Two major revelations this past week show how far the George W. Bush administration has already shifted its policy toward realignment with Sunni forces to balance the influence of pro-Iranian Shi’ites in Iraq.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad revealed in an interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that he has put the future of military assistance to a Shi’ite-dominated government on the table in the high-stakes U.S. effort to force Shi’ite party leaders to give up control over key security ministries.
Khalilzad told Ignatius that, unless the “security ministries” in the new Iraqi government are allocated to candidates who are “not regarded as sectarian,” the United States would be forced to reevaluate its assistance to the government.
“We are saying, if you choose the wrong candidates, that will affect U.S. aid,” Khalilzad said.
Khalilzad had previously demanded that the Interior Ministry be given to a nonsectarian candidate, but he had not backed up those demands with the threat of withdrawal of assistance. He has also explicitly added the Defense Ministry to that demand for the first time.
Implied in Khalilzad’s position is the threat to stop funding units that are identified as sectarian Shi’ite in their orientation. That could affect the bulk of the Iraqi army as well as the elite Shi’ite police commando units, which are highly regarded by the U.S. military command.
Khalilzad’s decision to make the U.S. threat public was followed by the revelation by Newsweek in its Feb. 6 issue that talks between the United States and “high level” Sunni insurgent leaders have already begun at a U.S. military base in Anbar province and in Jordan and Syria. Khalilzad told Newsweek, “Now we have won over the Sunni political leadership. The next step is to win over the insurgents.”
As this sweeping definition of the U.S. political objective indicates, these talks are no longer aimed at splitting off groups that are less committed to the aim of U.S. withdrawal, as the Pentagon has favored since last summer. Instead, the administration now appears to be prepared to make some kind of deal with all the major insurgent groups.
U.S. military spokesman Rick Lynch declared, “The local insurgents have become part of the solution.”
The larger context of these discussions is a common interest in counterbalancing Iranian influence in Iraq. U.S. officials are remaining silent on this aspect of the policy. According to Newsweek, however, a “senior Western diplomat” explains the talks by saying, “There is more concern [on both sides] about the domination by Iran of Iraq.”
U.S. concern about the pro-Iranian leanings of the militant Shi’ite parties that will dominate the next government has grown as the administration presses a campaign to take Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council, with the military option “on the table.” A Western diplomat told Associated Press that the United States needed to find “some other allies who will not turn against them if things heat up with Iran.”
Even the possibility of a separate peace between the United States and the Sunni insurgency, which is inherent in these negotiations, signals to the Shi’ites that the United States is no longer wedded to the option of supporting Shi’ite military and police.
Sunni political party leaders also see U.S. policy as supporting the Sunnis in order to limit the power of the Shi’ites. The Iraqi Islamic Party’s Naseer al-Any told the Christian Science Monitor, “We are convinced that we are in a powerful position now. There is a change in the way the Americans deal with us….”
The U.S. position and that of Sunni politicians toward the new government are now fully aligned. On Jan. 28, Sunni political groups and secular political parties announced a new political bloc to demand that the Interior Ministry not be in the hands of “people related to political parties.”
The Bush administration has been trying to find ways to counterbalance the influence of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite faction since mid-2004, especially by keeping control of paramilitary forces and secret police out of the hands of the militant Shi’ites. But until recently, those efforts have been constrained by the political imperative to prevail in the war against the Sunnis.
Shi’ite leaders have been convinced since last year’s parliamentary election campaigns that Washington has been conspiring with their enemies to undo the political power the Shi’ites had gained in 2005.
Redha Taki, an official at party headquarters of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which heads the ruling Shi’ite coalition, told the Christian Science Monitor‘s Charles Levinson that the United States is only part of a much bigger coalition of interests opposing Shi’ite political power in Iraq, which includes Britain, the Iraqi Sunnis, and the Arab League.
The common denominator uniting all those actors, of course, is antagonism toward the Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran, with which the militant Shi’ite parties in Iraq are aligned.
Shi’ite leaders believe the shift in U.S. policy is intended to actually reinstall a Ba’athist government in Baghdad. Taki hinted strongly to the Monitor that the SCIRI is planning to use force if necessary to defend the present government. “We are threatening that maybe in the future we will use other means,” he said, “because we have true fear.”
Then he added, “I am prepared to go down into the streets and take up arms and fight to prevent the Ba’athist dictators and terrorists from coming back to power.”
That statement captures the feeling among many Shi’ite leaders and militia of being under siege, which could lead them to plan for extreme actions to deal with an anticipated bid by their enemies to take away their power.
Everyone is now waiting to see how far the Bush administration will carry its political realignment. These new moves suggest that the administration may have redefined its interests in Iraq to downgrade the importance of the fight against insurgency there in light of the larger conflict with Iran.
The logic of such a redefinition of interests would dictate a cease-fire with the Sunni insurgents. That would not only free the latter to fight al-Qaeda, but alter the balance of power between militant Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq.
Going that far would conflict with White House assurances only a few weeks ago of U.S. “victory” in the Iraq war. But word at the State Department last week was that Khalilzad, the mastermind of the new policy, has the president’s ear. And the new policy may be just what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other hardliners on Iran have been looking for.
Although it may be a way out of a war that cannot be won, the U.S. shift in political alignment away from the Shi’ites and toward the Sunnis brings with it a different set of costs and risks.
It is bound to bring to the surface the anti-U.S. sentiments that the Shi’ite political leadership and militants have kept more or less under wraps since the U.S. invasion for pragmatic political reasons.
And as the Shi’ites gird for a showdown with their enemies, they will be seeking the assistance of their Iranian patrons. The worst crises for U.S. policy in Iraq are still to come.
(Inter Press Service)
Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).