We in the West have tended to go for simplistic, linear narratives when it comes to describing the muddle of politics and aspirations that is Iraq since Saddam. First the narrative was freedom-loving Iraqis versus terrorists, then insugents versus stability then Sunni versus Shiite. Because we've failed to be as complex in our thinking about the problems as the problems have been themselves, we've always been behind the curve - and the extreme Right, who are the most enamoured of simply and linear narratives have been the furthest behind that curve by up to a double Friedman and more.
Now, with many on the Right beginning to see that Iraq is a Gordian Knot of Bush's creation - one that no amount of military force alone can unravel - and even the Bush administration saying they have no idea what a Plan B would look like if the surge fails to give Iraqis a kick in the pants towards reconcilliation of their sectarian divides, the current mood in the US is mostly one of confusion. Only those who have swallowed entirely the "just around the next corner" rhetoric aren't confused - they are simply wrong.
Yet within the current mess, if only it were possible for the West to grasp it, lies a chance at Iraq's saving by leaving it (mostly) the hell alone.
Allow me to explain. But first, some news to set a scene for what follows.
Iran has announced that it will definitely attend the upcoming Cairo conference on Iraq's security situation, just as Iranian National Security Adviser Ali Larijani has been meeting with Iraqi PM, Nour al-Maliki in Baghdad.
Maliki issued a statement after that meeting which is being widely interpreted in the Western media as a rebuke of Iran's alleged involvement in stirring up violence in Iraq.
"Terrorist operations targeting Iraq will affect all countries in the world that are supposed to be supporting the Iraqi government in its war against terrorism," al-Maliki said in a statement issued by his office, adding that the prime minister also thanked Iran for agreeing to participate in this week's conference in Sharm el-Sheik.Yet the Arabic press is reporting something rather different, noting also that the statement said:
"Iran has been at the forefront in aiding the government and the Iraqi people after the fall of the dictatorial system and those countries that want security and stability in the region must support the elected Iraqi government."The Maliki government has a tightrope to walk here, between the US occupation that probably is the only thing keeping Maliki in power now and the Iranians who have always been the strongest allies of Maliki's own political party. The Iraqi foreign minister put the tension plainly:
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari welcomed the prospect of talks between Iran and the US.Iran has accused the US and UK of using terrorist groups such as the Kurdish PKK and Saddam's ex-bullyboys in the MeK as proxies to attack Iran, just as there have been accusations of Iran using proxies to attack US and UK forces in Iraq. Both sides have evidence that stops short of proving the direction and intent of senior leadership from the opposite side. Both sides have an interest in continueing such proxy actions while stopping the other doing unto them. Yet neither wants to give up the influence an Iraq that isn't yet in total meltdown gives them. And Iraq gets to play piggy-in-the-middle. (This paradox, where both want to have their cake and eat it too is going to be one of the central themes of the conference, I predict.)
"I think it's important, it would be a major breakthrough and any reduction in tensions will positively impact the situation in Iraq," he said.
"We don't want Iraq to be a battleground for settling scores on other agendas at our cost. Really, this has been harming us, damaging us a lot."
Meanwhile, neighbouring Sunni states want the Shia in Iraq controlled and Iran less influential while at the same time they don't want sectarian civil war to spill into their own backyards. Israel wants Iraq to be the focus of Arab and Persian attention rather than itself but still doesn't relish the prospect of civil wars in many of its neighbours either. Turkey wants the Kurds hemmed in and the Kurds are using the US as a shield againt both the Turks and Iran. And Iraq gets to play piggy-in-the-middle again.
And in Iraq itself, where the US military is as often as not just another militia at least as far as the common people are concerned, the various political parties and militia factions manouver for power now and power later. The Iraqi people thus get to play piggy-in-the-middle for a final and often fatal time.
Thus in Anbar Sunni tribes ally themselves with the US military until the current larger threat of Al Qaida is cut down to size, only to later switch support again later. The object always being to preserve their own ability to keep local power. And in the South and Baghdad, the Mahdi Army is fracturing as al-Sadr - perhaps only for a time too - decides to play peacemaker.
The freelancers add a new dimension to Iraq's already brutal kaleidoscope of violence. In Baghdad, after an initial dramatic drop, the number of corpses being found each morning is on the rise again. Outside the capital, fighters fleeing south have linked up with local Mahdi units; their presence is upsetting the uneasy balance of power struck between various Shiite groups in the region. Coalition officials worry that Iran's Revolutionary Guards will use their ties with the Mahdi Army to recruit rogue units for attacks on American troops. Last week Petraeus claimed that a Mahdi splinter group was responsible for the killing of five Americans in Karbala in January.Sadr is playing a dangerous game here - for some of his actions and words aid the Maliki government while others are designed to stymie that government's attempts to exert its control. His flip-flopping into peacemaker again is, however, attriting his support among the diehard nationalist Shia who only want the US gone and will stop at nothing and no-one to accomplish it. If he is to remain a player of note, and preserve any credibility, he has to make a decisive move soon.
