American tragedy

Print edition : May 05, 2006

Three years after the invasion, the U.S. is still far away from achieving its goals in Iraq.

ATUL ANEJA in Bahrain

SHIA WORSHIPPERS DEMONSTRATE at Imam Mussa al-Kazem shrine in Baghdad in March against the killing of 15 pilgrims to Karbala.-ALI AL-SAADI/AFP

THREE years after the United States invaded Iraq, some clarity on the scale of the misadventure of has begun to emerge.

In March 2003, U.S. tanks from Kuwait rumbled into southern Iraq. Their intention was evident - establishing control over the southern Iraqi oilfields. U.S. troops had rushed to take over the Rumaila oilfield, the biggest in Iraq, having 1,000 wells. The Kirkuk oilfields in northern Iraq were yet another focal point of the invasion. However, the U.S. took considerable time to gain control over the area, mainly because Turkey disallowed the movement of a key U.S. division across its borders. The division had been earmarked to overrun the oilfields from the north.

The U.S. goals, defined by neo-conservatives in Washington who had been accommodated in the inner circle of the George W. Bush administration, were to revive quickly Iraqi oil production, which had slid to 2.5 million barrels a day. This was less than half of Iraq's production potential.

It was evident that oil was central to the U.S.' war plans. Prior to the war, a Working Group on Oil and Energy had been formed, which was full of pro-U.S. expatriate oil officials from Iraq. This group, in turn, played a key role in steering the U.S. State Department's Future of Iraq project, a massive exercise involving post-invasion plans. The group met several times during 2002 and 2003 and reportedly recommended opening Iraq's state-run oil sector to private overseas investments. The name of Ahmed Chalabi as an advocate of this privatisation move cropped up several times during this period. It is well known that Chalabi, who belongs to the Iraqi National Congress, had established contacts with top officials of U.S. energy firms. On one occasion, he was quoted as saying that, "American companies will have a big shot at Iraqi oil" once "regime change" in Iraq was accomplished.

The U.S. Department of Defence, on its part, made extensive preparations to establish control over Iraqi oil. Special army units had been formed to occupy and maintain oilfields. A contract to repair and rehabilitate Iraq's oil infrastructure was awarded to a subsidiary of the U.S. firm Halliburton.

However, soon after the invasion, U.S. ambitions over Iraqi oil began to suffer setbacks. The Iraqi resistance began to blow up oil export pipelines. The most extensively targeted one was the pipeline carrying oil from Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Faced with unrelenting sabotage, the U.S. adopted desperate measures. A South African firm, Erinys International, was marshalled to keep up pipeline security, with the help of 6,500 guards. Snipers from an elite U.S. division were deployed to shoot saboteurs along the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline route.

Despite their best efforts, the Americans have been struggling to restore oil supplies to the pre-war level of 2.5 million barrels a day - a long distance away from their plans to push supplies to new highs so that international oil markets could be manoeuvred suitably and political benefits derived.

Apart from oil, U.S. plans to install a Washington-friendly regime in Iraq are also in a shambles. The U.S. had banked on Iraqi Shias to emerge as a loyal new political force. The U.S., prior to the war, made extensive preparations to cultivate them. Leaders of prominent Shia organisations, including the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Daawa party, were feted in conferences held in the United Kingdom and the U.S. These organisations worked well with the U.S. to remove the Baathist regime led by Saddam Hussein. But tensions in the relationship began to appear because of the Shia reluctance to push the U.S. strategic agenda of juxtaposing its troops with those of the arch-foe Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia share the longest borders with Iraq.

The inability of the U.S. to appreciate the depth of Iranian influence lies at the heart of its debacle in Iraq. Iran derives its influence within Iraq primarily from the Shia religious network. Historically, Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran are the pillars of Shia Islam. Rivalry between the Najaf and Qom to capture the Shia intellectual domain is also well known. However, the equation underwent a change after the Iraqi government began to target Shia leaders. Tensions between Iraq's secular Baath party rulers and its Shia religious establishment also sharpened because of the bitterly fought Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The war laid bare the historical rivalry between Arabs and Persians. The Baathists laid considerable emphasis on Iraqis having an Arab identity as the basis of a pan-Arab solidarity in the region. The Iranians, on their part, took enormous pride in their Persian origins. However, an undercurrent of sectarian animosity was visible during this war. The war was fought soon after the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. As a result, Shia religious fervour, including the sentiment for "martyrdom", was translated prominently in the battlefield. Consequently, the Iranian revolution, under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's stewardship, was interpreted as a major challenge to the Sunni-dominated Arab regimes, including Iraq.

