Democrats’ Timetable Allows U.S. War in Sunni Region to Go On

The language on a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq voted out of the House-Senate conference committee this week contains large loopholes that would apparently allow U.S. troops to continue carrying out military operations in Iraq’s Sunni heartland indefinitely.

The plan, coming from the Democratic majority in Congress, makes an exemption from a 180-day timetable for completion of “redeployment” of U.S. troops from Iraq to allow “targeted special actions limited in duration and scope to killing or capturing members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations of global reach.”

The al-Qaeda exemption, along with a second exemption allowing U.S. forces to re-enter Iraq to protect those remaining behind to train and equip Iraqi security forces and to protect other U.S. military forces, appears to approve the presence in Iraq of tens of thousands of U.S. occupation troops for many years to come.

The large loopholes in the Democratic withdrawal plan come against the background of the failure of the U.S. war against the insurgency – including al-Qaeda – in Anbar and other Sunni provinces and the emergence of a major war within the Sunni insurgency between non-jihadi resistance groups and al-Qaeda.

The Sunni resistance organizations represent a clear alternative to an endless U.S. occupation of hostile Sunni provinces that has driven many activists into the arms of al-Qaeda.

Although the wording in the House-Senate appropriations bill appears to suggest a very limited mandate for operations against al-Qaeda, at least one influential Democratic figure, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, intends to interpret it broadly enough to allow the administration to continue at roughly the present level of U.S. military operations in Anbar province, even after the U.S. has withdrawn its troops from the Baghdad area.

Biden is said have been responsible, in large part, for the al-Qaeda exception being included in the Democratic withdrawal plan. Last October, he said any withdrawal plans should provide for “a small residual force – perhaps 20,000 troops – to strike any concentration of terrorists, help keep Iraq’s neighbors honest and train its security forces.”

The senator apparently accepts the assumption that U.S. forces must remain in Iraq indefinitely to prevent al-Qaeda from becoming a permanent presence in Anbar and adjoining Sunni provinces. During most of 2006, the U.S. military command in Iraq has encouraged that assumption by portraying the situation in Anbar as a two-sided struggle between the U.S. counterinsurgency war and al-Qaeda.

A five-page Marine Corps intelligence report on Anbar in September 2006 reflected that view of the situation. It said Anbar province was a “vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Media reporting on the province largely conformed to that interpretation. The notion of a two-sided war in the Sunni heartland bolsters the George W. Bush administration’s political position that any talk of a timetable for withdrawal is defeatist.

In fact, however, it is far removed from reality. The majority of the important Sunni insurgent organizations represent a second anti-al-Qaeda force that has far greater potential for defeating al-Qaeda than the U.S. military does.

The “non-jihadist” resistance to foreign occupation has political interests that are fundamentally at odds with those of al-Qaeda. During the run up to the constitutional referendum of October 2005, and again during the campaign for the December 2005 parliamentary election, significant elements of the Sunni armed resistance in Anbar and elsewhere in the Sunni provinces supported participation, despite al-Qaeda death threats against anyone who dared to do so.

That was the beginning of a violent conflict between several significant Sunni armed organizations and al-Qaeda throughout the Sunni provinces. A series of military clashes between the two Sunni political-military forces occurred in Anbar. Sunni religious sources told al-Hayat, the London-based pan-Arab newspaper, that resistance groups had cooperated in “popular committees” in Ramadi to target al-Qaeda there.

The U.S. military command officially confirmed in January 2006 that Sunni insurgents had killed as many as six high-ranking al-Qaeda leaders in Ramadi alone.

In 2007 the Sunni insurgent battle against al-Qaeda has escalated. Associated Press reported Apr. 20 that U.S. officers interviewed in the field said the insurgent 1920 Revolutionary Brigades and the Ansar al-Sunnah army were attacking al-Qaeda “daily” in Diyala, Salahuddin and Anbar provinces.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces have been unable to make significant gains in their own counterinsurgency war against al-Qaeda in Anbar province. David Wood of the Baltimore Sun newspaper reported in early January that U.S. officers he interviewed in Anbar “described the fight as a frustrating uphill battle” and said they would need “many years” to defeat al-Qaeda.

The inability of U.S. forces to make progress in Anbar and the evidence that large segments of the Sunni resistance were now fighting against al-Qaeda led the Bush administration to enter into serious negotiations with leaders of those resistance organizations last year. According to accounts by Sunni participants in those negotiations, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad met with representatives of eleven insurgent organizations (which claimed to represent most of the Sunni insurgent forces) on seven different occasions between mid-January and early March 2006.

Khalilzad finally confirmed just before leaving Baghdad late last month that he indeed had met with insurgent groups, including the Islamic Army of Iraq and the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades, in early 2006

The insurgent leaders’ accounts of the meetings said they broke off negotiations in April, when Khalilzad failed to respond to the draft memorandum of understanding they had given him after promising to do so before the formation of a new Iraqi government. Both insurgents and Iraqi government officials told Associated Press last June that the eleven groups had offered to halt their attacks in return for a two-year timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

The timetable issue was apparently not what brought the negotiations to a halt. A “senior coalition military officer” was quoted in June 2006 by Newsweek magazine and the Times of London as suggesting that a formula could be found to satisfy the Sunni demand for a withdrawal timetable.

Ali Allawi, who was then minister of finance in the government of Premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari, told IPS during his visit to Washington two weeks ago for a book promotion tour, that Khalilzad did not respond to the insurgents’ memorandum because it had demanded the formation of a new Iraqi government. Bush was evidently unwilling to raise questions about its legitimacy.

Nevertheless, the Sunni resistance option was clearly seen last year by the U.S. military, Khalilzad and even Bush himself as preferable to an unending U.S. counterinsurgency war in a hostile Sunni heartland. But the administration has quietly shelved that policy option as Bush and Cheney have confronted Democratic demands for a withdrawal timetable.

The White House would rather be in the position of blaming the Democrats for its “defeatism” than pursuing that option more vigorously.

Democratic leaders in Congress, meanwhile, appear to believe they must support a continued U.S. war against al-Qaeda to avoid being tagged with defeat. But the initial Democratic plan voted out of the conference committee Monday is only the first of several congressional battles on Iraq policy to come in the next few weeks.

The massive loophole for continued U.S. war in Iraq will be one of the issues fought over in these coming rounds.

(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.