Iraq, Iran has felt safer from the threat of U.S. military attack over its nuclear program. “For Iran this is a beautiful situation,” Hiltermann says. “They want a unified, friendly and relatively weak Iraq. It shouldn’t be so weak that it falls apart, but not so strong that it develops WMDs and attacks Iran again.”
Of course, it’s just as easy to overstate Iranian influence as it is American success. Sadr, whose ceasefire in Basra and another one negotiated for Baghdad is at the heart of the current calm, has called for an end to the U.S. “occupation.” “God willing, the U.S. will be vanquished, just like it was in Vietnam,” he told the Al-Jazeera television network shortly
before the ceasefire. According to Sadr, U.S. involvement has been worse for the Iraqi people than was the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who is believed to have had Sadr’s father, an extremely popular grand ayatollah, assassinated. “Gone is the ‘Little Satan,’ and in came the ‘Great Satan,’ ” he has said. But Sadr is also an Iraqi nationalist who supports a unified nation and has signalled that he does not wish to be a pawn of Iran. He told Al-Jazeera in a March 29 interview that he made that clear to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini: “During a pilgrimage, I told him that we share the same ideology, but that politically and militarily, I would not be an extension of Iran, and that there were negative things that Iran was doing in Iraq.”
Judith Yaphe, a former senior CIA analyst who is a specialist in Middle Eastern political analysis at the National Defense University in Washington, says Sadr’s relationship with Iran is brittle. “They don’t trust him any more than we do—he is not their most cooperative or dependable ally. He represents something they don’t like: an Iraqi nationalist. He is what we would call in technical terms an ‘uncontrollable asset.’ ” Iran’s goal,
she says, is to defuse confrontations among Shia factions and to keep together a governing Shia coalition friendly to Iran. But there is a limit to the influence that the Persians can have over the nationalistic Iraqi Arabs. “They are at the high point of their influence in Iraq now, and I think it’s going to erode over time because the Iraqis don’t want to be controlled or run by Iran,” says Yaphe.
Meanwhile, the irony is that as the U.S.
continues to back the Maliki government, it is playing into Iran’s hands, especially in terms of the power struggle between the SIIC and the Sadrists. “We are in a lose-lose situation no matter what we do,” says Yaphe. “We are working with the government of Iraq to end terrorism, and we support them and their effort to eliminate terrorism and the people who do it, but what does this translate to in reality? From many Iraqis’ perspective, it is that we are supporting the most pro-Iranian element in Iraq, the Supreme [Islamic Iraqi] Council, to get rid of its greatest rival—the Sadrists and Muqtada al-Sadr.”
A new test of Iranian versus American influence is now playing out in the negotiations for an agreement with the Iraqi government to authorize the continued presence of American troops when a United Nations resolution authorizing the multinational occupation of Iraq expires on Dec. 31. The U.S. has asked for a variety of contentious guarantees, including permission for a long-term troop presence in Iraq. Other flashpoints are control of Iraqi airspace, the right of Americans to perform arrests on Iraqi soil, and the immunity of U.S. forces and contractors to Iraqi law.
Sadr and other Iraqis have opposed any such agreement, arguing that it compromises Iraqi sovereignty. This week, Maliki and other top Iraqi officials travelled to Iran to meet with senior Iranians, in part to try to persuade Tehran that Maliki would not allow his country to become a staging ground for attacks against Iran. But the Iranians seized the occasion to appeal to nationalistic Iraqi impulses and try to turn Iraqi politicians, and public opinion, against an agreement. Some went as far as to argue that a deal would lead to the American “enslavement” of Iraqis. Khameini himself urged Maliki to boot out the Americans. “The most fundamental problem of Iraq is the presence of the foreign forces,” he said, according to excerpts of their meeting reported by the Iranian Students News Agency. Tehran also
used the opportunity to advocate for larger Iranian military influence. Iranian Defence Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar has been urging closer military co-operation, and touted the “great strategic potential” of the two countries. “Iraq’s ambition to build a strong military calls for further co-operation with Tehran,” Najjar said after meetings on Sunday. U.S. officials insist they will reach an agreement by the end of July but
Iraqi lawmakers are doubtful.
The most optimistic view of the situation is that it doesn’t matter who is winning in Iraq, as long as the violence continues to wane. “It’s all very fragile and tenuous but it’s useful,” says Hiltermann. “It gives people breathing space and optimism.” Iraq has a laundry list of pressing issues that will require political compromise: how to reintegrate the 4-7 million Iraqis who have been displaced by the violence and ethnic cleansing, including many of Iraq’s professional class
who fled the country. The country’s infrastructure is a mess and government corruption is rampant. A large reason for the drop in violence during the surge was that more than 90,000 Sunni militia and tribal forces stopped fighting the Americans and Iraqi forces and became paid security workers. But the vast majority of those heavily armed men haven’t been integrated into the Shiadominated armed forces or given other opportunities.
The solutions to all these problems will take political accommodation among rival groups. So far progress has been painfully slow, but reduced violence should help. “You maybe able to mobilize people in a constructive way—cleaning up neighbourhoods and participating in politics without threat of assassination,” says Hiltermann. If the various factions are not being provoked by violence, they can move forward on contentious issues such as hammering out a law on sharing Iraq’s oil wealth, and staging elections, “They can’t say they are under siege and can’t afford to make a deal,” says Hiltermann. “They have no excuse.”
And that by itself might be something to crow about. Nl
Rather than defeating the Shia militias, U.S. troops are instead engaging in an elaborate dance