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The Ever Elusive ‘Tipping Point’ in Iraq

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

For a day or two after the killing of terrorist gang leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, I was fantasizing that US President George W Bush and his aides were finally getting smart when it came to Iraq.

A few hours after the Jordanian-born head of al-Qaeda in Iraq was killed in a US air strike, a cool, non-smirking and somewhat subdued Mr. Bush showed up at the White House’s Rose Garden to address the press. No "Mission Accomplished" banner was displayed in the background.

And while hailing the death of Iraq’s top terrorist as well as the belated confirmation of the last three members of the Iraqi Cabinet, Mr. Bush actually made a few cautionary comments, warning for example that "we can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without (Zarqawi)" and "the sectarian violence to continue."

I suppose we needed to thank God… I mean, Karl Rove for what seemed to be, for a change, a strategy of lowering expectations in Iraq. Indeed, for three years, since Mr. Bush declared from the deck of an aircraft carrier that America had accomplished its mission in Iraq, the administration’s spin doctors with the help of neoconservative propagandists have been trying to counter-spin the depressing reality that we have been watching on television by celebrating the many "tipping points" that were supposed to herald the dawn of democracy, peace and prosperity in Mesopotamia. I almost lost count of how many times we were "turning the corner" in Baghdad.

So here is a brief reminder for those of you who suffer from short-term memory loss: the bringing down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad; the capture of the Iraqi dictator (remember the intrusive examination of his mouth and beard?) and the killing of his sons; the "handover of sovereignty" to a provisional Iraqi government; the first parliamentary elections with the voters happily waving their purple fingers; the adoption of an Iraqi Constitution and the start of Saddam’s trial; the second parliamentary elections in which a larger number of Arab-Sunnis had voted; and more recently, the formation of the new government in Baghdad led by the supposedly "tough" and "competent" Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

And now comes the killing of Zarqawi the "evil doer" and the filling of the three remaining Cabinet positions, including the defense and national security posts by Arab-Sunnis formerly affiliated with the Ba’ath regime.

All these tide-turning moments have failed to turn the tide in Iraq, where the real reality is very different from the media events being choreographed in the Green Zone of Baghdad, where the huge political and military American contingency is based, and where PM Maliki, the members of his Cabinet and the elected lawmakers reside and work, stepping occasionally outside into the Real Iraq — as opposed to the Green Zone’s Virtual Iraq — under the tight protection of US security guards.

In the Real Iraq, the violence instigated by a mix of Sunni jihadists, former Ba’athists, Shi’ite militias and criminal gangs is continuing uninterrupted. Millions of Iraqis live in fear and without jobs and electricity in a country with one of the world’s largest oil reserves, and whose economy has yet to experience the level of growth of the Saddam years.

Discouraging reality

With the coming to power of Shi’ite political parties in Baghdad and the provinces, women have experienced a major challenge to their rights, while members of secular professional classes, including the cosmopolitan Christian community, have been fleeing the country, to countries including authoritarian Syria.

Most analysts agree that the country is already experiencing what could be described a low-level civil war that could explode any day into a full-blown one.

Against the backdrop of this discouraging reality, it is not clear how Zarqawi’s killing or the appointment of a new Cabinet — events that at best have some symbolic significance — are going to make a big difference.

In fact, as Mr. Bush suggested in his appearance in the Rose Garden, it is quite possible that the violence is going to increase in the coming days and weeks. Unfortunately, Mr. Bush and his aides, after the initial and very brief demonstration of good sense, could not resist the temptation to once again produce another publicity stunt la "Mission Accomplished" with the US President making a dramatic landing in Virtual Iraq to do a few "photo-ops" with the new Iraqi PM and to proclaim that Zarqawi’s death and the new Iraqi Cabinet mean that "freedom has achieved a great victory in the heart of the Middle East."

The problem that Mr. Bush is facing in Iraq — the point that never seems to tip — has to do with the entire faulty strategy that led to the invasion of Iraq. When it comes to civil and international wars, their "tipping point," the one that marks the victory of one side over the other, is actually the outcome of a process consisting of three stages.

First, one side is being crushed on the battlefield and is unable to fight anymore. Then the defeated party raises the white flag. And finally, the losing side "embraces defeat" and agrees to accept the political terms imposed by the winner.

In Iraq, the United States was able to crush one element, Saddam and his military, representing the interests of the Arab-Sunni minority. But the Arab-Sunnis have never raised the white flag and have certainly not embraced defeat. At the same time, the power in Iraq shifted to a coalition led by the Arab-Shi’ite religious political parties who see themselves — and not the Americans — as the victorious party and are unwilling to accept the political terms dictated by the US. And in the middle are a divided group of Kurdish nationalists who have allied themselves with the Americans on a conditional ad-hoc basis.

Groups’ interests

If anything, from the perspectives of the Arab-Shi’ites in Baghdad and their co-religionists in Teheran and the Iraqi Kurds, the "tipping point" has already occurred with the collapse of Saddam and the Sunni-led Ba’ath regime.

Now these two groups are ready for the next campaign to advance their own respective interests — and not that of the Americans. The Shi’ites hope to consolidate their power in Baghdad, a process that could involve struggles among the various Shi’ite militias, and would do very little to advance US interests or values, unless the strengthening of Iran’s power in the Persian Gulf and the establishment of a quasi-theocracy in parts of Iraq can be spun as triumph for "freedom."

Similarly, the Kurds are interested in strengthening the foundations of their autonomy, cleansing their area from Arab-Sunnis and pressing forward for political independence for the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, a process that would run contrary to US interests in the region. In that event, another pseudo-event will be staged in the Green Zone in Baghdad and in Washington to persuade us once again that the tide is turning, the point is tipping, and the mission — was or is or will be — accomplished.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit his blog.

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