Welcome to Daring Opinion

The Website of Elie Elhadj

Home      Articles by Elie Elhadj      Iraq. A Verdict on the "Surge"
 A verdict on the “surge”
 Updated: June 2008
Has the “surge” been a success? The answer depends of the criterion of success. If the criterion is a drop in the number of American casualties in Iraq the answer then is in the affirmative. If, on the other hand, the criterion is a drop in the number of Iraqi casualties, the answer is doubtful.

A durable end to the violence in Iraq revolves around the prospect for Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian groups achieving political reconciliation. The violence in Iraq is not due to lack of soldiers, poor training, or ineffective weapons. A security force of 600,000; American and allied troops (180,000), Iraqi army and police (320,000), in addition to security contractors (100,000) in a country of about 25 million people is not small. Without a political settlement, no number of soldiers can bring peace to Iraq.

Was the decline in American casualties due to the 30,000 soldiers involved in the “surge”? The answer is, not entirely. Although the timing made it convenient to the Bush administration to declare so, four factors may explain what happened during the second half of 2007 that brought about a reduction in attacks against US forces.

The first factor is American success in arming and funding the Sunni tribes in the Anbar Province to fight Al-Qaeda instead of shooting at US forces. Named Awakening Forces, these have grown to an estimated 100,000 men. “Awakening” men patrol local areas. They get paid about $10 a day each. Many were formerly a part of the Sunni insurgency against the occupiers and Iraqi government security forces as well as against the Shi’ite militias of Abdulaziz Al-Hakeem (Badr Brigade) and of Muqtada Al-Sadr (Mahdi Army). There is little doubt that the “Awakening” project was made possible through the cooperation of neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Iran.

The second factor is Tehran’s interest in calming matters down in Iraq during the remaining few month of the Bush administration’s term in office. In October 2007, US military officials began noticing a decrease in the supply of Iranian weapons and assistance. Spokesman Col. Steven Boylan said General Petraeus observes that Iran is following through on promises it made to Iraqi and US officials last fall not to provide aid to extremists in Iraq, adding, “We are ready to confirm the excellence of the senior Iranian leadership in their pledge to stop the funding, training, equipment and resourcing of the militia special groups.” In a related development, on August 29, 2007, Muqtada Al-Sadr suddenly ordered his Mahdi Army militia to suspend all acts of violence for six months. On February 23, 2008, Al-Sadr extended the cease-fire for six additional months. On August 8, 2008, Al-Sadr announced that his militias would disarm if the US set and followed a timetable for withdrawing its troops from Iraq.

Curiously, in November 2007, a third factor came into play, concurrent with these developments. A report by the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the body that reflects the consensus view of all sixteen US intelligence agencies, stated with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has not restarted it. This conclusion reversed the findings of a similar NIE report in 2005.

Fourthly, the relative reduction in violence in Iraqi neighborhoods could be due to the fact that many districts in Baghdad and elsewhere have already become either purely Sunni or purely Shi’ite after more than four years of “sectarian cleansing.”

How is one to read these developments? On the short-term, Washington is happy; the number of US casualties has dropped significantly. Tehran is happy; the threat of a U.S. attack against its nuclear facilities has receded. Tehran is also happy because a drop in the level of violence in Iraq would make it difficult for Washington to stay in Iraq under the pretext of keeping order in the street. Iraq’s Arab Sunnis are optimistic; thinking that in return for “Awakening,” Washington will force the Baghdad government to amend the federalist provisions in Iraq’s constitution and, among other things, reverse Paul Bremmer’s de-baathification program. The Al-Maliki government, however, is uneasy about the growth in “Awakening” strength. The US/ Sunni accommodation means US pressure on Iraq’s Shiite government to give the Sunnis concessions. Iraq’s defense minister stated on December 22, 2007: “Iraq will not allow US-backed neighborhood patrols to become a ‘third force’ alongside police and the army.” Violent clashes between government forces and “Awakening” units in certain areas have occurred. On August 21, 2008, the New York Times reported that the Iraqi military is going after 650 Awakening members and that a leading Shi’ite member of Parliament, Jalaladeen Sagheer, said: "The state cannot accept the Awakening … Their days are numbered." Awakening leaders feel betrayed.

The long-term prospects for a durable reduction in violence, however, are dim. Tehran and Washington are ultimately in conflict over who will control GCC oil. The interaction between Washington and Tehran  would determine the prospects for regional peace. Washington, 10,000 kilometers away, relies on military bases to control the oil fields and maintain the hapless corrupt Arab tribal sheikhs emirs, kings, and sultans. Iran, being next door, will want to limit America’s influence in the region, starting with the removal of US forces from Iraq.

Iran has a solid infrastructure of support in Southern Iraq. Most of Iraq’s 15-million Shiite population live there. Shiism’s holiest shrines are there. The prominent families of Najaf and Karbala trace their roots to long lines of marriages with the leading clerics families of Iran. Ayatollahs have cross-country followings. The ayatollahs of Qomm have followings in Iraq and elsewhere just like Najaf’s ayatollahs who have followings in Iran and elsewhere. From Najaf and Karbala, Iranian clerics often led the world of Shiism.

