Monday, April 05, 2004

the reason why
I don’t know any more about military affairs than any other bullshitter with a broadband connection. But I think it’s safe to say that the mayor has turned up in his Daimler, the ribbon has been cut and the second front in Iraq is now officially open. Welcome to the fair. Refreshments will be provided, but there’s no tombola.

The question is why, and more specifically, why now, three months before the official handover. In today’s Guardian, Melanie Klein asserts that the Sadrists have been deliberately provoked.

At first, Bremer responded to Sadr's growing strength by ignoring him; now he is attempting to provoke him into all-out battle. The trouble began when he closed down Sadr's newspaper last week, sparking a wave of peaceful demonstrations. On Saturday, Bremer raised the stakes further by sending coalition forces to surround Sadr's house near Najaf and arrest his communications officer.

Predictably, the arrest sparked immediate protests in Baghdad, which the Iraqi army responded to by opening fire and allegedly killing three people. At the end of the day on Sunday, Sadr called on his supporters to stop staging demonstrations and urged them to employ unnamed "other ways" to resist the occupation - a statement many interpreted as a call to arms.
Here's one possible answer: Washington has given up on its plans to hand over power to an interim Iraqi government on June 30, and is creating the chaos it needs to declare the handover impossible. A continued occupation will be bad news for George Bush on the campaign trail, but not as bad as if the hand-over happens and the country erupts, an increasingly likely scenario given the widespread rejection of the legitimacy of the interim constitution and the US- appointed governing council.

The timing of the whole affair certainly seems to indicate some provocation. First the Sadrist newspaper was shut down, leading to a series of demonstrations which grow in size but stay peaceful. Then Sadr’s saide is arrested, resulting in a much larger demo that ends in violence. And now the insurrection and the arrest warrant for Sadr, originally issued three months ago, but acted on only now.

The problem with Klein’s analysis is that there’s no guarantee that the Sadrists would have erupted as they did after the handover. Arguably, they would have been in a better position to exert influence without taking to the mattresses when the US started taking a less overt hand in Iraqi politics.

This leads to the cock-up theory. The US authorities decided that they would restrain someone who from their point of view was a bad actor by shutting down his newspaper. Protests ensue, grow and guns begin to be discharged. Firefights erupt and the situation escalates from there. This presupposes a level of incompetence that seems consistent with the CPA’s postwar “planning”.

Naturally, the official line is to characterize the Sadrists as an extreme minority. True enough. But that wilfully misses the point. They don’t have to be a minority. There just has to be enough of them. Juan Cole does the numbers.

But simple statistics don't tell the story. If there are 25 million Iraqis and Shiites comprise 65%, that is about 16 million persons. Ten percent of them is 1.6 million, which is a lot of people who hate Americans enough to approve of attacks on them. If Sunni Arabs comprise about 16% of the population, there are 4 million of them. If 30% approve of attacks, that is 1.2 million. That is, the poll actually shows that in absolute numbers, there are more Shiites who approve of attacks on Americans than there are Sunni Arabs. The numbers bring into question the official line that there are no problems in the South, only in the Sunni Arab heartland.

The other problem is that attitudes change, and sometimes they change rapidly. The US cannot count on the percentage of Shiites who approve of attacks on its troops remaining at 10% if it is strafing Sadr City in Baghdad. Every 1% increase in the number of Shiites who approve of attacks equals 160,000 new enemies

And blogger Raed gives a fuller breakdown of the social context from which the insurgency springs. If the CIA had given him US$6 million a year instead of Chalabi then they might not be in the mire. He makes an interesting point on the description of Al Sadr as an “outlaw” too.

How can anyone be an outlaw when we don’t have a law.

Interestingly enough, Raed’s family blog tracks the start of the disturbances to the assassination of Ahmed Yassin. And Justin Raimondo at reminds us of Josh Marshall’s assessment of the hawks in the Bush administration’s plans from a year ago.

In their view, invasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East. Prior to the war, the president himself never quite said this openly. But hawkish neoconservatives within his administration gave strong hints.

In February, Undersecretary of State John Bolton told Israeli officials that after defeating Iraq, the United States would "deal with" Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Meanwhile, neoconservative journalists have been channeling the administration's thinking. Late last month, The Weekly Standard's Jeffrey Bell reported that the administration has in mind a "world war between the United States and a political wing of Islamic fundamentalism ... a war of such reach and magnitude [that] the invasion of Iraq, or the capture of top al Qaeda commanders, should be seen as tactical events in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future."

In short, the administration is trying to roll the table--to use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt, on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that ultimately breeds terrorism. So events that may seem negative--Hezbollah for the first time targeting American civilians; U.S. soldiers preparing for war with Syria--while unfortunate in themselves, are actually part of the hawks' broader agenda. Each crisis will draw U.S. forces further into the region and each countermove in turn will create problems that can only be fixed by still further American involvement, until democratic governments--or, failing that, U.S. troops--rule the entire Middle East.

And of course, now the call is for more troops.

I don’t know if the second front has been called into being as part of a long term plan by the hawks in the Bush administration. I do know that I have a college age stepson and that if I were an American I’d be a little nervous about whether his road to university might go through Baghdad if Bush is elected again.