Few Good Choices in Iraq

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U.S. soldiers arrest an Iraqi man during a massive raid in Hawijah

President Bush has come and gone, his two-and-a-half-hour Thanksgiving dinner by stealth at Baghdad's airport symbolizing both his personal commitment to the Iraq mission and the immense security difficulties plaguing that mission. In marked contrast to his May 1 victory speech aboard the U.S.S. Lincoln, President Bush went to Baghdad to buoy the spirits of an army still very much at war. November was the bloodiest month for U.S. forces since invading Iraq, with 83 American soldiers, and a further 35 troops from coalition allies, having been killed over 30 days.

The bloodletting continued following the President's visit, with seven Spanish intelligence officers, two Japanese diplomats, two South Korean contractors and one from Colombia killed by insurgents over the weekend, while the U.S. military reported killing 54 Iraqis at Samarra in what may have been the biggest firefight of the occupation. The Samarra incident, which began when insurgents ambushed two U.S. convoys in an apparent attempt to steal new banknotes being delivered to the town's banks, is shrouded in mystery. The U.S. claimed to have killed first 46, then 54, many of them wearing the uniform of Saddam's Fedayeen. But their bodies were not found on the battlefield or in the local hospital, while locals insist that only civilian bystanders were killed. Still, by the accounts of both locals and American troops, the fighting was fierce and protracted. The idea of forces loyal to Saddam Hussein still running around in uniform seven months after U.S. forces took control of Iraq — and capable, according to the account of the U.S. commander on the ground, of sustaining 54 casualties and then retreating in a sufficiently organized manner that allowed for the evacuation of all of the dead fighters — certainly suggests the insurgents are not exactly on the ropes. Of course, the attempt of a lightly armed group to go head-to-head with an armored column riding shotgun on a consignment of banknotes does suggest, however, that the insurgents may be anticipating liquidity problems next January when the new dinar is introduced and the old Saddam banknotes hoarded in huge sums become worthless.

The ferocity of the battle in Samarra, where reports cite eyewitnesses telling of dozens of guerrillas roaming the streets during the firefight, local civilians taking up arms to support them and rebels standing their ground against overwhelming odds, suggests that the insurgency may even be escalating. Even as President Bush insists that the U.S. will stay until the insurgents have been defeated, U.S. field commanders in Iraq canvassed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (available as a PDF download) suggested that the insurgency will continue until the U.S. forces leave. Although the political decisions have yet be made, the Army is reportedly operating on the assumption that 100,000 American troops will have to remain in Iraq at least until March of 2006.

Still, the hope in Washington is that U.S. troops in Iraq after July 1 next year will be there at the invitation of a sovereign Iraqi government, which is to be installed on that date. The administration sees the hand-over of political power from Ambassador Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority to an Iraqi provisional government as the essential step in getting Iraqis to assume a greater share of the security burden and defeating the insurgency.

Transferring power to Iraqis, however, is proving to be far from simple. Having recognized that the IGC has little standing among ordinary Iraqis, the Bush administration got the Council to agree on a process of choosing a new provisional government over the next six months, through a series of regional caucuses whose delegates would be chosen by the IGC and U.S.-appointed local councils. That's not good enough for Iraq's leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has demanded that Iraqis be allowed to elect the government that determines their future. Bremer and the some members of the IGC counter that elections cannot be held before next summer because there are no voter rolls — and they also fear that direct elections will return a government dominated by the Shiite majority, and not necessarily particularly friendly towards the U.S. or the presence of its troops. But Sistani, a traditionally moderate cleric who has previously counseled quiet cooperation with the U.S. authority, enjoys far greater legitimacy in Iraq than does the IGC.

Although some key Shiite leaders on the IGC have advocated compliance with Sistani's edict demanding elections, the Council majority has now backed the Bremer plan, potentially setting up a confrontation between the U.S. and important elements of the Shiite population. Bremer is hoping that Sistani can be placated on the grounds of the practicalities of organizing elections before next summer. But he's unlikely to be impressed, which could open the way for more militant Shiite groups to use it as a basis to challenge the process on the streets. The last thing Bremer needs is the opening up of a second front resistance to the coalition, which is already facing an insurgency with substantial popular support in the Sunni population. And Washington's fixed timetable that requires it hand over power to someone in Iraq next summer appears to have launched a power struggle among Iraqis: The Shiites are demanding elections precisely because, as the majority, they have the most to gain, while members of the Iraqi Governing Council, fearful of their prospects even in the more limited form of caucus elections envisaged by Bremer, are demanding that the Council remain in power even after a new provisional assembly is chosen.

Although it is envisaged as a crucial step toward creating stability, the transfer of political authority could also become a source of new instability. That may be unavoidable in a situation where, having eliminated the authoritarian regime in Baghdad, the U.S. is now presiding over an unruly contest for power among ethnically-oriented political forces looking to rewrite Iraq's basic political arithmetic that has been dominated by the Sunni minority ever since the British first cobbled together three Ottoman provinces to create Iraq. Even as they wage a full-blown counterinsurgency war against the Sunni insurgents, U.S. officials in Iraq will be anxiously watching the complex political interplay among the Shiites in the coming months. A U.S.-authored political order in Iraq is unlikely to prosper or even survive unless it is wholeheartedly embraced by the Shiites. Which suggests that much now rides on how Grand Ayatollah Sistani chooses to respond to the decision by Bremer and the IGC to proceed without elections.