Monday, July 30, 2007

When two sides go to war...

...arm them both then sit back and watch?

One of the few "good news stories" coming out Iraq over the last few months has been the re-orientation of some of the Sunni tribes in al-Anbar province and other areas around Baghdad who are now fighting with American forces against al-Qaeda when they had previously been part of the insurgency. The way that the White House presented interim report on the surge/escalation (take your pick of terms) two weeks ago, was to talk up the eight out 18 categories where progress has been made, and to focus on success in the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq. The theme of reminding us all of the al-Qaeda part of “al-Qaeda in Iraq” has been a tactic the administration has been sticking to, with Bush mentioning the name of the group 95 times (just in case you didn't quite grasp the point I guess!) in his major policy speech on Iraq last week. With the White House trying to get Americans to see their perspective: that terrorism will be the result of a pullout from Iraq; you can see why they would be wanting to spread the news that some in the Sunni community who were against the US occupation are now cooperating against al-Qaeda. Additionally, there aren't many who wouldn't argue that stopping a bunch of murderous thugs who terrorise local Iraqis more than they actually attack the US military isn't a good thing in itself, regardless of US politics. But pulling sections of the more nationalist Sunni insurgency into the Iraqi forces has its own dangers.

I heard Thomas Ricks interviewed a few weeks ago analysing this issue after his most recent trip to Iraq and discussions with US commanders in the region. He was informed by his military sources that whilst the Sunni tribes are quite happy to fight and kill the often-foreign al-Qaeda fighters, that isn’t the primary reason why they have allied with the US and Iraqi government. Rather, his sources believe that, they are primarily interested in the training and weapons that the US can provide them and are quite willing to kill a few Jihadi nutters as quid pro quo in order to get them. This is because they see the US pulling out sooner or later and then the Shia-dominated Iraqi government becoming, in effect, the other party in an expanded civil war between the two communities. As the police and large sections of the military are now de-facto Shi’a organisations, the Shi’as of Iraq have an ‘army’ of their own and the Sunnis are now worried that they need to be able to balance against that with trained soldiers and plentiful weapons of their own. It seems that the Iraqi government sees exactly the same dangers as Rick's sources.

Sunni groups are not alone in preparing for a US pullout and a consequent increase in the civil war. The US is accusing its –ahem- “ally”, Saudi Arabia, of backing Sunni insurgent groups (or at least turning a blind eye to private sources from with Saudi to do this) because the Saudis fear the current Iraqi government under Maliki is too pro-Iranian. It’s all a bit bizarre and ironic really, considering the state of US-Iranian relations currently and that the US is just about to flog the Saudis 20 billion dollars’ worth of weapons to – wait for it! – balance Iranian military expansion! The US is left supporting Sunni-Shi’a cohabitation within Iraq, whilst basically promoting division between the two sides of Islam elsewhere in the region as a tool of isolating Iran. Ho hum.

It leads one to a position where you can only support General Petraeus’ surge/escalation strategy because if the US now fails in giving the Iraqi government enough space to resolve the tensions between the Sunni and Shi’a communities, the US will be pulling out to watch a civil war that not only have they caused, but where they have even managed to train and arm both sides. And there we were thinking that the implications of the invasion couldn’t get any worse…

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