Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 12 minutes

Eyes Wide Shut

The US hunts in vain for a military solution

Faced with more US troops, many armed Iraqi groups have gone to ground – for the moment. Others manipulate US troops to do their dirty work for them. The US has failed to create a political settlement and appears to be blind to its own lack of progress.

Some immediate improvements have been visible to Baghdadis under the new United States security plan, even before the arrival of the bulk of US forces. Suicide bombings have increased but reprisal killings have declined and, on balance, the situation is calmer than in a long while. This has given the Bush administration the hope, and a chance to claim cautiously, that it might finally turn the tables on the civil war.

But whatever progress is achieved is likely to be temporary. There is no domestic US support for an extended stay at the required troop levels and Iraqi forces are not ready now, nor will they be in the next two to three years, to take over security duties from the US without either breaking down or breaking up into their constituent ethnic and sectarian parts. The surge will provide a stay of execution at best unless Iraq’s political class succeeds in forging a genuine national compact.

Of more immediate relevance, the surge lacks both defined targets and genuine partners; Baghdad’s relative calm is mostly the result of the ability of violent players to preempt the plan and neutralise much of its sting. This is true of both Sunni insurgent groups and Shia militias tied to the government. Followers of Shia militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have gone to ground, waiting for the storm to pass and allowing US forces to go after Sunni insurgents.

Sunni insurgents responded in two ways, depending on their affiliation. Key commanders of patriotic groups (as they call themselves) withdrew from Baghdad with their heavy weaponry in anticipation of large-scale cordon-and-search operations. They left nominal forces in place to avoid giving the impression of retreat and defeat. Residents in some Sunni districts report that insurgents still roam at will, untouched (indeed, unnoticed) by US military operations, issuing permits and claiming protection money. They melt away when their district’s turn comes.

Even as the Bush administration unveiled its plan, jihadists linked to al-Qaida in Iraq opted to intensify their trademark suicide attacks, announcing a martyr campaign to create a bloodbath in Baghdad. True to its word, the group took credit in February for the largest number of car bombs ever, and the pace has hardly slackened since. Part of al-Qaida’s plan, besides foiling any US sense of progress, is to draw the Sadrist Mahdi Army out into the open and expose it to US attack. Both sides would like US forces to do their dirty work for them.

‘Recoil, redeploy and spoil’

Outside Baghdad the main insurgent groups are implementing the “recoil, redeploy and spoil” doctrine they have perfected in response to US offensives over the past two and a half years: rather than holding ground and forming a stabilised front, they focus on the vacuums created as the US concentrates its forces in a given zone, in this case Baghdad. This doctrine was described in detail in Crisis Group’s February 2006 report “In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency”. The US military has largely overlooked al-Qaida’s main Iraq base in Dhulu’iya, a hub on the Tigris from which its fighters have been able to radiate freely south to the capital, east to Ba’quba, and north to Kirkuk.

All sides in the civil war factor their understanding of US strategy into their own calculations. In private statements, insurgents have indicated as much; will the US crack down on Shia militias, as it has promised? Will it not only fight the Mahdi Army but also push Abd-al-Aziz al-Hakim, a key power broker as head of the Shia alliance, to distance himself from Iran? Or will the US let itself be manipulated by an Iraqi government bent on suppressing not only the insurgency but also the Sunni Arab community that supports it?

Giving the US the benefit of the doubt, one Sunni armed group, the Islamic Army, sounded positive when it promised to reduce its attacks on US forces if the new reinforcements would take on “Shia militias and death squads”. But all the groups expressed concern that instead the surge would bolster what they refer to as the “Shia government”, facilitate its policy of sectarian cleansing in the capital and play into the hands of Iran. The surge troops would become sitting ducks Iran could target in revenge for UN sanctions or US bombing of nuclear sites.

Sunni groups have a deeper fear, which they do not express in their communiqués, that they may “lose the capital”. The social and economic fabric of Sunni districts has been weakened, and many have suffered a population haemorrhage. This has made the hold Sunni groups enjoy over parts of Baghdad difficult to sustain during the surge. Once the US military, having pacified Sunni districts, hands them over to Iraqi security forces known to be aligned with Shia death squads, these districts will prove hard to reconquer. The nominally non-partisan surge may end up tilting the balance in favour of Shia militias.

