Back From The Brink?

Last week, the Americans in Iraq stood on the brink of not one but three cliffs. Now, in what appears to be a sudden attack of sanity, they have pulled back from the edge of two.

The first was the American threat to assault the holy Shiite city of Najaf in order to “capture or kill” militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. When the most powerful man in Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani, said “Don’t do that,” the CPA in Baghdad had the good sense to listen. Now it appears we may hand off the “coalition” military presence in Najaf from the (wisely) departing Spaniards to the Brits, rather than keeping American troops camped just outside the city gates. If that happens, it would be another smart move on our part, as the British are rather better at dealing with the natives than we are. It would be comforting to have adults in charge, at least at Najaf.

The second precipice was the plan to renew the assault on Fallujah. At the end of last week, the Marines were making no secret of their preparations to go back on the offensive and take the whole city, cost what that may. The U.S. military’s spokesman in Baghdad, Army Brigadier General Mark “Kermit” Kimmett, sounded a bit like old Saddam himself when he said, “Whether [an opponent] is somebody who is trying to defend their city…or somebody who’s just out to kill an American, both of those will find the full force of the United States Marine Corps and the coalition brought down on them.” That sounds like “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out,” which is not entirely consistent with “liberation.”

Suddenly, and again wisely, we have backed off. Instead of threatening to turn Fallujah into Stalingrad, we are once more talking to Iraqi leaders in the city and proposing joint patrols. One of the Marines’ commanders, General Mattis, was quoted in the April 26 Washington Post saying, “We didn’t come here to fight.” That is how the Marines trained to handle Fallujah, by de-escalation. Finally, it looks as if the CPA may allow them to do it.

In both Najaf and Fallujah, the threat is not what happens in the city. It is what happens in the rest of Iraq, and the rest of the world, if we continue to play the bully. Fallujah has already become for many Iraqis what the Alamo is for Texans. Shiites have joined Sunnis in its defense. The Sunday New York Times quoted a spokesman for the Iraqi Muslim Clerics Association saying, “We’re living in beautiful days of solidarity between people. We need to thank our enemy, the Americans. They helped us carry out our dream.” That dream is our nightmare, an intifada against the occupation throughout Arab Iraq. When American actions help bring that about, it is time for a change of course.

While we have stepped back from two brinks, we remain poised on a third. That is the current plan to turn Iraq over on June 30 to an Iraqi government that is sovereign in name only. According to the April 26 Washington Post, “US officials made clear last week that the transitional government would have limited powers, with no authority to write new laws and no control over US military forces that would continue to operate in Iraq. Any “government” that cannot control foreign forces operating on its soil is not sovereign. Worse, a situation where US forces continue to police Iraq holds America down in its present quagmire, with violence and casualties rising.

There are two ways America can leave Iraq. The first is at the request of a genuinely sovereign Iraqi government. What America needs is for the Iraqi government that takes over at the end of June to ask us to reduce our troop numbers, move the troops that remain far away from Iraqi population centers and then, after an interval measured in months, not years, leave. That is the best outcome we can hope for, although it means the end of the neo-con dream of an Iraq that is a “new” satellite of both America and Israel.

The second way the war in Iraq can end is with the Americans and other “coalition” forces driven out. Last Friday, President George W. Bush said, “America will never be run out of Iraq by a bunch of thugs and killers.” But that is exactly what will happen if we continue fighting the Iraqi people. It is to avoid that end to the war that we must not attack Fallujah, Najaf, or any other Iraqi city that dares to want its freedom from a now widely-hated occupation.

Will our present sanity attack continue, allowing the U.N. to install a genuinely sovereign Iraqi government on June 30 and thereby give us a graceful way out? Or will we revert to type, renew the assault on Fallujah, perhaps try an Israeli-style “assassination by Apache” of Muqtada al-Sadr and demand that we continue to control Iraq after the end of June?

A bon mot from the summer of 1914 again comes to mind: In Berlin, the situation is serious but not hopeless; in Vienna, it is hopeless but not serious. At the moment, some of our commanders in Iraq are playing Berlin, while George W. sounds like Conrad von Hoetzendorf. Which will prevail? The next week may tell us.

Author: William S. Lind

William Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former congressional aide and the author of many books and articles on military strategy and war.