Salvage operation

Published : Jan 26, 2007 00:00 IST

CO-CHAIRMEN OF THE ISG former Secretary of State James Baker (left) and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton at a news conference in Washington on December 6, when the report was released.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS CO-CHAIRMEN OF THE ISG former Secretary of State James Baker (left) and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton at a news conference in Washington on December 6, when the report was released.

CO-CHAIRMEN OF THE ISG former Secretary of State James Baker (left) and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton at a news conference in Washington on December 6, when the report was released.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS CO-CHAIRMEN OF THE ISG former Secretary of State James Baker (left) and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton at a news conference in Washington on December 6, when the report was released.

The Iraq Study Group report comes up with bold, inflammatory views about the U.S. occupation.

AS the hangman's noose tightened around Saddam Hussein's neck, a guard began to taunt him with the name "Moqtada, Moqtada, Moqtada". Saddam repeated the name incredulously, began to recite a prayer, and then the floor went out from under him.

Away from Iraqi politics for the past three years, Saddam did not know about the ascent of Moqtada al-Sadr, who holds sway in Baghdad's Sadr (formerly Saddam) City, a two-million-resident urban slum that was before 1963 the base of the Iraqi Communist Party. Al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army, in addition, command the loyalty of many Iraqis in the southern part of the country, and this translates into power within the state. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki relies upon al-Sadr's delegates to maintain his government.

The United States' policy in Iraq has been unable to come to terms with people like al-Sadr and militias like his Mehdi Army. Moqtada al-Sadr draws his authority from tradition (his father and father-in-law were both revered clerics killed by Saddam Hussein) and from his consistent position against the U.S. invasion and occupation.

In March 2004, Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority had closed down al-Sadr's newspaper, Al-Hawza, and sent in the marines to arrest him. Al-Sadr let loose the Mehdi Army, which took control of Najaf and Kut and declared Sadr City out of bounds for the Occupation.

Thirty of the parliamentarians (in a House of 275) elected in 2005 are loyal to al-Sadr. In all this, al-Sadr's opposition to the U.S. occupation continues. This is perhaps the reason why the U.S. establishment's latest attempt to give direction to the imbroglio in Iraq falters before the problem al-Sadr represents for the U.S.

The Iraq Study Group (ISG) report (The Way Forward - A New Approach by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, Co-Chairs; Vintage, New York, 2006) notes that "Sadr was following the model of Hizbollah in Lebanon: building a political party that controls basic services within the government and an armed militia outside of the government." Israel's failed 2006 war against Hizbollah shelved any military option against the Mehdi Army. Even a massive surge cannot dislodge a popular movement, however unsavoury it might be to Washington.

That the ISG cautions against "staying the course" with the military option is an extraordinary admission from Washington's elders. When the U.S. Congress supported the creation of the ISG in March 2006 (three years after the Iraq War began), no one expected its report to be so inflammatory. The ISG's co-chairs are the Bush loyalist James Baker and the former Democratic Congressman who also co-chaired the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton. Baker and Hamilton convened a blue-ribbon panel of former government officials who met with Iraqi and U.S. experts in Baghdad and Washington. Within six months, the ISG released its report.

The media hastily concentrated on the one aspect that the Bush administration is unlikely to accept: that the U. S. involve Iran and Syria in a regional dialogue to solve the Iraq crisis. Such a position is impossible given the Bush administration's collision course with Teheran. Informed sources in the White House indicate that an opening to Damascus might be on the cards if it increases the isolation of Iran.

The core principle of the ISG report is, however, more interesting than this one suggestion. The U.S., the ISG argues, must shy away from the belief that Iraq's problems can be solved by force. "There is no action the American military can take that, by itself, can bring about success in Iraq," notes the report. This is a position resisted by the Bush administration, which has now announced the departure of more troops to Iraq (calling this The Surge).

Not only does the ISG eschew a military solution, but it also borrows two important suggestions made by the Democratic Party's Progressive Caucus. The U.S. President "should state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq" and he "should restate that the United States does not seek to control Iraq's oil". These statements, the ISG report notes, will "shape a positive climate for its diplomatic efforts," which is the principal avenue to solve the Iraq crisis. To see such proposals in an establishment report is welcome.

There are currently 106 U.S. bases in Iraq, with a plan to consolidate U.S. forces in four large bases (Tallil, Balad, Asad and Erbil or Qayyarah). In the early days after the invasion, the U.S. called these "enduring bases", but they have since been renamed "Contingency Operating Bases". The slow climb-down might be a preparation for an eventual disavowal of a large military presence in the country. On oil, matters are more complex, as we shall see below.

Without using phrases like "civil war", the ISG Report nevertheless accepts that "many Iraqis are embracing sectarian identities" and that "sectarian violence has become the principal challenge to stability". This admission is important, and it leads to several suggestions both to the Iraqi and to the U.S. government. For the former, the ISG asks that, as parties oriented toward the Shia community, the al-Maliki government make firmer gestures to accommodate the Sunni community. These include a review of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, a reconsideration of the U.S.-led de-Baathification policy, a date set for provincial elections, and a promise that oil revenues will be shared across the population.