At least some Shia actors are betting on this outcome. The Mahdi Army has learned its lessons from the 2004 confrontation with US forces in Najaf, when thousands of its fighters died during weeks of pointless combat. It has now adopted the “recoil, redeploy and spoil” strategy. Muqtada al-Sadr vanished well before US reinforcements started arriving. Key Mahdi Army commanders found refuge in Iran, where, friends and families suggest, they are training in preparation for their return. Sadr’s political representatives returned to government (they had suspended their involvement when prime minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to meet President George Bush in Amman last November), where they are relatively sheltered from US attack as members of the democratically elected leadership. Early on, Sadr instructed most of his fighters to lie low, to avoid picking fights with US troops, and to refrain from responding to suicide bombings. When fighting broke out between the Mahdi Army and the coalition in the southern town of Diwaniya in April, Sadr again called upon his militants to show restraint.

Decline of revenge killings

In Baghdad, revenge killings of Sunnis have declined as a result of this strategy, contributing to a reduction in overall violence in the capital. Muqtada al-Sadr apparently gave US forces a de facto green light early in the surge to go after loose elements, the most brutal commanders he could not control and their men, enabling him to restore internal discipline. US strategy has been assimilated to the point that it is made to serve the militia’s need for internal policing. Sadr sees the surge as a brief moment that will hasten a US withdrawal without decisively turning the tables against his movement. Consistent with this logic, the Sadrists appear to have increased their war of attrition against coalition forces outside Baghdad, where these are most vulnerable, most notably in Basra.

Surviving splinter groups may choose to attack Baghdad as well. As the Mahdi Army’s “historic” commanders are either in hiding or in detention, a new generation of young hotheads has stepped in, showing less discipline and less obedience to their nominal leader. Their strategic insights may differ from Sadr’s. As suicide bombings mount and the long-term dividends from US reconstruction efforts remain invisible, more Sadrists may leave the main movement to quench their desire for revenge; their targets will be Sunnis, as well as US and Iraqi government troops trying to restore order.

If the Mahdi Army’s strategy of temporary retreat succeeds, it is because the Sadrist movement, however undisciplined, has deep roots in the Shia urban underclass. Unlike Sunni armed groups, the Mahdi Army has a solid societal base that will allow it to bounce back when the surge passes. It can, moreover, count on a degree of tolerance from important elements in the security apparatus. On the eve of the surge, policemen could be seen asking the Mahdi Army for help in fighting Sunni insurgents who had attacked their station. As cordon-and-search operations began, Sadrists used certain police compounds to hide their weapons. Even the government signalled its willingness to appease the Sadrists by allowing the formation of “popular committees” in Shia districts through which militants could assume an officially recognised status. While Shia fighters may have hidden their weapons, they remain very much in place, contributing to the rebuilding of Sadr City and other Shia districts, and burnishing their legitimacy in the street.

As Shia militias and death squads melt away to fight the real “Battle of Baghdad” another day – an objective they do not conceal – the Bush administration’s security plan, lacking targets, is likely to fail in its aim to take out “the bad guys”. Some of the bad guys are US allies. Al-Hakim’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), and its Iran-trained, funded and equipped Badr militia, established a committee to “save the governorate of Diyala from the descendants of the Umayyad” (Sunnis). As a Mahdi Army militant confided, “the difference between Badr and us is that they have the cadres to act rigorously and methodically, whereas we lack discipline. And they work secretly, while we take credit for our deeds.”

No genuine US partners

The US has no genuine partners as it seeks to regain the upper hand. To succeed, it would have to uproot the foundations of the current power structure: militias, corruption, nepotism, links with Iran. This would mean the demise of the current government on which the US has staked the future of Iraq and its own fortunes. The surge does not threaten the key interests of Sciri, or the Mahdi Army or Iran. If it did, one could have expected far greater tensions inside the government and higher levels of violence. The apparent efficiency of the current strategy is based on such actors’ abilities to wait out the storm, perhaps even turn it to their advantage, without paying too high a price.

This is why the US may not achieve more than a superficial and short-lived pacification of Baghdad, a spin doctor’s victory. Already, returning refugees have been paraded as evidence of success. While some displaced Baghdadi families have gone home, they appear to be the exception and likely were in an untenable situation in their areas of displacement. The refugee crisis, already of huge proportions, promises to get worse long before it has any chance of getting better.

The Bush administration so far has done little to redress the security plan’s grave shortcomings identified during the pre-surge period. Although the plan has been presented as a comprehensive strategy, it remains in practice strictly a military operation. The provincial reconstruction teams, which represent the only tangible civilian US presence in the field, are handicapped by enduring recruitment problems. A good yardstick is Falluja, a small cordoned-off city whose population has been comprehensively screened and put on file. Reconstruction has lagged in this relatively safe enclave since the US onslaught in November 2004. To date, the Bush administration has failed to explain what it has done to address the failings of the overall reconstruction effort, which has hardly been faring better in the rest of the country. There is still no plan to tackle the endemic corruption.

