New U.S. Strategy Depends On Baghdad's Cooperation
Iraqi Premier's Commitment Questioned
On January 13, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office issued a terse statement in support of Bush's new strategy to take control of Baghdad.
The plan "represents the common vision and mutual understanding between the Iraqi government and the U.S. administration," the statement said. "It is supportive of the Iraqi government's strategy to acquire command and control, as is clear in the Baghdad security plan, which will be commanded by Iraqis with support of multinational forces."
Although several Iraqi government officials voiced support for Bush's strategy, this was al-Maliki's first official comment on the plan. However, he did not refer to any of the political benchmarks that Bush said the Iraqi government must meet, and al-Maliki has made no public comments in person concerning the plan, a sharp contrast to Bush's televised national address.
Al-Maliki's relative silence has been offset by the increasingly tough talk by U.S. officials. On January 11, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a sternly worded statement saying that al-Maliki's government had to make progress and was on "borrowed time."
More glaring was a blunt statement made to "The New York Times" on January 16 by an unnamed U.S. military official involved in discussions over Bush's strategy questioning the commitment of the Iraqi government to execute the plan. "We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem," the official said. "We are being played like a pawn."
Will Al-Maliki Go After Shi'ite Militias?
Despite his tough rhetoric, there are still questions surrounding al-Maliki's willingness to go after the Shi'ite militias. On January 10, he issued a veiled warning to Muqtada al-Sadr, calling on his militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army, to disarm or face an all-out attack by U.S. forces. But his subsequent actions have done little to back up this warning.
On January 12, al-Maliki appointed Lieutenant General Abud Qanbar, a little-known Hussein-era military figure, as the top military commander of the Baghdad operation, despite objections by both U.S. and Iraqi military officials, "The Sunday Telegraph" reported on January 14.
He also appointed Qanbar, who will report directly to al-Maliki, without consulting the leaders of other political parties, raising suspicions that Qanbar may have links to sectarian groups. If Qanbar shelters the Al-Mahdi Army, the plan will undoubtedly fail.
"It's a delicate situation. It's very dangerous if it turns out that he has [sectarian] affiliations," Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Uthman was quoted by the "Los Angeles Times" on January 13 as saying.
There is also speculation in the Iraqi press that al-Sadr's militia will essentially disappear into the general population of Baghdad's Al-Sadr City and wait out any U.S.-backed offensive. "Al-Zaman" reported on January 15 that Al-Mahdi Army commanders are preparing a strategy to counter any U.S. military campaign in Al-Sadr City by purportedly ordering militiamen not to engage any U.S. forces.
Militiamen would temporarily disappear and keep their weapons in preparation for a post-U.S. Iraq. Once the U.S. forces have withdrawn from Iraq, al-Sadr's militia would regroup.
While there is no evidence to suggest that al-Maliki and al-Sadr are in collusion in this alleged strategy, temporarily disbanding the militia would allow U.S. forces to enter Al-Sadr City, an area that was previously off-limits. This could give the appearance that al-Maliki is acquiescing to U.S. and Sunni Arab demands to go after the Al-Mahdi Army, while still effectively sheltering the Shi'ite militia.
Haifa Street Operation Bad Sign
While the new plan's prospects for success are hard to predict, in the short term, it is presumed that the infusion of 21,000 additional U.S. forces will have a positive effect in quelling the violence in Baghdad.
However, U.S. officials have clearly said that the onus is on the Iraqi government to produce results on the ground. "We will support them, but the Iraqis will be in the lead," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said on January 15 at a press conference in Baghdad.
Khalilzad also said that the Iraqi government had assured him that they would go after both Shi'ite and Sunni extremists in the effort to gain control of the Iraqi capital. However, if the reports of the recent joint Iraqi-U.S. operation in the Sunni neighborhoods along Baghdad's Haifa Street are accurate, then it does not bode well for any larger operation.
The Haifa Street operation is a campaign to rid the area of Sunni extremists, but several reports have emerged that Iraqi forces have been using heavy-handed tactics against the Sunni Arab population.
In a statement posted on the Internet on January 10, the Muslim Scholars Association, an influential group of Sunni clerics, accused Iraqi government forces of cordoning off several Sunni neighborhoods along Haifa Street, allowing Shi'ite militias to enter and massacre civilians and then calling in U.S. warplanes to bomb the areas.
"When these forces did not manage to storm these areas, the occupation [U.S.] air forces intervened and shelled the areas of Al-Mushahadah and Al-Sheikh Ali, resulting in the martyrdom of a number of people, including women and children, whose bodies have not been recovered until this moment," the statement said.
On January 14, Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i, a member of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, accused an Iraqi soldier of killing eight civilians in the Haifa Street area execution-style in front of U.S. forces.
