According to Gen. David H. Petraeus’ progress report to Congress on Iraq, the latest worst threat to the shaky U.S. position is Iranian-backed "special groups." This label refers to parts of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his security forces ham-handedly sought to confront and undermine in Basra before the fall local elections. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is so passé.
The repetition of this allegation during the congressional hearings and the firing of Adm. William Fallon, who was an opponent of any attack on Iran, as commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East should again raise worries to war-weary Americans about a cowboy attack on Iran before the Bush administration leaves office. On cue, administration surrogates, such as former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, repeated Petraeus’ charges: "despite undeniable progress against Sunni radicalism [read: al-Qaeda], events in Iraq are still inseparable from the actions and attitudes of Shi’ite militias armed and directed by Iran an influence that America failed to confront for many years."
Not only has America failed to confront these Shi’ite militias, the Bush administration has been enabling them. The congressional hearings failed to bring out, because of administration intention and Democratic ignorance, that Maliki’s security forces are infested with Shi’ite Badr Brigade militias that Iran prefers over the Iraqi nationalist Mahdi Army. The confused milieu of Iraq, an administration with no coherent strategy to improve the conditions in that country, has always tried to downplay the fact that the U.S.-backed Shi’ite government and its associated militias are the same ones backed by its archenemy, Iran.
But the hearings once again confirmed that the administration, always better at politics than at governing, does have a strategy: hold the lid on violence in Iraq until the Bush administration leaves office, then blame any subsequent deterioration or loss in Iraq on the next administration. This tack will be similar to the ludicrous argument that Henry Kissinger, who has been advising both the administration and presidential candidate John McCain, still uses about the Vietnam War: we were winning until the Democrats cut off funding for the war. This explains Bush’s acceptance of Petraeus’ troop-withdrawal pause, which will undoubtedly continue until January 2009. Of course, retaining a high level of U.S. forces, and the troop surge that preceded it, really has just been an insurance policy and a macho way to mask the real U.S. strategy of paying off the Sunni and Mahdi Army enemies. This libertarian strategy ordinarily might be smart, except that bolstering these militias will, in the long run, exacerbate any civil war when they again begin to fight each other.
At the congressional hearings, however, there were signs that the latest botched Iraqi government offensive in Basra, the most important city in Iraq because it’s in a region containing 60 percent of the country’s oil and has Iraq’s only access to the Persian Gulf to ship that oil (why the U.S. let less capable British forces try to secure this city has been an unexplored administration blunder), was beginning to flip a few Republicans against the war. This movement was indicated by some Republicans adopting the Democrats’ argument that Iraqis were failing to do enough to become democratic. Although it is grossly unfair to invade a country, destroy its social fabric and economy, and then expect people who have had no experience in democracy to quickly become democrats, if it takes those rhetorical gymnastics to justify a more rapid U.S. withdrawal, then I guess it’s an improvement. But unfortunately, as the hearings showed, progress toward a U.S. exit is very slow indeed.