Recent events in Iraq have forced me to postpone my response to noted commenter Andrew Lazarus for a week or so, though elements of that response can likely be found in this analysis, as it contains indirect elements of a polemic (the explanations of the consequences of pulling out of Iraq not being among them). In the meantime, this analysis will endeavor to explain what exactly is currently occurring inside Iraq as well as some observations with regard to who is likely behind it and a look at what could happen if we should fail.
There is more to life than your own petty domestic politics ...
One of the most annoying factors that one encounters within blogosphere, shifting only back and forth depending on which side of the ideological spectrum that a blog in question is located on, is that US foreign policy in general and success or failure in Iraq in particular is viewed solely through the lense of which US political party will benefit from it. I'm not particularly certain when this point of view became prevalent and to be quite frank, I really don't care. US success in Iraq is a good thing for the United States as a whole, not just for George Bush. Similarly, a US failure in Iraq will be an unparalleled disaster for us all, not simply for all of the chickenhawk warbloggers like myself who supported the invasion.
Taking this into perspective, I view declaring the situation in Iraq hopeless or civil war in the country inevitable to be little more than a tacit admission of US defeat as well as a justification of al-Qaeda's combat doctrine - the United States, for all its vaunted prowess, can be defeated through protracted guerrilla warfare. As Rohan Gunaratna notes in Inside al-Qaeda, bin Laden has long sought to entrap the US in a protracted guerrilla conflict out of the belief that his minions can defeat us in the same manner they did the Soviet Union. That is precisely why al-Qaeda is pulling resources from Afghanistan or calling in the international brigades of the Harakat ul-Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba, as well as fighters from Chechnya. And in case this issue is brought up, the much-maligned refusal of the US to place Afghanistan under direct military occupation but rather to subcontract that duty to the Northern Alliance is the only reason they haven't done it there. Ultimately, this is more about defeating the United States than any particular location, which is why resources previously allocated to the Taliban in Afghanistan are now being diverted to Iraq just as Mullah Omar's thugs were starting to have some semblance of success in briefly retaking a few border districts (think counties) in Zabul province.
In short, the situation is such that should the US lose badly in Iraq, al-Qaeda wins and this cannot be allowed if we hope to prosecute a successful war on terrorism, quite independent of who wins the US elections in November.
Villain #1: Muqtada al-Sadr
The first of two sources of the current unrest is the Iraqi Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Some of the biographical information on the man is rather sketchy and I've seen him listed as being between 22 and 31 years old, but all accounts agree that he is the son of late Shi'ite ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999. Prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, he was the leader of the Jamaat-e-Sadr Thani.
He first appeared after the invasion of Iraq in connection with an attempt to seize control of the Shi'ite holy city of An Najaf from Grand Ayatollah Sistani, at which time he likely assassinated the pro-US Shi'ite leader Abdul Majid al-Khoei. While the situation was resolved when Sadr backed down, the young firebrand next showed up demanding the establishment of sha'riah and arguing in favor of the Khomeinist principle of velayet-e-faqih or rule by men of religion, which as we all know has worked out just peachy in Iran. This was also one of the first major indications of Sadr's main support base in the Sadr (formerly Saddam) City, a slum Shi'ite quarter of Baghdad whose inhabitants were brutalized by the former regime. These first signs of Sadr flexing his political muscle coincided with the return of the previously underground al-Dawaa political party, which was founded by one of Sadr's predecessors. Al-Dawaa advocated the formation of an Islamic state in Iraq and opposed the US occupation, but opted for a non-violent resistance for the time being.
Sadr's next major appearance came in mid-May when Sadr's supporters disrupted the return of Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim to Iraq. Al-Hakim was one of the leaders of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-backed organization designed to counter-balance Saddam Hussein's own support for the Mujahideen-e-Khalq. It is somewhat unclear whether or not Sadr was involved with the Iranians at this point or not, though my own view of the situation is that he was from the very beginning, but was backed by a different faction within the Iranian leadership that favored a much more direct method of confrontation with the US than the kind of gradual control of the Shi'ite regions that SCIRI would have enabled. Amir Taheri listed SCIRI among one of the Iranian front groups controlled by the more accomodationist members of the civilian government, so clashes between the two might be expected as their ultimate backers due the same in Tehran.
