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UNCERTAIN IRAQ POLICY IS THE ISSUE
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
November 15, 2006

Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News

By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News

According to most commentators, uncertainty in Iraq was the key reason for the Democrats' success in midterm elections. If that is, indeed, the case, one could argue that uncertainty about the United States' policies is also the number one issue of Iraqi politics. We have two uncertainties, stuck together like Siamese twins, fed by partisan politics. Here is how this diabolical mechanism works.

Most Iraqis knew little or nothing about the US in 2003 when the US-led coalition forces entered Baghdad. Since then, most have learned at least one thing about the US: like a fickle monarch it could wake up one morning and reverse whatever he was committed to a day before.

This may be a naïve, even unfair, perception of the US, a power that faithfully stood by the European nations it had liberated, for over five decades. But, it is the one around which most players in Iraqi politics have built their strategies.

The Shiites, grateful though they are to the US for having helped them win power for the first time, feel obliged to have a re-insurance policy for when, and not if, the Americans cut and run. This is why all prominent Iraqi Shiite politicians, including Ahmad Chalabi, once regarded as "Washington's favourite", have been to Tehran to seek reassurance. That, however, comes at a price.

The mullahs insist that new Iraq turn a blind eye to the activities of Shiite militias, created and armed by Tehran with Hezbollah support. Also unsure of American steadfastness, the Shiites are pressing for a federal structure that would give them 90 per cent of Iraq's oil regardless of what happens next.

That, together with the increased activities of Shiite death squads, enrages the Sunni Arabs.

Intentions

Uncertain about American intentions, many Sunni Arabs tolerate, if not actually support, the Saddamite bitter-enders and, to a lesser extent, the non-Iraqi jihadists and suicide-bombers. Just as Iraqi Shiites look to Iran for reassurance, Iraqi Sunnis regard Jordan and, to a lesser extent, Syria and Egypt, as putative protectors.

Uncertainty about US fidelity also affects the policies pursued by Iraqi Kurds. Assuming a worst-case scenario, they, too, have sought a deal with Tehran while trying to grab as much land as they can before the Americans leave. The net effect of that is a weakening of the new Iraqi state whose flag is absent in the three provinces controlled by the Kurds.

The Saddamite bitter-enders and Al Qaida also base their strategies on the assumption that the US will jettison its allies. They know that they cannot win against the combined forces of the US-led coalition and the new Iraqi army and security. But what if the Americans run away before the new Iraqi government is able to protect a country as big as France?

Chaos

The Saddamites hope that in the chaos that would follow the American cut-and-run pirouette, they would seize Mosul and part of the area around it in the so-called Jazirah region of west central Iraq. Al Qaida, for its part, hopes to carve out a mini-emirate on the edge of the western desert from which it can launch terror attacks anywhere in the world.

Uncertainty about American intentions also affects the policies of regional powers. Most Arab states have opted for wait-and-see. They have refused to reopen their embassies in Baghdad or to invite the new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki for official visits.

The Arabs know that the US has refused to provide the new Iraqi army with a credible weapons' system. This army is equipped with 72 old Soviet tanks, presented by Hungary as a one-off gift. Most of its units would have to hitch a ride with the Americans to the battlefield because they have virtually no transport of their own. Nevertheless, this new army has shown that, given leadership, it can fight with courage and determination.

Concern about US fickleness does not affect only the political elite and the new army in Iraq. Millions of Iraqis have decided that the prudent course is to sit on the fence, keeping open as many options as possible. It is unfair to blame them.

As they ponder the events of the past years, they see that the US has achieved all of its objectives in Iraq: Saddam's regime has been toppled and its machinery of war and repression dismantled. Iraqis have had a chance to write their own constitution and hold referendums and free elections at all levels.

The overwhelming majority of Iraqis have fulfilled their part of the contract that took shape in 2003 when the US-led coalition entered Iraq and the people of Iraq decided not to fight for Saddam. Their assumption was that the US would remain by their side until they are capable of protecting their new system.

With elections over, the Democrats should see Iraq for what it is: a success that is challenged by powerful enemies and inadequately supported by friends and allies who doubt America's commitment.

The first step needed is to dispel those doubts.

For Democrats, Iraq was a stick with which to beat Bush and regain control of the Congress and the Senate. Beyond that, however, working to make Iraq a failure would harm the strategic interests of the US and its allies in Iraq, indeed, throughout the Middle East.

Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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