After the elaborate theatrics just performed in the house of mirrors of Washington, US President George W Bush is now recommending to the nation what he told top Iraq commander General David Petraeus to recommend to him. Only those paying more attention to the botched comeback of the “fat” lip-synching Britney Spears will be fooled by Petraeus, the iPod general – a player of what is fed by his master’s voice, the White House.
The facts are stark: by next summer, and even next September (two months before the presidential election), Washington will have the same number of boots on the ground (130,000) in Iraq’s US$3-billion-a-week war that it had before the “surge”, compounding – indeed amplifying – the existing ethical, political and strategic disaster.
Petraeus’ key argument this week to prove his steering of the Bush-devised “surge” was a “success” was to spin the close collaboration between the occupation and the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad on the one side with Sunni tribal leaders in al-Anbar province on the other. Petraeus framed it as if this “sustainable” solution was a huge counterinsurgency success of his own making. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The success story in Anbar is not due to the general’s wily ways, but to an Iraqi sheikh: Abdul Satter Abu Risha, the leader of a coalition of tribes, including 200 sheikhs, formed in the autumn of 2006 under the name Anbar Sovereignty Council (now it’s called Iraq Awakening).
Asia Times Online talked to Abu Risha this past spring in Iraq. He explained, crucially, that he had set up the council after his father and two brothers were killed by al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers. Yes, it was personal. Petraeus then joined the bandwagon. Abu Risha is not, and never was, a Salafi-jihadi. He considers himself an Iraqi nationalist. He’s not in favor of a caliphate. But he’s definitely in favor of restored power to Sunni Iraqis.
Petraeus was indeed smart enough to marvel at the possibilities of a marriage of convenience between the occupation and Sunni tribes. Al-Qaeda for its part was clumsy enough to force “Talibanization” down Anbar people’s throats. But this does not mean that Abu Risha and his 200 tribal leaders are pro-occupation, or even pro-Iraqi government. Eighty percent of these tribes are sub-clans of the very powerful Dulaimi tribe. Al-Qaeda’s close relationship is with the Mashadani tribe, which used to be very close to Saddam Hussein. What matters is that with varying degrees of disgust, both big tribes detest the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad.
Way beyond any “success” claimed by Petraeus, what’s happening in Anbar is once again a replay of what happened in eastern Afghanistan in 2001. Local tribes profit from US largesse – and weapons – and then proceed with their own tribal and/or nationalist agenda. What matters for all these players, most of all, is restoration of Sunni power. The Dulaimi tribe and sub-clans, armed by the Americans, as soon as they have a chance, will try to topple the US-sponsored puppet government in Baghdad.
Petraeus has not been able to seduce or bribe Sunni guerrillas. Far from it: leading groups such as the Jaysh Ansar al-Sunna, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance make it very clear their enemies remain the US occupation, the Maliki government and al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers.
This summer, three of these groups – the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Ansar al-Sunna and Iraqi Hamas – formed the Political Office for the Iraqi Resistance, a public political alliance basically to throw out all of Petraeus’s troops, block any collaboration with occupation-endorsed political institutions, and declare null and void any agreement between the US and the Iraqi government.
By this time, way into the “surge”, Petraeus had certainly figured out that Anbar was not a relevant war theater anymore. He can use it to spin the “success” of his counterinsurgency methods, but he knows the three really relevant, internal wars in Iraq, for the near future, will be in Baghdad (between Sunnis and Shi’ites), in Basra (between Shi’ite militias, to see who gets to control the oil) and in Kirkuk (between Kurds and Arabs/Turkomans, for the same reason).
So why not spice it all up with some extra divide and rule – to justify an eternal US presence? Arming Sunni tribals in Anbar, under these circumstances, makes sense. The occupation does not need to fight Sunnis in oil-deprived Anbar. The Bush administration is now full steam ahead on fighting Shi’ites – both in Iran (the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) and in Iraq (from the Maliki government to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army). Shi’ites in both Iran and southern Iraq are sitting over a wealth of oil. The Sunnis are needed to advance this agenda.
A (minor) problem is what Iraqi Sunnis think of all this. According to the latest BBC/ABC News poll, no less than 97% of Iraqi Sunnis want a unified, centralized Iraq with Baghdad as capital. Only 56% of Shi’ites want it, not to mention only 9% of Kurds. No less than 98% of Sunnis are against the Maliki government. And no less than 92% of Sunnis are in favor of attacks against occupation troops, including, of course, all those Dulaimis now supported by the Americans.
Petraeus knows this: virtually no Iraqi Sunni wants to hug him and kiss him. They want the US out. But he also knows the US simply cannot go – what with the new mega-embassy, the secluded military bases, and all that oil.
The magic word “oil” mysteriously vanished from the whole drama performed this week in front of Congress. To get it, the answer is once again divide and rule – let’s have those Sunnis and Shi’ites tear each other to bits while we “stay the course” pretending to protect them from themselves while trying to protect “our” oil. Bush’s “surge” may indeed be a success – but for all the reasons the general would not dare tell the world.