Why Iraq Hangs in the Balance

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U.S. Marines move into Fallujah

Friday marks a year since U.S. soldiers toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdous Square, and yet the battle for Iraq suddenly seems far from over. The past week has seen the heaviest fighting since the end of the war as U.S. and Coalition forces battle Sunni and Shiite insurgents for control of the streets in Baghdad's Shiite slums, the Sunni Triangle towns of Fallujah, Ramadi and Baquba; and the southern Shiite cities of Najaf, Karbala, Nasiriyah, Kut, Amara, Diwaniyah and Basra. At least 32 U.S. troops and more than 200 Iraqis have been killed in the past four days, and the fighting is showing no signs of abating. And the fact that the Sunni militants who have waged a year-long insurgency are now joined, in Baghdad and across the Shiite south, by militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has cast doubt over prospects for the U.S. achieving its political objectives in Iraq in the near future. As Republican senator Chuck Hagel put it last weekend, the U.S. may be "dangerously close" to losing control in Iraq.

Not that the two insurgencies have any hope of prevailing militarily against the estimated 150,000 Coalition troops currently in Iraq. They're no match in a conventional confrontation, but insurgencies are won and lost in the hearts and minds of the local population, and on that front the battle may be too close to call. The Pentagon's move this week to reinforce its troop levels in Iraq by delaying the return of some 25,000 troops due to have been cycled out underscores the extent to which new instability in the Shiite south adds to the burden on the already stretched combat resources available to Coalition commanders. The European peacekeepers deployed in the southern towns came to Iraq believing they would be operating in a relatively benign environment, freeing up U.S. forces for counterinsurgency actions in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle. But the outbreak of hostilities in the southern cities has put troops from Italy, Spain, El Salvador, Poland, Ukraine and Bulgaria on the front lines. The Bulgarian government called on Wednesday for U.S. reinforcements to help its 450 soldiers under fire in Karbala, while the Ukrainian contingent at Kut was chased out of town by angry Shiites who took over their base. And the Iraqi security forces on which the U.S. hopes to rely increasingly have offered little cause for comfort — mostly, the Iraqi police simply melted away when the Sadrists arrived to take over their facilities, and in a number of cases the police were actually seen fighting alongside the militants. If the insurrection by members of Sadr's "Army of the Mahdi" succeeds in its goal of sparking a general rebellion among Iraq's Shiite majority — which some U.S. intelligence officials reportedly believe it has — the U.S. will have lost the political battle for post-Saddam Iraq.

First steps

[an error occurred while processing this directive]The immediate problem facing the U.S.-led Coalition is the impact on Iraqi hearts and minds of its efforts to suppress the violent challenges in the Sunni Triangle and in the Shiite urban neighborhoods. Wednesday the U.S. bombed the walls of a mosque compound in Fallujah from which insurgents had been firing on Marines. Coalition forces have killed scores of Shiites over the past week in battles in Baghdad and in the south, drawing condemnation even from some of the moderate Shiite clerics serving in the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

The dilemma becomes even more acute as U.S. commanders ponder a response to Friday's Shiite festival of Araba'in, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of Shiites to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. That's because the city is currently under the control of Moqtada Sadr's militia, and the cleric is holed up in his office there near the tomb of Imam Ali, the holiest shrine of the Shiite sect. The U.S. has vowed to destroy the Mahdi militia and arrest Moqtada, but the expected convergence on Najaf on Friday raises the stakes in a confrontation with the cleric who has vowed not to be taken alive.

Sadr's movement is believed to represent a minority among Iraqi Shiites, although one apparently far more substantial than Coalition officials may be comfortable admitting. The fact that after three days of fighting his forces remain in control of government facilities they seized in Najaf, Kufa and Kut, as well as the streets of the sprawling Baghdad slum of Sadr City, suggests the 30-year-old firebrand commands substantial support among the Shiite urban poor. More importantly, however, while more moderate and influential Shiite leaders such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani hedge their bets in response to Moqtada's challenge — calling on Shiites to refrain from violence but at the same time expressing sympathy for their grievances and condemning Coalition actions — many Shiites loyal to Sistani have nonetheless joined protest actions led by the Sadrists. The danger is that the cost in casualties and strife of suppressing Moqtada's intifada and the Sunni insurgency could deepen anti-American feeling among neutral elements in the Sunni and Shiite communities that have not supported violence.

