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Launching the 2008 Presidential Campaign With Ethnic Cleansing in Iraq

How the escalation in Iraq is both a campaign move and a way to force Sunnis out of Baghdad and into second-class status.
 
 
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Politically, the coming escalation by 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is best understood as the comeback strategy of the neoconservative Republicans rallying around Sen. John McCain's presidential banner.

The political spin-doctors are calling it a "surge," an aggressive term implying a kind of post-election erection for Bush and the neoconservatives. In fact, or course, it is an escalation, a term apparently carrying too much baggage from Vietnam.

The hardcore neoconservatives, their ranks thinned by defections publicized in Vanity Fair , leaped immediately to salvage the war from November's voter disapproval. Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and William Kristol of the Weekly Standard began promoting an increase of 50,000 troops, mainly to Baghdad. Bush, who all along said he was listening to his generals, now sacked generals Casey and Abizaid, who had plans to reduce troop levels over one year ago, and who now opposed more American soldiers in Iraqi neighborhoods. John Negroponte, a specialist in the black arts of counterintelligence, became the State Department's point man on Baghdad. U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a Sunni who has been critical of the Shi'a-controlled interior ministry, was removed from his Baghdad post. An Ivy League general, David Petraeus, with a counterinsurgency agenda to prove, took over command of U.S. troops.

Right after the election, Sen. McCain was touring Baghdad with his potential running mate Sen. Joe Lieberman, promoting the plan to escalate, although supported by only 20 percent of Republicans, 11 percent of independent voters, and a statistically-insignificant 4 percent of Democrats ( L.A. Times /Bloomberg, Dec. 11, 2006).

It is a brilliant strategy -- for a faction dealt a losing hand.

If and when the 20,000 Americans plunge into Baghdad neighborhoods, there will be dramatic television coverage of soldiers at risk. It is possible, though far from easy, to "stabilize" a Baghdad neighborhood for several months or one year, carrying the surge into the next presidential cycle. The strategy fits the polling data showing only 21 percent of Americans favor immediate withdrawal, while the moderate middle might be open to an undefined new strategy if convinced it will shorten the war and bring the troops home.

More likely, the ranks of the peace movement are likely to swell with people angry over the perceived betrayal by Bush of the November voter mandate. A failure by majority Democrats to prevent the escalation will convince more people to take to the streets or look to 2008 for a fix.

If the proposal to escalate somehow is blocked by congressional Democrats along with a few Republicans facing reelection, McCain and the neoconservatives will be able to salvage a narrative blaming the "loss of Iraq" on Democrats. Their Plan B is to claim the United States should have escalated from the very beginning.

The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report offered a hint that this escalation was coming in its formulaic compromise stating that it "could" support a "short-term redeployment, or surge," but only if "the U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective." With the arrival of a new commander in Iraq, that mission is accomplished. The word "could" represents one of the partisan trade-offs in the writing of the report. The Republicans on the ISG would have been advocating the optional language on behalf of the White House, while others tried to weaken the "could" by relying on a commander like Gen. Casey to nix it.

U.S. sides with Shiites in civil war

Meanwhile, as the politicians position themselves in Washington, urgent appeals from Iraqis warned of Shi'a death squads being unleashed against Sunni neighborhoods. The Baghdad security plan agreed in a teleconference last week being Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki already is underway. According to al-Jazeera the Shiite militia attacks and roundups began on Sunday. The parliamentarian and peace advocate Saleh al-Mutlaq denounced the plan as an attempt to cleanse Baghdad of the Sunni majority it had in 2003. The Association of Muslim Scholars and Iraqi satellite TV stations began transmitting cries for help from relatives and neighbors in Baghdad.

Already tens of thousands have fled Baghdad, the largest percentage of the nearly one million Iraqis who have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Forty thousand have relocated in Falluja. There they stand in a parking lot surrounded by razor wire, are hand-searched, given retinal scans, and provided IDs to enter Falluja, or weeded out ( L.A. Times , Jan. 4, 2007).

Baghdad itself, once a diverse city of five million, has become the Shi'a capital, with fifty of 51 governing officials being from Shi'a parties. The security forces, as well as the "commandos" and "public order brigades" under the interior ministry are from Shi'a militias. Having fostered, equipped, financed and trained these sectarian forces, U.S. officials have attempted to distance themselves from the scandal, for example claiming in 2006 they only "recently learned" that the 7,700 members of the public order brigades were Shi'a ( New York Times , Mar. 7, 2006).

A media or congressional investigation of these death squads operating under official auspices might begin by interviewing James Steele, Gerald Burke and Ann Bertucci, who were police advisers attached to the U.S. Civil Police Assistance Training Team in Baghdad ( New York Times , May 22, 2006). The commando teams were developed by Steele and Burke under the direction of Gen. Petraeus at the time. Steele was quoted in 2006 as "not regretting their creation" but worried they had grown out of control. Bertucci admitted that American advisers were attached to the so-called Iraqi Volcano Brigade, which committed infamous massacres on Aug. 24, 2005. On that day, dozens of men wearing police uniforms entered a Sunni neighborhood, dragged 36 men out of their homes, shot them in their heads and spilled acid on their faces, an episode recounted in the international press. The United States also runs brutal interrogation operations through its secret Task Force 626 in "black rooms" at Camp Nama, whitewashed in a 2004 report by Gen. William G. Boykin, the Christian evangelical who regularly denounces Islam ( New York Times , Mar. 19, 2006).

The hand-over of the interior ministry to the Shi'a Badr militia, an organ of the Supreme Command of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) was completed in 2005, when Bayan Jabr took over the ministry from a prior Sunni official. Jabr was in charge in November 2005, when a secret prison holding 172 abused and malnourished inmates was discovered. There are up to ten unofficial jails in Baghdad alone run by a Special Interrogations Unit reporting to the minister alone, where prisoners are held without charges.

