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Posted on Feb 5, 2008

Iraq’s Tragic Future

By Scott Ritter

Any analysis of the current state of the ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq that relied
solely on the U.S. government, the major candidates for president or the major media
outlets in the United States for information would be hard pressed to find any bad
news. In a State of the Union address which had everything except a “Mission
Accomplished” banner flying in the background, President Bush all but declared
victory over the insurgency in Iraq. His recertification of the success of the so-called
surge has prompted the Republican candidates to assume a cocky swagger when
discussing Iraq. They embrace the occupation and speak, without shame or apparent
fear of retribution, of an ongoing presence in that war-torn nation. Their Democratic
counterparts have been less than enthusiastic in their criticism of the escalation. And
the media, for the most part, continue their macabre role as cheerleaders of death,
hiding the reality of Iraq deep inside stories that build upon approving headlines
derived from nothing more than political rhetoric. The war in Iraq, we’re told, is
virtually over. We only need “stay the course” for 10 more years.
This situation is troublesome in the extreme. The collective refusal of any constituent
in this complicated mix of political players to confront Bush on Iraq virtually
guarantees that it will be the Bush administration, and not its successor, that will
dictate the first year (or more) of policy in Iraq for the next president. It also ensures
that the debacle that is the Bush administration’s overarching Middle East policy of
regional transformation and regime change in not only Iraq but Iran and Syria will
continue to go unchallenged. If the president is free to pursue his policies, it could
lead to direct military intervention in Iran by the United States prior to President
Bush’s departure from office or, failing that, place his successor on the path toward
military confrontation. At a time when every data point available certifies (and
recertifies) the administration’s actions in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere (including
Afghanistan) as an abject failure, America collectively has fallen into a hypnotic
trance, distracted by domestic economic problems and incapable, due to our
collective ignorance of the world we live in, of deciphering the reality on the ground
in the Middle East.
Rather than offering a word-for-word renouncement of the president’s rosy assertions
concerning Iraq, I will instead initiate a process of debunking the myth of American
success by doing that which no politician, current or aspiring, would dare do: predict
the failure of American policy in Iraq. With the ink on the newspapers parroting the
president’s words barely dry, evidence of his misrepresentation of reality begins to
build with the announcement by the Pentagon that troop levels in Iraq will not be
dropping, as had been projected in view of the “success” of the “surge,” but rather
holding at current levels with the possibility of increasing in the future. This reversal
of course concerning troop deployments into Iraq highlights the reality that the
statistical justification of “surge success,” namely the reduction in the level of
violence, was illusory, a temporary lull brought about more by smoke and mirrors
than any genuine change of fortune on the ground. Even the word surge is
inappropriate for what is now undeniably an escalation. Iraq, far from being a nation
on the rebound, remains a mortally wounded shell, the equivalent of a human
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suffering from a sucking chest wound, its lungs collapsed and its life blood spilling
unchecked onto the ground. The “surge” never addressed the underlying reasons for
Iraq’s post-Saddam suffering, and as such never sought to heal that which was killing
Iraq. Instead, the “surge” offered little more than a cosmetic gesture, covering the
wounds of Iraq with a bandage which shielded the true extent of the damage from
outside view while doing nothing to save the victim.
Iraq is dying; soon Iraq will be dead. True, there will be a plot of land in the Middle
East which people will refer to as Iraq. But any hope of a resurrected homogeneous
Iraqi nation populated by a diverse people capable of coexisting in peace and
harmony is soon to be swept away forever. Any hope of a way out for the people of
Iraq and their neighbors is about to become a victim of the “successes” of the
“surge” and the denial of reality. The destruction of Iraq has already begun. The
myth of Kurdish stability—born artificially out of the U.S.-enforced “no-fly zones” of
the 1990s, sustained through the largess of the Oil-for-Food program (and U.S.-
approved sanctions sidestepped by the various Kurdish groups in Iraq) and given a
Frankenstein-like lease on life in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and occupation—
is rapidly unraveling. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, present-day Iraqi Kurdistan has
been exposed as an amalgam of parts incompatible not only with each other but the
region as a whole.
