Iraq: U.S. Caught in the Crossfire

Juan Cole is professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. He maintains a Web Log on Middle East issues entitled "Informed Comment."

With the guerilla war in Iraq showing no signs of abating, the prospects for successful military disengagement by the United States any time soon are bleak. The political picture is no rosier: the United States will increasingly find itself caught between support of the democratically elected government and resistance to program of implementing strict Islamic law. The United States long ago lost the ability to make policy in Iraq, being reduced to reacting on an ad hoc basis to the initiatives of local forces.

Two years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the guerrilla war waxes and wanes but gives no sign of ending soon. Top U.S. military commanders such as Gen. Richard Myers admit that it may go on for a decade.

Fear drives the resistance. The guerrillas — largely Sunni Arabs, many of them from a Baath Party background — reject the dominance of Shiite ayatollahs and Kurdish warlords. As veterans, they are skilled at both weaponry and combat. They know where the 250,000 tons of missing munitions in Iraq are stored, and have many supporters in the Sunni world.

Taking Issue

The support of other Sunni Arabs is also critical to the guerillas, and they have it. Over the past year, the percentage of Sunni Arabs who say it is acceptable to attack U.S. troops rose from about a third to a little over half. This percentage will probably rise again during the coming year.

At the same time, the character of the resistance appears to be changing. In the course of the guerrilla war, some formerly secular Iraqi Sunnis appear to have turned to al Qaeda or kindred radical Muslim ideologies. As the armed resistance grinds on, this trend will likely accelerate.

Military disengagement is also complicated by ethnic tensions. Because the Shiites and the Kurds fear the Sunni guerrillas, they are unlikely to press for a precipitate U.S. withdrawal until the latter are defeated or much weakened.

Further severe ethnic tensions persist in the north of Iraq, among Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds. Violent incidents have broken out among these groups in Mosul, Kirkuk and Tel Afar. The oil city of Kirkuk is claimed by Turkmen and Arabs, but the Kurds demand that it be joined to a newly created Kurdistan province.

Trouble in Kirkuk has so far been avoided largely because the American and interim administrations have put off the hard decisions. It will be more and more difficult to postpone this issue. Some time in the next year, Kirkuk could well experience substantial social turmoil, which could spill over into surrounding regions, risking Kurdish on Turkmen violence.

In turn, any threat to the Turkmen minority, which is probably some 750,000 strong, would inflame feelings in Turkey and risk intervention from Ankara.

The political contradictions facing the United States have been sharpened by the victory of parties that are critical of Washington and dedicated to razing the wall between religion and state. The Shiite religious parties were the big winners of the Jan. 30 elections, and not only in the federal parliament.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq won eight provinces, including Baghdad. At least two are dominated by the radical Sadr tendency, associated with Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (d. 1999) and often with his son, the fiery Muqtada. Fundamentalist Muslim parties also did well in the Sunni Arab regions.

These provincial governments will increasingly restrict Iraqi civil liberties and personal freedom in the coming year. The remaining liquor stores will be closed. Many video stores will be driven out of business by puritans. Fundamentalist ideals will probably be introduced into school curricula. Regulations will be passed restricting women’s rights, encouraging or requiring veiling, and segregating education and other social spaces. Women graduates' access to increasingly all-male professional schools will be curtailed.

The elected parliament can be expected to establish a government that will be far less deferential to U.S. interests and demands. The parliament may well repeal many of the laws passed by U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer, which aimed at imposing Polish-style shock therapy on the Iraqi economy and at effacing the legacy of Baathist Arab socialism. In addition, the new prime minister is likely to come into conflict with the United States about the launching of major military campaigns like that at Fallujah.

For all of these reasons, the United States will increasingly find its hands tied in Iraq. Caught between a popularly elected government dominated by fundamentalist Shiites and a determined guerrilla movement led by Arab nationalists and radical Sunnis, the United States is left without a safe and secure escape hatch.

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