Bush's mid-January "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government include all these. But the style with which the U.S. government talks of "bring the Sunnis in" will surely inflame tensions rather than seek an Iraqi solution to the sectarian crisis. There has been little care that it was the U.S.-driven stringent de-Baathification that produced the loose forces for the insurgency as well as gave succour to Shia factions to move confidently a sectarian agenda. Such a schizophrenic move might not give confidence to the Iraqi people that the U.S. occupation force works for their combined interests.

On troop withdrawal, the ISG is measured. It cautions the U.S. government not to make a unilateral decision. Rather, "the point is for the United States and Iraq to make clear their shared interest in the orderly departure of U.S. forces as Iraqi forces take on the security mission". Such a combined discussion, the Report continues, "will increase the likelihood of participation by insurgents and militia leaders". Finally, and perhaps quixotically, the ISG asks that the U.S. refrain from undercutting the Iraqi government's attempt to draw up an amnesty policy for the resistance and that the Iraqi government, in turn, push for the demobilisation of the militias. Both Washington and Baghdad's Green Zone looked askance at these last proposals.

Talk of national reconciliation is supremely important for a country torn apart by the Occupation and now by the civil war. But what the ISG Report does not grasp is that the former, the Occupation, not only created the conditions for the latter, the civil war, but fostered it. After trying to encircle al-Sadr in March 2004, Bremer sent the U.S. Marines into the mainly Sunni city of Fallujah to seek collective punishment for the killing of four U.S. private security men. Al-Sadr organised aid convoys to help the residents of the city (and to bolster the resistance). Journalist Patrick Cockburn reported that in this period he saw signs that read, "Sunni + Shia = Jihad against occupation". Al-Sadr's act of solidarity with the city of Fallujah provided a genuine opening for the refoundation of an Iraqi nationalism.

That space opened again in early 2005 when the Association of Muslim Scholars (Sunni) clashed with the Badr Brigade (Shia) over the use of the Ministry of the Interior to mask sectarian death squads. Al-Sadr proved useful again, as he healed the rift and ensured that there was no breakdown between the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (the parent of the Badr Brigade) and the Association. More could have been made of this, but instead the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, and the U.S. administration itself, did everything in its power to play off the Sunni against the Shia. It was the classic "divide and conquer" ploy, but it did not play out: instead the U.S. created "divide and chaos". The U.S. did not create the sectarian conflict. It did, however, create the conditions for its escalation. These need to be withdrawn.

Iraq's population continues to suffer from a collapse of infrastructure. Basic services continue to be worse than they were even under the sanctions. Unemployment rates skyrocket, as factories remain shuttered and bombed-out power plants have still not been repaired. Money intended for reconstruction has disappeared. The ISG Report acknowledges that the U.S. approach thus far is lacking. Whereas the Report admits the colossal scale of corruption through private contractors, it pins the blame on management policy. "Focus, priority setting, and skilful implementation are in short supply," it argues, so it proposes the creation of a Senior Adviser for Economic Reconstruction. This official will not oversee U.S. funds, as "the period of large U.S.-funded reconstruction projects is over". Rather, the Senior Adviser will facilitate U.S. technical assistance to Iraqi projects, funded by international donors and by the Iraqi exchequer.

The Iraqis will rely upon their oil revenues to fund the economic reconstruction. Currently, Iraq's oil sector is running far below capacity. This has partly to do with its ancient and worn-out physical plant, which has not been funded adequately since the start of the Iran-Iraq war. But it has also a lot to do with the devastation caused by the 2003 invasion and by the Occupation. Funds for reconstruction of the oil facilities is in short supply.

The ISG Report's solution to this is along the lines of what the Bush administration has said since 2003: "The United States should encourage investment in Iraq's oil sector by the international community and by international energy companies." To enable this, Iraq needs to "reorganise the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise, in order to enhance efficiency, transparency, and accountability." In other words, Iraq's oil industry should be privatised. Furthermore, to raise additional revenues and in accord with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands, "the U.S. government should press Iraq to continue reducing subsidies in the energy sector...Until Iraqis pay market prices for oil products, drastic fuel shortages will remain." The ISG Report does not raise the inflationary consequences for the average Iraqi of a rise in oil prices, nor does it consider the political effects of the distress it will cause.

One sentence appears twice, in the Preface and on the first page of the Report: "Pessimism is pervasive." The Report refers to the general sentiment of the Iraqi people, although it could as easily apply to the temper in Washington. Little hope exists for the Grand Experiment of the Bush regime. The ISG report is a salvage operation. For the U.S. the stakes are high ("The global standing of the United States could suffer if Iraq further descends into chaos"), but for the Iraqis this is a life-and-death situation.

"The ability of the United States to shape outcomes is diminishing," the Report notes mournfully. "Time is running out."

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