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A Declaration of War on Shias?

Can the Bush Administration’s shift in policy stabilize Iraq — or will it lead to escalations in violence?

January 15, 2007

Can the Bush Administration's shift in policy stabilize Iraq — or will it lead to escalations in violence?

President Bush finally admitted that strategic mistakes have been made in Iraq. In his much-awaited speech, he acknowledged his own responsibility for the failures in Iraq and then outlined a new strategy for ensuring the survival of Iraqi democracy.

Unfortunately, the new strategy outlined by President Bush had much less to offer than had been expected by experts and pundits. There still was no clear plan to bring about a political solution to the Shia-Sunni divide — and there was no firm commitment from the United States to provide economic relief to a country where unemployment is reaching 60% in many areas.

Further, there was no indication of how the United States plans to regain the confidence of the Sunni population — who are resisting both the new Iraqi regime and U.S. occupation.

In essence, the plan has three new elements. One is a tactical shift in fighting insurgency. In the past, U.S. troops would clear towns and neighborhoods — and then leave, allowing the insurgents to return. Now, President Bush has made a commitment to clear — and hold — areas, thereby preventing insurgents from returning. The additional 21,000 troops to be deployed are necessary for holding cleared areas.

There is only one problem with that concept, one which is glossed over: If the insurgents and sectarian fighters cannot return to their old neighborhoods in Baghdad, then they may shift their locus of operation to other cities and provinces. According to the new Bush plan, by November 2007 nearly all 18 provinces in Iraq will come under Iraqi supervision, giving the fighters many options for new theaters for their activities.

Disarming Shias

The second new element in the plan is of a strategic nature — and truly significant. In a break from the past, President Bush has clearly indicated that the United States will now take actions against Shia militias after disarming them.

His exact words on this score were: "In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence.”

This time, Iraqi and U.S. forces will be allowed to enter those neighborhoods — and Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated."

The promise is clear. The United States intends to go after Shia militias — and Prime Minister Maliki will not protect them. Whether this actually occurs remains to be seen, as Nouri al-Maliki's government needs the support of the 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament that Shia militant leader Muqtada Sadr controls.

If Maliki will not provide political cover for Sadr and his brigands, then Sadr will not support Maliki's government — and it could collapse.

It is clear that Washington is serious about this. A day before President Bush made his speech, Maliki warned Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi army to disarm — or face U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, too, has expressed his support for disarmament of militias regardless of their identity. While Sistani's influence on Iraqi politics has receded, his support is nonetheless significant.

Will the new strategy work? The chances are remote. This is clearly a case of too little, too late. It also depends on many contingent factors. For example, will the Iraqi forces — which are predominantly Shia — act decisively against the Shia militias? Or will U.S. troops have to face the Shia militias on their own?

In the short term, one can expect an immediate rise in U.S. casualties. How long will the U.S. public be able to stomach this?

The third element of the plan is a decision to confront Iran. President Bush has deployed an entire carrier force to threaten Iran, deployed a battery of Patriot missiles to defend moderate allies in the region from Iranian escalation and has said that U.S. troops will target and destroy Iranian and Syrian networks in Iraq.

The most important recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study group was that the United States should establish a dialogue with Iran and Syria — and solicit their help in stabilizing Iraq.

Instead of listening and acting on this wise advice, the Bush Administration has succumbed yet again to its neoconservative instincts — and has decided to initiate a confrontation with Iran and Syria. In a way, this is an escalation and even expansion of the war in Iraq to now include Iran and Syria as targets of U.S. military operations.

There is a major problem with this new strategy — and one wonders if U.S. policymakers even realize it. With this speech, President Bush has practically declared war on Shias. He has decided to go after Shia militias in Iraq — and Shia regimes in the region.

Until now, the United States has been fighting only with the Sunnis — al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency. But from now on, U.S. troops will be fighting al Qaeda, Sunni insurgents, the Mahdi and Badr militias — and perhaps even Iranian and Syria intelligence and commando units.

Apparently, the Bush Administration's appetite for war and violence is not being satisfied with Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. It is actually seeking to open new fronts with more enemies.