FM: John Whitbeck
Transmitted below are some pertinent questions regarding President
Bush's new strategy for Iraq from Ray Close, retired CIA Middle East
expert and advisor to the Iraq Study Group.
In this context, my Iraqi-born Saudi Arabian partner has shown me
comparative pictures on a website which purport to demonstate that the
ski-masked executioner who placed the rope around Saddam's neck was none
other than Muqtada Al-Sadr himself -- similar stocky build, similar nose
and mouth, similar constant downward gaze and same ring on the small
finger of the right hand. The photographic case, while not conclusive,
did appear at least arguable. If it was indeed Moqtada, this might help
explain the chants of "Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!" and the cry of "Long
Live" Moqtada's father (believed to have been killed on Saddam's orders)
which rang out just before the trap door was sprung.
Moqtada controls the largest single segment of MP's in the Shia
coalition which dominates the Iraqi government. If Moqtada had asked
Prime Minister Maliki for the honor (and right of revenge on behalf of
his father) of placing the rope around Saddam's neck, could Maliki have
In any event, my partner tells me -- significantly and surely not
without consequences for the future -- that it is widely believed in the
Sunni community that the hangman *was* indeed Muqtada, which would make
this very messy execution a sectarian lynching par excellence.
Even if it was not, it would strain credulity to believe that Maliki
would be either willing or able to wipe out Muqtada's Mahdi Army militia
(estimated to be 60,000-strong and, without doubt, vastly more motivated
than the paycheck-seeking members of the Iraqi army and police). If it
is true, it is inconceivable.
"Blame and Run" remains the best realistic hope.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have been thoroughly confused
about one critically important point in President Bush’s new strategy
for Iraq. Do we, or do we not, have a commitment from Prime Minister
Maliki that he will approve and support a joint effort by the Iraqi and
American armed forces to disband and neutralize all the
sectarian/ethnic militias? When asked bluntly if such a campaign would
include joint action against Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army (including a
house-by-house cleansing of Sadr City, for example), the answers from
both US and Iraqi spokespersons in the past 48 hours has been confusing
and often contradictory. Can anyone cite for me an authoritative answer
to that question?
I ask you to weigh the validity of the following assertions::
1. Disarming Militias
a. If the Sadrist militia, the Mahdi Army, is to be designated as
a target to be dealt with jointly, then it follows that other militias
must likewise be brought to heel. That would include the Badr Brigade
(aka the Badr Organization), paramilitary arm of SCIRI. Which would be
dealt with first? And who will identify and eliminate in advance of the
action any individuals or units in the Iraqi Army and Police that owe
primary allegiance to one or the other of the partisan Shiite militias?
And finally, at what point in this process will it become obvious to
everyone that, if both of these main Shiite community self-defense
organizations are to be disarmed, the Kurdish Pesh Merga forces should
be similarly brought under full central government control? Or would
Kurdish leaders insist upon their militia(s) remaining under the
independent command of the Kurdish government --- enjoying an
exceptional degree of autonomy for their region and their ethnic
minority that is not granted to Iraq’s Sunni minority or to competing
factions within the Shiite majority? (We all know the answer to that
one.) Have any of you noticed any treatment of that issue in the public
statements this week?
b. On the other hand, if the Sadrist and SCIRI militias are NOT to
be disarmed and disbanded, then the joint US-Iraqi campaign to “cleanse”
Baghdad will be meaningless, and will only result in the rival Shiite
militias becoming stronger and more firmly entrenched, with competing
ambitions to consolidate their dominance first within the Shiite
community itself, and ultimately over the central government of Iraq ---
at the expense of all other political parties and factions. A joint
American-Iraqi (read Shia) campaign to eliminate just the Sunni
troublemakers would only ensure and hasten the onset of total civil war,
would it not?
c. For awhile there, I was attracted to the alternative strategy
recommended by Reuel Marc Gerecht, our unrivaled authority on Arab
culture, which would have U.S. forces independently taking the lead by
first cleansing Baghdad of al-Qa’ida and other Sunni insurgent and
terrorist-oriented elements before attempting to deal with the Shia
militias. At first I assumed, with relief and great admiration, that
Reuel had discovered a way to instantly recognize and accurately
categorize Iraqi fighters according to their religious affiliations and
political loyalties, so that American GI’s would know exactly whom to
kill in the uproar and fog of combat. (All Sunni al-Qa’ida terrorists
uniformly dressed in green, all Shiites consistently clad in black, with
Sadrists distinguished by yellow keffiyyahs, and Badr Organization
fighters wearing red ones?) I now reluctantly concede that Reuel
raised my hopes unjustifiably with that recommended course.
2. Future Contingencies
a. Official statements have implied that the U.S. would limit or
reduce military, economic and political support for the Maliki
government if the prime minister fails to meet the political and
military benchmarks that Mr. Bush has identified as the Iraqi
government’s contributions to making the new war plan work. This
suggests that at some point in the relatively near future (six months?
one year?) a decision will have to be made in Washington, by the
American president, whether to sustain the present level of U.S.
commitments in Iraq or to announce and begin the process of drawdown and
eventual withdrawal. The imposition of “benchmarks” makes that critical
turning-point seem unavoidable, and thus severely constrains U.S.
options if progress is not evident very soon --- another example of
this administration taking hasty action to meet immediate domestic
political concerns without careful consideration of that action’s
longer-term implications. Some cynics have speculated that imposing
unrealistic benchmarks on Maliki is actually designed deliberately to
provide an early justification for withdrawal -- i.e. “The untrustworthy
Iraqis are too incompetent, cowardly, corrupt (and above all, too
ungrateful) to deserve our help any longer, so we’re leaving them to
their own well-deserved fate." (This is what Zbig Brzezinski has
labeled, with appropriate sarcasm, the “Blame and Run” smokescreen that
covers up a secret Bush “Cut and Run before 2008" agenda.)
b. But at the same time, President Bush has warned of the
catastrophic consequences for American national security if the U.S.
fails to achieve “success” in Iraq. That sounds very much like a vow to
stay the course, in America’s own interest, even if the Iraqis fail to
support our new strategy, or, worse still, if they ask us to leave.
(Here I must reiterate my own admonition, expressed many times over the
past three years: “The government that eventually gains control of Iraq
will have attained popularity and legitimacy by opposing the American
occupation, not by cooperating with it.”) So, by laying down benchmarks
as a challenge to Maliki, George Bush has painted himself into yet
another corner, another Catch-22 situation. When will he learn the old
Golden Rule of foreign policy: NEVER announce an intention to achieve a
particular objective unless and until you have the means and the will
(and the domestic political support) to achieve that goal.