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The Straw That Broke Iraq's Back

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has put the last piece of straw on the poor camel called Iraq. And its back is about to break. The keys to success in Iraq were never military strategies. Everyone knows this, well, except of course for George W. Bush. To be fair, even John McCain knows this -- and he hardly knows what planet he's on lately (he just came back from the planet where Iraq is a really safe place to shop).

Every week we have Michael Hirsh of Newsweek on the show. And every week he explains to us that even if the surge was going to work, it would take eight to ten years -- and that the US population would never allow an occupation that lasted that long.

I also know that Iraq is already irreversibly broken. The three main sects in Iraq have no sense of national unity. They are far more loyal to their ethnic group than to a fanciful, united Iraq.

The Shiites are only going along with the surge for now because they know they will be left in a much better position afterward. And after the US military is done pounding the Sunnis they will sweep in and try to seize control of the whole country. At which point, larger hostilities would commence inevitably anyway.

But because I am a hopeless optimist, deep in my heart of hearts, I still hoped that the new strategy in Iraq might work (I even wrote about good news coming out of Iraq recently). Not because I thought more troops would help or because George Bush magically knew what he was doing, but because there was a genuine new strategy to reach a political solution behind the scenes, which has always been the only hope.

Ironically, it was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that started that hope when he blessed a moderate colaition to run Iraq in December 2006. This isolated Moqtada al-Sadr and gave the Iraqi government a chance to work together. A very small chance, but a chance nonetheless.

Condoleezza Rice even set up regional talks where we would engage in dialogue with Iran and Syria. We would talk to Iran and Syria! In a world where George W. Bush is president, that's gigantic news. Diplomacy at long last!

Our ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, also had the right goals (even though he is one of the original neo-cons, he is a rare person from this administration who I thought did a stand up job in Iraq). Khalilzad wanted to get an oil sharing deal among the different sects, reform the Iraqi constitution and get rid of de-Baathification which was leading to resentment among Sunnis because they were shut out of government jobs. It's crucial that we undo the damage that Paul Bremer did by de-Baathifying in the first place and driving Sunnis to the waiting arms of the insurgency.

Unfortunately, this is where Ayatollah Sistani just snapped Iraq in two (probably three). After that snake Ahmed Chalabi talked to him, he has put the word out that he will not back the de-Baathification program (this NYT article explains it best). That means Sunnis will not get the stable jobs that would give them an incentive to join the Iraqi government. That means they will feel alienated and fight back against a government that completely excludes them. The insurgency will grow. The civil war which has already begun will now spiral out of control.

The Sunnis no longer have any incentive to make a deal. The only place where they think they might make gains is on the battlefield (I believe they are also sorely mistaken in that belief). So, it's on. Iraq no longer exists.

By the way, in case you missed it -- yes, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani makes the most important decisions in Iraq. The real power in Iraq runs through Sistani. He decided who would be elected to the Iraqi government in the first place when he selected the religious Shiite bloc that won the 2005 elections. George Bush handed Iraq over to a Grand Ayatollah. Brilliant work. Genius. Is it possible to be more incompetent?

So, now the rest of this will play out predictably. The Sunni insurgency will not let up at all. At some point, either we will start to withdraw and be replaced by Shiite militia (by the way, where is the Iraqi army, do they still exist?). That's the best case scenario.

Or more likely, the Shiite militias will grow impatient and return to challenge the reign of the US military. They will attack the Sunnis, not us. If we then choose to engage them, we will have more trouble than we know what to do with. The civil war will rage out of control (significantly worse than it is now, if you can imagine such a thing) and we will be stuck in the middle of it, fighting both sides.

At which point, we will hastily decide to leave Iraq in helicopters. We will abandon that billion dollar embassy we're building in the so-called impenetrable Green Zone. And the dire consequences of failure that George Bush and Dick Cheney keep talking about will come to fruition.

And that failure will have nothing whatsoever to do with how many troops we sent over or any kind of withdrawal date we might or might not set. It will have everything to do with a failed political solution in Iraq. This is what George Bush never fully understood and why he has always been sadly overmatched by his position.

The withdrawal that Congress is debating now will only effect whether we leave somewhat gracefully or in complete panic and humiliation. Sistani has already made the decision. The Sunnis will not be coming back into the Iraqi government. The die is cast. The civil war will continue. George W. Bush will leave office a complete embarrassment. And he still won't know what happened to him.

The Young Turks

UPDATE -- SamEllison from the Comments section is right. The New York Times has updated the story and now Sistani's representatives are denying that he has backed away from the proposal to end the de-Baathification program. They are still negotiating. That is good news. If he does step away from these proposals aimed at including the Sunnis in the government that's when we know there is no hope left at all, as I explained above.

By the way, also note in the NYT article that it looks like we assisted in kidnapping an Iranian diplomat. Gee, I wonder why the Iranians would want to hold some Western troops in return?