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Occupation turns Iraq into hell on earth
Is the U.S. headed for defeat in Iraq?

October 27, 2006 | Page 5

ERIC RUDER analyzes the Washington political establishment's discussion of "changing course" in Iraq.

"THE IRAQ situation is not winnable in any real sense of the word 'winnable.'" That assessment came not from an antiwar critic of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but Richard Haass, the chief of policy planning operations in the State Department during George Bush's first term.

Haass was one of many foreign policy insiders to come forward in late October with a dire assessment of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In a few short weeks, the Bush administration's strategy to "stay the course" in Iraq has been exposed as a pipedream--opening a floodgate of criticism that reaches into the defense establishment and the Republican Party.

On October 7, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, rattled the White House with his comment, following a trip to Iraq, that the situation was "drifting sideways" and a "change of course" might be needed. By comparison, Warner's words now seem mild.

Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, told al-Jazeera on October 22 that the world was "witnessing failure in Iraq." "I think there is great room for strong criticism, because without doubt, there was arrogance and stupidity by the United States in Iraq," said Fernandez--though he later recanted, saying he had "seriously misspoken."

The White House may have gotten Fernandez to retract his analysis, but the facts speak for themselves.

Operation Together Forward, which began with the redeployment of 12,000 U.S. troops to Baghdad three months ago in an effort to quell unrest in the capital, was considered by many U.S. military officials "the last, best chance" to get a grip on events. But last week, Major Gen. William Caldwell announced that the strategy had not worked.

Attacks on U.S. forces increased by 22 percent in recent weeks, he said. With U.S. troops fighting block by block through Baghdad, October is on track to have the highest number of U.S. soldiers killed since November 2004, when 137 troops died carrying out the second U.S. siege of Falluja.

One day after Caldwell's remarks made headlines, the southern city of Amarah, which British troops had transferred to Iraqi security forces two months ago, fell under the control of some 800 fighters from Shiite cleric Moktada al Sadr's Mahdi Army. The fighters, armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, stormed three police stations, killing 30 police officers and 20 civilians.

The fight for Amarah is the latest round in an escalating battle between two rival Shiite factions in Iraq--Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which has power in the country's police and security forces.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki dispatched an envoy to Amarah to restore order, but despite the return of the city to police control, the situation remained on edge.

For some weeks, U.S. officials have complained that Maliki hasn't done enough to clamp down on the growing violence among sectarian militias. The media have speculated about a possible coup, either backed or tolerated by the U.S., to replace him with someone who wouldn't shy away from using brute force.

This led Maliki to phone Bush to inquire about the rumors--and to the admission from White House press secretary Tony Snow that while Bush still supports Maliki, an ultimatum had been issued: "We're giving them two months, or we'll go for somebody else."

Pinning responsibility for the violence on Maliki is a transparent attempt to shift blame for the predictable consequences of the U.S. strategy in Iraq.

Starting with the drive two years ago to suppress the Sunni resistance in the western part of the country, the U.S. has relied on Shiite political parties and on U.S.-backed and -trained Shiite security forces to impose order on Iraq, The first U.S. siege of Falluja, in April 2004, failed after Sunni-led Iraqi forces refused orders to suppress the resistance, and instead joined it.

Since then, the U.S. has been careful to use Kurdish and Shiite troops against Sunnis, and, when possible, Sunni troops to confront Shiite forces. This helped to set in motion the sectarian conflict that grips Iraq today.

Bush has tried to shrug off the bad news. Asked in mid-October about the rising U.S. casualty rate, Bush responded that this was because "we're on the move...we're taking action, we're helping this young democracy succeed."

But behind the scenes, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group--convened by Bush family fixer James Baker at Bush's request--is preparing a report on alternative strategies. Though the report is due to be released after the November elections, leaks to the media suggest that Baker is preparing to "provide camouflage for changing direction," according to analyst Steven Clemons.

