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Five Years On: The Pentagon Still Struggling to Make Sense of Iraq

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

1 October 2008

The US presidential candidates are not the only ones scrambling to put together a credible interpretation of the situation in Iraq these days. Today, Pentagon released its latest report to the US Congress, entitled “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq”.

There are two very basic problems in the report. The first concerns “the fundamental nature of the conflict in Iraq”. On p. viii the report bombastically asserts, “while security has improved dramatically, the fundamental character of the conflict in Iraq remains unchanged – a communal struggle for power and resources”. That is a about as wrong as one can be in describing the political dynamics of the past year. Just to give one very prominent example, the reason Iraqis are going to have provincial elections soon is that a broad opposition alliance of Shiites and Sunnis, Islamists and secularists, challenged the Maliki government to demand early elections and a firm timeline when the provincial powers law was debated last winter. 30 of the MPs behind this move were Sadrists. But this fact of cross-sectarian opposition cooperation does not seem to fit into the Pentagon narrative of "communal conflict" at all. Instead the passage of the legislation on provincial elections is hailed as an achievement of the “government of Iraq” (p. v) – even though the government resisted the elections all the way and repeatedly tried to scupper the process! And instead of recognising the role of the opposition in changing the atmosphere of Iraqi politics, the report repeatedly reverts to a focus on “lingering sectarianism” (p. 1 and p. 6) At least some parts of the US military blogosphere has picked up the growing debate about the cross-sectarian currents in today’s Iraq and it is remarkable that a Pentagon report like this one should go on so insistently with interpretations that perhaps made sense for a limited period in 2006 and early 2007.

The second main problem in the report has to do with the Pentagon’s take on Iranian influences in Iraq. The Department of Defense simply refuses do deal open-mindedly with the possibility of pro-Iranian influences inside the current Iraqi government. Instead the report brusquely asserts, “despite long-standing ties between Iraq and some members of the GoI, Tehran’s influence campaign is beginning to strain that relationship due to the rising perception that Iran poses a significant threat to Iraqi sovereignty.” Maybe it is the overuse of acronyms that prevents Pentagon analysts from detecting the problem here? Surely, when ISOF are conducting COIN with IP support to defeat the JAM and SGs and other undesirables, it all sounds so well organised that it almost comes across as unthinkable that Iranian interests could conceivably be served by these actions. At any rate, not one word is said about the massive Iranian influence in Najaf where the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq dominates, or about the repeated complaints by Shiite tribal leaders in the south that the government of Iraq is too close to Iran, or the continued praise for Iran by members of the Badr brigade, one of Washington’s supposed key allies among the Shiites of Iraq.

Pentagon’s “bulwark” against Iranian influences in Iraq: Badr members in Maysan at a joint Iranian-Iraqi function celebrating the Khomeini legacy and a Khomeini aid fund, 12 June 2008

It is assumptions like these that drive the report authors to exaggerate again and again the significance of Nuri al-Maliki and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim turning against some of their own Shiite enemies. Repeatedly, Maliki’s operations against Sadrists in Basra and elsewhere are described as the ultimate sign of a national attitude and something that should prompt Sunnis and the Arab world at large to instantly embrace the Maliki government (pp. vi, 8). Symptomatically, the decision by one relatively minor and office-seeking Sunni group to revert to their role in the government before the summer is spinned as “a welcome sign of re-engagement by Sunni Arabs at the national level” on p. 1. But it is the basic assumption that Iranian hands are only controlling and benefitting from the Sadrists and the “special groups” that is problematic. Instead Pentagon analysts should bear in mind what their “ally” Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq said about these matters in the Tehran-based ISCI newspaper Al-Muballigh al-Risali back in 1999 on 15 February, when he furiously criticised Muhammad al-Sadr for daring to start a revolt in Iraq without reference to Iran’s leadership: “We need to treat Khamenei’s leadership in the same fashion as Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr treated Khomeini’s leadership”, i.e. the supremacy of the leader of the Iranian republic should never be challenged. In other words: Historically, the unpredictable Sadrists have always been a problem and not an asset to Iran and ISCI; in 2007 they appeared to finally get better control of the situation as Muqtada was left with no other option than to flee to Iran at the start of the surge. But instead, the Pentagon refers to “recognition of Coalition and ISF tactical superiority” as the main cause of the weakening of the Sadrists.

When these basic questions are not addressed in a nuanced way, it is very hard to ascribe much significance to the predictable succession of graphs and statistics and acronyms that take up the subsequent pages of the Pentagon report. These things all collapse if the underlying assumptions about the "fundamental nature of the conflict in Iraq" and Iran’s channels of influence are inaccurate.

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