Furthermore, Tehran’s men control Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani is obeyed by millions in Iraq and Iran. Born and raised in Iran, he does not accept Iraqi citizenship. Through his disciples, he has been heavily involved in the American designs on Iraq. While consolidating Shiite control, Al-Sistani has had a good reason to support the presence of the occupation troops. Notwithstanding this support, however, Al-Sistani is no friend of the American occupation. An objective of the election platform of the Al-Sistani-approved list of candidates that contested the January 30, 2005 elections was a timetable for the withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq. Middle East Online reported on May 23, 2008 that Al-Sistani has been quietly issuing fatwas declaring that armed resistance against US-led foreign troops is permissible. Abdulaziz Al-Hakeem is the head of SCIRI and the Badr Brigade. Badr is a militia of thousands; created and sustained by Iran. Al-Hakeem spent most of his adult life in Iran. He is the leader of the largest Parliamentary bloc. When his older brother was assassinated in August 2003, Tehran declared three days of mourning.      
Al-Sistani and Al-Hakeem may be described as Tehran’s instruments to institute clerics’ control over Iraq.

Muqtada Al-Sadr may be described as Tehran’s instrument to harass U.S. forces. His father and uncle were Grand Ayatollahs. His uncle founded in 1958 the Islamic Daawa Party (IDP). IDP received big support from Tehran. Its leaders, Al-Jaafari and Al-Maliki, became Iraq’s transitional prime minister and full-term prime minister, respectively. Both men lived in exile for years in Iran.

Strengthening Tehran’s grip on Baghdad are the personal rivalries that exist among Iraq’s Shiite leaders, particularly the Sistani/Hakeem camp and the Sadr organization. In their turf wars, these men are compelled to seek assistance from Tehran. Iran is their natural habitat.

It is inconceivable that these leaders would turn to Iraq’s Sunni neighbors for support. In Arab countries, the Shiites look to Iran for deliverance from Sunni subjugation. To Sunnis, the Shiites are heretics. Shiite areas in Saudi Arabia are the poorest despite containing the entire oil wealth of that country. In Bahrain, the Sunni minority mistreats the 60% Shiite majority. In Kuwait, the Shiites are second-class citizens. In Lebanon, the Shiites are underprivileged. In Yemen, the Zaydis, a Shiite sect, accuse the Sunni government of genocide. In Syria, until seizing power in 1970, the Alawite minority, a Shiite sect, lived in abject poverty. In Iraq, until 2003, the Shiite majority was deprived. Egyptian President Mubarak declared recently that, Shiites in Arab states were more loyal to Iran than to their own countries. The notion that Iran might encourage the GCC Shiites to demand their human rights sends shivers in GCC circles and beyond.

Divide and rule is a powerful weapon in the hand of Iran’s ayatollahs to keep Iraq’s Shiite politicians virtual surrogates and Tehran the ultimate arbiter. That Iran made representatives of Al-Sadr and Al-Hakeem/Iraqi government end the fighting in Basra in March 2008 is a case in point. It follows that it is in Tehran’s ayatollahs’ power today to decide when to direct their Iraqi surrogates to fight the Americans.  

On April 9, 2003, control in Mesopotamia was transferred to Iraq’s 60% Shiite majority after a thousand years of Arab Sunni control. Washington’s elimination of the Wahhabi Talibans and Saddam’s regime in Iraq allowed Iran to become the major power over Iraq and the world’s richest oil region. On April 9, 2003, the U.S. won the battle against a tattered Iraq. But Iran, without firing a shot won the war for Iraq; a triumph for the Khomeini revolution--- one of Shiism’s greatest moments since Saladin ended the rule of the Shiite Fatimid State in Cairo in 1171 A.D., a cataclysmic event that turned Iran into an unstoppable regional powerhouse. “The greatest problem facing the U.S. is that Iran has superseded it as the most influential power in Iraq,” The British think tank, Chatham House, concluded in August 2006.

Today, the key to the future of Iraq is in Tehran. Regardless of whether the U.S. increases the level of its military presence in Iraq or withdraws altogether; whether the Democrats or the Republicans control the White House and/or Capitol Hill, and regardless of whether Iraq emerges from its current chaos as a single entity, a federal republic, or broken-up into three states the occupation has set in motion events that make it difficult to predict how lifting the lid on Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic tensions could lead to anything but to Iranian domination over southern Iraq, to Shiite emboldenment everywhere, and to endless long-Term Shiite/Sunni conflicts spilling rivers of blood and breeding hoards of Jihadists until the Sunni leaders in the region would either accept Iran’s hegemony or succeed in stopping the march of Shiism.

 The current lull in hostilities against American forces is capricious.  In return for cooling the Bush administration’s threats to attack Iran over the nuclear issue and in the expectation that less violence could accelerate the US withdrawal from Iraq, Tehran calmed Iraq. The recent lull in American casualties could come to an end if Washington attacks Iran or decides to overstay its welcome. In his report to the Congress on April 8, 2008, General David Petraeus described the situation in Iraq as “fragile and reversible.”

Washington could, of course, destroy Iran’s infrastructure militarily. But, that would not solve much in the long-term.