"I think we are winning. Okay? I think we're definitely winning. I think we've been winning for some time." - Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Iraq War 04/26/05
"I just wonder if they will ever tell us the truth." - Harold Casey, Louisville, KY, October 2004.
This is an important article by Gareth Porter has an important article out about how the Bush administration is tilting away from the Shi'a-dominated government in Iraq to backing Kurdish Peshmerga militias against the Shi'a: Is U.S. Planning More Attacks on Shiite Militias? Inter Press Service 04/03/06.
Up until just recently, supporters of the Bush war policy thought backing the Shi'a government was the height of American patriotism. I'm predicting that the true believers will mostly swallow the new line without even noticing the contradiction.
But for us in the "reality-based" community, it's probably time to change the terms a bit in which we talk about the Iraq War. So far, we've essentially been backing the Shi'a government against Sunni guerrillas, although the Army has had clashes previously with the Shi'a "Mahdi Army" led by Moqtada al-Sadr, often referred to in the US press as a "young Shiite firebrand", which makes him sound kind of like an Iraqi Stokley Carmichael circa 1968.
Now that civil war is openly under way, it probably makes more sense to talk primarily about the Shi'a side, the Sunni side and the Kurdish side. There are divisions within each camp, of course; politics is politics.
The Sunnis are the minority that have always dominated in Iraq since Britain cobbled the country together out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Saddam was a Sunni. Interstingly enough, the term "Sunni" seems to be universally used to describe the Arab Sunni population. The Kurds dominating the north of Iraq are also mostly Sunnis, but they are Kurds, not Arabs. The Shi'a are mostly Arab. The Iranians, with whom the Iraqi Arab Shi'a have religious views more-or-less in common, are mostly Persian, not Arab.
The predominantly Kurdish region in the north has lots of oil. So does the predominantly Shi'a region in the south. The Sunni region in central Iraq may have oil reserves yet undiscovered. But they don't have a lot now. The current "loose federalist" arrangement in the Iraqi consitution would allow a Kurdish confederacy in the north and a Shi'a one in the south to maintain much of the oil money from their regions. The Sunnis wouldn't get much.
The Kurds have their partisan militias, known as Peshmerga. The Shi'a have their militias, including the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade. The Sunni have a variety of combat groups; they have been the main opponents of the US in Iraq.
Foreign jihadists are getting the opportunity to get combat experience in guerrilla and terrorist tactics in Iraq, which they are already exporting to Afghanistan. But in the Iraqi conflict itself, they are relatively minor players. The current fantasy from the Bush administration about how Al Qaida (who are Sunni "Salafists") would establish a new caliphate in Iraq if the US withdrew is just that, fantasy.
There are also government troops in Iraq. But they seem to be largely, maybe almost exclusively, partisan militias from the particular areas. In Sunni cities like Tal Afar and Fallujah (the former Bush's model case, the latter Maverick McCain's), the US used largely Kurdish Peshmerga "Iraqi Army" troops to help level those cities and shoot up the Sunnis there. (And relying on Pershmerga so heavily, it's likely that quite a few of those shot up were not combatants.)
At this point, we probably need to know which side (Sunni, Kurdish, Shi'a) the "government" troops are from to make sense of any given news item about the Iraqi army's actions.
Gareth Porter gives us an idea about how the currently shifting US position may shake out in the immediate future:
In a showdown between military forces of the two sides [the US and Kurds versus our allies-until-now the Shi'a], the militant Shiites would have a considerable advantage in numbers, but the U.S. would be able to deploy better trained and equipped Iraqi forces. U.S. combat forces would be ready to intervene on their side.
The main forcesavailable to the Shiites will be the militiamen loyal to al-Sadr, whose population base in the sprawling Baghdad slum called Sadr City includes at least a million Shiites. In 2004, U.S. intelligence estimated the Mahdi Army at 10,000 fighters, but the actual number is almost certainly several times larger than that, given al-Sadr's ability to recruit followers during 2005.
The Shiites can also count on some 10,000 militiamen in the Badr Organisation, formerly known as the Badr Brigade, established and trained by Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Iran and still said to be financed by Iran. Many of Badr militiamen were brought into police units run by the Interior Ministry last year, and the Interior Minister Bayan Jabr continues to support them.
In addition the all-Shiite 1st Brigade, with 4,000 men, which was given control over all of Baghdad west of the Tigris River last year, is likely to side with the Shiites against its U.S.-backed rivals in any showdown. Despite its 250 U.S. advisers, the 1st Brigade was reported by Knight Ridder's Tom Lasseter last October to be taking its overall direction from local Shiite clerics - not from the Ministry of Defence.
On their side, the United States can use a number of units responsive to U.S. direction in a crackdown against Shiite militia. The spearpoint of the new U.S. campaign against Shiite militias will be the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), a brigade of 1,300 troops under the command of Kurdish officers. It is believed to consist of mostly Kurdish troops. (my emphasis)
He also says that the US has been preparing a group mostly composed of Saddam's Baathist counterinsurgency fighters, which can probably be expected to stick with the US forces:
CIA advisers to the Interior Ministry created a force of "special police commandoes" consisting of 5,000 elite troops commanded by a former Baathist general, Adnan Thabit. Many of the commandoes recruited for the unit were former Hussein security personnel themselves, partly because of their experience in counterinsurgency, and partly because they would be strongly anti-Iran. While still under the Interior Ministry in theory, these commandoes will follow the lead of the U.S.-supported Gen. Thabit.
The move against Shiite militia units appears to be the result of a new fear in the White House of impending disaster in Iraq. Despite soothing talk by U.S. commanders earlier in March that the threat of civil war had passed, Brig. Gen. Douglas Raaberg, deputy chief of operations for the U.S. Central Command, revealed the command's pessimistic view out civil war when he told Associated Press, "Whenever it happens, it's Iraq's problem and Iraqis have to take care of it."
The White House may also have begun to doubt that the political negotiations on a new government will do much to reverse that trend. The idea of a more aggressive policy toward the Shiite militias appeals to the desire to do something dramatic to regain control of the situation.
A strategy of trying to wrap up the Mahdi Army, however, would represent another major U.S. miscalculation. The militant Shiites hold the high cards in any showdown: the ability to mobilise hundreds of thousands of followers in the streets of Baghdad. The most likely result of such a campaign would be a decisive - and final - political defeat for the occupation. (my emphasis)
This is a real mess. And this is still in the phase where open civil war is combined with a counterinsurgency war. The civil war can escalate. But the next qualitative worsening of the situation would be the breakout of regional war.
This is war the Republican Party way. If you like the US to have wars and want to see them turn into messy and hopeless Lost Causes like this one, keep electing Republican Presidents. Maverick McCain will be glad to give you more of them.
"Wars are easy to get into, but hard as hell to get out of." - George McGovern and Jim McGovern 06/06/05