Meanwhile, other high-profile Republicans and a long list of foreign policy experts are pushing their own proposals. But each carries new and potentially greater risks than the present course.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has suggested sending even more troops into Iraq to impose stability--an idea that's both politically unpopular in the U.S. and likely to result in even more violence, just as Operation Together Forward did.

Another idea is to pull U.S. troops back from urban areas and set up "superbases" in the desert or even nearby countries, from which the U.S. could stage rapid forays as needed. But stationed far from the conflict, the U.S. could expect to have even less influence when new battles like the fight for Amarah break out.

Overthrowing Maliki and replacing him with a Saddam Hussein-like dictator remains a possibility. "Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy," one unnamed military expert who received an Iraq briefing at the White House told journalist Robert Dreyfuss.

Combined with signals from U.S. generals that Sadr's Mahdi Army will need to be "crushed," the dictatorship option has a dark outlook.

"[A] far more aggressive and confrontational posture with the Sadrists, the strongest and best armed fraction among the Shias...might well mean an expansion of the war between the U.S. forces and the Iraqi nationalist resistance to the Shia areas of the country," wrote Iraq expert Michael Schwartz. "This would more than double the size of the war and perhaps set the conditions for a U.S. military defeat and/or the extensive use of American air power to annihilate parts of the south of Iraq, as they have already done in Falluja and parts of several other cities in the Sunni areas of the country. The possibilities are mind-boggling."

Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, from Bush's home state of Texas, is the latest politician to speak up in favor of partitioning Iraq into three ethno-religious regions.

This would not only involve wrenching ethnic cleansing to create the enclaves, but provoke wider regional instability, with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia drawn into the fighting. What's more, polls show that 78 percent of Iraqis, including a majority of Shiites, oppose segregating Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Of course, there's one policy alternative that doesn't seem to be under active consideration--immediate withdrawal.

The obvious "problem" with this approach is that the U.S. must leave in defeat--suffering a blow to its credibility and a setback to its strategic goal of establishing a foothold in the Middle East to control the flow of the region's vast oil reserves.

U.S. officials claim that withdrawal would lead to a civil war, but the truth is that the U.S. presence is driving the violence and conflict in Iraq.

The specter of the Tet Offensive

GEORGE BUSH's agreement with an interviewer's comparison of the violence in Iraq to the 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War shocked the mainstream media. Even though the U.S. eventually beat back the assault by Vietnamese liberation fighters, Tet became the crucial piece of evidence that the U.S. was losing the Vietnam War.

But as Iraq expert Juan Cole points out, Bush and the rest of the neocons have a different interpretation of the Tet Offensive. In their view, the Tet Offensive didn't mark the beginning of the end so much as the guerrilla movement's skillful manipulation of the American public via their willing accomplices in the liberal (and perhaps even traitorous) U.S. media.

"Bush believes that the media and Americans are falling for a get-up job," wrote Cole. "So he is trying to say to the American public that just as the Tet Offensive was a military defeat for the Viet Cong, but a propaganda defeat for Washington, so the October offensive of the Sunni Arab guerrillas is so much smoke and mirrors, a mere propaganda stunt with no substantive importance for Iraq."

In reality, the Tet Offensive was responsible for galvanizing opposition to the war not as much within the media as among ordinary Americans fed up with the Johnson administration's lies that U.S. forces were always on the verge of turning the corner.

But there's an important lesson here for the antiwar movement today. Even though Tet showed the hopelessness of winning the war, the U.S. war on Vietnam continued for seven more years. More U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam after Tet than before it, and at least a million people across Southeast Asia were killed in the vain attempt by the U.S. to defend its "credibility."

The stakes for the U.S. in Iraq today are even higher than they were in Vietnam. So no one should accept the talk of "changing directions" as the end of the Iraq war. The opposite is the case--until the U.S. is forced, by antiwar struggle in the U.S. and a resistance movement in Iraq, to get out.

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