Indeed, the major problem facing the Coalition in response to the insurgencies is that there is no Iraqi leadership of significant standing among either the Sunni or the Shia speaking unambiguously in support of the Coalition's goals. Some on the Iraqi Governing Council have denounced Moqtada and his calls for violence. Others have focused their ire at Coalition responses. But the U.S. long ago recognized that the IGC has limited support among Iraqis. Far more important than the Coalition military effort eliminate the Mahdi militia will be the stance adopted by Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Even if Moqtada himself may not accept Sistani's appeals for restraint, the supreme spiritual leader is nonetheless far more influential than the young upstart. Sistani has called for calm on all sides but has criticized the Coalition's handling of Moqtada's challenge. The IGC has once again been reduced to the supplicant role, sending a delegation on Wednesday to implore Sistani to intervene. But the Grand Ayatollah has problems of his own with the Coalition and the IGC, and has been agitating against the U.S.-brokered interim constitution which grants veto power to ethnic minorities and also for rapid transfer of power to a democratically elected government. Indeed, Moqtada Sadr has enthusiastically championed the same demands in the course of his rebellion, which is nonetheless a power play in which the radical Islamist hopes to eclipse the influence of rival Shiite leaders, including Sistani.

U.S. officials have vowed to eliminate the Sadrist militia, but the movement may prove resilient. Indeed, the underground organization it maintained inside Iraq in the teeth of Baathist terror — Moqtada's uncle, a revered Grand Ayatollah who was once a rival to Sistani, as well as his father and brothers were assassinated by agents of Saddam's regime — gave it a head start on all the political organizations returning from exile after the regime fell. Within weeks of Baghdad's capture, the Sadrist movement had emerged as the most organized political force in Iraq. That legacy will make the movement difficult to suppress by force alone.

More worrying, perhaps, are attempts by both Sadr supporters and Sunni insurgents to reach out across the Sunni-Shiite divide to build a common front of resistance to the U.S.-led occupation. The strongest factor working in the Coalition's favor had been the historic enmity of the long-suffering Shiites for the Baathists who continue to play a leading role in the Sunni insurgency. But, over the past week, Sunni insurgents have expressed support for Sadr, who has called for a rebellion by all sects, and Sunni crowds in Baghdad marched alongside Sadr supporters. That spectacle won't please the Qaeda-friendly Iraq-based Jordanian terrorist Musab al-Zarqawi, who has called on Sunnis to kill Shiites, but other Sunni insurgent commanders presumably recognize the usefulness of a Shiite uprising that forces the Coalition to spread its forces.

The future

The most immediate impact of the upsurge in violence is to cast a dark shadow over Iraq's immediate political future. The U.S. remains committed to handing over sovereignty on June 30 to an as-yet undetermined Iraqi authority. But such a move would have little impact or meaning amid an ongoing battle for control of the streets. Indeed, the "sovereignty" that is to be transferred is distinctly limited — effective control of the country, and even of its newly minted security forces, would remain in the hands of the U.S. military commander rather than whatever government structure the U.S. opts to anoint. And if the day-to-day reality of Iraq is shaped by the clash between the U.S. military and rebel militias, an interim authority may begin to look irrelevant.

Despite its stated intention to maintain the timetable for handing over to an Iraqi interim government, the Bush administration may yet be forced by events to again revise its thrice-revised political plan for Iraq. Because in the face of the new security and political crisis, its vow to "stay the course" in Iraq may require both rethinking the transition process and reinforcing its troop commitment. That may not be the image of Iraq the Bush administration had hoped to showcase on the presidential campaign trail — but then, it's not as if Senator John Kerry is advocating anything less.