Iraq's Tipping Point
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone.He can be reached at his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com.
It’s election day in Iraq. If October’s constitutional balloting is any precedent, we will not know the Iraqi government’s final tally for a few weeks.
Of course, that won’t stop President Bush from declaring the elections a victory for democracy. Yet such a statement does democracy a major disservice, for democracy is much more than an election. Democracy can only be the outgrowth of an earnest national consensus—a consensus that Bush, for some unknown reason, has done everything possible to avoid building.
Because of that simple, hard-earned fact, we have a pretty good idea of what the future holds. Consider the following two scenarios.
Scenario One: The Sunnis win big, gaining up to a quarter of the assembly. The Shiite bloc fragments. The religious Shiite parties suffer significant defections by urban, educated, and more secular Shiites, who opt instead for the party led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and other, smaller parties. After the election, the Shiite bloc falls apart, as the radical faction of rebel cleric Muqtada Al Sadr goes its own way, further weakening Al Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. A two-thirds majority in parliament emerges among religious Sunnis, secular Sunnis, Allawi and the Kurds—enough to force the SCIRI-Dawa forces to come to the table and talk about a brand new constitution with a strengthened, more centralized state, a smaller role for Islamic Sharia law, and a fairer distribution of oil revenues. And finally, the parties agree to peace talks with the armed resistance, including a ceasefire and amnesty for fighters and for prisoners. Central to the deal, the new Iraqi government demands a six-month timetable for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq. The new government takes office in late January, and, as planned, in February the Arab League convenes Phase II of the peace process that began in Cairo in mid-November, this time in Baghdad, giving international and Arab approval to the new Iraqi concord. Together, Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish police hunt down the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq throughout 2006.
Scenario Two: For whatever reason, Sunni candidates fail to win a fair share of seats in the new parliament. The religious Shiite coalition—SCIRI, Al Dawa and the Sadrists—not only win big, but through ballot-stuffing, vote fraud, and help from Iran’s intelligence service, gain enough power to continue their grip on power. The Kurds opt to ally once again with the Shiites. The U.S. military begins to draw down its forces in Iraq, so that President Bush can win political points at home, and the Shiite militias fill the vacuum left over by the slowly dwindling U.S. force. Sunnis, marginalized politically, fail to muster enough votes to make any changed in the constitution imposed in October by the dominant Shiite-Kurd alliance; frustrated and outraged, the Sunnis support the insurgency with renewed vigor. The Kurds retreat into their northern enclave, the Shiite militia launch a brutal and bloody offensive against the Sunnis, with ethnic cleansing of southern Iraq, and Iraq slides into open civil war. Not only is the Phase II Arab League meeting never held, but the Arab world mobilizes in defense of Iraq’s Sunnis, and both Iran and Turkey are drawn into the conflict.
Which of these scenarios is most likely? Frighteningly, the second one. In fact, it would be amazing if Scenario One wins out.
Why? Despite the fact that, according to all reports, Iraq’s Shiites are increasingly disenchanted with the bungling and zealotry of the SCIRI-Dawa ruling elite, despite the fact that the resistance (except for Al Qaeda) has called a truce so Sunnis can vote en bloc today, it seems unlikely that the SCIRI-Dawa bloc will allow power to slip away. The reports that Iran is shipping truckloads of forged ballots across the border to support its SCIRI-Dawa allies signal a repeat of the vote fraud that marred the referendum on the constitution in October—only on a far grander scale. Ayatollah Sistani, the scowly fatwa man, has emerged from the shadows to demand that Shiites vote for the SCIRI-Dawa fundamentalist bloc. And the thuggery and murders aimed at Allawi’s party throughout southern Iraq, including an attempted assassination of Allawi himself and a rocket attack on his Najaf headquarters, mean that the Shiite religious bloc intends to stop at nothing to prevent Allawi from siphoning off disaffected Shiite voters.
In recent weeks there have been signs that the United States is aware the vote today is likely to go awry. It appears that for the first time the United States is serious about opening talks with the resistance. Ambassador Khalilzad has announced in no uncertain terms that he wants to talk to the fighters, taking pains to say that there is a difference between “terrorism” and “insurgency.” And the unfolding scandal around the Shiite torture prisons and death squad activity aimed at Sunni moderates and Baathists was triggered by a U.S. raid on a Baghdad detention center this month, possibly a sign that the United States is no longer willing to tolerate the Shiite bloc’s abuses. But it may be too little, too late—at least as far as the election goes.
If Scenario Two begins to unfold, what then?
At that point there will be no good choices for the United States, other than the one suggested by Representative Jack Murtha: get out, and fast. However, with George “Victory” Bush still in the White House, that’s unlikely, since Bush will resist calls from the U.S. military (privately) and the politicians (far more publicly) to get out. In that case, the United States will find itself stuck in the quagmire, being shot at by both sides, with no exit strategy at all and certainly no “strategy for victory.” It’s hard to see a light at the end of this tunnel, as much as optimists and rosy-scenario mongers might search for options. As Chas Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, once told me about Iraq: “Sometimes, when you’ve driven your car off a cliff, there are just no good options on the way down.”
As Harold Pinter said recently :
The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public; an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control of the Middle East masquerading as a last resort all other justifications having failed to justify themselves as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent people.