Over the past couple of weeks, the Obama administration has clearly attempted to shift the US foreign policy focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, seemingly intent on leaving the public with the impression that Iraq is under control and US withdrawal has been set in full motion; that the end of the "war" is within sight. This fantasy has been reinforced by some so-called anti-war groups, like MoveOn, which have praised Obama's Iraq plan without confronting the cold fact that Obama's vision for the country includes a sustained presence of tens of thousands of US troops, a monstrous US embassy the size of Vatican City and the continued--and likely increased-- use of corporate mercenary forces. Also, consider this fact: by September of this year, Obama will have actually sent more troops into combat than Bush.
There is great reason to suspect that the timeline for withdrawal--all troops out by 2011-- announced in February by the Obama administration will prove to be a fallacy. Military officials have told journalists of plans for "a significant number of American troops to remain in Iraq beyond that 2011 deadline," with one senior military commander saying "he expects large numbers of American troops to be in Iraq for the next 15 to 20 years." Moreover, Obama has made clear he views the Status of Forces Agreement as malleable.
Then there is the issue of the residual force of up to 50,000 troops whose mission has been loosely described as counter-terrorism, training and protection for US civilians. Obama has made clear that he will adjust the timeline and the size of the US occupation force according to circumstances on the ground.
I have been saying for some time that I think that if the stability or predominance of the US-backed Iraqi government was threatened, that would result in a major adjustment to Obama's announced intentions for Iraq. While the "surge" has been praised by Democrats and Republicans alike as having reduced violence in Iraq, this has always been a dishonest simplification of reality. Part of the "success" (their term, not mine) is due to the fact that the US supported, encouraged and armed a Shiite campaign of ethnic and religious cleansing in Baghdad, which, after a horrifying and sustained period of death squad operations, largely from 2005-2007, resulted in a drop in violence (after most of the non-Shiites were expelled from the Iraqi capital). Secondly, the US co-opted the Sunni resistance forces through the so-called Awakening Councils, essentially paying off 100,000 or so Sunnis to stop killing US soldiers and to stop fighting the Shiite-led government. This combined with Moqtada al Sadr's restraint over the past year created circumstances for what is portrayed in the US corporate media as a "success" in US strategy. What has not happened is that the US somehow "got it right" and stabilized Iraq in a lasting way for sustained peace. Washington basically backed one faction and paid the other not to fight it.
The point here is that, with just a few definitive events, all of this could unravel very swiftly and Obama could find himself facing a renewed guerrilla insurgency against his occupation--from both Sunni fighters and Shiite forces opposed to Maliki-- and a destabilization of the puppet regime Obama is now backing.
In fact, the early stages of such an unraveling may already be in swing, according to a new analysis of the situation in Iraq by veteran military correspondent Thomas Ricks, author of Fiasco and formerly of the Washington Post. "I thought some of the surge-era deals in Iraq would unravel but I didn't think that would begin happening this quickly," says Ricks. "It's only March 2009, and already Awakening fighters are fighting U.S. soldiers in the streets of Baghdad."
Ricks points out that Nouri al-Maliki's government never liked some of the US arrangements with the Sunnis and appears to be reescalating his war against them. "I think Maliki's gambit is to crack down on the Sunnis while American forces are still available in sufficient numbers to back him up," Ricks observes.
On his Foreign Policy blog, Ricks wrote this week, "Maliki's guys" are:
* Arresting some leaders of the "Sons of Iraq" (the American term for Awakening forces)
* Attacking others
* Bringing only 5,000 of the ex-insurgents into the Iraqi security forces
* And stiffing others on pay, with some complaining they haven't been paid in weeks or even months
Anyone who tells you that the Iraq war is over should be forced to memorize this paragraph from the Sunday edition of the Washington Post:
"As Apache helicopter gunships cruised above Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, former Sunni insurgents fought from rooftops and street corners against American and Iraqi forces, according to witnesses, the Iraqi military and police. At least 15 people were wounded in the gunfights, which lasted several hours. By nightfall, the street fighters had taken five Iraqi soldiers hostage."
That is Iraq 2009. Does it sound peaceful to you? Does it seem like the political questions vexing Iraq have been solved?
Ricks also says he "wouldn't be surprised to see Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia re-emerge. I've always thought the Sunni Awakening forced him to go to ground, because he didn't want to be the only guy taking on American forces. But if the Sunnis are on the attack again, it might be game on for him as well."
On this point, it is important to remember that the period where the US occupation was in the biggest trouble was in the spring of 2004 when Sadr and the Sunnis flirted with a unified resistance in response to the occupation.
It is extremely important that anti-war groups take a two-track approach right now: oppose the Obama administration's escalation of the war against Afghanistan and remain vigilant in demanding a complete withdrawal from Iraq.