The question of who Sadr was working for, however, became much more clear following his meeting in Tehran with members of the Iranian leadership in June. Upon his return, Sadr banned trading with Kuwaitis and formed the Mahdi Army as his own independent military force. One of the more interesting things to note with regard to Sadr is that his initial objective of kicking the US out of An Najaf is something that he and his Mahdi Army have to this day been unable to accomplish, a point to be noted to anyone who wants to over-estimate the threat posed by Sadr and his jackboots.
The first sign that Sadr and his Mahdi Army were starting to move beyond mere anti-American rhetoric came in August, when the Shi'ite residents of Sadr's support base Sadr City demanded an end to the US presence in the Baghdad suburb. Shortly thereafter, Sadr formed an alliance with the anti-Western Sunni cleric Ahmed Kubeisi, whose power base has greatly expanded in the Sunni Triangle since the fall of the Baathist Party. As a result, Sadr was able to expand his influence and his agenda into the old Baathist heartland - not that it stopped him from instigating sectarian cleansing in An Najaf and Karbala. More stand-offs in Sadr City soon followed, including a clash with the Mahdi Army in Baghdad that killed 2 American soldiers. In my view, it was this incident that marked Sadr and his thugs as a threat to the US occupation in Iraq that would have to be dealt with sooner or later.
Sadr's announcement of a creation of his own alternate government complete with a Ministry for Preservation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice combined with his ill-fated attempt to drive Sistani from Karbala. Now Sistani, unlike numerous other Iraqi political figures, has chosen not to maintain his own private army, so he had to rely on his followers using small arms. It was this event, in my opinion, that led Sistani to be so critical of the CPA and so insistent of direct elections in Iraq as well as a crackdown on small arms.
Following several tentative confrontations with both the US and Sistani, Sadr drifted back into obscurity until March 2004, when he declared 9/11 an act of God and announced his support for Hamas and Hezbollah, the latter being one of his most disturbing statements to date given that ICT believes him to be the head of Iraqi branch of the latter organization.
One of the more popular fallacies now being argued is that it was the closure of his newspaper that led Sadr into his current period of radical activities - in fact, his Mahdi Army had already demolished the village of Kawlia a full day earlier. To date, US forces have been engaging Sadr's followers in Baghdad as well as in and around An Najaf, but he still commands a formidable force of anywhere between 1,000-7,000 fighters, with a number of media reports and Healing Iraq claiming that he is being supported in these efforts by Iran and its proxy arm Hezbollah. Ignoring that this is arguably an act of war against the United States, so long as Sadr continues to receive support from his Iranian backers he is likely to remain a threat for the near-term future.
Villain #2: Abu Musab Zarqawi
While a lot of media commentary has focused on the prospect of Iraqi Baathists having staged the recent attacks against US forces in Fallujah and Ar Ramadi, few have discussed the very likely possibility of an al-Qaeda connection to the recent attacks there. There have been claims of an al-Qaeda cell operating in Fallujah since at least July 2003 and an al-Qaeda operative was captured in Ar Ramadi in October 2003 with 11 SAM missiles, suggesting that the organization also has a presence in the area - the US destroyed a terrorist training camp in the general area for foreign jihadis back in June.
In the case of Fallujah, the US has long been aware of an active al-Qaeda cell in the city and killed one of Zarqawi's lieutenants there little more than a month ago. Combine this with intelligence reports that non-Iraqi Arabs were involved in the brutal slaying of 4 US military contractors and an al-Qaeda connection becomes even more likely. Many commentators have suggested that the brutal mutilation of the contractors (for which al-Qaeda has posted a justification on one of their Yahoo! groups) was designed after the killing of 18 US servicemen in Somalia, yet not one commentator has raised the possibility that the killers might be one and the same as or have trained under the very same people responsible for that carnage over a decade ago.
What is even more disturbing is the way in which Moqtada Sadr and Abu Musab Zarqawi appear to be accomodating one another in terms of rhetoric. Sadr's actions and sectarian cleansings play to Sunni fears that the Shi'ite will retaliate against them en masse for decades of oppression under the Baathists, while Zarqawi's latest rant (the claims of a former Indian intelligence chief that Zarqawi was once a member of the SeS and LeJ certainly appear a lot more credible in light of the rhetoric he is employing) plays directly to Shi'ite fears that they will soon be persecuted again by their Sunni bretheren. The events of the Ashura Massacre in particular play into this perception and the result is that both the Shi'ites and the Sunnis are more than radicalized enough to provide a ready supply of cannon fodder for the likes of Sadr and Zarqawi. I am have no direct evidence that the two are actively in cahoots, but this strikes me as far too convenient (particularly with regard to the timing of Zarqawi's latest denunciation of the Shi'ites now that Sadr's feeling the heat from the US) a coincidence to ignore. Reports of an alliance across sectarian lines in support of Sadr would seem to strengthen this position.
