I see John McCain is indulging in another PR trip to Iraq, unannounced and under heavy security, just a few days before the five-year anniversary of the invasion. He says it isn't a campaign trip and isn't holding media events - but you can't accomplish dick in a 24 hour fly-by. Yet the very fact that he isn't holding photo-ops ensures it's being treated as if it were a serious fact-finding mission by the heir-presumptive to the Bush White House. You'd laugh at the obviousness if it wasn't so depressingly and predictably familiar.
Certainly, conservative pundits have no doubt at all about the news McCain will bring home to endlessly regurgitate in stump speeches - violence is down and the surge is working, but we must still fear Al Qaeda. They want to stop him from saving the Earth (or at least the American Republican bit, which is the only bit that counts) by winning the election, you see.
Yet behind this narrative facade is a far more nuanced story. Were conservatives to acknowledge it, however, not just their own five-year tale of last throes and last corners would be jeopardised. Republican re-election hopes rest on the great American public not looking to closely at what's really going on behind those figures. It's not just that they want to concentrate on the difference between now and last August rather than admit that violence is now down to levels which were sufficient to cause the breakdown of Iraqi society back in 2004 and 2005. It's not just that they want to paint every insurgent as a member of Al Qaeda when military spokesmen say quite the opposite. They also want to ignore dynamics behind those figures which military leaders keep saying cause the current drop in violence to be a fragile one.
The New York Times today runs a story on corruption and graft at the Sunni region's biggest oil refinery, which reports that the local insurgency is both non-Jihadist and largely funded by the black market. In it, U.S. officers talk about the nature of the Sunni insurgency and warn of the dangers of central government Shiite recalcitrance in offering legal livelihoods to for-now peaceful Awakening members who yesterday were insurgents themselves.
“It has a great deal more to do with the economy than with ideology,” said one senior American military official, who said that studies of detainees in American custody found that about three-quarters were not committed to the jihadist ideology. “The vast majority have nothing to do with the caliphate and the central ideology of Al Qaeda.”Worse, the Iraqi central government's deliberate obstructionism and refusal to share the cake with anyone but their own appointees and favored ones is also in danger of destroying the other important Iraqi element of the current drop in violence - the Mahdi Militia's ceasefire.
...Some American officials and politicians maintain that Sunni insurgents have deep ties with Qaeda networks loyal to Osama bin Laden in other countries. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, whose members are mainly Iraqi but whose leadership has been described by American commanders as largely foreign, remains a well-financed and virulent force that carries out large-scale attacks.
But there are officers in the American military who openly question how much a role jihadism plays in the minds of most people who carry out attacks. As the American occupation has worn on and unemployment has remained high, these officers say the overwhelming motivation of insurgents is the need to earn a paycheck.
Nor do American officers say they believe that insurgent attacks are centrally coordinated. “As far as networked coordination of attacks, we are not seeing that,” said a military official familiar with studies on the insurgency.
Opposition to the occupation and fear of the Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated government and security forces “clearly are important factors in the insurgency,” the official said. “But they are being rivaled by the economic factor, the deprivation that exists.”
Maj. Kelly Kendrick, operations officer for the First Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division in Salahuddin, estimates that there are no more than 50 hard-core “Al Qaeda” fighters in Salahuddin, a province of 1.3 million people that includes Baiji and the Sunni cities of Samarra and Tikrit.
He said most fighters were seduced not by dreams of a life following Mr. bin Laden, but by a simpler pitch: “Here’s $100; go plant this I.E.D.”
“Ninety percent of the guys out here who do attacks are just people who want to feed their families,” Major Kendrick said.
The First Brigade’s commander, Col. Scott McBride, concurs. “I don’t know that I’ve ever heard one person say, ‘I believe in a caliphate,’ ” he said.
...Paying former insurgents to stop attacking American forces and join neighborhood militia forces has played a crucial role in turning around security in many Sunni parts of Iraq. But American officers worry that the failure to incorporate these Sunni militiamen into the government of Iraq or find them other jobs could portend trouble.
“There’s got to be an outlet,” the senior military official said, referring to a job and salary not related to the insurgency. “Without that outlet, a lot of guys will gravitate back. They are not going to starve their families. You have got to do what you have got to do to survive.”
Iraqi police arrested dozens of members of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia on Saturday, hours after two policemen were killed in gunbattles in the southern city of Kut, police said.The Iraqi police force is the playground of the Badr Brigade, which is an armed wholly-owned subsiduary of the Shiite SCIRI faction - allies of both Iran and the US and enemies of the Mahdi Army and Sadrist bloc in internicene Shiite faction fighting over control of oil money in the South.
Clashes this week between Iraqi security forces and the militia in Kut, 170 km (105 miles) southeast of Baghdad, have raised fears a ceasefire called by Sadr may unravel, although the violence has so far been confined to Kut.
It is the first major violation of the seven-month-old truce, which has been credited by the U.S. military with helping to reduce violence between majority Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Sadr clarified the conditions of the truce last week, telling followers they could defend themselves if attacked, an apparent response to complaints among his fighters that U.S. and Iraqi forces were exploiting the ceasefire to target them.
...The latest outbreak of violence in Kut took place on Friday night when police tried to enter two neighbourhoods in Kut where there is a strong Mehdi Army presence. Clashes erupted and residents reported the sound of gunfire and explosions.
Between the Awakening and the Sadrist ceasefire, they may account for two thirds or even more of the drop in violence. No-one has ever asked the US military for an estimate and they've been careful not to volunteer one unasked. Yet for both these nationalist groups their patience is cracking under depredations of a central government controlled by those who least wish there to be a strong and fair central government - Kurds and Shiite factions who favor a loose-federal balkanisation of Iraq. Bush allowed and even enabled this situation, and plans to continue that enabling by signing an agreement (not a treaty) that would ensure the US will protect in power those who most want to see Iraq break up. John McCain has no different plan than the one Bush has and therefore has absolutely no leverage over the Green Zone's politicos to change their divisive ways. Under McCain, the cracks in the facade would continue to grow until eventually they split violently open. That's if the facade lasts that long.