COMMENTARY
 
Iraq’s Future after Saddam’s Death
Weekly Pulse
Jan 12-18, 2007
In the last around four years, the Iraq war has cost Washington the lives of over US 3,000 soldiers, as well as tens of billions of dollars of defence expenses. It has claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives. The near-civil war situation is worsening by the day. In the US itself, the Congress has fallen into the hands of the Democratic Party, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report has been critical of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war, amid the growing American public disapproval of the war.

It is in this backdrop that US President George W Bush has decided to change the US war strategy in Iraq. Even before the American President formally announced the policy shift in his long-awaited speech on Wednesday, its broad parameters had become obvious. An important indicator was Bush’s decision to change diplomatic and military guards in Iraq.

Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Pakistan, was nominated to replace Zalmay Khalilzad as the US ambassador to Iraq. Adm. William Fallon, who commands US forces in the Pacific, was nominated to replace Gen. John Abizaid as top US commander in the Middle East; and Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who headed the effort to train Iraqi security forces, was nominated to replace Gen. George Casey as top American general in Iraq. Former Baghdad envoy John Negroponte was nominated to be Deputy Secretary of State, to be replaced by Admiral John McConnell as Director of National Intelligence.

Bush’s New Iraq Policy

President Bush’s new strategy was expected to entail new political, military and economic steps—with a focus on Iraqi efforts to defeat the insurgents and the Shia militias which are behind much of the sectarian killing. The policy was expected to emphasise reconstruction as much as fighting. Militarily speaking, the new plan was going to be essentially a joint effort by the US and Iraq to reclaim the control of Baghdad. The “push” in Baghdad has been extremely unpopular domestically for the US President and was scheduled to last for no more than a year.

The military approach, which attracted the most attention and scepticism from the US Congress in the last couple of years, was expected to include an addition of some 20,000 US combat troops. At present, there are about 140,000 US troops in Iraq. The new combat troops, initially numbering some 9,000, were to be deployed in Baghdad in a renewed US bid to counter growing insurgency in the Iraqi capital.

A second important pillar of the new Bush policy, in addition to troops increase, was expected to focus on the provision of more money for jobs and reconstruction programmes in Iraq. According to reports, the Bush administration was planning to pump up to $1bn into Iraq's shattered economy, doubling the State Department’s reconstruction effort in the war-torn country.

Problems Facing New Policy

However, like the problems confronting the previous Bush policy on Iraq war, the new policy based upon the expected options might continue to confront major problems. First, as for the troops increase, the Bush administration is likely to face greater scrutiny by the new Democratic-controlled Congress, which could deny it funding for the purpose. The new US House Speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi has warned President Bush against the troops increase, saying, “There’s not a carte blanche, a blank cheque for [President Bush] to do whatever he wishes [in Iraq].” She has also written to President Bush that the US needs to move instead to a phased withdrawal of American troops, to begin in the next four months.

Second, as far as the second leg of the expected new US war strategy—i.e., more funds for Iraqi reconstruction—is concerned, the details of the $1 billion reconstruction plan (from painting schools to cleaning streets) have a ring of earlier failed initiatives launched with high hopes by the US military. Much trumpeted reconstruction efforts in Iraq have become mired in corruption or have failed to materialise in the face of the growing insurgency. There is no evidence that a rebuilding programme will shift the Iraqi population's deeply hostile attitude to the US military.

Third, President Bush’s new Iraq strategy is being unveiled amid deep unease in Washington about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The guards who taunted and abused Saddam Hussein at his execution have been linked to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia militia leader and a supporter of Mr Maliki. Even though the Iraqi prime minister has reportedly agreed to send three more Iraqi brigades to Baghdad to match the American troop increase of five combat brigades, he has expressed reservations about the US troops increase in the Iraqi capital in a recent telephone conversation with the US President.

However, last Saturday, Mr Maliki did say that a plan was in place for Iraqi forces to crush illegal armed groups “regardless of sect or politics” –suggesting he may be ready to tackle militias loyal to his fellow Shiites, a key demand of Washington and of Saddam’s once dominant Sunni minority.