If similar reports emerge, this would add fuel to the sectarian fire and underscore the Sunni Arabs' belief that they are being marginalized in the new Iraq. With the controversial execution of former President Saddam Hussein and the subsequent "botched" hanging of Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Sunnis may well continue to see themselves as victims of a vindictive government with a clear sectarian agenda.
Bush Moves To Contain Iranian Influence
On January 10, Bush unveiled a new strategy for Iraq that includes sending more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops to the country. But the real import of his new Iraq plan may be a fresh focus on Iran and Syria.
"These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq," Bush said. "Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria, and we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Something To Prove?
Indeed, the day after Bush spoke, U.S. forces arrested six Iranians in the Iraqi city of Irbil, accusing them of involvement in attacks against Iraqi civilians and military forces. Iran has vehemently protested the arrest and demanded the release of the five still being held.
Since the president's speech, several senior U.S. officials have reiterated Bush's focus on Iran and its ally Syria.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking on January 15 in Brussels, suggested that the United States has something to prove to Iran.
"The Iranians clearly believe that we are tied down in Iraq, that they have the initiative, that they are in a position to press us in many ways," he said. "They're doing nothing to be constructive in Iraq at this point."
But targeting Iranian and Syrian operatives in Iraq appears to be only part of the new strategy.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just completed a tour of the region. It included a meeting with Sunni Arab foreign ministers in Kuwait that analysts called an effort to build an alliance to back U.S. stabilization efforts in Iraq and containment of Iran.
Another Carrier Group
But the most eye-catching part of the latest development is a large-scale buildup of U.S. military force in the region.
In the last week, the United States has confirmed the imminent arrival in the Persian Gulf of a second aircraft carrier strike force, as well as Patriot antimissile systems.
"There is a buildup here," says Anthony Cordesman, a former senior U.S. defense official who is now a military and Middle East analyst. "It is a buildup to deal with issues like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq; with the fact that if you are going to be much more active in dealing with Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias, you may indeed need considerably more airpower."
The "USS John C. Stennis" strike group will join the "USS Dwight D. Eisenhower" aircraft-carrier group later this month in what the U.S. Navy called "a warning to Syria and Iran" in the face of acts seen as provocative.
The new strike force will give Washington 16,000 sailors in the region, as well as another nuclear carrier, seven escort warships, 10 air squadrons, 2 submarines, and helicopters to support amphibious landings.
Also this week, reports from Turkey say 16 American F-16 fighter jets have recently arrived at the country's southern Incirlik air base. Officially, they are there for exercises with Turkish NATO forces, but the timing of their arrival and proximity to Iraq and Iran have not been lost upon observers.
Finally, for the first time in history, a Navy officer has been put in charge of U.S. Central Command. Admiral William Fallon, an expert in air warfare, will be tasked with overseeing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Iran will also be part of his purview.
Concerns About Spreading Conflict
All these developments have helped spark a frenzy of media speculation: Is the United States, perhaps with Israel, moving toward military action against Iran?
U.S. lawmakers this week voiced concern the Iraq war could spread to Iran or Syria if U.S. troops chased militants across the border.
But White House spokesman Tony Snow on January 17 insisted the plan is limited to Iraq.
That point has been reiterated by General Peter Pace, the top U.S. military official -- an assurance that Cordesman believes to be sincere:
"Iran certainly is able to play a spoiler role in the region," Cordesman says. "It's able to use proxies like the Hizballah and extremist movements, its ties to Syria and to Iraqi militias raise issues. But it is a long way from being a major regional power and certainly one that can challenge anybody as long as the United States and its regional allies resist."
How Close Is Iran To Nukes?
Cordesman suggests that some have exaggerated the Iranian threat, including the timing of when Iran might ever acquire nuclear weapons.
"It is probably only going to have nuclear weapons, if it has them, well after 2010," he says. "Its missile programs, while they continue to grow and become more sophisticated, still are largely in the development phase and do not have a good track record of tests. Its overall arms modernization can't even cope with the growing obsolescence of its existing arms. So as a military power, it is declining, not rising."
But others beg to differ.
Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, have made no secret of their concerns that Iran is close to obtaining nuclear weapons. They see that as a mortal threat, given Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's frequent virulent anti-Israeli statements.
A January 6 report in the "Times" of London said Israel has a secret plan to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities by using low-yield nuclear weapons. Israel immediately denied that story.
Other analysts say the U.S. military buildup and Fallon's appointment make sense if seen as steps toward striking Iran's nuclear facilities.
Cordesman is not one of them. He says the buildup, while significant, still wouldn't be enough to launch a serious campaign against Iran.