Washington at large and President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in particular may apply every contortionist trick in the geopolitical book to save their skins in Iraq – and the reasons are not entirely political.
In addition to the recently released report by the Iraq Study Group, any other Washington establishment report – Pentagon, State Department, think-tanks – considered by the White House cannot deviate from much of the ISG. There can be no firm timeline for a complete US withdrawal because it all depends on Iraq’s new oil law being passed and US troops being able to defend Big Oil’s investment.
Once again, it’s the oil. The Bush-Cheney system by all accounts went to Iraq to grab those fabulous reserves. The only way for an overall solution to the Iraqi tragedy would be for the Bush administration to give up the oil – with no preconditions, turning the US into an honest broker. Realpolitik practitioners know this is not going to happen.
Instead, the ISG is explicitly in favor of privatizing Iraq’s oil industry – to the benefit of Anglo-American Big Oil – after the impending passage of a new oil law that was initially scheduled to be passed this month by the Iraqi Parliament.
For Big Oil, the new oil law is the holiest of holies: once the exploitation of Iraq’s fabulous resources is in the bag, “security” is just a minor detail. Enter the ISG’s much-hyped provision of US troops remaining in Iraq until an unclear date to protect not the Iraqi population, but Big Oil’s supreme interests. This is really what ISG co-head James Baker means by “responsible transition”.
According to reports, the draft law, Iraq’s first postwar draft hydrocarbon law, proposes allowing – for the first time – local and international companies to carry out oil exploration in Iraq.
Dow Jones Newswires reports that the draft law stipulates that the Iraqi Oil Ministry “should set up a committee consisting of highly qualified experts to speed up the process of issuing tenders and signing contracts with international oil companies to develop Iraq’s untapped oilfields”.
The law as drafted by a government committee also says that all matters concerning oil and gas exploration, production and transportation should be handled by the federal government – something Kurdish officials in northern Iraq resist.
Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdish region’s prime minister, has been quoted as saying that talks he held with the Baghdad government had failed to produce an agreement on his demands for control of oil resources in the region. “We demand that the signing of contracts to develop oilfields in Kurdistan should be handled by the Kurdistan region,” he said.
Iraq needs international companies to invest as much as US$20 billion to increase crude-oil production to 3 million barrels a day from below the 2 million at present.
Meanwhile, back in the zone
When the ISG stressed that “the ability of the United States to influence events within Iraq is diminishing”, it was a sterling understatement at best. The US does not control much in Iraq apart from the Green Zone. The gruesome, daily accumulation of death proves the US Army provides no security and is distrusted by all parties. The troops don’t even know whom they are supposed to be fighting (apart from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army). At the same time, the Pentagon’s aerial bombings – with scores of “collateral damage” victims – remain as relentless as counter-insurgency run amok.
The Proactive, Preemptive Operations Group implemented by the Pentagon is regarded by Sunnis and quite a few Shi’ites as being the mastermind of some of the car bombings, assassinations, sabotage, kidnappings and attacks on mosques fueling the civil war. The “Salvador option” has developed into the “Iraqification option”. US-trained death squads in Iraq are not much different from the death squads in El Salvador during the 1980s – subordinated to the same “divide and rule” tactics. This is the “civil war” dirty secret: let the Arabs kill one another with the US posing as “victims”.
Although the House of Saud’s Interior Ministry will deny it, the ISG had to admit that Sunni Arab guerrillas are being financed – to the tune of tens of millions of dollars – by wealthy, private Saudi and, to a lesser extent, Gulf state donors, following instructions of powerful Wahhabi clerics. Thirty-eight of these have just released a statement on Saudi websites calling on Sunnis worldwide to “mobilize” against Iraqi Shi’ites. This has stopped short of being a formal declaration of jihad not only against Shi’ites in Iraq but also Shi’ites in Iran, as well as US troops. The guerrillas’ Russian Strela anti-aircraft missiles in Iraq have been paid for by Saudi money (according to Khudair al-Murshidi, a Ba’athist spokesman based in Damascus, “We have stockpiles of Strelas.”) There’s no US pressure capable of reverting the situation: this is a matter of Arab tribal solidarity – not a state affair.
