Juan Cole: Surging toward disaster in Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

Earlier this week Sen. Richard Lugar, the senior Republican from Indiana, dismissed the U.S. "surge" in Iraq as unlikely to succeed. He condemned any illusions about staying the course. "We have overestimated what the military can achieve, we have set goals that are unrealistic, and we have inadequately factored in the broader regional consequences of our actions," Lugar said from the Senate floor.

His alarm has been illustrated by the difficulties the U.S. and Iraqi militaries faced in the recent offensive operation dubbed "Operation Arrowhead Ripper," aimed at subduing Baquba (pop. 300,000), the restive capital of Diyala province, located 31 miles northeast of Baghdad. American generals admitted that 80 percent of the guerrilla leadership there had slipped away, and that the Iraqi army lacked the equipment and training to hold areas taken in difficult hand-to-hand fighting. The U.S. military compounded its public-relations problem by implausibly branding virtually everyone it fought or killed in the Sunni-majority city as "al-Qaida."

The failure of the offensive casts doubt not only on its purpose of securing swaths of territory, but also on the way the strategy has been sold to the American public. The Baquba push involves some 6,000 U.S. troops and 4,000 Iraqi ones. Despite the "white hats vs. black hats" imagery deployed by U.S. spokespersons, and the castigation of the enemy under the "al-Qaida" rubric, the operation clearly committed the United States to one side in a civil war. The Iraqi 5th Army, which is largely Shiite, was supported by special police commandos from the Ministry of the Interior, a Shiite force mostly drawn from the Badr Corps paramilitary of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council -- which was trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In practical terms, the U.S. military was helping a Shiite government and a Shiite security force impose itself on a majority Sunni population.

Ironically, the opposition now labeled "al-Qaida" is in reality a mix of enraged local Sunni tribes and Baathist "dead-enders," of which the Bush administration once spoke as being the predominant threat in Iraq. These Sunni Arabs had for the most part belonged to the Baath Party, and many had served in the Iraqi army, which fought the Iranians from 1980 to 1988. More recently, some have turned to Sunni fundamentalism. It is a bitter pill for them to swallow that they are now ruled by Shiites, who are a minority in Diyala province. The only time provincial elections have been held in Iraq, in January 2005, the Sunni Arabs boycotted them, allowing Shiite religious parties to take over the provincial and most municipal administrations. The police in Baquba have therefore been disproportionately Shiite, and Shiite militias such as the Badr Corps and the Mahdi Army have a strong presence....

This Sunni-Shiite faction fighting is among the intractable problems that impelled Lugar to speak out this week. The senator has, throughout a long and distinguished career, looked history in the eye and coolly decided what the United States could reasonably hope to accomplish. He convinced President Ronald Reagan that supporting Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the face of Corazon Aquino's "people power" movement in the 1980s would be a fruitless and dangerous strategy for Washington. Now, he says with regard to Iraq, "I see no convincing evidence that Iraqis will make the compromises necessary to solidify a functioning government and society, even if we reduce violence to a point that allows for some political and economic normalcy." Certainly, peaceful coexistence across sectarian lines in the Diyala province seems a goal unlikely to be achieved in the near or medium term.

Lugar also worries that the long and repeated deployments to Iraq are damaging U.S. military preparedness, and that the 2008 elections make it unlikely that the troop levels used for the surge can be maintained. Clearly he fears that Bush will push his military operations in Iraq as a panacea for the rest of his term in office -- and that Bush's successor will be pressured into a hasty and poorly thought-out withdrawal from Iraq. Lugar reasons that the United States is so dependent on Middle Eastern petroleum that such a scramble to exit may well imperil its energy security....

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