With the pressure on the Iraqi Shia religious establishment growing, many of its leaders took refuge in Iran. For instance, Ibrahim Jaafari, whose name for the post of Prime Minister is being hotly debated in Iraq, has extensive links with Iran. The Daawa party leader fled to Iran following a crackdown in 1980 on his party by the Saddam Hussein government. During his stay in Iran, he worked closely with the SCIRI. The Daawa party and the SCIRI are the core constituents of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a seven-party Shia grouping that has won the largest number of seats in Iraq's parliamentary elections held in December 2005. Nine years later, Jaafari left for London to form a base for overseas Daawa activities.

Similarly, the SCIRI has extensive links with Iran. Its leader, Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, along with his half-brother Mohammad Baqr Al Hakim, left for Iran in the early 1980s. Once in Iran, Abdul-Aziz Al Hakim led the Iran-supported Badr brigades, the SCIRI's military wing, against Iraqi government forces. After nearly 23 years in Iran, Al Hakim returned to Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003. By then his elder brother had become the leader of the SCIRI. He was assassinated in Najaf on August 29, 2003. After that Al Hakim has been leading the SCIRI and is one of the most prominent leaders in Iraq.

The relationship between the U.S. and Iraqi Shias has to a great extent soured because of the SCIRI's activities. The group has entrenched itself inside the Interior Ministry and many of the Badr corps militia have been inducted in the Iraqi security forces.

The Iranians have also begun to wield considerable influence over the cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who has a wide following in Sadr City, a sprawling Shia slum on the outskirts of Baghdad. His Mehdi Army has twice revolted against the U.S. occupation. On many occasions Al Sadr has said that members of the Mehdi Army should be inducted into the Iraqi security forces. In recent times the group has made considerable political gains. Its Fadilah party won several seats in the parliamentary elections.

Fearing the growing influence of the Iranians in the new Iraqi establishment, the U.S. decided to confront the SCIRI. The organisation was accused of running torture chambers where Sunnis were allegedly being incarcerated.

On the political front, the U.S. stopped backing the UIA during the run-up to the December elections. On the contrary, it supported the "secular alternative", a combination of Sunnis and pro-U.S. parties, especially the Iraqiyah party of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The U.S. has also opposed Jaafari's candidature to premiership. Apart from his Iranian links, Jaafari is also suspect in American eyes because of his "socialist tendencies". Jaffari, for instance, has been an admirer of Noam Chomsky and has been considering inviting the prominent American Left intellectual to visit Baghdad. Declaring Washington's disposition, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad was quoted as saying that President Bush "doesn't want, doesn't support, doesn't accept" Jaafari as the next Prime Minister.

The rise of the majority Shias, backed by well-armed militias, has alarmed Sunnis, the traditional rulers of Iraq. As a result, sectarian tensions are running high. Towards the end of February, Iraq was facing a definite threat of civil war, after the golden dome of the historic Shia shrine of Al Askari in the city of Samarra was destroyed.

The attack on the 10th century structure triggered a wave of sectarian violence. Nearly 110 persons were killed in less than 24 hours after the attack. The Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), an influential Sunni body, claimed that 168 Sunni mosques had been attacked, 10 clerics killed and 15 abducted during that period. Shia militiamen in the southern city of Basra set fire to a Sunni shrine containing the seventh century tomb of Talha bin Obeid-Allah, a companion of Prophet Muhammad.

There has been no let-up in the cycle of sectarian violence since then. It is estimated that 1,313 civilians died in Sunni-Shia clashes in March. On April 7, a triple suicide bombing targeted another historic Shia mosque in Baghdad, killing at least 85 persons. An estimated 25 persons died in another attack on a Shia mosque five days later. The discovery of victims killed execution-style has become a daily occurrence. Recognising that its hold over Shias has alarmingly declined, the U.S. has decided finally to seek a dialogue with Iran on Iraq.

The outcome of these talks is hard to predict as the Iranians have begun hinting that the dialogue could also cover the crisis surrounding Iran's nuclear programme.

Whatever be the result, it is evident that three years after the invasion, the U.S. control is slipping in Iraq. At the present juncture, Iraq is in the crosshairs of an intense U.S.-Iranian struggle for strategic influence in the Persian Gulf.

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