Nor has the US, regardless of the statistics it churns out to show that Iraqi units are ample, combat-ready and in the lead, come to terms with the Iraqi army’s shortcomings. These units continue to be hobbled by lack of discipline, partisan loyalties, and ethnic or sectarian leanings. Looting and misconduct are rife wherever US minders are not on the lookout. An ambitious embed programme will serve as a temporary measure at best, easing the symptoms, not curing the disease. The US may clear territory, as it has done repeatedly in different parts of Iraq over the past years, but will it be able to hold and build?

On the political side, the Iraqi government has done little to promote national reconciliation. It considers piecemeal concessions to Sunni Arabs as sufficient outreach, while proceeding to execute former regime stalwarts, undoing whatever appeasement it has achieved. Negotiations with insurgents have been lukewarm and haphazard; only low-level, tactical deals have been struck here and there. There is growing evidence that the US is supporting, directly or indirectly (via Saudi Arabia), not only tribal elements but “patriotic” insurgents against al-Qaida in Iraq, a tactic that has led death squads organised by insurgents to indulge in arbitrary violence against their Sunni brethren in the name of fighting al-Qaida-brand terrorism.

Scant progress

Other components of reconciliation are barely making progress. Take the oil-revenue question. An oil law was agreed by the government after difficult US-driven negotiations in February, but it is merely a framework law. It still lacks three critical annexes, as well as a paramount oil-revenue-sharing law that could begin to draw Iraq’s disparate communities back from the abyss. Even if negotiators succeed in completing the entire legislative package by May – highly unlikely given the complexity of the issues involved – the law would still have to be approved by parliament. Even then it won’t have the same standing as the constitution; the basic compromise it represents could still be overridden by any oil law passed by a future Kurdish regional government (given constitutional language to the effect that regional law supersedes federal law in case of contradiction). This is a shaky basis on which to move forward.

While pacifying Baghdad is key to laying the groundwork for a political initiative aimed at brokering a new national compact – the overall compromise the constitution should have been but in its blatant sectarianism failed to be – there is no evidence that this is the administration’s objective. (For a view of what such a compact should look like and how it could be accomplished, see Crisis Group, “After Baker-Hamilton: What To Do in Iraq”, 19 December 2006.) Although senior US military commanders appear to recognise that this is the only workable way forward, the administration seems intent on propping up this weak and dysfunctional government, a non-starter given its inability to curtail the violence and its partisanship in the civil war.

Other conflicts are building that could undercut any military or political progress in Baghdad. A looming conflict in Kirkuk is threatening to precipitate a governmental crisis, unless the US decides to take corrective action. (For background, see Crisis Group, “Iraq and the Kurds: The Brewing Battle Over Kirkuk”, 18 July 2006.) As it is, the Kurds will press on with a referendum on Kirkuk’s status before the year’s end but are unlikely to succeed, if only because the Baghdad government lacks the capacity to stage one. They are then likely to withdraw from the government, prompting its collapse. As kingmakers in Iraqi politics, the Kurds could then prevent a new government from being formed without further compromises on Kirkuk, which no Arab party (other than Sciri) would accept. The result would be total political deadlock just at the moment when the Bush administration, at the start of the election season, will need to show the political payout of its security plan.

Tensions between Arabs and Kurds are on the rise, with initial signs of expulsions of Kurds from Baghdad districts like A’dhamiya, where the surge has heightened passions and turned non-Sunni Arab residents into potential spies. In return, Arab refugees in Kurdistan face growing hostility and job discrimination that is pushing some of the new arrivals either abroad or back to Baghdad. Although this is not ethnic cleansing in a violent sense, the trend, in current circumstances, is very worrying.

Other areas, such as Diyala or Basra, may well fall apart. Sectarian violence has escalated in Diyala in recent months. In Basra fratricidal killings by opposing militias competing for control over power and access to oil demonstrate that the key problem in Iraq is the lack of a functional state that could impose the rule of law and ensure the fair redistribution of resources. In the midst of this mess, the surge is little more than a stop-gap non-solution designed to obscure the need for a long-term, multilateral effort at bringing about a new national compact, the initiative the US has evaded ever since it took the decision to invade.


Former Project Director, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and Senior Middle East and North Africa Adviser
Program Director, Middle East and North Africa

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