While everyone watching the news from Iraq is focused on whether the "surge" is working or not (in anticipation of General Petraeus' upcoming report to Congress), there are powerful undercurrents at work in the region which may do more to define the future of Iraq than any upcoming "the-glass-is-half-full" report in Washington, D.C.
The biggest, and most disturbing, of these is the fact that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki seems to be losing whatever tenuous grip he holds on the reins of government. Boycotts of the Iraqi Parliament are threatened from almost every side, it seems -- Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurd. As if this weren't bad enough, Maliki also faces an open revolt from within his own Dawa party. And at the same time he seems to be advocating kicking Petraeus out of his country.
While the story which the mainstream media seemed to pay attention to this week from Iraq was that the Iraqi Parliament was taking a month off for vacation (incidentally and completely ignoring the fact that our own American Congress -- and probably President Bush -- will also be taking the entire month off), the real story may be that the Iraqi Parliament may not even have a post-vacation government to come back to.
What would a post-Maliki Iraqi government look like? Would they hold immediate national elections to replace him, or will the whole parliamentary/democratic experiment just be scrapped? To be replaced with what, exactly?
Important questions, to be sure. Since they are not being asked by any mainstream journalists I'm aware of, we have no idea what the answers are likely to be. And that's a downright scary prospect.
But that's not the only scary news to report. It seems we, as a country, are incapable of realizing that when you're in the midst of a civil war, it's probably a good idea to choose sides and see what happens. Instead, we're doing our absolute best to enrage every single faction currently fighting in said civil war.
For a while there, it looked like we were de facto throwing our lot in with the Shi'ites. They are, after all, something like a 60% majority of the population of Iraq, so under a democratic system it would make sense to throw in with the group so obviously in the majority.
Unfortunately (since Bush reportedly had to be told what "Sunni" and "Shi'ite" actually meant, right before we invaded), our support was based solely on political expediency. At some point, it is assumed, someone explained the fact that Shi'ites were the people who ran the next-door government of Iran -- and ever since, our strong support for the Shi'ites has been somewhat fading.
Someone in the White House eventually realized that overthrowing Saddam in order to benefit Iran was probably not the best outcome of the war that the American people could hope for. After all, first we kicked the Taliban out of Afghanistan (removing a huge headache for next-door neighbor Iran), and then we removed Saddam from Iraq (also next-door to Iran, and whom the Iranians had actually fought a war against). Our entire military policy was actually benefiting Iran, and so the spin emanating from the White House began to change, a few months back.
The embarrassing facts "on the ground" were that most of the Iraqi Army (and virtually all of the Iraqi police) which we had so expensively trained, was actually sectarian Shi'ite. And these police were (at night) slipping out to become "death squads" who would deposit dozens upon dozens of Sunni dead bodies -- tortured with power drills, sometimes beheaded -- on the streets of Baghdad each and every morning.
Shi'ites were looking less and less like the horse to back in this race. So we started to demonize (Shi'ite) Iran.
All of a sudden, Iran is the one "meddling" in Iraq, and supplying them with "Explosively Formed Projectiles" (EFPs) which punch through Humvee armor and kill American soldiers. The elite Al-Quds force in Iran was (as the story goes) training Shi'ite groups within Iraq to attack American soldiers. Oh my! The only problem with this was the fact that most attacks against American soldiers had been happening from the Sunnis in Iraq. Not to worry, the American public seemed not to notice.
At almost the same time we (or, should I say, "Vice President Cheney") started this spin campaign against Iran, we also started trumpeting the fact that Al Anbar province in Iraq had stabilized because we had talked the sheiks who lived there into renouncing "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia" (sometime referred to as "Al Qaeda in Iraq"), and to begin fighting on "our side."
This is a large part of the dog-and-pony show which will be the bedrock of the Petraeus report, come September: "We turned around the 'Sunni triangle' and we can turn around the whole country, given enough time."
