Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Iraq war, civil or not, is costing $226 million a day — or $8 billion a month, $76 billion a year. It’s hard to figure out what to call it when Iraqis are killing Iraqis by the score every day and when the U.S. has been fighting and dying there longer than its involvement in World War II. Iraq also has a civil war within a civil war — insurgency interspersed by sectarian warfare against a Shia-led government.

There are 23 armed militias in Baghdad alone. Each government minister and scores of tribal leaders have their own self-defense force. Some 2 million Iraqis have fled their homes, the equivalent of 30 million Americans displaced by war. Jordan, a small country of 5 million, now has to cope with 1.5 million Iraqis who have strained essential services to the breaking point and driven real estate and rentals beyond the reach of even well-to-do Jordanians.

The costly effort in blood and treasure to foster democracy in Iraq is clearly beyond our reach. Henry Kissinger, chief mandarin of geopoliticians, who negotiated the 1973 agreements that ended the Vietnam War, says Iraq is unwinnable. If by victory, he explained, we mean a viable democratic Iraqi state, able to sustain itself, forget it because it can’t be done. A far cry from “failure is not an option.”

The “go big,” “go long,” and “go home” options bear little relationship to the art of the possible. A broken military cannot afford to go big, unless, of course, the draft is re-enacted, which a Democratic Congress would reject. To go long would require domestic support, which has waned to 30 percent. And to pack it in and go home under Option 3 would be tantamount to surrender to America’s enemies throughout the Middle East. Borne out, too, would be Osama bin Laden’s predictions about America’s lack of staying power. This weekend, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned against the danger of civil wars breaking out in neighboring Arab countries.

Lebanon’s body politic is frail, battered about by pro- and anti-Syrian forces. The victim of a 15-year civil war (1975-90), a 30-year Syrian occupation, and five political assassinations in the past 18 months, believed to be the work of Syrian agents, Lebanon is kept on edge by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed state within a state that humiliated Israel in last summer’s 34-day war.

Vice President Dick Cheney’s brief visit to Saudi Arabia for a two-hour exchange with King Abdullah (actually one hour when time is deducted for translation) left no doubt about the regional disaster that would follow a precipitous U.S. exit. But Abdullah, like his opposite numbers in Jordan and Egypt, is not anxious to pitch in with his own troops in security roles, which could spark embarrassing domestic opposition.

President Bush’s quick round trip to Jordan this week to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was hopefully to persuade him to crack down on anti-U.S. militias, particularly Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army. But no sooner was the meeting announced than Sheik al-Sadr said that if Mr. al-Maliki went through with it, he would order his followers out of the coalition government. The fiery cleric also commands a bloc of 30 swing votes in parliament.

There wasn’t much Mr. al-Maliki could do to disband the Mahdi army. A blend of religious fanaticism and pitiless ambition, Sheik al-Sadr revels at U.S. discomfiture, a sort of Islamic Schadenfreude. He listens to the Aytollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shia prelate, who has advised him to keep his powder dry against American forces. Meanwhile, he continues to build his army with Iranian funding and weapons, and training by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Iraq’s partition, into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish mini-states, as advocated by Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, the incoming Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a recipe for a larger civil war. Most towns and villages have mixed Sunni and Shi’ite populations.

All sides anxiously await the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group’s findings. It is already common knowledge they will recommend talking to U.S. opponent Syria and U.S. enemy Iran. Members of ISG have already spoken to both. Iran now wields more influence in Iraq than the United States. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani flew to Tehran this week for a summit meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who told him Iran would do whatever it could to provide security for Iraq.

Iraq’s last two prime ministers, foreign ministers and holders of other government portfolios have already made the diplomatic pilgrimage to Tehran. They apologized for Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war (1980-88) against Iran and twice returned with a $1 billion gift. The first billion was earmarked for schools and hospitals and last week’s second billion was for assistance in restoring Iraq’s power grid and linking it to Iran’s.

Iran can either facilitate or humiliate a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Key mullahs now say Iran should assist a U.S. exit that would enhance Iran’s regional power. The argument, put forward by Moshen Rezai, secretary of the government’s “Expediency Council,” states that “America’s arrival in the region presented Iran with an historic opportunity.”

“The kind of service that the Americans, with all their hatred, have done us,” said Mr. Rezai, “no superpower has ever done anything similar. America destroyed all our enemies in the region. It destroyed the Taliban. It destroyed Saddam Hussein. … It did all this in order to confront us face to face, and in order to place us under siege. But the American teeth got so stuck in the soil of Iraq and Afghanistan that if they manage to drag themselves back to Washington in one piece, they should thank Allah.”

America, therefore, “presents us with an opportunity rather than a threat — not because it intended to, but because its estimates were wrong and made many mistakes,” argued Mr. Rezai. Washington, he said, “has now despaired of toppling the Islamic Republic. The threats we face… are about blocking Iran’s influence in the region. This is a vital national interest and the entire nuclear dispute revolves around it.”

Mr. Rezai said, “now that the Democrats have both houses of Congress,” it was incumbent upon Iran to “behave reasonably.” America’s policies and goals in the Middle East won’t change, he concluded, but methods will and “put aside Bush’s warmongering methods,” and both countries “will stay clear of aggressive confrontations.”

This is not exactly a get-out-Iraq-free card. Iran is not about to forgo its nuclear ambitions. But there is plenty to talk about. Muzzling Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army and continuing to help, as Iran has, the al-Maliki government is a good place to start.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for The Washington Times and for United Press International.

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