One more thing to keep in mind about the remaining Iraqi Baathists - those still loyal to the cause are split in 3 arguing over who gets to be the next Maximum Leader now that Saddam Hussein is behind bars. Most the rank and file as well as the attendant cannon fodder have been absorbed into the jihadi infrastructure in the wake of Saddam Hussein's capture because they now recognize, for better or worse, that Zarqawi represents their best hope of regaining their former livelihoods.
The Iranian Game Plan
As Joe noted in Iran's Great Game, Iran seeks to undermine coalition efforts in Iraq, particularly in the Shi'ite areas, because they understand that an Iraq that is either unstable or ruled by Sadr is an Iraq that won't pose an ideological threat to the future of the Iranian regime. I think we can safely expect another move by Sadr against Sistani in the near future, Sistani's firm rejection of velayet-e-faqih poses too great an ideological threat to the underpinnings of the Islamic Republic to be allowed to fester in the long-term.
In addition, Zarqawi, like most of the surviving al-Qaeda leadership, has received refuge inside Iran despite his apparent sectarian views and is dependent on the IRGC for weaponry and support to his Ansar al-Islam cadres. These ties simply cannot be ignored when one takes into consideration Iran's imperialist designs with regard to Iraq and how to combat them. The attackers in Ar Ramadi sought to take advantage of the perceived US inability to retaliate against them while our forces were busy dealing with Fallujah and Sadr and in the event that Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army is decisively dismantled it should not be at all surprising to see the Sunni areas flare up again in some of the more traditional hot spots in the Triangle.
A self-fullfilling prophecy?
Ultimately, claims that this is the beginning of the end for the US occupation in Iraq or the start of the long-anticipated sectarian civil war (the latter being particularly odd in light of apparent cooperation across Shi'ite/Sunni divide) are inaccurate at this phase. Ultimately, the success or failure of the Iranian strategy with regard to the US in Iraq will depend on whether or not the United States and its allies retain the collective national will to defeat the insurgents. The question of whether or not Iraq will become a second Vietnam (i.e. a US defeat) is probably best answered, "No, and it won't be as long as we don't let it."
As most historians will tell you, the Tet Offensive was a resounding failure for the Viet Cong from a military perspective. Nevertheless, it served as the catalyst for the US withdrawl from South Vietnam and its subsequent conquest and oppression by their northern kinsmen. In the case of Iraq, we have already screwed the general population over once - in 1991, when we left the Iraqi people to rot in the midst of their own rebellion against the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Now, for better or worse, we have overthrown the tyrant and I don't think it's arrogant to say that we owe them one this time around before we turn around declare our efforts there an abject failure.
More to the point, the implications for Iraq in regard to the larger war on terrorism are enormous. Whether or not one accepts (and I do) Iraqi complicity with regard to al-Qaeda, there can be little doubt that the terrorist network and its satellite groups are there in force now and is seeking to defeat us in a protracted guerrilla war in order to forcibly evict the United States from the country. Should they succeed in this objective, the propaganda as well as strategic implications for the entire Middle East are enormous. In addition, to emboldening Islamic radicals throughout the Gulf (Sunni in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and Shi'ite in Bahrain), a Taliban-esque enclave in central Iraq ruled by Zarqawi would easily be in a position to topple the Jordanian government, bringing al-Qaeda and its affiliates directly to the Israeli border. An Iranian-controlled (either de facto or de jure) southern Iraq would provide the Iranian regime with a great deal more economic muscle than it currently possesses (particularly if al-Qaeda's backers in Saudi Arabia due seize direct power over the Kingdom and put an end to its pro-Western veneer) and the loss of Bahrain would deprive the US of its naval bases in region, leaving Qatar isolated.
These are just some of possible scenarios that a US collapse in Iraq, which is why I feel that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle probably said it best on the Senate floor:
"America will not be intimidated by barbaric acts whose only goal is to spread fear and chaos throughout Iraq," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said in a moving floor speech last Thursday after the initial attacks that began the weeklong string of violence.
"Yesterday's events will only serve to strengthen America's resolve and seal America's unity. The brave people who lost their lives did not die in vain. Americans stand together today and always to finish the work we started and bring peace and democracy to the citizens of Iraq," he said.