There can be no direct negotiation with the Sunni Arab muqawama (resistance) because in essence what they want is the breakup of the Washington/Shi’ite majority government collaboration and their return to power. The Nuri al-Maliki government – in fact, any Shi’ite majority government – cannot possibly quash militia hell and the non-stop carnage because the Saudi-financed Sunni Arab guerrilla identifies any government as an occupier’s tool.
And there’s not much Iran can do to crush either the jihadis (not more than 1,300 operatives) or the 40,000-strong Sunni Arab resistance at large: one cannot possibly imagine the Republican Guards crossing the border from Iran to fight pitched battles in Ramadi alongside the US Army.
What could be accomplished – even though it’s an extremely long shot – is a Shi’ite-majority government sharing some measure of power and guaranteeing a substantial share of oil-related profits to Sunni parties. But certainly not under the terms of the new oil law favoring Anglo-American Big Oil.
The axis of despair
Washington’s impotence and bewilderment are astonishing – considering the flurry of extrication-from-Iraq wishful-thinking schemes. It starts with being caught in the middle of a “Sunni axis” – US ally/client regimes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait – supporting Sunni Arab politicians and most of all the anti-US Iraqi guerrillas; and on the other side Shi’ite Iran and pro-Hezbollah, pro-Palestine Syria (predominantly Sunni) supporting sections of the Shi’ite-dominated, US-backed Iraqi government.
The US may be squeezed between the Sunni axis and Iran and Syria, but it’s Iraq that’s the supreme battleground. Morbidly, Iraq is now also configured as a remix of Taliban Afghanistan in the 1990s: Wahhabi Saudi Arabia against “apostate” Shi’ite Iran. Meanwhile, in Lebanon – another battlefield – the Sunni axis supports the corrupt, Saudi-related Hariri clan and the virtually meaningless Fouad Siniora government, against Iran and Syria supporting Hezbollah.
Many Persian Gulf strategists tend to abhor the ISG recommendation of reduced US troops in Iraq. They either go for total US withdrawal (it won’t happen anyway) or at least doubling the current number of 145,000 troops. There are insistent rumors in Dubai that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – all Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members and Gulf Cooperation Council members as well – could engineer, alongside the US, a substantial increase in oil production to force prices below $40 a barrel, thus really hurting Iran. But in this case, Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela would certainly use all his influence inside OPEC to undermine the move.
Inside Iraq, Sunnis – politicians, not the resistance – want the US to take out the Shi’ite militias, which means, in practice, the Badr Organization (the paramilitary wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, thus part of the government) and Muqtada’s Mehdi Army. The Pentagon may be itching to engage in a battle of Sadr City, the massive Shi’ite slum in Baghdad, but that, like the flattening of Fallujah, would accomplish nothing, apart from horrific “collateral damage” and the opening of another, deadlier anti-American guerrilla front.
Suppose Bush finally decides to bet on the return of the Ba’athists – now represented by al-Awdah (The Return) party. An overall amnesty for the Sunni Arab resistance might be offered (unlikely: Maliki would be eaten alive by Shi’ites everywhere). Anyway, the guerrillas have never been interested in talking to the Americans in the first place. Take the heavily tribal, pro-Saddam Hussein al-Anbar province. Even the US Marine Corps has admitted that al-Qaeda in Iraq is the “dominant organization of influence in al-Anbar”, ahead of the Sunni resistance, the government in Baghdad and the US “in its ability to control the day-to-day life of the average Sunni”. At the same time al-Awdah is also very powerful; so al-Qaeda has to fight not only the Americans and the Baghdad government but the neo-Ba’athists as well.
