Saturday, April 5, 2008

Nir Rosen Goes Off Message

As the President eagerly awaited his mouthpieces' appearance on Capitol Hill next week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on progress in Iraq involving un-embedded individuals, including Nir Rosen, a fellow at the New America Foundation. Rosen, unlike the other testifiers in this and next weeks' hearings, has spent the majority of the last five years outside the Green Zone in Iraq and speaks Arabic.

This administration and its supporters in the media continue to portray the conflict in Iraq as a battle between good and evil, light and dark. Nowhere is this more evident than the assessment of the failed military endeavor undertaken by the Maliki government last week. Former Press Secretary Tony Snow exemplifies this fallacy by claiming, "What happened was the bad guys backed down because they were getting crushed! … Moqtada al-Sadr is in hiding in Iran. That’s how tough it is."

Ignore of course that al Sadr has been in Iraq for reasons unrelated to the recent fighting. Or, for that matter, that al Maliki's domicile prior to Saddam's ouster was none other than Iran, but the point here, as I said earlier this week, is that claiming that a government which had the tenets of the cease fire dictated to it, accomplished not a single aim of its operation, and showed itself increasingly reliant on Iran's influence is far from a clear victor.

Juan Cole:

For the Iraqi government to depend on Badr and Peshmerga militias, however, weakens its independence and makes it hostage to allies of Iran (both Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq and a Kurdish leader, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, have close relations with the Iranian ayatollahs.) So not only did Iran gain stature and authority in Iraq by negotiating a (fragile) ceasefire between al-Maliki and Muqtada al-Sadr, but al-Maliki has is now more than ever dependent on Iranian clients.

While Snow and his counterparts continue to fantasize about the world as they want to see it, in the schoolyard environment of clear delineations and demarcations of good and evil, the world goes on as it is. Iraq is not a battle between two factions, it is, in the words of Nir Rosen, "a collection of different fiefdoms controlled by warlords."

Rosen speaking to Amy Goodman:

First of all, the Iraqi government doesn’t matter. It has no power. And it doesn’t matter who you put in there. He’s not going to have any power. Baghdad doesn’t really matter, except for Baghdad. Baghdad used to be the most important city in Iraq, and whoever controlled Baghdad controlled Iraq. These days, you have a collection of city states: Mosul, Basra, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Irbil, Sulaymaniyah. Each one is virtually independent, and they have their own warlords and their own militias. And what happens in Baghdad makes no difference.

On Friday, al Maliki again took the stance of the clear victor:

Iraq's prime minister on Friday ordered a nationwide freeze on raids against suspected Shiite militants after the leader of the biggest militia complained that arrests were continuing even after he ordered fighters off the streets.

The announcement was a major shift from comments Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made a day earlier, and came after Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr — whose Mahdi Army militia fought government troops in the southern city of Basra and in Baghdad last week — hinted at retaliation if arrests of his followers did not stop.

A victory so thorough and unambiguous that the leader of the country is still beholden to the will of the defeated.

Last week's debacle for US aims aside, Rosen's testimony slaughters a few more Bush, Petraeus, and Crocker sacred cows.

Regarding the success of the surge:

So one of the main reason less people are being killed is because there are less people to kill. This is a key to understanding the drop in violence. Shiites were cleansed from Sunni areas and Sunnis were cleansed from Shiite areas. Militias consolidated their control over fiefdoms. The violence in Iraq was not senseless, it was meant to displace the enemy’s population. And if war is politics by other means, then the Shiites won, they now control Iraq. Fortunately for the planners of the new strategy, events in the Iraqi civil war were working in their favor. The Sunnis had lost. They realized they could no longer fight the Americans and the Shiites, and many decided to side with the Americans, especially because many Sunnis identified their Shiite enemy with Iran, America’s sworn enemy as well.

Surely he meant that people willing to martyr themselves in the name of a cause saw a couple thousand more troops in and around Baghdad and gave up, right?

The Government of Iraq is dominated by sectarian Shiite Islamist parties. They also dominate the security forces which often targeted Sunni civilians for cleansing. The Government and Security Forces also worry about the empowered Sunni militias who they will one day have to fight again. As we saw last week, rival Shiite militias are also bitter enemies. The clashes throughout Shiite areas of Iraq were not between the Mahdi Army bad guys and the Iraqi government good guys. They were between more nationalist and populist, and popular, Shiite militias who reject the occupation and are opposed to federalism and on the other side the Shiite militias such as Badr who collaborate with the Americans and are competing for power, territory, resources and votes with the Mahdi Army. The Iraqi security forces are divided in their loyalties and hence the Iraqi Army units that fought in the south were recruited from areas where they were more likely to be loyal to the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council, formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and its Badr militia. (Emphasis mine)

Indeed, as the US presents a case for withdrawal contingent upon a strengthening of the Iraqi security forces, it becomes increasingly clear that these forces are far from a bastion of light in a sea of darkness.

Rosen, on the state of the Iraqi National Police:

I met Iraqi National Police officers who complained to me that all their men were loyal to the Mahdi Army and their commanders were loyal to the Mahdi Army or the Badr militia. If they were suspected of disloyalty to the Shiite militias their own men informed on them and the Mahdi Army threatened them with the knowledge of their superior officers

The New York Times reports that "more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen either refused to fight or simply abandoned their posts during the inconclusive assault against Shiite militias in Basra last week," and al Maliki then filled the void with members of the Badr militia. Further evidence to both the influence of Shiite militias in the security and government sectors and the further affront to Sunnis who already view the government as a Shiite-led tool of an "Iranian occupation."

Proponents of the surge will certainly try to convey that a vacation of US troops will create a power vacuum in their upcoming testimony. While a US withdrawal will undoubtedly result in a rise in violence, the implication that there is a tenable point at which such a relationship would not exist is fallacious.

The power vacuum was created long ago, in April 2003. As Rosen insists--and he's been there enough to gauge--Iraq is already bereft of a centralized government. Al Maliki doesn't control the state of affairs any more than al Sadr or al Hakim. The US hitches itself to his coattails out of necessity, as he is representative of its perceived commitment to democracy. But it was the nationalist al Sadr and the Sunni boycott of the elections that led to his rise, and in time it will be al Sadr who stands long after al Maliki has become even more irrelevant.

In the current political arena, to say that al Sadr is stronger than al Maliki will be portrayed as somehow rooting for the wrong side. Rooting interests don't affect reality, though, no matter how hard Bush, Patraeus, or Crocker try. All the cheerleading and grandstanding in the world hasn't propelled al Maliki to competency yet and there's no reason to support a willfully-blind, ridiculously-optimistic assessment of Iraqi affairs that fails to include reality at any point.

If there's one thing to take from the events of the last two weeks, it's that there aren't two sides, and this isn't a choice between good and evil. What began as inter-sect ethnic cleansing has evolved into an intra-sect power grab. The sooner the United States changes the narrative from Hollywood script to murky reality, the sooner we can begin rational discussion which includes the often-blurred lines of real-world affairs.

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