Bush’s splurge is already bringing premature claims of success, even though the first troops are just arriving in Iraq. A column in today’s Washington Times by Ollie North quotes an American officer in Iraq as saying, “Do they (Members of Congress opposed to the war) even know that in the last two weeks we have set AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq) and the Mahdi Army both back on their heels?” Well, maybe, but if they are back on their heels, it is only to sit and see how their enemy’s latest operation evolves. That is smart guerilla tactics, and does not mean they have suffered a setback.
In Anbar province, al Qaeda may have overplayed its hand. A number of reports suggest some of the local sheiks have turned against al Qaeda, and we are providing the sheiks with discreet assistance in going after them. That is smart on our part. But Bush administration propaganda to the contrary, al Qaeda does not represent the bulk of the Sunni resistance. The nationalists will continue to fight us because we are there, and the Baathists will continue to fight us so long as we represent a despised Shiite regime in Baghdad. We can and should try to negotiate settlements with both nationalists and Baathists, but political considerations in Washington and in Baghdad have largely tied the hands of our local commanders.
The Mahdi Army and other Shiite groupings have a different perspective. Once we understand what it is, we can see that it makes sense for them to avoid a confrontation with the U.S. military if they can. From the Shiite perspective, American forces are in Iraq to fight the Sunnis for them. Our troops are, in effect, the Shiites’ unpaid Hessians.
Thus far, we have been willing to play the Shiites’ game. Their challenge now is to make sure we continue to do so as Bush’s “big push” in Baghdad unfolds. Originally, they wanted U.S. forces to control access to Baghdad, cutting the Sunnis’ lines of communication and reinforcement, while the Shiite militias carried on their successful campaign of ethnic cleansing. With Bush insisting American forces work in Baghdad, the Shiites came up with an alternate plan, one we have seemingly accepted: the Americans will drive out the Sunni insurgents, leaving Sunni neighborhoods defenseless. As the American troops move on, they will be replaced by Iraqi soldiers and police, mostly Shiite militiamen, who will ethnically cleanse the area of Sunnis, just as in plan A. Again, the Americans will have fulfilled their allotted function, fighting the Sunnis on behalf of the Shiites. Aren’t Hessians great?
The potential spoiler is the possibility that the Americans will also go after some Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army. If we do so by entering Sadr City in strength, the Mahdi Army can simply let us come — and go. We cannot tell who is a militiaman and who is not. They can let us mill around for a while, achieving nothing, then watch us leave. Big deal.
An action that might force them to respond would be an intensification of our ongoing drive to capture or kill Mahdi Army leaders. But they still would not have to respond in Baghdad. The classic guerilla response in such a case is to retreat from the area where the enemy is attacking and hit him somewhere else. An obvious place would be in Iraq’s Shiite south, with our supply convoys coming up from Kuwait the target. Another response would be to match our escalation of raids with an escalation of mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone. As we go after their leaders, they return the favor by going after ours. There are some indications this may be occurring.
No doubt, our forces will attempt to be even-handed between Sunnis and Shiites. But this merely shows that we do not understand the real game. The real game, and a successful one to date, is to let the Americans take the brunt of the fight with armed Sunni organizations, whether nationalist or Baathist or Al Qaeda or whomever, while the Shiite militias get the softer job of terrorizing Sunni civilians and forcing them out. That is likely to be the story of Operation Baghdad, regardless of our intentions.
Should the day ever come when we cease to play that game, our utility to the Shiites, and thus to the Shiite-controlled Iraqi government, will be over. Like Hessians in earlier wars, we will then be sent home. All it takes is a fatwa from Ayatollah Sistani, telling us to go. If we don’t understand this, everyone else in Iraq certainly does, including Muqtada al Sadr.
William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.