How Neocon Shi’ite Strategy Led to Sectarian War

The supreme irony of President George W. Bush’s campaign to blame Iran for the sectarian civil war in Iraq, as well as attacks on U.S. forces, is that the Shi’ite militias who started to drive the Sunnis out of the Baghdad area in 2004 and thus precipitated the present sectarian crisis did so with the support of both Iran and the neoconservative U.S. war planners.

The U.S. policy decisions that led to the sectarian war can be traced back to the conviction of a group of right-wing zealots with close ties to Israel’s Likud Party that overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq would not destabilize the region, because Iraqi Shi’ites would be allies of the United States and Israel against Iran.

The idea that Iraqi Shi’ites could be used to advance U.S. power interests in the Middle East was part of a broader right-wing strategy for joint U.S.-Israeli "rollback" of Israel’s enemies. In 1996, a task force at the right-wing Israeli think tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, under Richard Perle advised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that such a strategy should begin by taking control of Iraq and putting a pro-Israeli regime in power there.

Three years later, the former director of that think tank, David Wurmser, who had migrated to the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, spelled out how the United States could use Iraqi Shi’ites to support that strategy in "Tyranny’s Ally." Wurmser sought to refute the realist argument that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would destroy the balance of power between Sunni-controlled Iraq and Shi’ite Iran on which regional stability depended.

Wurmser proposed replacing the existing "dual containment" policy toward Iran and Iraq with what he called "dual rollback." He did not deny that taking down Hussein’s regime would "generate upheaval in Iraq," but he welcomed that prospect, which would "offer the oppressed, majority Shi’ites of that country an opportunity to enhance their power and prestige."

Whereas the "realists" had assumed the Iraqi Shi’ites would be "Iran’s fifth column," Wurmser argued that the Iraqi Shi’ite clerics would "present a challenge to Iran’s influence and revolution." He cited their rejection of the central concept of the Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini – the "rule of the jurisprudent" – justifying clerical rule.

From that fact, Wurmser leaped to the conclusion that Iraqi Shi’ites would be an ally of the United States in promoting a "regional rollback of Shi’ite fundamentalism." Wurmser even suggested that Iraqi Shi’ites could help pry Lebanese Shi’ites, with whom they had enjoyed close ties historically, away from the influence of Hezbollah and Iran.

Wurmser was close to the key officials in the Pentagon and the White House who were planning the invasion of Iraq: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. After 9/11 it was Wurmser who set up the now-infamous Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group in Feith’s office to produce the evidence that could be used to justify invading Iraq. After the U.S. occupation, he became Vice President Cheney’s Middle East adviser.

The neoconservative plan for invading Iraq reflected Wurmser’s assumption that the United States would not need to plan a long military occupation of Iraq, because toppling Hussein’s regime would unleash the power of the Iraqi Shi’ites.

But the political realities in Iraq were nothing like Wurmser and his allies imagined them. They had not counted on the Sunnis mounting an effective resistance instead of rolling over. Nor had they anticipated that Shi’ite clerics of Iraq would demand national elections and throw their support behind the militant Shi’ite parties, SCIRI and Dawa, which had returned from exile in Iran in the wake of the U.S. overthrow of Hussein.

SCIRI and Dawa were not what the hardliners had in mind when they thought about Shi’ite power in Iraq. Their paramilitary formations had been created, trained and nurtured by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and their views on international politics were not known to be distinguishable from those of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The neoconservatives also knew that the Dawa Party was a terrorist organization. Its operatives were behind the bombing of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in 1983 in an effort to drive the U.S. out of the country. (One of the Shi’ites elected to the Iraqi parliament in December 2005, Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, was said by the U.S. embassy spokesman Tuesday to be under investigation for his participation in that bombing.)

When Ahmed Chalabi’s U.S. enemies accused the neoconservative favorite of having spied for Iran, and the National Security Council wrote a policy paper called "Marginalizing Chalabi," the neocons outside the government were livid. Michael Ledeen wrote a column for National Review online May 28, 2004, pointing out that Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of SCIRI, and Ibrahim Jaafari of the Dawa were still on the Iranian payroll, but were nevertheless "in our good graces."

Meanwhile, the AEI’s Michael Rubin began warning in spring 2004 that Iran was consolidating its influence in Shi’ite southern Iraq by funneling large amounts of money into support for their Iraqi clients.

But Wolfowitz, Feith, and Wurmser, faced with a rising tide of Sunni armed resistance, had already decided that they had to accept the pro-Iranian groups as temporary allies against the Sunnis. When Wolfowitz testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 18, 2004, he suggested that the administration had accepted the continued existence of these Shi’ite militias, as long as they remained friendly to the United States.

As for disarming them, he said, "That is not part of the mission unless it is necessary to bring them under control." Once the United States had been able to build an "alternative security institution," he said, "then the militias can go away."

The war planners in the Bush administration had also decided that the militant Shi’ites would get their election in January 2005, which meant that a Shi’ite government would be formed later that year. With those decisions, the descent of Iraq into sectarian civil war became unavoidable.

Throughout 2004 and the first half of 2005, the Shi’ite militias took advantage of the supportive policy of the United States to consolidate their power in Baghdad and began terrorizing Sunni communities. After the government formed under the Dawa Party’s Ibrahim Jaafari, the Shi’ite Badr Brigade moved into the Ministry of Interior, which became a vehicle for state terror. Despite media coverage of Shi’ite death squads operating freely in the capital, the Bush administration refused to admit that there was any problem with Shi’ite militias.

Only in October 2005, after what must have been a fierce internal struggle in Washington, did the U.S. embassy begin to oppose the Shi’ite effort to force Sunnis out of the capital. By then it was far too late. The genie of sectarian civil war could not be put back in the bottle.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.