Ongoing Kurdish disdain for the central authority in Baghdad has led to the Kurds
declaring their independence from Iraqi law (especially any law pertaining to oil
present on lands they control). The reality of the Kurds’ quest for independence can
be seen in their support of the Kurdish groups, in particular the PKK, that desire
independence from Turkey. The sentiment has not been lost on their Turkish
neighbors to the north, resulting in an escalation of cross-border military incursions
which will only expand over time, further destabilizing Kurdish Iraq. Lying dormant,
and unmentioned, is the age-old animosity between the two principle Kurdish
factions in Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic
Party (KDP). As recently as 1997, these two factions were engaged in a virtual civil
war against one another. The strains brought on by the present unraveling have
these two factions once again vying for position inside Iraq, making internecine
conflict all but inevitable. The year 2008 will bring with it a major escalation of
Turkish military operations against northern Iraq, a strategic break between the
Kurdish factions there and with the central government of Baghdad, and the
beginnings of an all-out civil war between the KDP and PUK.
The next unraveling of the “surge” myth will be in western Iraq, where the much
applauded “awakening” was falling apart even as Bush spoke. I continue to maintain
that there is a hidden hand behind the Sunni resistance that operates unseen and
uncommented on by the United States and its erstwhile Iraqi allies operating out of
the Green Zone in Baghdad. The government of Saddam Hussein never formally
capitulated, and indeed had in place plans for ongoing active resistance against any
occupation of Iraq. In October 2007 the Iraqi Baath Party held its 13th conference, in
which it formally certified one of Saddam’s vice presidents, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, as
the supreme leader of the Sunni resistance.
The United States’ embrace of the “awakening” will go down in the history of the Iraq
conflict as one of the gravest strategic errors made in a field of grave errors. The U.S.
military in Iraq has never fully understood the complex interplay between the Sunni
resistance, al-Qaida in Iraq, and the former government of Saddam Hussein. Saddam
may be dead, but not so his plans for resistance. The massive security organizations
which held sway over Iraq during his rule were never defeated, and never formally
disbanded. The organs of security which once operated as formal ministries now
operate as covert cells, functioning along internal lines of communication which are
virtually impenetrable by outside forces. These security organs gave birth to al-Qaida
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in Iraq, fostered its growth as a proxy, and used it as a means of sowing chaos and
fear among the Iraqi population.
The violence perpetrated by al-Qaida in Iraq is largely responsible for the inability of
the central government in Baghdad to gain any traction in the form of unified
governance. The inability of the United States to defeat al-Qaida has destroyed any
hope of generating confidence among the Iraqi population in the possibility of
stability emerging from an ongoing American occupation. But al-Qaida in Iraq is not a
physical entity which the United States can get its hands around, but rather a giant
con game being run by Izzat al-Douri and the Sunni resistance. Because al-Qaida in
Iraq is derived from the Sunni resistance, it can be defeated only when the Sunni
resistance is defeated. And the greatest con game of them all occurred when the
Sunni resistance manipulated the United States into arming it, training it and turning
it against the forces of al-Qaida, which it controls. Far from subduing the Sunni
resistance by Washington’s political and military support of the “awakening,” the
United States has further empowered it. It is almost as if we were arming and
training the Viet Cong on the eve of the Tet offensive during the Vietnam War.
Keeping in mind the fact that the Sunni resistance, led by al-Douri, operates from the
shadows, and that its influence is exerted more indirectly than directly, there are
actual al-Qaida elements in Iraq which operate independently of central Sunni
control, just as there are Sunni tribal elements which freely joined the “awakening” in
an effort to quash the forces of al-Qaida in Iraq. The diabolical beauty of the Sunni
resistance isn’t its ability to exert direct control over all aspects of the anti-American
activity in Sunni Iraq, but rather to manipulate the overall direction of activity
through indirect means in a manner which achieves its overall strategic aims. The
Sunni resistance continues to use al-Qaida in Iraq as a useful tool for seizing the
strategic focus of the American military occupiers (and their Iraqi proxies in the
Green Zone), as well as controlling Sunni tribal elements which stray too far off the
strategic course (witness the recent suicide bomb assassination of senior Sunni tribal
leaders). 2008 will see the collapse of the Sunni “awakening” movement, and a
return to large-scale anti-American insurgency in western Iraq. It will also see the
continued viability of al-Qaida in Iraq in terms of being an organization capable of
wreaking violence and dictating the pace of American military involvement in
directions beneficial to the Sunni resistance and detrimental to the United States.
One of the spinoffs of the continued success of the Sunni resistance is the focus it
places on the inability of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to actually
govern. The U.S. decision to arm, train and facilitate the various Sunni militias in Iraq
is a de facto acknowledgement that the American occupiers have lost confidence in
the high-profile byproduct of the “purple finger revolution” of January 2005. The
sham that was that election has produced a government trusted by no one, even the
Shiites. The ongoing unilateral cease-fire imposed by the Muqtada al-Sadr on his
Mahdi Army prevented the outbreak of civil war between his movement and that of
the Iranian-backed Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and its
militia, the Badr Brigade.
