Misreading Iraq, Again
George W. Bush and his neoconservative supporters are hailing some signs of cooperation between Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders and U.S. forces in rooting out al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar Province as proof that Bush’s military occupation of Iraq is finally working and should not be ended by Congress.
“Finally,” wrote neoconservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer on July 13, “after four terribly long years, we know what works.” He, like Bush, cited the Anbar example as reason to reject growing public and congressional demands for a prompt U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.
But the Anbar evidence could be read almost exactly the opposite way: that it is the growing belief among Sunnis that the American occupation is nearing its end that has caused some of them to view the U.S. military as a lesser evil and position themselves for what they perceive as the next phase of the conflict.
Anticipating a U.S. departure, these Sunnis are now more concerned about defending Sunni territory against the Shiite-dominated government army as well as eradicating al-Qaeda extremists whose indiscriminate killings have offended Iraqis of all stripes.
In other words, believing that the U.S. public and Congress will force Bush’s hand on military withdrawal, these Sunnis see the need to secure American armaments to match up against their Shiite rivals (if an intensified civil war should ensue), and they see the hyper-violent foreign jihadists as a threat to the province’s traditional Sunni power structure.
From this angle, the Anbar developments underscore why it's a good idea for the U.S. government to make clear its intention to leave Iraq, not what Bush and neocons see, another reason to extend the occupation indefinitely.
Indeed, this apparent shift in Sunni interests has long been anticipated by Iraq War critics if the U.S. occupation were to end. They have cited evidence that what al-Qaeda feared most in Iraq was a U.S. military withdrawal that would eliminate its most valuable recruitment pitch (Bush's occupation of Arab land) and diminish any value al-Qaeda fighters might have for Iraqi Sunnis.
This al-Qaeda fear was expressed by the group’s leaders, holed up along the Pakistani-Afghan border, in letters to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The letters warned that al-Qaeda’s position in Iraq might collapse if the United States left, removing the glue holding together the fragile coalition between foreign jihadists and Iraqi nationalists.
That was why a July 2005 letter attributed to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri urged Zarqawi to start talking up the idea of an Islamic “caliphate,” so the young jihadists, drawn to Iraq to fight the Americans, wouldn’t just “lay down their weapons and silence the fighting zeal” once the Americans departed.
The “Zawahiri letter,” which was intercepted by U.S. intelligence, also predicted that an American departure would force the depleted force of al-Qaeda fighters into a desperate battle simply to carve out an enclave inside Iraq.
In December 2005 letter, another top aide to Osama bin Laden, known as “Atiyah,” lectured Zarqawi on the need to act more respectfully toward Iraqi Sunni leaders so al-Qaeda could begin addressing its need to put down deeper roots in Iraq.
In pursuit of that goal, Atiyah also saw the importance of keeping the U.S. forces bogged down in Iraq. “Prolonging the war is in our interest,” Atiyah wrote in a letter that was discovered by U.S. forces after Zarqawi’s death in June 2006. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda’s Fragile Foothold.”]
But Bush and his neocon backers – in a pattern that has been repeated since the U.S. invasion in March 2003 – are interpreting the modest inroads that U.S. commanders have made with Sunni leaders in Anbar and, to a lesser extent, Diyala Province as a reason to continue the U.S. occupation indefinitely.
From the beginning of the war, every time a silver lining could be spotted in an otherwise dark cloud, Bush and the neocons have exploited the development for maximum political advantage back in Washington and as justification to extend the war in Iraq.
So, when Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad statue was pulled down in April 2003, that was cited as proof the Iraqis favored the U.S. military presence; when Hussein’s two sons were killed and the dictator was captured, the U.S. mission creep edged further toward an ambitious nation-building project; when millions of Shiites turned out for elections, that was seen as another endorsement of the U.S. military presence rather than a self-interested move to consolidate Shiite power over the Sunnis.
At each juncture, Bush could have cited the positive development as the moment for the United States to start heading home. Instead, Bush seized on these “turning points” to berate his domestic critics and to dig the United States more deeply into Iraq.
Though Bush’s analyses turned out wrong, he continues to view Iraq through rose-colored glasses of false hope. Even the new signs of “success” in Anbar could dissipate overnight if the Sunnis conclude that Bush will succeed in sustaining U.S. military domination over Iraq for the foreseeable future.
Then, the military supplies and other help that U.S. forces are giving to Sunni tribal leaders – to secure their cooperation against al-Qaeda – could be turned against American troops. An open-ended U.S. occupation also would give another boost to al-Qaeda, buying the terrorist group more time to rebuild its global capabilities.
Despite President Bush’s insistence that prolonging the Iraq War means that the terrorists can’t “follow us home,” Secretary for Homeland Security Michael Chertoff has declared that he has a “gut feeling” that al-Qaeda is about to do just that, strike again in the United States.
Behind Chertoff’s remark was a new five-page U.S. intelligence report, entitled “Al-Qaeda Better Positioned to Strike the West.” According to this CIA threat assessment, al-Qaeda has succeeded in establishing a safe haven inside Pakistan and rebuilding its ability to attack Western and U.S. targets.
“We see more training; we see more money; we see more communications,” the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, John A. Kringen, told a House committee on July 11. [Washington Post, July 12, 2007]
The CIA’s assessment means that almost six years after the 9/11 attacks, Bush’s "war on terror" strategy has not only failed to neutralize al-Qaeda but has enabled the terrorist organization to rebound.
Besides his failure to cut off bin Laden’s escape routes from Tora Bora in December 2001, Bush opened the door to al-Qaeda’s recovery by shifting the focus of the U.S. military away from al-Qaeda’s bases near the Pakistani-Afghan border to Iraq.
Then, by invading Iraq in March 2003, Bush made himself al-Qaeda’s poster boy for rallying a new generation of angry Muslims to the banner of Islamic extremism. And, over the past four-plus years, Bush has made the bloody U.S. occupation of Iraq a gift to al-Qaeda that keeps on giving.
In short, another Bush triumph over his Iraq War critics in Congress could well represent an even bigger victory for al-Qaeda.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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