The resistance would never dissolve by simply believing a US pitch on the Badr Organization and the Mehdi Army also being dissolved (by a Bush/Maliki joint decree?). On the other side of the spectrum, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the SCIRI, as well as Muqtada would never fall into this trap in the first place.
Iraqi Shi’ites fear that the White House now wants a new Saddam. They should not worry (or should they?): the only man with certified street power in Baghdad to become a new Saddam is Muqtada, which for the US is anathema. What Shi’ite politicians – SCIRI and Da’wa – want most of all is for the US to help them take out the Sunni Arab guerrillas as well as al-Qaeda in Iraq. In his recent visit to Washington, Hakim was explicit: no US withdrawal. Instead, full speed ahead against the Sunni Arab guerrillas, but not against the Shi’ite militias (especially his own).
Muqtada, an Iraqi nationalist (and not an Iranian puppet), in this case would disagree, because he views the Sunni Arabs as a legitimate resistance force (with preconditions: in a recent sermon in Kufa, Muqtada stressed that Sunnis must not kill Shi’ites, must not join al-Qaeda, and must rebuild the Askariyah Shrine in Samarra).
Muqtada strikes back
The crucial development in the next few weeks is Muqtada’s fine-tuning of a stunning Shi’ite counterpunch to demolish once and for all the US-created pro-sectarian strategy: a nationalist, pan-Islamist, anti-occupation coalition of the Sadrists and the neo-Ba’athists, plus any other religious or secular anti-occupation group.
Transcending the Sunni/Shi’ite divide, this would preempt any threat of all-out civil war – not to mention decide the fierce Shi’ite family feud between Hakim and Muqtada in the Sadrists’ favor. No wonder US Senator John McCain wants to “take out” Muqtada as much as the Pentagon does.
Already virtually ruled out by Bush, US dialogue with Iran on Iraq – were it to happen – would also imply some hard truths. Tehran might have some sway in forcing the SCIRI to dissolve the Badr Organization. But it would ask in return for a complete US withdrawal – sprawling military bases included. There’s no guarantee Iran would deliver: the SCIRI is not a puppet party. On top of it, Iran would be helpless against the Sadrists. Once again: Muqtada is above all an Iraqi nationalist.
So the conclusion is grim: militia hell will continue – no matter what the US tries in desperation – because the Sunni Arab guerrillas will only disarm when the occupation is over, and when the Shi’ite militias also disarm; and the Shi’ite militias will only disarm when the Sunni Arab guerrilla war is finished. Not likely, on both counts.
No wonder Saudi King Abdullah is concerned, warning that Iraq is a “tinderbox”. The new Greater Middle East hot war is already on. Baghdad is its horrific microcosm – public executions, non-stop ethnic cleansing, the Tigris as the Sunni/Shi’ite border with Shi’ite district Kadhimiya and Sunni district Adhamiya as ghettos under siege on the “wrong” sides of the river. Maliki is as irrelevant as Bush – who at least has his own militia, the US Army, just one more militia in militia hell or, as Hunter Thompson would put it, “just another freak in a freak kingdom”.
The neo-conservative hallucination of a puppet Iraqi regime as the centerpiece of a US-driven Greater Middle East – loads of cheap oil, Israel-friendly, anti-Iran – may have been derailed by a Mesopotamian sandstorm. But even with the defeat of the occupation, the US – or “the snake”, as Muqtada defines it – still is not going anywhere. The “snake” will redeploy. Sunni Arab US ally/client regimes fear that a US withdrawal would lead to a whole new regional ball game tilting toward pro-Iran or pro-al-Qaeda regimes.
Not even a long-drawn civil war – Arabs killing one another – may save Bush and Cheney. And Iraq won’t succumb to “divide and rule” and break up – because its identity as the eastern flank of the Arab nation is a geopolitical fact. So the real tragedy is how much longer millions of Iraqis caught in the crossfire will be paying with their own blood for the United States’ cataclysmic folly.