Sadr himself, who has not been seen in public since the security plan was launched, has hinted at the divisions within his organization. Just before a massive Sadrist rally in Najaf on April 9, he issued a statement pleading for his followers to stay loyal: "If you love the Sadr movement," he wrote, "then listen and obey." Lower-level Mahdi commanders are even more frank. "There are some groups who do not obey the orders of seyed Moqtada," says Abu Hawra, a Mahdi commander in west Baghdad. But he adds, perhaps self-servingly, "We've given the green light to government forces to arrest or punish them. Those who break [Sadr's] orders are certainly excluded from the Mahdi Army."
Enter Ayad Allawi, the former Iraqi premier who will also attend the Cairo conference. Even as Malki's star wanes in both the Arab world and in Washington, Allawi has been positioning himslef for an attempt to return to power - smoozing with Arab leaders and manouvering for Washington favor. But Allawi is bright enough to remember that he was so soundly defeated in the last election because he was Bush's picked man. This time, he's unlikely to be as amenable to manipulation.
The key moves have already been made, according to the Iraqi press. Last December Iraqi blogger Raed In The Middle quoted Sunni politician Saleh Al-Mutlaq, the head of the national dialogue front, who told a newspaper that a national salvation front was biding its time until the right moment to challenge the Maliki government for power. The front, he said, would include "the national dialogue front, the national Iraqi list led by Allawi, the reconciliation and liberation front led by Meshaan Aljuburi, and the Sadr movement." It would also draw support from Baathists, pan-arabists, the old Army leadership and seven important clerics.
Two days after the Sadrists withdrew recently from Maliki's coalition, al-Mutlaq told Reuters:
"It's now the right time for the national resistance groups to unite its negotiating stance towards the occupation forces and to draft a political programme for the future," Mutlaq said.As my blog-partner Fester has pointed out, "these are the groups that have the capability to cause mass disorder for the Iraqi government OR a reasonable measure of civic peace." With a politically savvy survivor like Allawi to rally around - especailly after his recent book which blasted the Bush administration's incompetence in Iraq - such a coalition would have not only the force but also the political weight to become the deciding factor in Iraqi politics.
"The political programme will fill the vacuum in the event of an abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Iraq," said Mutlaq, who denies ties with insurgents but says he shares their goal of "liberating Iraq from foreign occupation."
..."This will prevent infighting that would risk the gains of the nationalist resistance whose sacrifices defeated America's project in Iraq and the Middle East," he said.
This opens up an enticing possibility. The received wisdom is that when US forces withdraw from Iraq, violence and sectarian bloodshed will rise to a peak. As Rick Moran wrote yesterday:
Only the significant presence of US troops will prevent the massacre of Sunnis by Shias hell bent on revenge as well as those who wish to make Iraq “Sunni free.” That same presence would probably also prevent a general Middle East war as well.This has become the primary justification for rejecting an immediate withdrawal of occupation forces. It was a reason given by the Left a year and more ago and is increasingly the only reason remaining to those on the Right who are not hopelessly loyal to Bush's failures. But yet again, it may well be that we in the West are behind the curve.
A coalition such as that described above, combining Sadrists, Sunni hardliners and Allawi-led secularists would, as noted above, much of the ability and propensity of Iraqi activists against the occupation to create violence. Such a coalition could actually accomplish what Andrew Sullivan describes as the new best outcome in Iraq:
We should do all we can to help from a distance, maybe even a small distance. But this is their fight not ours. We cannot win it; only they can. Our goal should not be our victory against al Qaeda; it should be their victory against al Qaeda. It will only be their victory if we are clearly on the road out. If that happens, we change the narrative of this war decisively - in our favor. But indefinite occupation prevents that scenario from taking place. Ending the occupation and winning the war, in other words, are not opposites. They can be complements. It's a tricky process, but by far the most feasible now on the table.I know it sounds counter-intuitive - but discreet support for the very elements which the US has fought for at least a goodly portion of the time it has been in Iraq - the Sunni and Shiite nationalists who believe in a sovereign Iraq - may be the only Plan B there is.
The US-led presence, which will always be countered by active meddling by other neighbours, especially Iran, acts to keep the current Iraqi political status quo relatively stable. By withdrawing, the US could create a space for a non-sectarian coalition united by a wish to see the occupation leave and to reassert Iraqi sovereignty free of both US and Iranian influence is possible. All the US and its partners would be left with as far as long term commitments are concerned is to watch for a possible Al Qaida resurgence and to guarantee - perhaps in partnership with Iran and other neighbours - Iraq's territorial integrity from external invasion, by force is necessary. It is practically the zen application of counterinsurgency doctrine that "less is more".
Or, put another way, when you get into a hopeless skid, the only thing to do is to steer into it.
Update Via BTD at TalkLeft - Now the largest Sunni bloc are threatening to pull their ministers out of Maliki's government.
The largest bloc of Sunni Arabs in the Iraqi Parliament threatened to withdraw its ministers from the Shiite-dominated cabinet today in frustration over the Iraq government’s failure to deal with Sunni concerns. President Bush stepped in to forestall the move, calling one of Iraq’s two vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni Arab, and inviting him to Washington, Mr. Hashimi’s office said in a written statement. The bloc, known as the Iraqi Consensus Front and made up of three Sunni Arab parties, “has lost hope in rectifying the situation despite all of its sincere and serious efforts to do so,” the statement said.