Uproar over Saddam’s Hanging

The manner and circumstances in which the former Iraqi president was given death penalty has not only received widespread global condemnation, it has also fuelled the anger of Sunni/Baathist insurgents in Iraq. The whole credibility of the Iraqi government’s trial of former Baathist leaders has been put in doubt with the exposure of Saddam’s hanging in an unauthorised mobile phone tapping.

Even Gordon Brown, who is likely to succeed Tony Blair as the British prime minister by September, has called the manner of Saddam’s hanging as “deplorable.” In a recent interview with the BBC, Mr Brown said that he would not shy away from criticizing President Bush—a stand that is in sharp contrast to the pliable Mr Blair.

While the world’s leading human rights bodies and scores of countries have publicly condemned the Iraqi regime for failing to uphold basis moral standards in killing the former Iraqi leader, Mr Maliki has not only defended the affair by calling it just and fair but also threatened to sever relations with countries condemning the manner of Saddam’s hanging.

Alternative Scenarios after Policy Shift

Leaving aside the accusations and counter-accusations on the tragic incident, the problem in Iraq does not solely begin or end with Saddam’s hanging. The last nearly four years of consistent warfare between the coalition forces led by the United States and a variety of insurgents, both home grown and externally directed—and the process of death and destruction accompanying it—is enough to make the outcome of the new Bush policy rather unpredictable at this stage. In the wake of this new policy, three alternative scenarios could be visualised:

• First, the situation may improve with the adoption of new measures, particularly the proactive US-Iraqi military push against insurgents in Baghdad and the greater focus on reconstructing the war-torn country. However, as stated above, the realisation of this policy outcome depends upon whether the US Congress will agree to fund the troops increase. It would also require that the additional funding for reconstruction is properly utilised.

Even if the US troops level in Baghdad does increase, it is still unclear whether their Iraqi counterparts will be proficient enough to fight the insurgents, for whom suicide car bombings remain the key element of warfare. Despite the Iraqi government’s proclaimed military resolve to counter insurgency, the ground reality thus far tells us a different story.

• The second alternative scenario after the Iraq war policy shift by the Bush administration could be that the insurgency will remain the way it has been in the last few years. There will be the same bloodbath, the same human suffering, Shiite-Sunni killings.

The changing of the US diplomatic and military guards may not make any difference at all, insofar as the rampant sectarian war and insurgency against the coalition forces is concerned. In fact, the only change that troops increase may bring to Baghdad could simply be more blood and suffering. As for the reconstruction effort, this again will succeed only if there is decrease in violence.

The third and final Iraqi scenario after the Bush policy shift could be that the war scenario in Iraq could worsen even further. With a Democratic dominated Congress insisting on reducing the US troops level in Iraq, say, by the spring of next year—as recommended by the Iraq Study Group—the policy shift without realising its expected goals may force the Republican administration to start withdrawing US troops.

This is an eventuality that may cause havoc in Iraq, with the Iranians openly backing the Shiite Iraqi factions, the Saudis and the Syrians openly supporting their own respective Sunni or Baathist factions, and Turkey intervening in northern Iraq to settle its scores against the Kurdish factions supporting Kurdish insurgency against the Turkish state in north-eastern parts of the country.

The Bottomline

The missing link in the above three scenarios—about which there was no mention in the media prior to the announcement of the Bush’s new policy on Iraq war—is whether the United States will be willing to talk to Iran and Syria over the situation in Iraq. This is an essential recommendation by the Iraq Study Group—an option that both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair have both publicly spoken against.

However, after the passage of the Security Council resolution against Iran’s nuclear quest, Washington has indeed its standing vis-à-vis Iran. The Iraqi government leadership has also reached out to the leadership in Tehran and Damascus. Given that, if the US government, even though not directly but through the Iraqi regime, starts to coordinate the counter-insurgency effort in Iraq, then the realisation of the first scenario could be visualised. Otherwise, the second and the third scenarios will remain relevant.