After years of flirtation, the United States has rejected decisively any plans for peace talks with opposition leaders, including insurgent groups. Last week U.S. and Iraqi troops even stormed the headquarters of an Iraqi parliamentarian known to advocate a U.S. withdrawal and peace talks with the insurgents; six people, including a family of four, died in the attack (see Huffington Post file).

Instead, the United States is siding ever more deeply with the Shi'a parties that came to power with the assistance of U.S. tanks, artillery and aircraft in March 2003. By 2005, U.S. officials were "lowering their sights" from establishing democracy to "slowly realizing we will have some form of Islamic Republic" ( Washington Post , Aug. 14, 2005).

The wild card in this scenario all along has been Moktada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shi'a cleric representing the Sadr City slums, whose Mahdi militia has fought the United States on two occasions, and who demands a U.S. withdrawal. In a must-read investigative article by Robert Collier of the San Francisco Chronicle this week, an al-Sadr spokesmen said the United States was attempting "to inflame a civil war," and al-Sadr himself was quoted as saying:

"If I were qualified to give a fatwa, I would do so without hesitation in order to ban the killing of our [Sunni] brothers in Iraq and outside of Iraq."-- S.F. Chronicle , Jan. 7, 2007

Whether al-Sadr is the target of the unfolding escalation is the great unknown, but a Newsweek poll in September 2006 showed a majority of Shi'a themselves -- as opposed to their party leaders -- support armed resistance against the Americans (63 percent) and a one-year deadline for withdrawal (80 percent). That from the constituency that benefited from the American invasion. If the Americans attack al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in the streets of Sadr City, it could bring down the Iraqi government where al-Sadr's 40 seats are crucial to Prime Minister al-Maliki. In that scenario, al-Sadr could align with other parliamentary blocs, attempt a peaceful coup, and demand the Americans leave. Alternatively, a "provisional government" is being discussed by some.

Poignant confirmation that the United States sides with the current Shi'a rulers surfaced unexpectedly in the videos taken last week of the execution of Saddam Hussein, now causing a public relations nightmare for American officials. It is noteworthy to point out that, without the video, there would have been no public knowledge of the repellent sectarianism in the gallows chamber. Since then, U.S. officials have sought to distance themselves from the role of executioners, but it will not be easy. The U.S. Regime Crimes Liaison Office was the "behind the scenes" organizer of Saddam's trial, in which one judge was removed as too lenient and three defense lawyers were assassinated, according to the New York Times . With the approval of Condoleeza Rice, U.S. Task Force 134 delivered Saddam to his Iraqi executors, knowing that death would be inflicted on a Sunni holy day without independent witnesses or even the approval of the head of Iraq's Supreme Judicial Council.

In the end, it appeared that the American propaganda investments of decades were dealt a serious blow. Saddam managed to conduct himself with immense dignity, even as the noose tightened around his neck; he thanked his American minders; he told the Iraqi national security adviser not to worry. Meanwhile, the hanging party turned out to be southern Shi'a militia members shouting sectarian chants, including "Moktada." It was the forbidden camera that revealed the nature of America's allies in Iraq.

Seen in this light, the surge is actually a purge, a forced removal of Sunnis from Baghdad to the enclaves of al-Anbar, al-Diyala, and other parts of the Sunni Triangle, where they will be subject to assault by American troops and air power far from the scrutiny of journalists. A key element in the cleansing process will be special units from Kurdistan, the peshmerga, whose sole interest is dissolving the Iraqi state. If Baghdad's Sunnis succumb to forced ethnic cleansing, they will be fulfilling the proposed agenda of a partitioned "end of Iraq" long favored by Peter Galbraith and Leslie Gelb. In this scenario, the Sunnis are being asked to end support for the insurgency in exchange for second-class status in an Iraq dominated by Shiites, Kurds and the United States.

Relocated and trapped in their enclaves, the Sunnis will likely become more radicalized, not less, allying themselves with homegrown al Qaeda units and Sunni exiles next door in Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. There they will continue fighting for the restoration of Baathist officers to protect their zones, and demand an equitable share of oil revenues and job funding. If necessary, they may even create a parallel entity seeking diplomatic recognition from their neighbors. [al-Qaeda already claims to be establishing a provisional Islamic state in Sunni-populated areas.]

It is little remembered that President Bush spoke of such a scenario just after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He promised not only to pursue those he termed terrorists and states harboring terrorists, but also of plans to "turn them one against another" until they would have "no refuge and no rest." Those words are coming true in Iraq (speech to Congress, Sept. 20, 2001).

But the escalation can flounder. More American troops means more hated occupiers, even if they come promising jobs. More American troops mean more targets for snipers. If the American surge becomes overwhelming, the insurgents always can retreat to other battlefronts, and wait, like modern Lilliputians against Gulliver.

First, however, the battle will be at home, state by state, district by district. Bush must convince the Democrats and several wavering Republicans to join him in snubbing the Nov. 7 election results and the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Commission. That will not be easy, but the Democrats may compromise on funding some sort of escalation with the usual "benchmarks." In that case, the 2008 elections will play out as a struggle to either uphold or reverse the peace mandate of November 2006.

Tom Hayden was a leader of the student, civil rights, peace and environmental movements of the 1960s. He served 18 years in the California legislature, where he chaired labor, higher education and natural resources committees. He is the author of ten books, including "Street Wars" (New Press, 2004). He is a professor at Occidental College, Los Angeles, and was a visiting fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics last fall.

 
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