When Saddam’s security forces dissolved on the eve of the fall of Baghdad in March
2003, the security organs which had been tasked with infiltrating the Shiite
community for the purpose of spying on Shiites were instead instructed to embed
themselves deep within the structures of that community. Both the Mahdi Army and
the Badr Brigade are heavily infiltrated with such sleeper elements, which conspire to
create and exploit fractures between these two organizations under the age-old
adage of divide and conquer. A strategic pause in the conflict between the Mahdi
Army and the U.S. military on the one hand and the Mahdi Army and the Badr
Brigade on the other has served to strengthen the hand of the Mahdi Army by
allowing time for it to rearm and reorganize, increasing its efficiency as a military
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organization all the while its political opposite, the SCIRI-dominated central Iraqi
government, continues to falter.
Further exacerbating the situation for the American occupiers of Iraq is the ongoing
tension created by the war of wills between the United States and Iran. The Sunni
resistance has no love for the Shiite theocracy in Tehran, or its proxies in Iraq, and
views creating a rift between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade as a strategic
imperative on the road to a Sunni resurgence. Any U.S. military strike against Iran
will bring with it the inevitable Shiite backlash in Iraq. The Shiite forces that emerge
as the most independent of the American occupier will be, in the minds of the Sunni
resistance, the most capable of winning the support of the Shiites of Iraq. Given the
past record of cooperation between the Mahdi Army and the Sunni resistance, and
the ongoing antipathy between Sunnis and SCIRI, there can be little doubt which
Shiite entity the Sunnis will side with when it comes time for a decisive conflict
between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, and 2008 will be the year which
witnesses such a conflict.
The big loser in all of this, besides the people of Iraq, is of course the men and
women of the armed forces of the United States. Betrayed by the Bush
administration, abandoned by Congress and all but forgotten by a complacent
American population and those who are positioning themselves for national
leadership in the next administration, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who
so proudly wear the uniform of the United States continue to fight and die, kill and be
maimed in a war which was never justified and long ago lost its luster. Played as
pawns in a giant game of three-dimensional chess, these brave Americans find
themselves being needlessly sacrificed in a game where there can be no winner, only
The continued ambivalence of the American population as a whole toward the war in
Iraq, perhaps best manifested by the superficiality of the slogan “Support the
Troops,” all the while remaining ignorant of what the troops are actually doing, has
led to a similar amnesia among politicians all too willing to allow themselves to seek
political advantage at the expense of American life and treasure. January 2008 cost
the United States nearly 40 lives in Iraq. The current military budget is
unprecedented in its size, and doesn’t even come close to paying for ongoing military
operations in Iraq. The war in Iraq has bankrupted Americans morally and fiscally,
and yet the American public continues to shake the hands of aspiring politicians who
ignore Iraq, pretending that the blood which soaks the hands of these political
aspirants hasn’t stained their own. In the sick kabuki dance that is American politics,
this refusal to call a spade a spade is deserving of little more than disdain and
While the American people, politicians and media may remain mute on the reality of
Iraq, I won’t. There is no such thing as a crystal ball which enables one to see clearly
into the future, and I am normally averse to making sweeping long-term predictions
involving a topic as fluid as the ongoing situation in Iraq. At the risk of being wrong
(and, indeed, I hope very much that I am), I will contradict the rosy statements of the
president in his State of the Union address and will throw down a gauntlet in the face
of ongoing public and media ambivalence by predicting that 2008 will be the year the
“surge” in Iraq is exposed as a grand debacle. The cosmetic bandage placed over the
gravely wounded Iraq will fall off, and the damaged body that is Iraq will continue its
painful decline toward death.
If there is any winner in all of this it will be the Sunni resistance, or at least its
leadership hiding in the shadow of the American occupation, as it continues to exploit
the chaotic death spiral of post-Saddam Iraq for its own long-term plan of a Sunni
resurgence in Iraq. That the Sunni resistance will continue to fight an American
occupation is a guarantee. That it will continue to persevere is highly probable. That
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the United States will be able to stop it is unlikely. And so, the reality that the only
policy direction worthy of consideration here in the United States concerning Iraq is
the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of American forces continues to hold
true. And the fact that this option is given short shrift by all capable of making or
influencing such a decision guarantees that this bloody war will go on, inconclusively
and incomprehensibly, for many more years. That is the one image in my crystal ball
that emerges in full focus, and which will serve as the basis of defining a national
nightmare for generations to come.