President Bush’s alleged new strategy for Iraq, outlined in a mercifully brief prime time speech last night, is a recipe for disaster for Iraq, the United States, and the region.
For Iraqis, the prospect of stepped-up US military action in Baghdad will spur a sharp increase in civilian casualties, sectarian violence and recruitment by al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.
A foreshadowing of the consequences of the new strategy for Iraqis was provided on Tuesday of this week, when one thousand Iraqi troops backed up by US ground and air forces attacked a heavily populated Sunni neighborhood just about half a mile from the heavily fortified “green zone” that houses US officials in Baghdad.
The attack, aimed at Sunni insurgents, was backed up with air strikes by US-operated Apache helicopters and F-16 combat aircraft. US officials claimed that 50 insurgents were killed in the raid, while local Sunni leaders asserted that all 50 dead were civilians. The truth may lie somewhere in between, but there is no question that an acceleration of similar attacks will lead to greater Iraqi civilian casualties. The destruction caused by this approach could turn some Baghdad neighborhoods into mini-Fallujahs, the Iraqi city that was flattened by US military strikes in November 2004 as part of “Operation Phantom Fury.”
For the United States, the biggest losers from the Bush strategy will be, as usual, US troops. The 20,000 “new” US troops committed to the occupation will be generated by increasing the pace of deployment of existing Army, Marine, and National Guard units. The plan for street fighting in Iraq will increase US casualties, particularly if US forces pick a fight with the 60,000-strong Mahdi army of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The increased pace of the fighting and the greater intensity of combat operations are also likely to increase instances of post-traumatic stress syndrome and brain injuries among US troops. These injuries have already afflicted roughly 20,000 US military personnel who have done rotations in Iraq. These potential impacts put the lie to President Bush’s claim to be engaging in this escalation as a way of “supporting the troops.”
Contrary to the recommendation by the James Baker/Lee Hamilton-led Iraq Study Group to engage Iran and Syria in a diplomatic initiative to stabilize Iraq, President Bush’s rhetoric stopped just short of a declaration of war against these two nations. Within hours of the president’s pledge to step up policing of the borders of Iran and Syria with Iraq and root out networks that are allegedly supplying arms and training to Iraqi insurgents, US forces in Iraqi Kurdistan attacked the Iranian embassy in Irbil, arresting six embassy personnel.
The raid, which was carried out without informing Kurdish authorities, sparked a military standoff between US and Kurdish security forces that led to the evacuation of several US soldiers via helicopter. The attack was a blow to US-Kurdish relations at a time when Kurdish forces have been one of the few US allies in the occupation.
It is unclear at this point whether this provocation of Iran, which has been compounded by the announcement that an additional US carrier battle group will be deployed to the region, is the first step towards war, or simply part of an effort to blame Iran for US difficulties in Iraq. In the worst case it could represent both, with the attempt to blame Iran for bolstering the Iraqi insurgency serving as an additional rationale for war, alongside the Bush administration’s threatening rhetoric over the Iranian nuclear program.
As expected, President Bush made no reference to the budgetary costs of the war, which are at $400 billion and rising. His promise of $1.2 billion to help rebuild Iraq and reduce its unemployment rate which is estimated at 40 to 60 percent is laughable when placed alongside US military spending in Iraq. The war is now costing at least $8 billion per month, a figure more than six times the administration’s planned budget for reconstruction aid over the next year. If we follow the money instead of the rhetoric, the Bush plan is a blueprint for protracted conflict in Iraq.
The only good news in all of this is that the stage is set for an upsurge in the scope and effectiveness of antiwar efforts. A majority of the American people oppose the war, as do a majority of American troops. A poll of Iraqis by the University of Maryland indicates that over two-thirds of Iraqis want their government to ask US troops to leave within a year. And the new Democratic leadership in Congress has taken a step forward by raising the prospect of cutting off funding for the administration’s escalation of the war. There is still much work to be done to bring policy into line with public opinion on the war. But the time to act is now, before the administration can fully implement its plans for a wider, more violent, and more dangerous war that will have ramifications far beyond Iraq.