Iraq's Catch-22

As Shiite Islamists and Kurdish warlords cobble together the latest interim Iraqi government, the regime of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and President Jalal Talabani is facing the ultimate Catch-22. And it's one that poses an almost impossible problem for Bush administration officials looking for an exit strategy for Iraq.

The Catch-22 is this: To gain legitimacy in the eyes of Iraq's population, and to avoid being seen as puppets, the new government has to distance itself from the U.S. occupation forces. Doing so, however, is impossible, since the newly elected regime wouldn't last a week without the protection of U.S. forces. So they are stuck in a fatal embrace. "Nobody wants to be in the picture frame," says David Phillips, a former U.S. adviser on Iraq policy and author of Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco. "Being seen with Americans is a political liability for Iraqi politicians."

Because those Iraqi politicians depend for their physical survival on the U.S. military occupation, they aren't inclined to ask the troops to pack up and go. "Can you imagine what would happen if we ask [the Americans] to leave?" said Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, in a Feb. 1 Agence France-Presse article. Jaafari not only works but actually lives inside the heavily fortified Green Zone in downtown Baghdad. "This could mean the beginning of a civil war."

But every day that the U.S. occupation continues, it further undermines the credibility of the Jaafari regime. Exactly that happened to the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose reputation as a CIA and British MI-6 agent fatally wounded his credibility among Iraqis, especially after he approved the U.S. assault on Fallujah last fall. And it happened to the ill-starred Iraqi Governing Council before that. By now, Iraqis are aware that although the current government emerged from elections held on Jan. 31, virtually all of its leading actors are retreads from the IGC, which was appointed by L. Paul Bremer, and from Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, the exile-dominated coalition that included Chalabi, Talabani, Abdel Aziz Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and other officials and members of the just-elected National Assembly.

Since January, the United States has sought to keep a low profile. It has tried to reduce its military operations, pushing ill-trained Iraqi police and national guard soldiers out front, and Ambassador John Negroponte—just appointed as the first U.S. national intelligence director—maintained (in public, at least) a hands-off attitude as Iraq's fractious politicians failed and failed again since Jan. 31 to announce a government lineup.

But Iraq's resistance groups have figured all this out, and they've changed tactics in an effort to draw the United States out of its foxhole. Refusing to allow U.S. forces to hunker down inside their camps, the insurgency has conducted a string of spectacular, well-organized attacks—first on Abu Ghraib prison, then on a U.S. military base at Al Qaim near the Syrian border, and finally in a sophisticated attack on a U.S. convoy that involved three separate car bombs and a coordinated fusillade of automatic weapons fire from concealed snipers. The Al Qaim attack led to heavy fighting over several days that included U.S. air force attacks that reportedly left 20 Iraqis dead in bombing raids. And, most recently, three U.S. troops were killed on their base when insurgents fired mortars into it. The obvious intent of these attacks is draw the United States into direct, frontal clashes with resistance groups. It's a tactic designed to remind Iraqis that the U.S. occupation is still the 800-pound gorilla in Iraq, and it seems to be working.

So far, the U.S. counterstrategy—called "Iraqification"—has been an utter failure. It will be years before the Iraqi army, police, and national guard are ready, trained and equipped to fight either the Sunni resistance or Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army.

But it is just as likely the Iraqi police and army recruits will end up fighting each other in a sectarian civil war that will pit Shiites vs. Kurds and both of them against the Sunni nationalists in the heartland. For the United States, the most worrisome sign is that the ascendant Shiite bloc is committed to purging the Ministry of the Interior and the Iraqi intelligence service of its core cadre. According to sources close to the ruling Shiite coalition, the purge—aimed at veteran Iraqi military and intelligence officers recruited over the past 18 months by the CIA—will be carried out under the direction of Chalabi, who is slated to get a critical post as deputy prime minister responsible for security and intelligence. Last week, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld publicly and explicitly warned the Shiite bloc—of which Chalabi is a prominent member—not to purge the security forces. "My concern is they'll come in and clean house," said Rumsfeld, clearly annoyed. "You can't do that, if you are trying to create a chain of command in the Iraqi security force and defeat a doggone insurgency."

But Chalabi, Jaafari and Hakim—who leads the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade militia force of 20,000 men—are committed to doing exactly that. They intend to replace battle-hardened officers, many of whom had experience in Iraq's war with Iran and both the 1991 and 2003 U.S. wars, with militiamen from the Badr Brigade, from Chalabi's own militia, and from the Kurdish pesh merga forces. By purging alleged former Baathists from key security positions, Chalabi will almost certainly push Sunni moderates, fence-sitters and former military men into the camp of the resistance, hardening battle lines for a tri-cornered showdown among Iraq's power blocs sometime this summer.


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