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Is the US About to Be Driven Out of Iraq?

Meetings among and between Shia and Sunni groups have initiated a set of alliances that could result in a united resistance that will drastically reduce sectarian fighting and move toward expelling the U.S.
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A recent article by Asia Times reporter Pepe Escobar, one of the most informed and astute observers of Iraq events, analyzes some potentially momentous developments inside Iraq in the last few weeks, developments that could actually result in making the American occupation militarily and politically untenable.

Basically Escobar says recent meetings among and between Shia and Sunni groups have initiated a set of alliances that could result in a united resistance that will drastically reduce sectarian fighting (by suppressing the Sunni terrorist and the Shia death squads) and move in a coordinated way (using armed attacks and political maneuvering) toward expelling the U.S..

Here are the key elements:

First, there is a new nationalist bloc forming from those who have withdrawn from or always opposed the American backed government. It includes leaders of the Sunni resistance (including the groups that are supposed to have made an alliance with the US), Sunni parliamentary leaders (including the vice president of Iraq), Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army (the most powerful Shia faction which has always opposed the U.S. presence) and the Fadhila (the most powerful Shia group in Basra, which recently withdrew from the government). According to Escobar, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the most powerful Shia cleric, has blessed the new group.

Second, the key goals in the newly developed pact are: united efforts to expel the U.S. from Iraq, including dismantling the bases--with explicit endorsement of armed resistance if the U.S. does not agree to leave; an arms length relationship with Iran; no division of the country into autonomous regions; and no tolerance of jihadist groups that attack Iraqi civilians or death squads, or any armed forces attacking Iraqi civilians.

Third, the various Sunni resistance groups are now negotiating alliances among themselves (with a tentative agreement currently in place among all but one of the most important groups). Included in this new unity is a commitment to demobilize the jihadists who set car bombs in Shia areas (forcefully if necessary) and direct all armed struggle toward expelling the Americans, unless the U.S. agrees to leave.

Fourth, the SIIC, the strongest faction within the Maliki government (though Maliki himself is from another group, the Da'wa), appears to be responding to the pressure created by this new movement. Until now, despite being elected on a platform calling for U.S. withdrawal, SIIC had always said that U.S. troops were absolutely crucial to government survival and had said nothing against the permanent U.S. bases. Then, last week, the temporary leader of SIIC, Ammar al Hakim, called for U.S. withdrawal and for dismantling the bases, a position that is so alarming to the U.S. occupation that there has been a virtual news blackout about this dramatic switch of position. Whether this is an actual change of policy by the SIIC, or simply a rhetorical response to these latest political developments, remains to be seen.

Finally, it appears that recent statements by U.S. occupation authorities calling for "soft partition" of Iraq into three mostly autonomous regions may be a response to this new unity between Shia and Sunni. Realizing that the U.S. probably cannot sustain its presence if this new alliance is consolidated and strengthened, they are looking for a "divide and conquer" strategy that would allow the U.S. to control the three regions separately.

Escobar's article pieces together a bunch of separate developments into a coherent analysis, but it remains speculative. His analysis does, however, make sense of a lot of otherwise confusing developments. We need to see if the trends he identifies are consolidated, or if they are reversed by the strong centripetal forces within Iraq. If the trends do continue, this will mean more resistance to the U.S. presence, particularly in the Shia areas of Baghdad and the Iraqi south; and more focused attacks by Sunni insurgents on American forces and bases in and around Baghdad. With the U.S. already military in a weakened state, such an escalation could be overwhelming. It would mean that another strategy would have to be developed, and perhaps this might finally force the Bush Administration to consider withdrawal.

I think this is a very good framework to use in making sense of the news in the next few weeks.