Whatever critics at home and abroad may think, the “surge that President George W. Bush is planning for Iraq is more than a troop increase; it is a new and high-risk regional strategy. True, Bush’s plan will prove far too little and comes far too late to stabilize Iraq. But it does offer the United States some longer-term benefits in the regional battle with Iran for influence. At the heart of the new strategy is Bush’s decision to take the fight directly to Iraq’s most powerful militia, the Mehdi Army. Under the nominal control of the militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the group has become Iraq’s largest and best-armed fighting force and is pursuing its own political and security agenda. The Mehdi Army has exchanged fire with US troops before, most notably during the fierce battles for control of the southern Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala in 2004. Those confrontations ended with a truce of sorts – though skirmishes have continued – because US forces have been reluctant to fight Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen at the same time. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has also been reluctant to take on the Mehdi Army, mainly because the support of Sadr loyalists in Iraq’s Parliament is crucial for his political survival. Now, instead of waiting for Maliki to act, US forces appear poised to do the job themselves. If they can significantly degrade the militia’s strength, or at least contain its influence within Baghdad’s Shia slums, the Iraqi government will have a somewhat better chance of developing a credible security force and Bush can claim some success. At the very least, the new strategy recognizes that the gravest challenge to stability in the near term comes from militia groups in general and the Mehdi Army in particular. Then there is the broader and growing conflict with Iran. Recent official US rhetoric and actions on the ground – including the arrest of five Iranians in Irbil in early January and Bush’s authorization of deadly force against Iranians who threaten Iraqi security or US troops – reflect a much more confrontational approach toward Iran’s influence inside Iraq.
But it also indicates recognition that Iran’s effort to extend its regional influence poses the single biggest challenge to the Middle East’s long-term stability. To be sure, Bush’s new strategy is highly unlikely to help Iraqis avert a slide into sectarian civil war. A temporary 16 percent boost in troops simply is not enough to get that job done. Bush insists that there will soon be enough US troops in central Iraq to “hold areas seized from militia groups and insurgents.
But for how long? A month? Four months? Three years? American troops will eventually leave Iraq, and all the relevant parties – the Maliki government, Shia militias, Sunni insurgents, Iran, and Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors – know it. Sadr can simply hold back and wait the Americans out. Moreover, any viable solution in Iraq requires political agreement among Iraqis, which in turn will depend on their willingness to compromise. Laws guaranteeing a fair division of Iraqi oil profits must be drafted, and all factions must have confidence that what is agreed will be enforced.
Sunnis must be persuaded that neither their minority status nor former membership in Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party will exclude them from political and economic life. But Sunnis and Shias are now killing one another in increasing numbers, and the new aggressiveness of US forces will make compromise all but impossible. It is unrealistic to expect Iraqi politicians to make substantial political sacrifices while their constituents are fighting Americans and one another. Finally, Bush’s strategy already faces challenges at home. Few Americans – and therefore few US lawmakers – have much confidence in Bush’s leadership on Iraq. If the new strategy fails to produce positive and tangible results within a few months, the steady domestic drumbeat for troop withdrawals will become deafening. A sharp spike in US casualties would compound the pressure to get out. Even so, the new strategy has some benefits. First, it sidelines Maliki, which means that he will be less damaged politically than if he were directly identified with US attacks on Iraqi Shias. US actions will spark Iraqi criticism that Maliki is impotent or an American puppet, but those charges have already been made.
Nothing could be worse for Maliki than explicit authorization for attacks on Shia militias, and the near-term survival of his government is crucial if any progress is to be made on the political challenges facing all of Iraq’s factions. Second, the new strategy will keep the Mehdi Army on its heels. Sadr’s militia threatens to quickly become Iraq’s answer to Lebanon’s Hezbollah: a well-armed, politically connected private army with its own foreign policy.
The more that US forces can degrade the Mehdi Army’s position and force Sadr into face-saving political moves, the weaker the militia will be relative to other forces in Iraq after US troops head home. Finally, taking the fight directly to Iraq’s most powerful Shia militia and Iranians inside Iraq will align the US much more closely with its traditional Sunni Arab allies – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states. Arab governments have been especially angry over the chaos in Iraq, fearing that the US will abandon the Sunni minority to the not-so-tender mercies of revenge-minded Shias and expressing growing anxiety that the war has empowered Iran to extend Shia influence throughout the Middle East. When Iraq falls apart, as now appears all but inevitable, the US will need as many friends in the region as it can get, particularly as the battle with Iran for regional influence and the conflict over its nuclear program intensifies. If nothing else, having a common enemy will help the US and its Arab allies restore damaged ties.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, the global political risk consultancy, and author of “The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).