But this ignores the sectarian reality on the ground. Arming the Sunnis in Iraq (which, you can be sure, was part of our agreement with the Sunni sheiks) is, in effect, trying to achieve some sort of parity in the ongoing civil war within the country. We are now, in essence, arming two sides of the civil war. Perhaps not equally, yet, as creating a mostly-Shi'ite Iraq Army and a completely-Shi'ite Iraqi police force means that arming a few sheiks and their Sunni followers still has a ways to go before achieving any sort of equilibrium.
But not to worry, as there is a third party to step into this void. At that party is the country run by those fast friends of the Bush family, the Saudis. They are extremely worried about Iran's increasing power in the region (which the United States donated to the Iranians, as a result of our wars), and the Saudis are fully capable of funding the Sunnis factions within Iraq.
Which the Saudis are, apparently, doing. The Los Angeles Times had a sobering article recently, which detailed Saudi Arabia's influence within Iraq. It begins:
Although Bush administration officials have frequently lashed out at Syria and Iran, accusing it of helping insurgents and militias here, the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from a third neighbor, Saudi Arabia, according to a senior U.S. military officer and Iraqi lawmakers.
About 45% of all foreign militants targeting U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians and security forces are from Saudi Arabia; 15% are from Syria and Lebanon; and 10% are from North Africa, according to official U.S. military figures made available to The Times by the senior officer. Nearly half of the 135 foreigners in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq are Saudis, he said.
Fighters from Saudi Arabia are thought to have carried out more suicide bombings than those of any other nationality, said the senior U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity. It is apparently the first time a U.S. official has given such a breakdown on the role played by Saudi nationals in Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency.
He said 50% of all Saudi fighters in Iraq come here as suicide bombers. In the last six months, such bombings have killed or injured 4,000 Iraqis.
The situation has left the U.S. military in the awkward position of battling an enemy whose top source of foreign fighters is a key ally that at best has not been able to prevent its citizens from undertaking bloody attacks in Iraq, and at worst shares complicity in sending extremists to commit attacks against U.S. forces, Iraqi civilians and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
The problem casts a spotlight on the tangled web of alliances and enmities that underlie the political relations between Muslim nations and the U.S.
The U.S. government keeps yapping about EFPs from Iran, when fifty percent of all Saudi fighters in Iraq become suicide bombers, often also targeting American forces? Since we have used Iranian involvement in Iraq as a diplomatic lever, you would think are we using Saudi involvement in Iraq as a lever as well, to prod the government into action, no?
Unfortunately, we are doing quite the opposite. We are actually rewarding the Saudis for such actions. To the tune of $20 billion, in new military sales. That's billion with-a-B. Hopefully, wiser heads in Congress will prevail, but the idea itself is extraordinary -- let's reward bad behavior by selling technological military advances to the regime in charge.
Compare our actions towards Iran and towards Saudi Arabia, and it seems obvious that we've "cut and run" from the plan to keep Shi'ites in charge in Iraq. This does not bode well for Maliki, it should be noted.
But just because we've alienated both the Sunnis and the Shi'ites in Iraq, that doesn't mean we can't also upset the apple cart of our only success story in the country to date: the Kurds in the north of the country.
We have long succored the Kurds. The Kurdish region in Iraq is about the only place American soldiers can walk around without fear of imminent attack from the native populace. We have cultivated this relationship for a long time, and it is paying off dividends in many ways.
Unfortunately, we're about to chuck all of that out the window. If Robert Novak is right, the U.S. military (with U.S. Special Forces) is about to aid the Turkish government in suppressing the Kurdish minority in Turkey, which holds cross-border consequences for our allies, the Kurds in Iraq.
The Kurds in Iraq are going to consider this a betrayal, and a sell-out by the American government.
And so, we will have enraged every single faction in Iraq, even the only one which liked us to begin with.
While most pundits will be focused this September on such tactical yardsticks as the number of bodies in Baghdad each morning and the number of U.S. military killed in the past month, it needs to be pointed out that these are merely tactical numbers. The larger picture is the overall strategy -- which, it appears on all fronts, we are losing.
So when you hear the reports this September, keep in mind that the most apt Vietnam analogy yet is the "strategic big picture." And in the immortal terminology from Vietnam, it can only be described as: a "clusterfuck."
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com